Shortly after she agreed to speak to me for an interview, Charlotte Sorkine Noshpitz tells me that she has had a dream. Members of her Resistance group are seated on the floor, the way children in a group sometimes arrange themselves. She is standing — behind them, looking down at their heads. She is shocked to see them. Most, she says, are dead by now. She was the youngest of her group, 17, and now she is 88. If the others were alive today, they would be nearly 100.
In Nice, France, during World War II, Charlotte Sorkine conveyed groups of children to the Swiss border to be rescued. Under Maurice Loebenberg of the French Resistance, she created thousands of false papers. She accompanied groups of young people who went to join the Allied armies in Spain.
After the Gestapo arrested 24 members of her group, the Armée Juive, in July 1944, she joined an independent liaison group, the Jewish Fighting Organization, and obtained and transported weapons. She took an active part in the liberation of Paris.
For her service in the French Resistance, she was awarded the Médaille de la Résistance, the Croix du Combattant Volontaire de la Resistance, the Médaille des Services Volontaires Dans la France Libre and the War Commemoration Medal. And yet hardly anyone knows her story.
I have known Charlotte for nearly 50 years. We met in 1964, when she and her husband joined us for a Passover Seder at the home I shared with my then husband, Bruce Sklarew, in Maryland. A psychoanalyst, he worked at the National Institute of Mental Health with her husband, Joseph Noshpitz, an eminent child psychiatrist and child psychoanalyst who conducted our Seders for more than 30 years. He died in 1997, at the age of 74, and my former husband and I edited and published “The Journey of Child Development,” his collection of unpublished papers, in 2012.
Though I had wanted to interview Charlotte for decades, as I feared that her story would never be told, she had demurred. “It is not a story, but a life,” she said. “It came about because of the situation I lived in. If it becomes a story, you could rent it. Like a good movie. But it would not be understandable,” she told me. I recall her saying at one time that it would no longer be hers if she told it.
In 1986, when I was thinking of leaving my current life and heading north to direct the artists community of Yaddo, Charlotte gave me two gifts. The first was a tiny book called “The Essay of Silence,” published in 1905. All its pages were blank. The second gift was a small book by Vercors, a pseudonym of Jean Brulle, written in 1942 and called “Le Silence de la Mer” (“The Silence of the Sea”), published secretly in Nazi-occupied Paris. It tells the story of an elderly man and his niece who refuse to speak to the German officer occupying their house. Both gifts reminded me that Charlotte did not wish to make a story out of her experiences.
The impetus for our conversations came in 2012 when I received the spring issue of Prism Magazine, an interdisciplinary journal for Holocaust educators that is published by Yeshiva University. It fell open to a page with a photograph of a young woman who had been a member of the French-Jewish Resistance during World War II. Marianne Cohn had taken hundreds of children to the Swiss border before the Gestapo captured, tortured and killed her — only three weeks before the liberation of Annemasse.
Though Cohn had the chance to save herself, she determined that to do so would put the children at too great a risk, and she refused. I was struck by the similarities between Cohn’s life and Charlotte’s. Could Cohn have been someone Charlotte knew?