“A Woman of Valor . . . is robed in strength and dignity, and faces the future with grace” ~Proverbs 31
How does an awestruck American author prepare to meet someone who is not only her hero, but also a hero to the country of France—and beyond? Need I say,“very carefully”? In July of 2012, that’s just what I was doing as I traveled to Paris to attend the International Association of Jewish Genealogy Societies’ Annual Convention, as well as to do research and interviews for my forthcoming book series, “WOMEN OF VALOR: Female Resistance to the Third Reich.” My first impression when we finally met was that she was just as kind and formidable in person, as she was in historical accounts.
Her name is Frida Wattenberg, and she is a WOMAN OF VALOR.
July 14, 2012:
As I sat reading a brochure in the crowded lobby of the Le Musee de la Shoah in Paris, I sensed a change in the atmosphere and looked up. Something indeed had changed. A sturdy elderly woman, whose clear blue eyes, strong jawline, and burst of closely cropped, snowy white hair belied her 88 years, strode purposefully through the lobby. Magically, the crowd seemed to both part for her — and be drawn to her — at the same time. Everyone beamed warm smiles in her direction, and she nodded back and smiled, personally greeting as many as she could.
Even if we hadn’t exchanged photos during our year-long email correspondence, I would have known that this woman, this humble force of nature, was the nationally revered French-Jewish Resistante and Partisan, Frida Wattenberg. And while most people in today’s youth-oriented culture probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to an elderly woman out on the street, the crowd inside this sacred lobby, weren’t most people. They knew they were fortunate to be in the presence of a Woman of Valor.
Although she would vehemently deny it, Frida Wattenberg is a national treasure. And she is still as indomitable and selfless today, as she was as a teenage member of the anti-Nazi organizations: Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants (Children’s Aid Society), and the Organisation Juive de Combat (OJC). I am fortunate to be interviewing her for my upcoming book on the remarkable young Jewish and Gentile women who actively defied the Nazis: “WOMEN OF VALOR: German, French & Dutch Resisters to the Third Reich.”
During our very precious time together, Frida did much more than provide information about her teenage years risking her life on a daily basis to defy the Nazis. She graciously took me on a guided tour of the historic Jewish Marais District of Paris, pointing out spots of importance to her life in the French-Jewish Resistance. The sunny sky, dancing flowers, street musicians, and glorious aromas wafting from numerous markets, cafes, and patisseries, provided both a poignant backdrop, and stark counterpoint to Frieda’s memories of German-Occupied Paris. It was a challenge to envision her death-defying daily routines amidst such a bucolic atmosphere. Realizing that her Resistance actions, on these very cobblestones, would have taken place during days when the sun had also beamed on her, took my breath away.
What were some of her routine everyday activities? While still in high-school, Frida stuffed anti-Nazi flyers into hallway lockers and the pockets of fellow students. Before and after school, she tossed handfuls of pamphlets into the air at busy metro stations and then ran “like hell.” When school wasn’t in session, or when her Resistance assignments required her to skip school, she became a skilled smuggler — transporting money, medicine, false identity papers and ration cards, along with messages to and from hidden families. She was also a courier for Undergound Intelligence information, that came from Charles DeGaulle in London via secret radio broadcasts.
Above all, however, Frida Wattenberg saved the lives of countless Jewish children. She did this by finding them, convincing their parents to give them up, and by locating safe-houses for them in the countryside. She also monitored “her” children to make sure they were being well cared-for—often making time to play games, read stories, and sing songs with them when she visited. On more than one occasion, she even helped some reach safety in Spain. After she completed high-school, Frida trained to become proficient in physical combat, weaponry, along with the safe creation and use of explosives.
Making her actions even more dangerous, was the fact that they were carried out under the eyes of the viciously antisemitic French police, French collaborators, bounty-hunters, and of course, the Nazis. Frida was never not under the threat of capture, imprisonment, torture, and execution — not just for herself, but for anyone with whom she was connected. Tragically, many of her comrades in the Resistance were captured, and did not survive.
I listened intently to Frida’s steady stream of fascinating information, while scurrying — despite being 20 years her junior — to keep up with her pace across the ancient cobblestone lanes and alleys. A few blocks past La Musee de la Shoah, we stopped in front of a nondescript apartment building. Frida told me this was where she was supposed to have been living — while instead, she was constantly on the move throughout France carrying out her dangerous missions for the Resistance.
Our next stop was the former site of the popular Goldenberg Delicatessen, where members of the Jewish Resistance met often during, and after the war. As we admired the beautiful mosaics around the entrance, Frida told me about their secret meetings, and the foreign money that filtered through the restaurant to help fund the Resistance.
We ended our tour with a late lunch at a lovely outdoor cafe, where Frida told me about the horrific Rafle du Vélodrome d’Hiver, which took place July 16-17, 1942. This was the massive round-up of more than 13,000 Jews, who were packed into the Velodrome d’Hiver, a winter bicycling stadium. With meagre food, water, and quickly non-functional sanitary facilities, this would be just an introduction to the nightmare that was coming. These innocent Jewish men, women, and children were next deported to Drancy, a concentration camp, and then sent to Auschwitz where most were murdered. Frida’s courage, quick wit, and refusal to give up resulted in her being able to gain the release of her mother and little brother from this catastrophe. She was also able to find safe-houses in which they were able to hide until the war ended.
These are just a few of the many stories Frida shared with me before I had to return to the States. After our heartfelt and profoundly moving time together, it was painful to say goodbye. Fortunately, we kept in touch, and we were able to joyfully meet again in 2015, at which time she told me even more remarkable stories about her time in the Jewish-French Resistance. I look forward to visiting with my dear friend, Woman of Valor, Frida Wattenberg, again in 2018.