Zlatin, Sabina (1907–1996)

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Zlatin, Sabina (1907–1996)

Polish-born rescuer during the Holocaust who, along with her husband, hid a group of Jewish children in the remote village of Izieu. Name variations: Sabine Zlatin. Born Sabina Chwast in Warsaw, Poland, on January 13, 1907; died in Paris on September 21, 1996; emigrated to France; married Miron or Myron Zlatin, in 1987 (killed in Auschwitz in July 1944).

Among the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, 1.5 million were children, most of them under the age of 15. In France, which had a Jewish population numbering 330,000 at the time of the German occupation in mid-1940, it has been estimated that at least 75,700 were deported to the concentration and extermination camps of the East. Among the doomed were more than 11,000 children. The story of a small group of Jewish children who did not survive the Holocaust is central to the story of Sabina Zlatin, a woman who risked her life to save them. She was born Sabina Chwast in Warsaw in 1907, but like many Polish Jews she emigrated to France in the 1930s to escape from poverty and anti-Semitism. In France, she met and married Miron Zlatin, who had left Poland for similar reasons. An agronomist, Miron operated a model farm near Nancy in the northeast of France. At the national agricultural fair in 1939, the French minister of agriculture was so impressed with the Zlatins' exhibit that he asked her what he could do for them. Zlatin told him that they would appreciate his assistance in obtaining French citizenship.

She was also a licensed military nurse, and after the defeat of France by Nazi Germany in June 1940, she and Miron moved to Montpellier in the zone not occupied by the Germans. Here she found work in the local military hospital. Within months of their arrival, however, a series of anti-Jewish laws (Statuts des Juifs) issued by the pro-German Vichy regime of Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain resulted in Zlatin losing her hospital job. Therefore, she volunteered to work in two camps located south of Montepellier, Agde ands Rivesaltes, in which Jews were now being interned. Zlatin also took Jewish children into her home. The local Vichy authorities may well have known what she was doing, but did not interfere. She was well known in the area, going to work in the camps on her bicycle, usually wearing a billowing blue cape. During the Nazi era, Europe's Gypsies (Rom) were also marked for genocidal annihilation and endured their own Holocaust, and one day at work, a Gypsy woman thrust a baby with an address tag around its neck into Sabina's arms. Zlatin was able to slip out of camp that day, the baby concealed under her cape, and deliver it like a precious parcel to the address printed on the tag. Years later, she looked on that day as one of her victories during a dark time.

Starting in 1942, Nazi Germany began to systematically annihilate the Jews under its control, whether in the Reich or in the various conquered nations of Europe. At the Wannsee Conference, held in Berlin in January 1942, the Final Solution of the Jewish Question (i.e., mass murder of Europe's Jews) was agreed to by the leading officials of the Third Reich. By the summer of 1942, it became clear to Jews in France that time was running out, particularly if they lived in the northern, German-occupied zone of the country. The massive raids of July 1942 in Paris only served to dramatize the grave risks particularly facing Jewish children. On July 16, 1942, more than 3,500 Jewish children under the age of 14 were arrested in Paris. Two weeks later, at the camps of Pithiviers and Beaune-la-Rolande, these same children found themselves forcibly separated from their mothers, who were deported to Auschwitz and other death camps. Bewildered, terrified, and all alone, the children had to fend for themselves until the day came when they too were deported in sealed cattle cars with little air or light to Auschwitz where they were gassed upon arrival.

Throughout 1942, thousands of Jewish children found refuge either in the homes of non-Jewish families willing to risk imprisonment or worse, or in various facilities and escape schemes organized by French-Jewish organizations, among them Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE). By the end of 1943, with Nazi and Vichy sweeps for Jews increasing in intensity, these organizations began to operate on a clandestine basis, so that the goals of rescue and resistance coalesced. Although children would suffer a much higher death rate than the French-Jewish population as a whole, many thousands of lives were saved because of the efforts made on their behalf by the Zlatins, Marianne Cohn and countless others, both Jews and non-Jews.

