During World War II, Fernand and Emilie Deves provided a safe haven for Jewish families at their home in southeastern France. For their efforts in providing shelter to members of the Sapir family and the Margolis sisters, a release from the Illinois Holocaust Museum said, they were recognized by the museum in Skokie June 28 with special guest Vincent Floreani, consul general of France in Chicago.
“It’s extraordinarily meaningful for the museum to have this as a point of reference for our visitors,” said Lillian Polus Gerstner, director of special projects at the museum, said. “It’s part of putting a human face on history. So much of WWII and the Holocaust can become a discussion of statistics, so we try to take it out of the realm of statistics and put it back in the realm of humanity.”
The ceremony was held to unveil a plaque at the museum’s Ferro Fountain of the Righteous, a space that pays tribute to the those who risked their own safety to stand up for those who were persecuted. The plaque recognizes the deeds of the Deves family, who were recently recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.
During the war, the release explained, the Deves housed the Sapir family — Joseph and his wife Szayne along with children Estelle and Jehuda — and the Margolis sisters, Edith and Rose. The sisters arrived at the home in Bollene in 1940, with the help of a Polish soldier who knew the family.
“The popular culture was that it was best not to draw attention to yourself and it was best not to get involved and to turn the other way and run away from any trouble,” Gerstner said. “It’s hard to assess how dangerous it was, except to know that others who were found to be giving aid to Jews were themselves arrested and sent away to concentration camps.”
During the next year, the sisters registered as Jewish, at the proclamation of the mayor of Bollene, and went to Marseille a number of times in an attempt to get a visa to leave France, never successfully, the release said.
In 1942, the Deves home was raided by the French gendarmes who arrest everyone except Edith, Rose and Joseph Sapir — who are all taken to the hospital with various ailments. Still hoping to flee France, the release said, the sisters found a smuggler to get them to the United States, but were instead given to the gendarmes who took the girls to Rivesaltes camp in October 1942 until 1943 when they were allowed to return to the Deves home.
In February of 1942, the Germans arrived in Bollene and the sisters left on foot to hide from the Waffen SS, but just six months later, the first American tanks arrived in Bollene and Edith, who speaks perfect English, was employed as a translator, according to information from the museum. Eventually both were hired by the United States Consulate as civilian employees. Rose got engaged to an American GI from Chicago and married him at the Consulate Aug. 22, 1945. That next year, Edith arrived in Chicago followed by Rose and her new husband. Edith married in 1952.
The two sisters, Edith, 97, and Rose, 94, are both longtime Skokie residents, museum officials said.
“Even though this is a population, like Edith and Rose, that’s aging, our speaker’s bureau has been growing recently, which allows us to uncover new stories as more survivors share their stories of what happened to them and how they survived,” Gerstner said. “It leads us to some of these wonderful revelations about those who have played pivotal roles in their survival.”
Alicia Ramirez is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.
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