We don’t always believe it, but one person can make a difference

Before the holidays I wrote a post about our trip to France with my Dad to visit the village where he lived during part of the war.  Many of you have written that I left you hanging about what happened to him after he got out of the hospital in Montpellier in fall 1942.  So without further ado, the rest of the story.  Make sure you get a glass of wine, though, it’s a long one!

Dad, with his parents Margit and Matyas Natan, in Milan in 1947.

Ceilhes, the small mining village where Dad and his family found themselves in fall 1940, was part of what was called Vichy France.  The German army controlled northern France directly, but under the terms of France’s surrender in June 1940 most of the south was nominally under French control.  While it appears that the upper echelon of Vichy government wasn’t much – if any – less anti-Semitic than its German counterpart, it was easier for Jewish people to hide out in Vichy than in the north.  This was partly due to the terrain and relative inaccessibility of some of the villages.  But the delay in full-fledged, hands-on German control of the south gave some time for more organized resistance.  The resistance was also facilitated through communication in languages other than French or German.   Although French was the country’s official language, many people in Vichy spoke languages other than French, like Occitan and Provençal, or even Catalán.  Even today, the parents and grandparents of some of our wine producers still speak those “native” languages among themselves.

So for many Jews in Vichy, including my father and his family, there was less worry about deportation, at least at first.  This changed abruptly after the German army was finally driven from North Africa.  Germans invaded the so-called unoccupied zone of France on November 11, 1942 and deportations of Jewish people from France, north and south, increased rapidly.  It was only a matter of time before even remote mountain villages would be unsafe.

The Château d’Assas, home of Mme Simone Demangel, who provided false identification papers for my father and his family.

My father and his parents fled Ceilhes, their home for more than two years.  In early 1943 they traveled by train to Montpellier and then to Nice.  Southeastern France was then under the control of the Italian army – Italy and Germany were still allies, and much of that region had belonged to Italy prior to 1860.   Mussolini wanted it back and got it in June 1940.  The Italians were far less malevolent than the Germans and didn’t deport Jewish people either from Italy or the Italian zone of France.  Consequently, Jewish refugees flooded into the region.  Many of them, like my father and his parents, ended up in a small village called Saint-Martin-Vésubie, about 60 km north of Nice and practically on what’s now the Italian border.

Saint-Martin-Vésubie in the first part of 1943 was as close to a worry-free haven as most Jewish people in Europe could have imagined.  A polyglot and cultural melting pot, people more or less openly practiced their religion, and created theaters, schools, press, and community.  While there was overcrowding and a shortage of food, it was a brief respite from worry.  But in August 1943, the American and British armies invaded Sicily, and the following month, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies.  By then, the Italian army had already retreated from France, and the Germans invaded, as they did in Vichy.

The château dates from the 18th century. The coat of arms was chiseled off during the French revolution. Not by the owner, but by the villagers, who liked the owner and didn’t want to see him lose his property — or his head.

That August, the family fled again the German advance.  This time, my grandparents took my father to Nice and put him on a train bound for Switzerland in care of a Jewish relief organization.  The family had elderly relatives in Zurich, and the idea was for my father to live with them.  He traveled with about a dozen other children and two adults – all separated throughout the train to avoid suspicion.  When they reached a village about 10 km from the Swiss border, the children left the train.  The two adults pointed the way toward the Swiss border and told the children to head in that direction.  They couldn’t risk taking the children themselves because if they were caught, the entire group would be imprisoned – but children alone had a better chance of not being picked up.

After hiking through dense forest, the children made it to the border, crawled between the strands of barbed wire, and turned themselves in.  My father went to stay with the relatives in Zurich, but they couldn’t manage an eight-year old.  So Dad was placed in a orphanage in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.  He stayed there past the end of the war – free from harm, but it was still a difficult time, particularly since there wasn’t enough food for the children.

Simone Demangel, the Châtelaine d’Assas, a great figure of the French Resistance, who helped dozens of Jewish people escape from southern France.

While their son was in Switzerland, my grandparents sought refuge over the border, crossing the Alps on foot into northern Italy.  But by this time the German army had invaded Italy too, and had begun rounding up Jewish people for deportation.  My grandparents spent much of the year hiding in shepherds’ huts high in the mountains, and the winters in stables in the small villages below.  By all accounts, the villagers in that part of Italy were extraordinarily kind and did their best to hide refugees.

After the war ended my grandparents made their way to Milan.  Somehow, despite speaking neither English nor Italian before August 1943, they ended up working for the American Army in the officers’ club.  My grandfather was in charge of procurement and my grandmother ran the kitchen.  (I’d love to know how that happened.)  They set about finding my father and the three of them met at the Swiss border in early 1946.  At that time, the Swiss authorities wouldn’t let my father leave with my grandparents because they couldn’t demonstrate that they could support him.  But when they returned a few months later, my father still wasn’t allowed to leave with them, because the guard claimed there was no paperwork showing that my father was actually in Switzerland – even though he obviously was, and my grandparents were obviously his parents.

