September 23, 2019

Focusing on the Good

Josie E. Martin stood late last month in the social hall of Lesterps as the mayor formally invested her as “la premiere citoyenne honoraire” (the first honorary citizen) of the tiny village in southwest France. Fifty-six years earlier, in 1944, the then 6-year-old girl was also in Lesterps, living under the name of Josie L’Or, hidden in a Catholic convent school by a courageous nun.

Her real name was Josephine Levy, whose family had lived for generations in the border region of Alsace-Lorraine, which changed hands between France and Germany during their frequent wars.

The family had fled to unoccupied Vichy France following Hitler’s conquest. But after the Nazi armies moved in and tightened the noose around the remaining Jews, Josie’s parents entrusted their only child to the director of the school, Sister St. Cybard.

The parents parted from their daughter with one admonition, “Never tell your [real] name.”Josie remained sheltered in the school for seven months, until the liberation of Paris. She was reunited with her parents, who had been in hiding in the French countryside.

Only later did she learn of the dangers she had survived. One of the school teachers was a collaborator, who could easily have revealed Josie’s real identity.

Even more ominous, in June a Nazi Panzer division had massacred some 700 people in the nearby village of Oradour, looking for both resistance fighters and a supposed hoard of gold. The rumor swept through Lesterps that its inhabitants would be next to feel Hitler’s fury.

Two years after the war’s end, the Levy family moved to Los Angeles. Josie grew up, married Ed Martin, an attorney, and raised a son. She became a psychologist with the Los Angeles school system, volunteered as a speaker for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, and now lives in the Hancock Park area.

Yet, the “painful and troubling memories”of her early childhood persisted. She tried to exorcise them by writing an autobiography, aptly entitled “Never Tell Your Name,” and in 1999 returned for the first time to Lesterps.

Her presence, and her meetings with village women who had been at the same convent school, revived the all-but-forgotten story of Sister St. Cybard, who had died in 1968.

Last January, Martin received a letter from Mayor Daniel Soupizet, asking her to accept the first honorary citizenship in the 1,200-year history of the village of some 200 families.

Martin consented and the actual ceremonies stretched over an entire weekend. Some 150 people attended, including reporters from nearby Limoges and Jewish historian Paul Levy, representing the small Jewish community of Poitiers. Nuns who had known Sister St. Cybard came from Bordeaux, and the regional Catholic bishop sent a representative.

The honoree talked to local school children about her wartime experiences and helped plant an acacia tree in memory of the brave nun who had sheltered her.

As the climax of the ceremonies, Soupizet presented Martin with a stone in which had been carved the village’s medieval emblem. She also received an engraving of a bridge, flying the flags of all nations, and told the audience how moved she was that the flag of Israel was included.

Yet, as much as Martin enjoyed the weekend, she was conflicted about its meaning.

“I was concerned that by honoring me, and through me the deeds of one courageous nun, I would help to whitewash France’s generally dismal record of complicity and collaboration with the Nazis during World War II,” Martin said in an interview.

For decades, the French people were in denial about this shameful period of their history but are now beginning to face up to what is increasingly called “the dark years,” Martin said.

Yet, she was struck by the figures cited by historian Paul Levy, who said that out of France’s prewar Jewish population of 200,000, some 74,000 perished, among them 11,000 children.

“As terrible as this loss was, it means that some 125,000 French Jews survived,”said Martin. “That couldn’t have been done without the help of many French people, who perhaps sheltered a Jew for one night, or transmitted a message, or performed a similar act of decency.

“My work with school children has taught me that it is better to focus on the good in people, rather than the evil.”