'They Burned All of Them' : Barbie Trial Focuses on 44 Slain Jewish Children

Times Staff Writer

The Klaus Barbie trial, now in its fourth week, has turned its attention to the killing of the 44 Jewish children of Izieu, a case that reveals a good deal about the kind of impact the trial is having on France.

Barbie, who was the Nazi Gestapo chief in Lyon when the killings occurred, is charged with ordering the roundup of the children from a home in the village of Izieu on April 6, 1944, and deporting them to Auschwitz in Poland, where all were killed in gas chambers. The children, French and foreign, had been gathered together and hidden because their parents had already been deported to the death camps. Unlike the children, some of the parents survived.

Lea Feldblum, now 67, who was a counselor at the children's home and survived Auschwitz, testified last Wednesday: "I loved them very much. The tiniest ones cried. The others sang. . . . They burned all of them."

Feldblum said that a 5-year-old Belgian child named Emile Zuckerberg was torn from her arms at Auschwitz.

Another counselor, Paulette Paillares Roche, now 60, who had left the house a few months before the raid, testified Monday that Emile, whose parents had been arrested and deported to Auschwitz two years earlier, was "the most traumatized of the children."

Emile Remembered 'Most of All'

"I took care of the smallest children," she said. "I remember Emile most of all. He needed the most care."

Edith Klebinder, a 73-year-old Austrian-born Frenchwoman who served as interpreter on the railroad platform at Auschwitz, testified Monday that she saw the children taken away in trucks. At first, she said, she thought this was an act of kindness by the Germans, relieving the children of a long walk. But the next day, she said, she asked a guard what had happened to them, and he pointed to smoke coming from the camp chimneys.

More such testimony is expected today when several surviving parents take the witness stand at the trial, which the 73-year-old Barbie is refusing to attend.

After Barbie was expelled to France from his haven in Bolivia in 1983, many French feared that his trial might turn into a trial of France itself and of those who collaborated with the Nazis in World War II. But the trial has focused instead on Nazi atrocities against Jews and is clearly turning into a kind of new educational awareness about the German attempt to exterminate the Jewish people.

The Izieu roundup is a clear example of this. As many French Jewish leaders have pointed out, it is obvious that the children were arrested and killed not because they posed any danger to the German occupation troops as resistance fighters or anti-Nazi propagandists but only because they were Jewish.

No Live TV Coverage

The court is not allowing live television coverage, and the trial does not have a strong hold on French society. No one is following it the way people are following the French Open tennis championships this week in Paris. But the trial is obviously having a subtle but significant educational influence that has even worked its way into French politics.

In Paris, since the trial began, there have been long lines at a movie theater on the Boulevard Saint Germain waiting to see "Shoah," the nine-hour French documentary about the German "final solution of the Jewish question." Le Monde, France's most influential newspaper, has published a special supplement detailing the anti-Jewish laws promulgated by the collaborationist government of occupied France during the war.

The trial's influence can also be seen in the tension within the government of Premier Jacques Chirac over the best way to deal with the extreme rightist leader Jean Marie le Pen. After attending the opening day of the trial and a memorial exhibit about the Holocaust, Michel Noir, the minister of foreign trade, wrote an article in Le Monde that shocked Chirac.

Noir, who is not Jewish, although his father was imprisoned by the Germans, cited the failure to halt the fascists in the 1930s and called on his colleagues to stand up to Le Pen now and denounce his racist, anti-immigrant philosophy.

"It would be better to lose the elections," Noir wrote, "than to lose our souls."

Half-Hour Dressing Down

An enraged Chirac, who is trying to persuade Le Pen's followers to support him in next year's presidential election, called in Noir for a half-hour dressing down. But polls published since then indicate that, in the present mood of France, Noir's stand would probably attract more votes to the conservatives than Chirac's stand.

The trial has increased sensitivity among many French about what happened to the Jews during World War II. It is generally agreed, for example, that Minister of Interior Charles Pasqua made a ham-handed political error a few weeks ago when, defending his ministry for expelling 101 Malians on a charter plane last year, he said he was ready to expel illegal immigrants by train if necessary. The image immediately recalled the trains used by Adolf Hitler to transport Jews to the gas chambers.

In a similar way, Serge July, publisher of the leftist Paris newspaper Liberation, was embarrassed last week to find that his newspaper had published a letter from a reader insisting that the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other camps had never existed.

July recalled all unsold copies of the issue from the newsstands and fired the editor in charge of the letters page. The paper's editor in chief resigned.

Children Probably Betrayed

The Barbie trial has spurred many visitors to drive to Izieu, which is situated in hilly farm country by the Rhone River, 40 miles east of Lyon. The isolation makes it seem likely that the Germans would never have learned of the children's refuge if some French collaborator had not betrayed it.

In 1947, a court tried and acquitted an accused collaborator, Lucien Bourdon, of betraying the Izieu children. He has been called as a witness in the Barbie trial but has not been found.

Marie Thibaudier, the 77-year-old widow who now owns the house where the children stayed, said that most of the visitors have been journalists but that a large number of simply curious people have shown up as well.

The main house, the barn, a smaller house and the surrounding farmland, all once owned by the mayor of Izieu, had been abandoned since 1917 when Sabina Zlatin, a Jewish social worker and her husband, Miron, rented the property in 1943 to house and hide the children. Miron Zlatin was arrested in the raid and killed later, but Sabina Zlatin was not in Izieu at the time.

A plaque put up a few years after the war lists the names of the young victims but does not make it clear that they were Jewish. In fact, in a statement long resented by French Jewish leaders, the plaque says that the children died "for defense and love of their country."

Entire Property for Sale

Marie Thibaudier said that French Jewish organizations have offered to buy the house from her to transform it into a museum. She said she would do so only if they bought the entire property, including the farmland. She is asking 2.3 million francs (almost $400,000) for the property.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°