Mme Demangel collected old keyboard instruments at the château. One of these, a harpsichord built in the early 18th century, is one of the finest instruments I’ve ever heard. Scott Ross, the famous American harpsichord player, made several recordings at the château on this instrument, which is still used for concerts and recordings today.

So back to the orphanage Dad went.  Still, he stayed in touch with his parents, and when the Jewish children were told that those of them who were unclaimed would be sent by train to Palestine, they saw their chance.  Lucky for them, the train to Palestine went through Milan.  When it stopped there, Dad just hopped off.  His parents were there to meet him.  They lived in Milan until 1952, when they came to the U.S., sponsored by friends from Vienna who lived in San Francisco.

So that’s the rest of the story, but in fact there’s more.  As part of researching our trip, my father found a letter from my grandfather dated in the early 1960s with mention of a “Madame Dumangel,” the woman who had produced false identity papers for my grandparents and Dad so they could leave Ceilhes and travel to Saint-Martin-Vésubie.  We later learned the woman’s name was Simone Demangel, and she is considered a hero of the resistance, decorated by the French government for her clandestine work helping Jewish families.

Born in 1903, Mme Demangel, née Gillet, was the daughter of an academic who wrote about the growing problem of Nazism in Germany, so she had activism in her blood.  Simone married Robert Demangel, who became a professor of archaeology at the University of Montpellier in 1928, and later directed the university’s program in Athens.  He, Simone, and their three daughters lived in Athens until spring, 1940, when Robert sent Simone and the girls back to Montpellier.  Robert stayed behind in Greece, working with the International Red Cross.

Marie-Claire Pathy, daughter of Simone Demangel, with me and Dad.

Sometime in 1941, Simone began producing false identity papers for Jewish persons.  She and Robert knew some city officials in Montpellier, and she got them to supply her with blank forms and official seals.  When the German army invaded Vichy, her home in Montpellier was taken over by German army officers.  Simone moved with the children to a village about 10 km north, called Assas.  Robert and Simone had bought the village’s 18th century manor house, the Château d’Assas, for a song back in the 1930s.  Simone continued her resistance activities in Assas, producing false papers and riding her bicycle at night to deliver them – as much as 50 km each way.  She was detained three times by the Gestapo, and managed to escape each time.   After the war, Robert returned to France and he and Simone lived on at the château.  She died in 1995.

Maggie, Olivier, and Marie-Claire Pathy listen to me play the famous harpsichord and don’t appear to be wincing!

The Château d’Assas is now a small concert venue and museum open by appointment.  Marie-Claire Pathy, Mme Demangel’s daughter, still lives there.  When I contacted her to make an appointment and told her about Dad’s connection to her mother, she kindly invited us to lunch at the château.

We spent an incredible Sunday afternoon with Mme Pathy and her family.  Two of Mme Pathy’s children joined us, her son Olivier and her daughter Maggie, as well as their spouses and children.  The Pathys lived in New Canaan, Connecticut for five years in the 1960s – about 50 miles from where my family and I lived – and they all speak English beautifully.  The afternoon included a big French family Sunday meal, a look around the outside of the Château, and of course lots of stories.

Mme Pathy talked about her mother researching the names of villages in northern France that were destroyed during the war, so she could use those villages as birthplaces for people on false identification papers.  (After all, it wasn’t like anyone could go check the records.)  And apparently, the German army officers occupying their house in Montpellier let Mme Demangel take the furniture with her to the château.  Among the pieces were the children’s beds, which had drawers underneath them where Mme Demangel hid her ID paper paraphernalia.  She figured that if the Germans came to look, at least the children’s rooms might be safe.

Olivier showed us another instrument from Mme Demangel’s collection — a pump organ that was owned by Wanda Landowska, the Polish harpsichordist, who brought the harpsichord back from obscurity in the first half of the 20th century.

Dad and Mme Pathy figured out how it was that Mme Demangel and my grandfather would have met.  Mme Demangel was a medical student during the war, and she worked in various hospitals in Montpellier.  My father was hospitalized in fall 1942 with typhus, and it’s likely that Mme Demangel and my grandfather met there at the hospital.  She gave my grandfather the false identity papers for him and his family before my father was discharged, and they used them to get out of Ceilhes a month or so later.

The stories and conversation continued well after we finished lunch.  Before we left, I was offered a rare treat.  Mme Demangel collected old keyboard instruments, one of which was a harpsichord from the early 18th century.  Since the 70s, it has been used to make several well-known recordings (right in the château) and is still used for events and concerts today.  Well, Olivier (himself an accomplished musician) took us to the harpsichord room and let me give it a spin!  The sound was amazing.  I’ve played some old pianos before, but nothing this old.  The roundness of the tone was gorgeous, especially from an instrument that can often sound tinny (listen to some 1960s pop recordings that used harpsichord in the band and you’ll know exactly what I mean!)  It was clearly custom-made and elaborately decorated for someone who cared about it.  Truly a wonderful experience.

A close-up of the sound hole in the harpsichord — a Star of David. The Pathys don’t know if this means that the maker was Jewish, or perhaps the purchaser was.

