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A young heroine's long journey

When still a child in France, she saved 28 children from deportation

    Fanny Ben-Ami (third from left), alongside the film's director Lola Doillon and child actors from the film
    Fanny Ben-Ami (third from left), alongside the film's director Lola Doillon and child actors from the film

    She bakes apple cakes for her grandchildren in her apartment near Tel Aviv and hopes for the day when peace breaks out in the Middle East. Fanny Ben-Ami, a stylish 85-year-old, knows a thing or two about war. When still a child in France, she saved 28 children from deportation, a story she has told in a memoir that has now been fictionalised as a film, Le Voyage de Fanny (Fanny's Journey) directed by Lola Doillon.

    Born in the German spa town of Baden-Baden where her father was a maker of orthopaedic shoes, Fanny was three when her Russian-born parents left for Paris in 1933 to flee the Nazis. "My father was a kind, loving man who could fly into terrible rages," she recalls. "He'd dance Cossack dances, and sing to us at bedtime. Mother was shy and anxious, not nearly as cuddly."

    A week before war was declared, her father was arrested by the French secret police. Fanny and her sisters were sent by their mother to the Chateau de Chaumont in central France, a red-brick and stone building run by the Jewish OSE association, which was to save thousands of children. Life was stimulating there and the war seemed far away; at the village school, the teachers, other pupils and their parents never let on to anyone that they were Jewish.

    This reprieve lasted for almost three years until a new village priest reported the presence of Jewish children. Thanks to a tip-off from the local police, they were progressively scattered across France to other hiding places.

    Fanny joined her aunt in Tence, south-east France, while her sisters were sent to a shelter for hidden children. Then, one day, Fanny heard that her mother was imprisoned in Lyon and travelled there to see her. With characteristic boldness, she convinced the guards to release her mother for 24 hours.

    The three sisters were reunited in 1943 in Mégève in the Haute Savoie, living with their mother and aunt in a hostel for OSE refugees. In 1943, with the Germans getting closer, the plan was to send them and a group of other children, aged from four to 17, to the Swiss border under the protection of a 17-year-old boy. When he suddenly abandoned them, 13-year-old Fanny took over. She was to head by train to Annemasse, from where they would meet their smuggler. But they never reached Annemasse because the bridge at Annecy was bombed.

    Fanny was a natural leader. "I was a rebellious child who did pretty much what she wanted," she says, "but with two little sisters, I was used to looking after children."

    Her story is of an unusually resourceful child in a world of crazed adults. "I had never wanted to be put in a position of responsibility, but I had no choice and I was angry. What had I done wrong? I hadn't stolen, I hadn't killed, was it a crime to be Jewish?"

    Fanny says that, to this day, she can judge by a person's physiognomy whether they are well disposed. "I got off the train and saw a railwayman with a big moustache and something kind about his eyes, and decided to trust him." He told her she could reach Annemasse via Lyons. "Is there no other way," she asked, knowing that Lyons was Gestapo headquarters. "A goods train," he said, helping the children inside and wishing them luck. Their troubles weren't yet over as the lorry bringing them to the border was stopped by police. The children were arrested and locked up.

    For three days, the policemen denied them food or drink to make them admit they were Jewish and divulge their parents' whereabouts. But even the youngest had been taught to give a false name and insist they were Catholic. In the end, the children did reach Switzerland but, as Fanny says, "my Shoah only really began when the war ended. Throughout the war, I had been looking forward to being reunited with our parents. It wasn't to be." Fanny and her sisters eventually discovered their parents had died in the Auschwitz and Lublin concentration camps. All hope was destroyed.

    Fanny lived for a while with a family she had spent holidays with in Switzerland. She hoped to study art in Zurich but the Swiss authorities sent her back to France, where she joined her aunt in the fur trade. "I needed the money but I loved animals and hated that they had to be killed." After a while, she moved to Paris and made good money as a furrier. Israel was never an obvious choice. "I hadn't been raised in a Zionist milieu, and my aunt said Israel was only good for dying in."

    But Fanny's sisters had settled there and when she visited for the first time in 1955 she was struck by something that made her feel at home. "I was shocked to hear people speaking so loudly in Yiddish, and said so to an aunt. She replied, everyone here speaks Yiddish and all the other languages as well. I began to ask myself what France had ever done for me, apart from giving me a passport."

    Before long, she moved to a kibbutz and met her future husband, a musician. "We were going to build the country together rather than chase after money."

    Personal tensions led the couple to leave the kibbutz and move to Holon, south of Tel Aviv, where she resumed her trade as a furrier and had two children. "Then, one day, my husband said, 'we'll never be millionaires, so why don't you do what you really want to do?'"

    So Fanny started to draw, and now she spends her time doing watercolour landscapes, portraits and still lifes. She recently produced 27 watercolours of her childhood journey through France: "Those are the only drawings I've done of the Shoah."

    Her memoir was published in France last year, inspiring director Doillon to make it into a film.

    When she first saw the movie, Fanny was a little taken aback by the liberties taken with her story, but now she says it conveys the appropriate message. "The film is in memory of the children who got out, those who didn't, and the children who today are still being sacrificed by adults at war."

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