Tuesday, August 26, 2014

People of Europe: One of the Just

Since beginning our trip, I have written a series of posts about "Humans of Europe," a take-off on the Facebook page, "Humans of New York." But I've decided I prefer the term, "People of Europe."

I had two "encounters" yesterday with people of Europe. The first, the subject of this post, was with a dead man. As we were cycling in the morning through a little village, Mark and I stopped to take off our arm warmers. The village was more like a hamlet, a wide spot in the road. There was a church across from where I was standing, and as I happened to look up, I noticed a plaque on the wall of the house opposite the church, and this is what I saw.

"Here lived Father Claudius Fournier, pastor of Vers, 1929-1961, Awarded the Medal of the Just by the State of Israel for saving, at the peril of his life, numerous fleeing Jews under the German occupation from 1942-1944."

This was not the first time I have run across World War II-era memorials. There were several we ran across in the French Alps near Bourg d'Oisans, monuments to the "maquis," or the French name for the underground resistance during German occupation. But seeing this monument touched me particularly. I wondered about this man who had lived in that house and said mass in that church. So I did a little Googling, and this is what I found.

Father Fournier, pictured left, was, I suppose, like a number of other people during the war who was confronted with a decision of whether or not to help Jews escape into Switzerland. I don't know how he initially became involved in this effort, but there must have been a time when he cast his lot, then became increasingly involved, increasingly exposed to danger of being discovered, of being shot.

There is a fair amount that one can learn about Father Fournier, available on the Internet. I will summarize here some of what I have learned. The village of Vers was situated fairly close to the Swiss border and thus served as a relay station for those who were fleeing the Vichy regime (puppet government set up in southern France by the Germans) or German police, including many Jews. In September 1943, the Germans occupied the region and patrols of the frontier were reinforced. Nevertheless, Jews continued to come to Vers, alone or in groups. Fournier courageously hid them several hours or longer while he searched for a guide to take them across the border. It finally got to the point where he could find no guides, so he himself accompanied the fugitives to the Swiss border. 

Father Fournier went on with his daily life after the war, and it apparently wasn't until the mid-1950's before his role in the war came to light as a result of a radio broadcast. More and more Jews whom Fournier had helped cross came forward once the story was known, and he was eventually recognized by the State of Israel as one of the "Just." As one site wrote, "Recognized or not, they represent the best of humanity, all considering their efforts during the War as nothing more than their duty to Man." 

I'm glad I looked up at that plaque. I felt more connected to the human race of which I am a part.

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