We spent five hours at the château and had a delightful time.  Mme Pathy and her family were clearly happy to meet someone whose life had been touched by Mme Demangel, and Dad, Cy, and I couldn’t have asked for a nicer end to our visit to the region.  It was truly something to be in a place where the potential course of your family’s history was altered for the better.  And it’s a privilege to be able to pay a very small tribute to Mme Demangel and the others who helped my father and his parents survive.  Most people don’t get the chance to say definitively that they owe specific people their lives (other than their parents), and I don’t think I expected to be saying it either.  But I feel fortunate to have discovered a connection to kind and generous people who, by acting on their human impulses, helped make the world a better place.

[Update — if you’d like to see some pictures of the château in the sunshine, check out this post.  The blog is about a family spending the summer in the area and has a lot of great information if you’d like to visit.]


The Pathys made us a roast chicken for our Sunday lunch, and we tend to think of roast chicken as a weekend meal.  But you can have it during the week if you do a little prep the night before.  In fact, it will turn out better.

Roasting a whole chicken takes less time if you butterfly it, removing the backbone.  You can do it with a pair of good kitchen shears, or with a big chef’s knife.  Be careful, though, the chicken is slippery.  If I’m using a knife, I like to put some paper towels on the cutting board and set the chicken on them so it won’t slip around.  (With shears, I can cut the backbone out in the sink).

If you’re using a wonderful farm-raised chicken (like Colin here), you’ll probably be fine roasting it as-is.  But if the chicken came from the supermarket, I like to add some flavor by putting a paste of butter, garlic, salt, pepper, and herbs under the skin.  I add some chopped Prosciutto, too, although you can leave that out.   After the paste is on, I put the chicken in the roasting pan or on a big plate and set it uncovered in the fridge overnight (just make sure nothing’s touching it).  That allows the outside of the skin to dry out, making it come out of the oven nice and crispy.  You can also cut up the onion and carrot that will go in the roasting pan the night before, but don’t put them in the pan until you’re ready to roast.

A chicken with this much flavor will stand up to a red wine, and in southern France you’ll usually get red wine with roast chicken anyway.  So try Domaine Chaume-Arnaud Le Petit Coquet ($13).  It’s made using no pesticides, fungicides, or irrigation, and is earthy, with some ripe fruit and spice.  And it’s smooth, too.  You might not think about having wine with a weeknight meal, but doesn’t Colin (or his less-exalted cousin) deserve it?

Bon Appetit!


Roast Chicken with Butter, Herbs, and Garlic

Serves 4-6

1 large chicken (about 4 pounds)

4 tablespoons softened unsalted butter

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

1 large clove of garlic, put through a garlic press

2 thin slices of Prosciutto, finely minced

Salt and freshly-ground black pepper

1 large carrot, cut in ½-inch slices

1 large onion, peeled and cut in ½-inch dice

1-1/4 cup dry white wine

The night before you plan to serve the chicken, cut out the backbone of the chicken using good kitchen shears or a big chef’s knife.  Rinse the chicken in the sink under cold water, and pat it dry with paper towels.  Set the chicken on a large cutting board, skin side up, and press down on the breastbone to flatten it.  Have a platter or a roasting pan big enough to hold the chicken ready nearby.

In a medium bowl, mash the soft butter with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the rosemary, thyme, garlic, Prosciutto, one teaspoon of salt, and a half teaspoon of pepper.  Starting at the neck end, gently loosen the skin from the breast meat using your fingers or the handle of a wooden spoon.  Continue down the chicken to loosen the skin on the thighs, and even the legs if you can reach them.  With your hands, rub the butter mixture under the skin onto the meat, spreading the butter as evenly as possible.  Carefully lift the chicken and put it skin-side up on the platter or in the roasting pan.  Wash your hands, then set the platter in the refrigerator, uncovered, making sure the chicken doesn’t touch anything around it.

The next day when you’re ready to roast, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.  Take the chicken out and put it in the roasting pan if it’s not there already.  Let it sit while the oven preheats.  Scatter the carrot and onion around the bird.  Pour a cup of the white wine over the vegetables, then sprinkle them with salt and pepper.  Pour a little olive oil on the bird, and spread it using your hands or a pastry brush.  Sprinkle the bird with salt and pepper, then roast it for an hour or perhaps a little more.  The internal temperature of the thigh should be about 175 degrees F.  Take the chicken out of the oven and remove it to a carving board.  Let it rest, uncovered for 10 minutes.  Pour the remaining ¼ cup of wine into the roasting pan, and scrape up anything stuck to the bottom.  You can now remove the vegetables with a slotted spoon, or mash up some of them into the liquid.  Taste the liquid for salt and pepper.

Cut the chicken up into serving pieces, and serve with the sauce.

This entry was posted in Château d'Assas, French resistance, Jewish Refugees in France, Marie-Claire Pathy, recipes, Saint-Martin-Vesubie, Scott Ross, Simone Demangel, Tom Natan, Travel, Uncategorized, Wanda Landowska, wine delivery washington dc and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to We don’t always believe it, but one person can make a difference

  1. Pingback: Two Social Events | a table for six / une table pour six

  2. Evelyn says:

    I’m glad to hear the rest of your amazing story!

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