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As a teenager, Levendel emigrated from the Vaucluse to Israel, then to America, where he rose to become an award-winning software engineer at Bell Labs and Motorola. He clung to the belief that his mother, driven insane by her forced abandonment of him, was confined to a mental institution somewhere in France. In his foreword, Levendel says: “My own liberation took a lifetime of waiting. At first, waiting desperately for my mother’s return, and when that hope dwindled and vanished, waiting for the courage to face reality and seek the truth.” In 1994, Levendel, by then a Chicago suburbanite, contacted Klarsfeld, compiler of a list of the 76,000 Jews deported from France. Could Klarsfeld help him in searching French mental institutions for his mother? Three hours later, Klarsfeld called back with the brutal yet liberating truth: Three weeks after she’d left the cherry farm, his mother was murdered at Auschwitz.
Having evaded the truth for so long, Levendel now sought out every detail of his mother’s fate. In Paris he located Gaston Vernet, who had lived next door. Vernet had forgotten nothing of the terrible scene he’d witnessed half a century earlier. While Sarah Levendel was preparing an omelet in the kitchen in the rear of her shop (and while the Allies were landing in Normandy), two men arrived in a black sedan. They wore black leather jackets and fedoras. She fled out the back door to the Vernets’ kitchen, where the men cornered her. Begging them to let her go, she said, “Please sirs, have you no hearts?” “We do madam, but our hearts are made of steel,” one man said. Sarah grabbed a kitchen knife and slashed her wrists. They dragged her away as she bled. Vernet remembered that the men were French, not German, and that “they spoke with the accent of Marseille.”
But who were they?
Isaac Levendel trawled the archives of French police, as well as prefectural and court archives, many of which were closed when it came to matters of Vichy, until he finally got his answer “on a warm summer evening in 1994, in the darkest corner of a Marseille café.” Though unauthorized, a sympathetic archive employee handed Levendel a transcript of a 1945 courtroom confrontation between a survivor from Le Pontet, Moise Benyacar, and defendant Charles Palmieri, wartime leader of a rapacious gang from Marseilles. Palmieri admitted to having taken part in the arrests of 15 Jews in Le Pontet on D-Day under the supervision of a Gestapo member. Benyacar testified that he and his wife and their 2-month-old child were brought to the town hall before being imprisoned in Avignon. There, Benyacar saw the bloodied and disconsolate Sarah Levendel. Like her, his wife and child were gassed upon arrival at Auschwitz. Six weeks later, as Marseilles was about to be liberated, Palmieri was flown to Germany to get training in sabotage. Parachuted back into France at the end of 1944, he was quickly captured by French police and executed in Marseille in August 1946.
Levendel’s vivid 1999 memoir, “Not the Germans Alone: A Son’s Search for the Truth of Vichy” (Northwestern University Press), seemed to have laid his story to rest. Six years later, Bernard Weisz, a teacher and journalist living in Avignon who was born in 1946 into a Jewish family that had suffered under Vichy, showed Levendel an “official” list of 200 Jewish deportees from the Vaucluse, including those from Le Pontet. The list seemed laughably short, possibly because it had been assembled by a local Vichy official who had authorized the arrests of Jews. Levendel and Weisz quickly increased the list of deportees to 400. Each new name raised a set of questions that Levendel posed to Weisz: “Wouldn’t you want to know who arrested them, how they did it, and why?” It took the pair five years of mining a mountain of archival records to answer those questions, resulting in “Hunting Down the Jews.” It’s not a pretty tale, but it’s one that has long needed to be told.
Peter Hellman’s books include “When Courage Was Stronger Than Fear” (Marlowe & Co., 2004), offering profiles of Christian and Muslim rescuers of Jews in the Nazi period.