“After everything, do you still believe in God?”
“No . . . one million children were killed. My family was murdered, how could I believe in God?”
That was the question posed by a Rangi Ruru Girls’ School student to Holocaust survivor Vivianne Spiegel following a talk on her experience as a young Jew in France during World War 2.
Mrs Spiegel is sharing her story across New Zealand, in what she believes is “her duty.” She spoke at six secondary schools in Christchurch this week.
Year 10 student Annabelle Schneideman found Mrs Spiegel’s real life experience “shocking” to listen to.
“It makes it so much more real,” she said.
Mrs Spiegel, who once found comfort in the Catholic church after being introduced by her adoptive parents, now struggles to have faith in God.
“When I grew up, I didn’t believe in God, when I became a teenager and certainly when I became an adult. How could a God allow this disaster? As I grew older I became more and more convinced.”
Her terrifying ordeal began in 1941, when her father was arrested and sent to Pithiviers Internment camp, and then on to Auschwitz.
She never saw him again.
At the age of six, Mrs Spiegel, her mother Tauba Rigman, and two younger siblings, Albert and Regine, were rounded up by French police and locked in a bicycle velodrome, along with 13,000 other Jews.
This became known as the notorious Vel’ d’Hiv Round-up.
“There was no water, food or toilets. The noise overwhelmed me. Men were screaming, women howling and babies crying,” said Mrs Spiegel.
A sympathetic policeman came to the aid of Mrs Rigman, and released the family, in what Mrs Spiegel describes as a “miracle.”
Most from the round-up were sent to Auschwitz.
Mrs Rigman then made an “agonising decision.”
In order to keep her children safe, she sent them into hiding in a rural town in the north-west of France, with two farmers.
“My mother told me don’t worry, the war will be finished soon. I was seven-years-old, of course I believed her.”
That was the last time she ever saw her mother.
Once that part of France was liberated in June 1944, the children were sent to a Jewish orphanage.
It wasn’t until almost 40 years later, when she was 54-years-old, did Mrs Spiegel find out the fate of her parents.
Jewish lawyer Serge Klarsfeld released a book titled Le mémorial de la déportation des juifs de France, containing a compilation of names of French Jews deported from France.
“I was hoping for a while that they had managed to get to Russia, like lots of others did . . . once the book came out . . . I saw their names in black and white.”
“Up until then I wasn’t sure what happened to my parents. I never gave up hope, I thought they may have remained alive, I was hoping but then I read it,” she said.
When she returned to France in 2010, Mrs Spiegel found out her mother had been denounced by her neighbour, who was paid by the Nazis. Mrs Rigman was taken away by authorities.
For several years Mrs Spiegel and her younger siblings lived in an orphanage before they were told the “thrilling” news that they were going to be adopted by a Jewish couple in Australia.
Following a six week voyage, the three children arrived in Australia in 1948. Mrs Spiegel was 13.
“Then came the dreadful shock. We had been bluffed,” she said.
There was no family waiting for them and they were sent to another orphanage.
Eventually, the three children were reluctantly adopted by a couple, who really only wanted to adopt the youngest, Regine.
“I was 16-years-old and had a lot of mental baggage from the war. We weren’t loved or cared for. My mental problems were never spoken about or dealt with.”
Now at 84, Mrs Spiegel finally has the family she dreamed of, with three children and 10 grandchildren.
Her talk at Rangi was “a massive shock” to the audience, said year 10 student Coco Kennard.
“As a child she must of felt so helpless. She had no one to turn to. She would have been scared, confused and had no certainty.”
Estimated 1.1 million
Estimated deaths of Jews by country:
Austria – 50,000
Belgium – 25,000
Belorussia – 245,000
France – 90,000
Germany – 130,000
Hungary – 450,000
Lithuania – 220,000
The Netherlands – 106,000
Poland – 2,900,000
Russia – 107,000
Romania – 270,000
Ukraine – 900,000
Paris Vel’ d’Hiv Velodrome round-up – estimated 13,000 Jews
ANNE FRANK EXHIBITION – AIR FORCE MUSEUM
Let Me Be Myself – The Story of Anne Frank
• Anne Frank is one of the most well-known Jewish victims of the Holocaust. She gained fame with the publication of her diary, in which she documented her life hiding from 1942 to 1944, during the German occupation of the Netherlands.
Running every day until September 21 at the Air Force Museum of New Zealand, 10am-5pm. Admission is free.