The Latin Prize
The New York Times: July 5, 2012
It was the last day of school in July 1942 in Niort, a French city occupied by the Germans. Louise Fligelman, then an eighth grader, still remembers the flurry of excitement when students and faculty were unexpectedly called to a special assembly. Her older brother, Richard, 16, was asked to step forward to accept a signal honor from the school’s principal: He had won the first prize in Latin in the prestigious concours général, a nationwide competition among high schools.
“My brother was so flustered, at first he didn’t understand what was happening,” says Louise, 84, now a resident of Paris and herself a retired professor of classics and French.
In a country whose roots are Latin, Richard’s honor had special resonance. Yet he and his sister, far from having Latin roots, had arrived in France from Poland only six years earlier, speaking not a word of French. Orphaned by the death of their parents, the children had been sent from Warsaw to live with an aunt and uncle in Paris.
When the Nazis invaded France in June 1940, the four of them joined a vast flow of refugees who fled southward. They got as far as Niort, a city of 60,000, where both children were enrolled in a local school.
“My brother was a stranger there, and poorly dressed,” says his sister. “Without a doubt, his excellent performance provoked jealousy, even though he was extremely sociable.” Richard’s dream, according to his sister, was to become a test pilot.
Four months after Richard won the prize, he, along with his sister, aunt and uncle, were arrested in a French police roundup of foreign-born Jews. Confined first to an internment camp in nearby Poitiers for several weeks, they were then sent to Drancy, the transit prison in suburban Paris that was the last stop before deportation to the East.
Boarding the train in Poitiers, Richard had seen a woman struggling with a heavy suitcase in a different boxcar. He rushed to help her, but the door was shut and the train departed before he could rejoin his aunt, uncle and his sister.
“The whole night, my uncle was sick with worrying what had happened to Richard,” his sister says. They were united at Drancy, but only briefly. Their aunt and uncle, Sabina and Maximilian Vollmann, were deported to Auschwitz and murdered upon arrival. Richard and Louise were released to a Jewish children’s shelter on Rue Larmarck in Paris that was under surveillance by French police.
While at the shelter, Richard was visited by Jean Allard, a classics professor who had examined him for the Latin prize. A member of the French Resistance, Allard had come to offer Richard a safe hiding place outside of Paris. It seemed like an offer the teenager could not refuse, but he did, because there was room only for him. His sister would have been left behind, and Richard would not abandon her. He must have known that his life was at risk.
One early spring day, rumors flew that the French police were going to raid the shelter on Rue Lamarck. Being among the older residents, Richard and Louise knew they were most likely to be taken. A staff doctor approached Louise with a proposition: In order for the police to spare her, he could either surgically break her arm or else send her to the hospital for a fake appendectomy.
“I knew the police wouldn’t think twice about arresting me with a cast on my arm, but I thought they probably wouldn’t do it if my belly was cut open,” says Louise. To this day, she can’t bear the thought of ether, its smell being the last thing she remembers before going under the knife.
As the French police entered the shelter, Richard hid across the street in a building under construction, but a small boy who saw him hide tattled to the police. Richard was brought to Drancy. Nearly all deportation trains were destined for Auschwitz, but Richard was deported instead to the Sobibor death camp. He was killed on arrival. Ironically, being young and strong, he might have been selected for work had his destination been Auschwitz, and might have survived.
Jean Allard had not been able to save Richard. But he and his wife, Marguerite, did organize the rescue of Louise. They supplied her with a fake ID and arranged for the girl to be hidden first in a convent and then at a girl’s school on the outskirts of Paris, where she arrived with nothing but the clothes on her back — and her fresh abdominal scar. The Allards paid all her living expenses until liberation more than a year later. Louise called Marguerite Allard “ma presque mère” — “my almost mother.”
But there was no liberation from guilt. To Louise, her brother was her hero for his “qualities of heart” as well as his brilliance. “Why was it me who benefited from the support of a veritable human chain and not my brother?” she asked in an extended exchange of letters with this reporter. “To me, this seems like a frightful and insupportable injustice.”
Louise became the classics professor her brother could have been. “I’d be betraying the truth if I pretended never to have savored life,” she says. “But often, while finding pleasure, I had the sensation of existing for two, of being privileged to share in my mind with my brother all that is the best.”
Even then, the “episodes of happiness” were shadowed by “a sense of culpability, of the fear of forgetting, of betraying.” Louise never married. “When I compared the men I met to my brother, I found them wanting,” she says.
Last autumn, the French historian Serge Klarsfeld wrote to the then education minister, Luc Chatel, asking him to mark the 70th anniversary of Richard Fligelman’s triumph by naming the Latin prize in his memory. Chatel rejected that proposal, but did promise that Richard’s name would be invoked when the prize is given this July. The new education minister, Vincent Peillon, will keep that promise by invoking Richard Fligelman’s name in the award ceremony at the Sorbonne in Paris next Tuesday.
In one of her letters, Louise included several family photos. The oldest shows her and Richard as small children in Poland, she with a huge bow in her hair. Another, from 1938 (above), shows them with their aunt and uncle at a French spa. And one is of three boys at the children’s shelter on Rue Lamarck. On the left is Richard, appearing dark and handsome. Louise’s note accompanying the photos asks me to preserve the photos, since she “can’t bear the thought that they might fall into the hands of somebody who would not value them.”
But Louise has kept the 11 volumes of classics stamped in gold with the words “Concours général” that were awarded to the best Latin student in France in 1942.
Peter Hellman is the author, among other books, of When Courage Was Stronger Than Fear: Remarkable Stories of Christians and Muslims Who Saved Jews From the Holocaust.