They met in a concentration camp from which their parents were deported to their deaths. But thanks to the kindness of strangers, Hanne and Max Liebmann survived and are now celebrating 73 years of marriage.
“If it was not for these French Huguenots who risked their lives to save ours by hiding us and helping us escape, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Hanne, who is 93.
She lives independently with 96-year-old Max in New York, where the couple have inspired an exhibition about the tiny town of Le Chambon in France’s Haute-Loire, whose inhabitants saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis.
This centre of resistance was their first staging post in a long and perilous journey out of occupied France in 1942.
They had met two years earlier in Gurs, a camp in France’s southwest corner to which Hanne was deported from Mannheim with her mother. Max was shipped there from Karlsruhe with his mother and other family members.
“Men and women were separated, but Max’s mother and I worked in the office of our block, so I saw him when he came to visit her,” said Hanne.
Max walked her daily to an adjacent Swiss Red Cross barracks where they were sent for additional food rations, and romance blossomed. But they were separated in September 1941.
“I was lucky to be transferred to Le Chambon, where in 1942 I was hidden by a farmer,” Hanne told the JC.
Max was less lucky, she said, in being transferred a few months later to a Jewish Boy Scout camp: “He was one of four boys, but he was not helped like the others [who were] given false papers, because he was not Orthodox.”
Hanne was later smuggled back into Gurs to see her mother for the last time as she awaited deportation to Auschwitz — “the train pulled away and I never saw her again” — and, on her way back, stopped by Max’s scout camp to warn him.
Max hid in a hayloft before making his escape to Switzerland.
“I had to scramble down a steep mountain to reach the border and I remember walking into the Jewish community centre in Lausanne and being greeted with ‘Welcome to Switzerland’,” he said.
He tracked down Hanne, who lived with family in Bern and worked as a maid in Geneva after making her own escape, and the couple married in Geneva on April 14, 1945, three weeks before the end of the war
They emigrated to the United States, where they started a family in 1948. But their parents and the families deported from Germany alongside them were gone.
Hanne’s brother had fled to safety in the United States but he joined the American army and they never reunited.
“He went to the war and never came back,” she said.
The couple raised a daughter, Evelyne, and have a grandson and two great-grandchildren with whom they are looking forward to celebrating their 73rd anniversary in April.
For 80 years Max played the cello, which first brought him to Hanne’s attention at the camp in Gurs: “He was one of several artists who created a cultural life for us there,” she said.
But he finally put down his instrument a few years ago because, he explained, “in chamber music you play with other musicians and eventually everyone I played with was gone.”
In tribute to their French saviours who rescued 3,500 Jews, the Kupferberg Holocaust Centre at Queensbrough Community College, New York, has launched a digital exhibition, Conspiracy of Goodness.
Curator Cary Lane said: “The little-known rescue of Le Chambon and its surrounding villages is one of the most awe-inspiring stories of World War II.”
The exhibit, detailing Max and Hanne’s own journey to survival, can be viewed at http://khc.qcc.cuny.edu/blog/exhibit/conspiracy-of-goodness/