In 1964, the first French woman to be honored by the Yad Vashem commission with the title “Righteous among the Nations” was a math teacher at a girls’ school in a remote town in France’s mountainous Auvergne region.
Alice Ferrières of Murat was a Protestant whose family was affected by 1685’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which abolished Protestants’ civil rights and sent them fleeing France.
In 1941, when Nazi occupiers seized French Jewish businesses, Ferrières began helping Jews in any way she could, eventually rescuing around 50 adults and children, despite having no special power, financial resources, or influence. Ferrières kept full records of her correspondence and other documents from this era, which have only now been published as “Dear Miss: Alice Ferrières and the children of Murat, 1941-1944” by Les éditions Calmann-Lévy.
In 1941, Ferrières wrote to the rabbis of Nîmes, Montpellier and Clermont-Ferrand to offer her help, explaining how as a schoolgirl, she always felt “much respect and esteem” for her Jewish teachers, “many of whom are an honor to our Nation.” The Jewish organizations quickly replied, praising her “genuinely human feelings” and soon Ferrières was aiding refugees. She was never arrested, a friend recalled later, because the two local policemen’s daughters were among her pupils, and if she were imprisoned, who would teach their children?
Among the many fleeing French Jews who corresponded with Ferrières was the classicist Marcel Lob, a wartime friend of Samuel Beckett. In a 1942 letter, Lob called occupied France’s university professors “gorillas wearing togas.” More measured in her views, Ferrières replied by alluding to her brother-in-law Jean Cavaillès, a philosophy of science professor and Resistance activist who would be murdered by the Gestapo in 1944.
Ferrières, who died in 1988, became close friends with those whom she sheltered; “Dear Miss” includes a makeshift invitation to a 1943 bris for one of these infants.
The editor of “Dear Miss,” Patrick Cabanel, states that Ferrières was “perhaps narcissistic” for saving all this potentially incriminating paperwork. Yet Ferrières was so shy of public recognition that in 1964, when some of the grown-up children whom she saved invited her to Israel, they dared not tell her beforehand that a tree would be planted at Yad Vashem in her honor. Historian Mona Ozouf, in a preface, is surely closer to Ferrières’s true motivations by praising her documents as an intentional reminder to posterity “not to lose faith in humanity.”
Watch a discussion about Alice Ferrières’s brother-in-law, the French Resistance martyr Jean Cavaillès, here.