In November 1942, the German forces occupied the zone of France that had previously been ruled exclusively by the Vichy government. Many Jews who had sought refuge in the Vichy region now found themselves at much greater risk, given the fact that Vichy's anti-Semitic legislation had not always been fully enforced by local officials. By this time, the Zlatins were caring for 17 Jewish children in their home. The local prefect, who had chosen not to enforce the Vichy decrees against Jews, advised her strongly to leave the region, suggesting that the Italianoccupied zone of Savoie would be safest. In Chambéry, capital of Savoie, she was told by the prefect there that the safest place for her to take the children would be in the département of Ain. Heeding the suggestion, Zlatin traveled to the town of Belley in Ain, where she met a local official, sub-prefect (sous-préfet) Marcel Wiltzer. Immediately sympathetic, Wiltzer drove Zlatin around the countryside to look for a house that might be suitable for her and the children. A structure was found in the village of Izieu, a solidly built three-story farmhouse. Located in the Rhone Valley, about 50 miles east of Lyons, Izieu was a relatively isolated, breathtaking location which appeared to offer a considerable degree of safety. Overhung by rocky cliffs, it overlooks a wide stretch of the Ain river.

By the spring of 1943, Zlatin was in charge of a home for several dozen Jewish children whose parents had been arrested or deported. Many of the children, who ranged in age from infants to their late teens, had been arrested themselves by French authorities but then released to the Jewish rescue organization OSE. Once the site of a Catholic children's vacation home, the facility was registered with officials as a shelter for refugee children, but was in fact secretly financed by OSE. From the start, many of the villagers suspected and some local officials knew that the children were not only refugees but Jewish, and that the official name of the home, "Settlement for Refugee Children from Hérault," was merely a cover. Soon, a teacher would visit the home on a regular basis, and local farmers would supply milk and food at fair prices to the home, even employing a few of the older children in a region starved for labor because of the war's erosion of able-bodied workers.

By the spring of 1944, Zlatin had helped 100 children elude capture. News of the war made it certain that Nazi Germany would soon be defeated and with that yearned-for event the children would finally be safe. Although the German Wehrmacht was now occupying the Savoie region in which Izieu was situated (Italy having quit the war in September 1943), Sabina and the others felt their luck would hold. They were terribly mistaken. Thursday, April 6, 1944, began as a beautiful sunny spring day in Izieu. At the time, the children's home contained 44 children and 8 staff members, including the Zlatins. Sabina was absent from the home that day, having gone to Montpellier to work out details of a dispersal plan for moving the children to other, safer places. She was too late. Two villagers had chosen to reveal the presence of the children to the Germans.

That April morning, shortly before the children were to begin eating breakfast, several trucks drove up to the Colonie d'Enfants children's home (the name it would be given in the German telex reporting that day's operation). One quick-thinking member of the staff, Léon Reifman, was able to jump out a window and hide in some thick bushes at the edge of the garden. Three children too young to be cared for at the home survived the raid, protected by villagers. All of the others, 44 children ranging in age from 4 through 17, and 7 adults, including Miron Zlatin and a 60-year-old camp counselor named Lucie Feiger , were taken prisoner. The German officer in charge of that day's operation was SS Lieutenant Klaus Barbie, head of the dreaded Gestapo headquarters in Lyons, a man dedicated to tracking down Jews and an implacable foe of the French Resistance. Barbie had personally authorized the tortures that brought on the death of resistance leader Jean Moulin. Concerned that the operation be done efficiently, Barbie saw to it that the children and the staff members were quickly herded into the waiting trucks. Local farmer Eusèbe Perdicoz recalled later that the children in particular were thrown into the vehicles "like bundles." As the captive children rode in the trucks, to bolster their spirits they sang a French song of defiance against Germans dating back several generations: "Vous n'aurez pas l'Alsace et la Lorraine" (You Will Not Have Alsace and Lorraine).

In Montpellier some hours later, Sabina received a telegram from OSE informing her of the catastrophe at Izieu: "FAMILY SICK. SICKNESS CONTAGIOUS." Indifferent to her own safety and dressed in her nurse's uniform, she left at once for Vichy where she was received the next day by a high official of the collaborationist government. When she asked what could be done about the children, he responded with, "Why are you concerning yourself with those dirty kikes." When she continued to beg for help, he simply said, "Find them yourself." It was too late for the children and her husband. Zlatin thereupon went to Paris to become an active member of the resistance.

