The children of the château de la Hille

Chateau de la HilleAs a result of the persecution of Jews during the so-called "Kristallnacht" in November 1938, Belgium accepted several hundred German and Austrian Jewish children. Among them were about a hundred boys and girls who were lodged in two homes in Brussels. When the German army invaded in May 1940, the approximately 100 children aged 5 to 16 years were able to escape at the last minute on a freight train, thanks to the intervention of the director of the girls' home.

After a week traveling through France along with thousands of other refugees from the North, the children arrived in the hamlet of Seyre, near to Nailloux in the department of Haute Garonne, and were lodged in a large barn belonging to the farm of the Chateau de Seyre. There was no furniture or beds and little to eat. The winter of 1940 was very harsh and there was much illness and suffering. Fortunately, the Secours Suisse aux Enfants, a sub-sector of the Red Cross of Switzerland, agreed to provision the young refugees' camp and began to supply clothing and basic needs. The following spring this Swiss organisation, directed by Mr. Maurice Dubois, arranged the transfer of the camp to the Chateau de la Hille near Pamiers in Ariège. At the time it was a very neglected building and the older boys set to work digging wells and latrines to make the old chateau habitable. In the summer of 1941, through the intervention of the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers), 20 of the youngest children were brought to the United States and two others were saved by relatives in America.

steleIn August 1942, by order of the Nazis all the boys and girls over 15 years of age, about 40 in all, were arrested by the gendarmerie and deported to the camp Le Vernet near to Pamiers. Most of the internees at Le Vernet were transported to the north and to Auschwitz. Only the 40 children from La Hille were saved by the intervention of the Swiss director of La Hille, Mlle. Roesli Naef and by Mr. Dubois who rushed to Vichy to demand the liberation of their charges. As soon as the children were returned to La Hille, Mlle. Naef immediately began organizing the (illegal) flight of the older girls and boys over the Pyrenees to Spain and the Alps to Switzerland in order to save them. At the same time, other older children found work and shelter with farmers in the region. Twelve or so teenagers joined the Resistance (one of them, Egon Berlin, age 16, was killed in combat in the area). A dozen of the young people were caught during their attempts to flee from La Hille and were killed at Auschwitz.

Thanks to the efforts of their Swiss and French protectors, and especially to their "débrouillard" spirit, nearly 90 of the 100 girls and boys survived the war and settled all over the world. At least 55 of them are still alive and have reunited several times in Israel, France and the US. The last reunion took place in Toulouse and at the sites of the former camps in Ariège and the Haute Garonne on Sept. 15-19, 2000. At that time, a memorial to the children of la Hille, situated at the entrance to the chateau grounds, was inaugurated.

– Walter Bernstein (one of the children who lived at the chateau, now living in the USA)

To preserve the memory of that tragic episode, the commune of Montégut-Plantaurel created a museum in the village (not at the chateau) with explanatory panels and several objects from that era. It is open on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings.

Many thanks to these photographers

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