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Heroic survivor of Holocaust recalled

Written by Peter Smith on .

reneeI was saddened to learn of the death of Renee Rothschild this past Saturday in Louisville, Ky., at age 98. 

Married for 75 years (!), Renee and John Rothschild were the only Holocaust survivors in their families, and the story of how they survived that catastrophe is as remarkable as the resilience and faith with which they forged new lives in America.

Renee was arrested in southern France and put in a concentration camp run by the Nazi-collaborationist French government. The prisoners there were destined to Auschwitz.

But her fiance, John, took action, abandoning his own safety in an act of amazing courage, and love.

The two had met during a summer in France when they were 19 years old, and were engaged within three weeks. While John returned to his native Switzerland to do his compulsory military service, she was eventually stranded in a France that had come under Nazi conquest.

History tells us, correctly, that Nazi-run concentration camps were all part of a one-way machinery toward death. So what happened next takes some explaining, but the Rothschilds kept the yellowed telegram, travel pass and other documents to corroborate it.

The camp that Renee was in was not run by the Nazis directly, and the French did have some limited discretion over their prisoners. And John had at least some hope of legal protection given that he had citizenship papers from neutral Switzerland.

Yet he still risked his life traveling into France and walking into that camp, hearing the gate clang behind him, carrying what little collateral he had. He met with the camp commander, presented him with a box of fine cigars and the business card of a local lawyer whom the commander owed a favor. 

Thankfully the commander admired the Swiss, and when John asked that he let his fiancee go, he did.

"I didn't even know he was coming," she later said of John, but he was "my knight in white armor."

There were more amazing feats that led to their escape into Switzerland, and their eventual relocation to America, where Renee became a French teacher. She is survived by John as well as by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Their story and video is here in this USA Today article, which I originally wrote for The Courier-Journal of Louisville back in 2013.

Rabbi Robert Slosberg of the couple's synagogue, Adath Jeshurun, said of the couple: "They're just an amazing blessing. They never became jaded by the terrible experience they went through."


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