The Email message read, "Can you help me by locating in your records the name of a monastery in France where I was hidden?" It explained that Quakers in the South of France had helped the writer during World War II.
Archives staff wanted to help but wondered if there were any ways to do so. Would it be possible to find the name of a monastery among hundreds of documents from that period? Would letter writers even include that sort of information, knowing the letters would be censored? If this had occurred when Germany occupied Vichy France, would any letters actually have found their way to the United States? These were some of the doubts that crossed our minds.
It took us several days to remember an unlikely connection that had occurred several years before. That was to be the key that unlocked a poignant and extraordinary story.
Some years prior to receiving the Email inquiry, the AFSC Archives received personal stories on tape from a European woman by the name of Alice Resch Synnestvedt. On the tapes, she shared some of her experiences about her work in the South of France where she was a member of the Secours Quaker group working among refugees who had congregated there. Prior to the German occupation of Vichy France in 1942, this group had included a mixture of European and U.S. workers. Those from the United States were arrested and interned in Germany after the occupation, while the European members of the group continued the work.
At the end of one of the cassettes, Alice discovered she had several remaining minutes of blank tape, so she filled it in by telling a true story. It was about how a Jewish mother approached her in the Toulouse region of France and asked Alice to hide her two children. The children were a boy and girl. The mother said the boy was 14, but Alice said she snorted in disbelief and thought he looked more like 17 because he was so tall. She thought it would be difficult to find a place to hide him. The girl was quite young and a place could easily be found for her. Alice pondered a good deal about a refuge for the boy and finally decided to visit a monastery she knew of where the monks were friendly and willing to be of help in such situations. So off Alice drove to the monastery to talk to the Abbott.
Alice Synnestvedt's recollection after so many years did not include the names of the boy or girl. She did remember, however, that the boy had sent a postcard to her from the monastery quite openly thanking her for finding a place of refuge for him. This caused her a number of days of anxiety about whether the postcard might have been read by someone else and the information passed to the authorities. However, the children went undiscovered, were eventually reunited with their father, and escaped with him to Switzerland a year later.
When we in the AFSC Archives heard this story, it made quite an impression, but, a number of years later when the man's Email inquiry arrived; it didn't immediately ring a bell. Days later, however, one of us suddenly made the connection. Alice Synnestvedt and the "boy" -- now a grown man and retired from his work -- were put in touch with each other. Indeed, they discovered that, unlikely as it seemed, Alice was the one who had hidden the boy and his sister.
A few years later Alice was invited to come to the United States to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. Those inviting her were other people she had helped as children during the war years, when her efforts helped them, too, to survive the Nazi Holocaust. At that time, they came into contact with her through the Secours Quaker staff. These middle-aged-and-older adults -- "her children" -- feted her by taking her to visit a number of cities in the Untied States, including Washington, D.C. There she visited the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, where she saw her name listed among other righteous gentiles who had offered aid to others in need at the time.
The mystery was solved, and the writer of the Email message finally had a chance to express his gratitude to Alice. In one of his first letters to her, after many years of a separation that seemed unlikely to end, he wrote: "The Talmud says that those who save one life save the world. And you and your organization did just that."
Written by Jack Sutters, September 2002