After they were arrested in Izieu, the 51 prisoners were taken to Fort Montluc Prison in Lyons. The next day, they were moved to the Drancy transit camp. On April 13, 1944, Convoy 71 of Jewish deportees departed Drancy for an unannounced destination in the East. Organized by the SS official in charge of Jewish deportations in France, Alois Brunner, this convoy of death was a large one, containing 1,500 men, women and children, of whom 34 children and 4 adults were from the Izieu children's home. By the end of the summer, the other 10 children and 3 adults would also be sent to Auschwitz. All the children died in the gas ovens, and only one of the adults, Leah Feldblum , would survive the horrors of Auschwitz.

In the final months of their occupation of France, Barbie, Brunner, and other middle managers of the Nazi's Final Solution of the Jewish Question were relentless in their hunt for Jews to arrest and send to death camps. Because of the actions of those involved in children's rescue efforts, and some good luck as well, many children remained hidden and safe. But about 80 children were not so fortunate at three institutions where the entire population was arrested and subsequently sent to their deaths in the gas chambers: Izieu (44 children), La Verdière (about 20 children), and La Marcellière, a shelter in the Voiron region of the Isère Department, where the Association des Israélites pratiquants (Association of Observant Jews or AIP) had lodged 17 children from its shelter at Saint-Étienne-de-Crossey.

To enable succeeding generations to know the enormity of the crimes and evil ideology of the Nazi regime that brought about their deaths, surviving family members, historians and scholars have labored to preserve the memory of the children. Two of these, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld , have spent the bulk of their adult lives seeking justice for the victims of the Holocaust. Born in Bucharest in 1935, Serge spent the war years in France and was sheltered for a time in a Jewish children's home under OSE direction. While he, his mother and sister survived, Serge's father was arrested in Nice in September 1943 and murdered in Auschwitz.

Among the most important projects carried out by the Klarsfelds are two books: The Children of Izieu (1985) and the massive memorial volume French Children of the Holocaust (1996), which contains archive-based documentation and photographs of all the children, including the 44 boys and girls of Izieu. The Nazis not only set out to annihilate every last one of their intended victims, but to systematically eradicate all evidence of their lives as well. Thanks to the efforts of the Klarsfelds and many others, this part of the Nazi plan has been frustrated. As Serge wrote in French Children of the Holocaust: "This book is born of my obsession that these children will not be forgotten."

In 1945, with the war ended, Sabina Zlatin received word that her husband had not survived his captivity. His train, Convoy 73, departed Drancy on May 15, 1944. There were 878 deportees on the train, all men, of whom 38 were under the age of 18, the youngest only 11. Only 17 were to survive, and Miron was not among them. From one of the few survivors, Sabina learned that he had been shot on July 31, 1944. The news was doubly painful because July 31 was their wedding anniversary.

Neither Klaus Barbie nor Alois Brunner were brought to justice after 1945. Because he was "an expert on Communism," Barbie worked for a number of years in occupied Germany for United States intelligence until he was allowed by them to escape to safety in South America. Decades later, the dogged efforts of Beate Klarsfeld played a key role in creating the international pressures that eventually led to Barbie's extradition to France on charges of crimes against humanity. She also made ultimately unsuccessful attempts to dislodge Brunner from his place of refuge in Syria. At Barbie's trial in Lyons in 1987, Sabina Zlatin, now 80, provided important testimony in the case against a man with so much blood on his hands. Léon Reifman testified that as he hid outside the children's home, he had seen Barbie among the group of Germans. Klaus Barbie was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Sabina Zlatin published her memoirs several years after the trial, and died in Paris on September 21, 1996.


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——. French Children of the Holocaust. Ed. by Susan Cohen, Howard M. Epstein and Serge Klarsfeld. Trans. by Glorianne Depondt and Howard M. Epstein. NY: New York University Press, 1996.

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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia