Yvette LEVY, née DREYFUSS
Photo taken in March 2019, by Laurence Krongelb, during Yvette Levy’s testimony at the high school.
Yvette Lévy came to visit our 10th grade class (203) at the Notre-Dame des Missions high school in Charenton-le-Pont, a little south of Paris in the Val-de Marne department of France, on March 22, 2019. We then met again in June.
We have chosen to keep the style of writing as direct as possible in order to minimize any changes to Yvette’s testimony and thus retain its authenticity. The biography was written by Camille Mignard and Caroline Trin as well as Laurence Krongelb, their teacher.
“My life has been a very simple but quite long journey. My parents were Jews from Alsace. My father, Lazare Dreyfuss, was born on October 23, 1886 in Fegersheim. He first became a cap cutter. As for my mother, Mathilde Müller, she was born on March 18, 1892 in Struth. At home we only celebrated the major holidays. My two brothers, Claude and Simon, and I were born in Paris, in the 11th district. After France’s defeat by Prussia and the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870, part of the family emigrated to Canada, another left Alsace to in order remain French while the other chose to remain in Alsace and become German.
Lazare et Mathilde Dreyfuss (Yvette Lévy’s private collection)
The history of our family is like that of others from Alsace who, throughout history (the wars of 1870, ’14-’18 and ’39-’45), have been tossed back and forth between France and Germany.
I was born on June 21, 1926. I remained in Paris until I was 10 years old and then our family moved to Noisy-le-Sec in the Seine department of France (now Seine-Saint-Denis), about 6 miles from the capital.
Yvette at 12 years old (Yvette Lévy’s private collection)
At the time it was a small town with many individual houses, each with its own little piece of garden, inhabited by families of very modest means. Noisy-le-Sec was a very important railway junction, where there were locomotive repair workshops, which explains the high proportion of railway workers. My father worked at the Grands Moulins de Pantin. When the war broke out, his employers offered to evacuate the staff and their families, bearing in mind the bombing of Paris by Big Bertha that had taken place in 1914-18.
We were intending to go to Bordeaux but we stopped in Orléans. It was an exodus, thousands of people forced onto the roads; roads congested with cars, supply trucks and army trucks. On those roads, as everyone was fleeing the advance of the Germans, I even saw some French soldiers, who were also fleeing for fear of being taken prisoner. Those who could had exchanged their military uniforms for civilian clothes. We truly experienced the horror of horrors: entire waves of Italian planes descended in nose-dives and machine-gunned us, each time leaving dead and wounded in their wake. We had to try to avoid them; we had to move on. We had the Germans on our heels. Our journey ended in Orléans because we ran out of gas and Orléans station was on fire. We abandoned the car, took our suitcases and bundles and continued on our way on foot. In Orléans we were bombed twice. During the second raid, there was nowhere to shelter, and we only just had time to throw ourselves into the gutter. Finally, we managed to cross the Pont Royal to reach the other side of the river Loire just before the French army blew it up to delay the arrival of the Germans. We walked and walked; we had no choice. We finally stopped soon after Tours, in Mosne-sur-Loire. The memory I have of it is that of a small, friendly and very sunny village, surrounded by vineyards. After my grandmother became unwell, she and my mother were lodged with a family who told us that the Château des Tormeaux was the best place to stay. It wasn’t very far away. We slept in the stables of the castle because there were already other refugees there. My grandmother and mother would go out at lunchtime to see if they could find something to eat. On the third day, the mayor gave us the keys to a small house that he had made available to us. There we spent a few quiet days, walking, looking around and sitting on the banks of the river Loire enjoying a little sunshine.
One afternoon, we saw a lot of military trucks. They were Germans, hundreds and hundreds of German soldiers. The infantrymen were all marching in line, doing the goose-step. They were on their way to Bordeaux. France was indeed occupied. My parents then decided to go back to Paris. On the way we met German troops singing “Heili…Heilo…”, a traditional marching song. Once again, we walked a great deal, in short stages, before finally finding a train that was going back to Paris, arriving at Austerlitz Station. This train was made up of open cattle cars already crowded with French people who had come from the South of France and who also wanted to go home.
For our family this was the end of the exodus. It was the end of July, 1940. In October, I went back to school. It was also in October 1940 that the Vichy government enacted its first Jewish statute. My father, out of concern for the law, went to the town hall to register the whole family as Jewish. We weren’t angry or anything, we took it all quite normally. Everyday life became more and more difficult, as Jews were forbidden to work in certain professions and to frequent public places (gardens, theatres, cinemas, swimming pools etc.). We were only allowed to use the last car of subway trains. Radios, bicycles and telephones were all confiscated. We were no longer allowed to move house without permission. The only thing we were allowed to do was to shop between 3 and 4 p.m. and by then there was nothing left in the shops. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to eat.
Ration card for textiles (Yvette Levy’s private collection)
Bread coupons (Yvette Levy’s private collection)
In 1941, to compensate for food shortages, the school nurse distributed little vitamin lozenges. They were not nice, not at all. Then in 1942, I think, we were given two casein biscuits every day at four o’clock. They were a kind of cheap chocolate sandwich biscuits without any real chocolate and in the so-called flour there was also a little bran and sometimes also a bit of sawdust, all mixed up together. But they were slightly sweet and when you’re hungry you find that sort of thing very nice!
Etoile jaune (Yvette Levy’s private collection)
In June 1942, wearing the yellow star became compulsory for all Jewish people over the age of 6. I couldn’t stand the bullying by my anti-Semitic science teacher in 9th grade and I left the school. My classmates, out of solidarity and kindness, no longer went to the swimming pool because I was forbidden to do so. I then enrolled in a course in Commerce run by a Mrs. Miette, a very brave woman. In addition to the course, she suggested that I help her supervise typing lessons and allowed me to take English lessons.
July 16 and 17, 1942 were the dates of the Vel d’Hiv roundup. from which our family escaped. The Monday morning after the raid, I left with my older brother to go to the Eclaireurs Israélites de France, a Jewish Scouting and Guiding organization, on rue Claude Bernard in the heart of the Latin Quarter of Paris. We tried, despite our limited means, to help the most disadvantaged. Indeed, I had been in Les Petites Ailes, the Brownies, since the age of 6. I grew up in the movement with values such as always helping others, reaching out to the weakest and doing your good deeds for the day. At that time I was not yet chief but patrol leader cheftaine and along with the younger girls I tried to make little packages out of next to nothing with cakes, sugar cubes and such that we took to the UGIF, the l’Union Générale des Israélites de France (the General Union of the Israelites of France). This organization oversaw the housing of children whose parents had been arrested and also sent food packages to Drancy. After the war, at the Auschwitz Fellowship, I met Fanny Segal, who remembered receiving one of these little parcels and who told me “how lovely it was, when you were hungry, very hungry”.
Life between 1942 and 1944 became very difficult, with the fear of arrest and all the restrictions. Complicated, difficult times, but also full of hope. It was hard, very hard, when some of the little girls of whom I had become the leader were arrested, not during a roundup, but because they were denounced in anonymous letters. We left the first Scouts and Guides building on rue Claude Bernard for another of their premises on rue Copernicus. A block away, on rue Lauriston, was the headquarters of the Gestapo. It was there that arrested people were interrogated and tortured. You know, the story of the bathtub in which they were immersed. It was horrific. But us, with our stars, we had the devil in us. Instead of going down to the Victor Hugo subway station, we went down to Étoile, back up Victor Hugo Avenue and around the back. Curious, we wanted to find out if we could see anything.
Certificate to say that ’Yvette belonged to the «Sixième» (Yvette Lévy’s private collection)
Since the big roundup, life had become very dangerous, which is why the Israeli Scouts went underground. A sixth section, the Youth Social Service, which went under the name of “Sixième”, or “Sixth”, was then added to the movement. I was 16 years old by then, when I was given the task of recovering French-born children whose foreign parents had been arrested. They were often at home alone or with neighbors or janitors.
At my neighbor, Miss Robin’s house in Noisy, I listened to Radio London, “Les Français parlent aux Français” – “The French speak to the French”. We listened closely; we heard messages we didn’t understand anything about. I remember very well hearing “Les haricots sont verts et les haricots seront bientôt secs” (“The beans are green and the beans will soon be dry”). it was only after the war that I found out that “verts” meant the city of Vaires in department 77, Seine-et-Marne, which was a very important railway junction and that “haricots secs” (“dry beans”) referred to Noisy-le-Sec (translator’s note – “sec” means “dry” in French). The town was bombed and 90% destroyed on April 18 and 19, 1944. Bombs were raining down, the DCA was firing in all directions. My brother, who was looking out the window, started screaming, “Hurry, hurry up, we have to go down, we have to go with our parents”. In fact, we did not want to follow them, preferring to die in our beds than to go to the shelter! Bombs were falling everywhere, everywhere. The house next door was hit. At least sixty people were killed. It was the first time I saw a dead person: it was a classmate. As for us and everyone else in the shelter, we got away on all fours, as best we could. We couldn’t go home; the roof of our house was completely destroyed. In the early morning, we left as we were, in pajamas or nightgowns, without papers, without a cent, with nothing at all. Travelling on foot, we went to the Montreuil Town Hall, and from there we took the subway.
We moved to 89 Lamarck Street in the 18th district, to our Aunt Jeanne’s apartment. On the ground floor of the building was the recruitment office of the LVF – the French Volunteers Legion -, where people enlisted in the German army and donned German uniforms, with the three-coloured badge on their left arm. I was really very afraid of the militiamen. The two-room apartment was very cramped for a family of six people. It was supposed to be empty, so it was important not to make any noise. Mother had us take our shoes off. We spent long hours sitting on the floor. We slept on the floor, my parents, my brothers and I, while my grandmother slept in the only bed in the apartment. At the end of the 3rd day we separated for security reasons. My brothers moved to the centre of Montevideo Street in the 16th district. As for me, I went to stay in a girls’ home at 9, rue Vauquelin in the 5th district. These were the premises of the rabbinical school closed by the Germans but UGIF had managed to reopen them to accommodate about thirty young girls whose parents had been arrested or who had come from the orphanage. I, who had the good fortune to have my parents, would meet them every day at lunchtime. The fear of being arrested never left us.
When we learned of the landing on June 6, we thought that it would soon be the end of our ordeal, the beginning of a life. We really believed it. In the home we danced in the courtyard. But there were still massacres in Tulle and in Oradour-sur-Glane, where an entire village was razed to the ground; men shot, women and children locked up and burned in the church.
Then came Hitler’s failed attack on July 20, 1944. In retaliation, the commander of the Drancy camp, Aloïs Brunner, had all the children in UGIF homes arrested. We, at the home in Vauquelin, were arrested on the night of July 21-22, 1944, when the Allies were only 25 miles from Paris. We and the staff were loaded into a truck without having had time to get dressed. We sang all the way to give ourselves courage. As we entered the Drancy camp, we were still singing; we woke everyone up.
Internment slip of Yvette Lévy (Drancy files)
Certificate of internment at Drancy (Yvette Lévy’s private collection)
For three days we stayed in our nightshirts. It was the manager of the home, Madame Mortier, who went back to get our things. For lack of suitcases and backpacks, she made bundles with sheets. We were interned in Drancy for ten days. It was blazing hot in there. In the rooms, there were beds covered with repulsive straw mattresses, full of bedbugs. There was no water and no toilets; it was hell. Aloïs Brunner forbade the children from going down into the courtyard to run around for a while and relax. He didn’t want to see them laugh, and he didn’t want to see them cry either. The children got sick from the food. We helped the monitors to take care of the little ones and to kill time we had them sing.
The roll call was made in the bedroom by the staircase manager who had brought the attendance book from the home in Vauquelin. We all sat on the floor in front of him and every time a girl was called, she had to get up and say “present”. All my classmates answered the call except me because I was not registered. Indeed, my parents had not been arrested and I did not come from the orphanage. It was as a girl scout leader and volunteer that I was allowed to come to dinner and sleep every night at rue Vauquelin. The staircase manager reported this and, in the afternoon, someone came to fetch me for questioning. The interrogation took place in a small room where three men were sitting behind a table. They wanted to know why I was at rue Vauquelin. I understood right away that I shouldn’t talk about my parents and brothers in order to protect them. That’s why I said, “But where did you want me to go, my parents were killed during the bombing on April 18 and 19, 1944. I had nothing, no papers, no money. I knew this institution because Girl Scouts came here for lunch from time to time. 48 hours later, I was questioned again but by other men. To their questions, I always answered the same thing, the same sentence: “Where did you want me to go…” for fear of contradicting myself. I learned that they had been checking my statements. The luck I had was that at the new cemetery in Noisy, there was a whole section of people killed during the bombing as well as a whole row of graves with crosses marked “unknown” or “unknowns”, meaning that several bodies were in the same grave. Thus, my parents could very well have been in one of these graves and my statements plausible.
On Friday, July 28, rumors circulated in the camp that we were going to work in Germany. Where, exactly? This unnamed place was called Pitchipoï, meaning Petaouchnok (meaning far away, lost, hard to find) or Trifouillis-les-Oies (again, a faraway place). I am translating it for you as it was translated for us at the time. Some girls complained and protested; they didn’t want to work for the Boche. I was called back a third time for interrogation: this time I was given a sheet of paper and an envelope to trap me. I wasn’t going to write to my parents. So, I didn’t put an address. But I had to do it, so I wrote a sentence: “The war will soon end, the Allies are 25 miles away, I have family in Canada and if they are looking for me… well, you will say that I left with everyone else”. I signed with my Girl Scout totem name, Gipsy. The Germans undoubtedly expected me to write to my parents. Then they could have arrested them. As I had not seen them or my brothers arrive in Drancy, I thought they had escaped arrest.
Gipsy, Yvette’s “totem” name
Document from the Departmental Directorate of Veterans and Victims of War
(Yvette Lévy’s private collection)
It was on July 31, 1944, then, that I was deported. Convoy 77 comprised 1300 people, including 250 children under 16 years of age and a 15-day-old new-born baby, who was put in a cardboard box as a cradle. Her mother had given birth in the camp. There was also an old bedridden man on a stretcher. We were transported by bus from the Drancy camp to Bobigny station. We crossed the town of Drancy singing; the scouts are always singing! It was 8am, there were people in the streets with their shopping baskets; the journey did not take more than 5 minutes, it was only 2 miles to the station. Loading us into the wagons was very, very fast; as soon as a wagon was full, the doors were closed.
Cattle car used for deportation to Birkenau (photo L. Krongelb)
We were crammed in, about a hundred of us per car. It was impossible for all of us to sit down: half of us sat down and the other half sat on our girlfriends’ lap. We switched every 10 minutes or. In each car there was one bucket of water for drinking and another bucket for natural needs. As for supplies for the children, there were a lot of boxes of sweetened Nestlé milk but there was no water to make up the bottles. The heat was terrible, the children were dying of thirst and so were we. As the journey progressed, the barrel filled with our excrement. As the train braked, it eventually overflowed. From that moment on, we could no longer sit down; it was wet everywhere and what a smell! At the border in Novéant (near Metz), the driver and mechanic got off the train. The Germans then took command of the train and we rolled night and day without stopping.
We arrived in Birkenau on the night of August 2 to 3, 1944. Our convoy entered directly into Birkenau, through the gates of death.
Birkenau, “the gates of death” (photo L. Krongelb)
We heard orders shouted in German and dogs barking but we still didn’t know where we were. The doors were unlocked. We had to jump out of the cars and line up very quickly, men on one side, women and children on the other. The smell, a smell of burnt flesh caught my throat. This smell, I can’t really express it. It was a contamination. We saw a group of men arriving in striped pajamas and Jeanine, my girlfriend, always the first to complain, said: “Look how they are dressed, they are convicts; we were told we were going to work in Germany but look, it’s like a prison here”. I later learned that these men were emptying the trains and recovering all the belongings of the deportees. I also learned that they belonged to kommando Canada. From this convoy 77, 986 people, including children, went towards the gas chambers. I was lucky enough to be selected and to be able to enter the camp. We were taken to the sauna, or zona.
The sauna (photo Auschwitz Museum)
It was there that I was shaved, tattooed (number A16696), and had to strip naked. That was especially hard. Out of modesty and shame I didn’t want to get undressed, but very quickly I obeyed so I wouldn’t get beaten. By way of clothing I was thrown some old grandmother’s pants and a big, dirty dress. Morning and evening, in all weathers, there was the long, very long roll call to add to the already long day. Along with my comrades from the convoy, I remained in quarantine, deprived of any contact with the other women in the camp. To keep us busy, we were on brick duty almost every day. This work was useless and was only intended to wear us out. One day the bricks were placed on the left, the next on the right. I stayed in Birkenau for three months. All this time we never washed. We were eaten alive by body lice and spent our time delousing each other. It was horrible. Lice could be fatal. How many of my comrades died of typhus?! As for me, I had diarrhea and dysentery. I also remember the ear infections that caused me terrible pain. It was a friend who treated me with a piece of paper or a leaf to clean up the infection in my ear. We would wash our noses with water from hollows in the ground, the tiny bit of water as black as coffee. We were very afraid of the selections, knowing that they could lead to the gas chamber.
On October 27, 1944, after a selection by the terrible Dr. Mengele, I left Birkenau with about a hundred other young women for the Werk Union in Kratzau, a small camp of about 1000 people, in Czechoslovakia.
This journey also lasted 3 days and 3 nights. On arrival, I worked in a weapons factory. I worked at a lathe and made pistol parts for the P36 model but also for rifles. Then I made tubes, kinds of pipes that were filled with powder placed under the V1 and V2 rockets. My comrades and I had become slaves of the Reich. The work was very hard: I worked shifts, one week during the day, one week at night, 12 hours a day without counting 1 hour of walking in the morning and another hour of walking in the evening to reach the camp. To that was added the duration of the roll call and it was only after the roll call that we finally received our bowl of soup and could go to bed if, and only if, we hadn’t been punished.
I was liberated on May 9, 1945, by the Russians. When I think of my liberation and the days that followed, the prevailing feeling is one of immense abandonment. No one took care of us. It was the deportees, although all sick and terribly debilitated, who took care of each other. With a friend, I went to Kratzau City Hall and obtained a pass from the Mayor himself, which allowed us to return to France. We had no other documents in our possession. In addition, it allowed us to prove that we were French.
Pass from the Mayor of Kratzau (Yvette Lévy’s private collection)
The various authorities, first Russian, then American and then French, provided us only with the means of transport: military trucks, cattle wagons and military coaches to the Lutécia Hotel in Paris, where my mother came to pick me up on May 18 or 19.
Yvette on her return (Yvette Lévy’s private collection)
I was so thin that she didn’t recognize me. I only weighed 79 pounds. At home, I met my father again. He hugged me and began to cry. How could I have told him about the horrors I had experienced? How, without breaking his heart, could I have told him of my shame and all the humiliation? How could I have told him that there, we were no longer human beings? I kept my mouth shut. I met my brothers later: Claude was doing his military service, in Saarland, with the occupying troops and Simon had gone to Indochina with his detachment of the 2nd Armored Division.
I went to Alsace to convalesce, thus avoiding the sanatorium, while the other girls from Vauquelin, who returned with me, left for a home run by the Oeuvre de secours aux enfants (Children’s Aid Society) in Moissac. In three months, living with my aunt, I gained 20 kg. I swelled up like a balloon. I had many health problems as a result of my deportation, including a lack of minerals. I also had nightmares a lot. I still do it now and then. I only resumed a professional activity in 1948.
The girls from Vauquelin after their deportation, Moissac
Top row from the left, second on the right Hanouch, Suzanne Barman, Denise Schneer
At the bottom, with the turban, Ida Danziger, Germaine Wagensberq, Jeanine Akoun
(Yvette Levy’s private collection)
I would have liked to be a gymnastics teacher, but life decided otherwise. We were very poorly informed about the studies we could have taken up and the help we could have received. First I worked as a secretary, where I quickly became bored, then I worked in a novelty store in the 16th district, as a saleswoman, for nearly 20 years. Then, for another 20 years, I worked at the la Ville du Puy, opposite Printemps on rue Tronchet, a fashion and household linen store, which was very well-known at the time. I started my family life: I married Robert Lévy. From our union, our daughter, Martine, was born on June 1, 1951. But our happiness was too short-lived: my husband was swept away by illness.
Yvette and Robert – 1950 (Yvette Levy’s private collection)
Yvette, her daughter and her two grandsons – 1997 (Yvette Levy’s private collection)
I started my family life: I married Robert Lévy. From our union, our daughter, Martine, was born on June 1, 1951. But our happiness was too short-lived: my husband was swept away by illness.
The sauna ovens (photo L. Krongelb)
Everything came back to me: the humiliation, dehumanization and beatings. It’s hard, terribly hard to have to strip naked in front of everyone when you’re a young girl. That’s where I was shaved and tattooed too.
And then, from the 1980s, I began to share my experiences in schools, in memory of my friends, so that they would not be forgotten. I met children from primary classes, middle schools and high school.
The two questions I am most often asked are: “How did you manage to rebuild your life when you returned? “and “Are you still angry with the Germans”?
Study trip to Auschwitz with the Shoah Memorial – 2007 (photo L. Krongelb)
Yvette at Birkenau (Yvette Levy’s private collection)
At the end of our long and moving meeting, Yvette told us: “We are forever in the camp”. The tattoo on her arm is there to remind her of it and the nightmares that rekindle terrible memories. It is the same for her streadfast friends, the other girls from the home on rue Vauquelin.
Reunion of the escapees, celebrating their liberation – Nancy, 9 May 1993 – front
The reverse side, with the names written by Suzanne Barman, married name Boukobza
They have met over the years, very often at the Auschwitz Fellowship. There are also all the books in the library, the many invitations to testify to young people and adults, and the inaugurations and commemorations.
Yvette has received awards and honors on numerous occasions, the first time in 1999, from the Legion of Honor.
On April 30, 2019, she was made a Commander of the National Order of Merit. This distinction was awarded to her by Jean-Michel Blanquer, Minister of National Education and Youth affairs.
Yvette Lévy – April 30, 2019 (photo L. Krongelb)
Minutes of the presentation of the Order of Merit (photo L. Krongelb)
Yvette Lévy and Jean-Michel Blanquer – April 30, 2019 (photo L. Krongelb)
During his address, the minister said this: “Your work as a witness inspires, it gives those who hear it the energy to be proactive and to take action”. He concluded by saying: “As a survivor of the camps, testifying for the next generations, as a mother and grandmother, you are, dear Yvette Lévy, a woman of hope and a woman who passes on the torch”.
Yvette dedicated this decoration “to all the children of Convoy 77 and to her comrades from Vauquelin, whose remains were scattered in the sky over Birkenau”.
Yvette gave us a copy of the speech she gave that day, of which here are some excerpts:
“I am here as the Voice of all those we had to leave behind along the way, those who were too young or too old to survive, those who were destined for the final solution: men, women, children and the elderly, who asked us to tell their stories.”
“We, the returnees, made a pledge to be their Witnesses.”
“It is impossible to describe our sufferings and humiliations, because it is inexplicable, unrepeatable, unspeakable. The dictionary is blank: it was pure evil. There is no answer, no explanation for the extermination of a people and its culture. The system was intended to leave no trace and we should not have survived.
And yet, I am here before you, and as we breathe our last breath, we are counting on teachers, guides and disseminators of knowledge to maintain and nurture this Memory because it is also a militant action.
Alas, this is your legacy, because the school must be a conduit for coming generations.
To guard against Hatred and Negationism, it will always be necessary to educate, and to fight against all forms of fanaticism and respect the Other in his difference.”
Version reread, corrected and approved by Yvette Lévy, July 5, 2019.
Camille Mignard and Caroline Trin under the supervision of Laurence Krongelb, their history and geography teacher at the Notre Dame des Missions high school at Charenton le Pont.