Yvonne’s Story

Yvonne (left), Renée, and Mirka, late 1930s.

Yvonne turned 10 years old on May 12, 1939. As she became more aware of the world around her, she realized that she had stopped hearing her favorite music on the radio. Instead, her concerned parents were listening to daily bulletins that reported news about frightening events happening. Some of Yvonne’s relatives fled from Germany in the 1930s and told her family about their experiences under the Nazis. Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany after the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and the danger became personal for Yvonne when her father was drafted into the French army. Yvonne feared for her family and for her country.

With the beginning of the Nazi occupation of France in the summer of 1940, Yvonne’s mother became nervous and decided to flee from their small village of St. Gratien towards the south of France. Maman and Oma piled the car with as many things from the house as possible, even putting a mattress on the roof. Finally, Yvonneand Renée got into the back seat of the car and everyone was ready to go, except for Mirka. They looked around for their beloved pet. They considered her a member of the family. Where could she be? Maman announced that they would not be able to take Mirka with them for the long journey.

How would Mirka survive alone until they came back? Yvonne saw Mirka approach the car waiting for someone to open a door for her. Suddenly, a neighbor dragged her away. Without the chance to say a final goodbye and crying uncontrollably as their mother started the car, they watched as the neighbor shot Mirka and left her to die.

“I don’t know if I trusted adults anymore.”
—Yvonne Ferstenfeld

People were escaping in all kinds of vehicles, carriages, hand-pulled trailers, and bicycles, going south on the one main road that led towards the border with Spain. Yvonne and her family traveled for three weeks, driving all day and sleeping on the mattress in the street at night. Maman sometimes had to plead and bargain for gasoline, but she was determined to get to the south of France.

When the family arrived in the South, the authorities assigned them to live in the small agricultural village of Grenade-sur-Garonne, outside of Toulouse. They lived on the edge of the village, near a market square in a simple two-room home. Water came from a pump across the street, there was no toilet, and Oma cooked over an open hearth. Maman sold the car so that the family would have enough money to buy food to eat.

While the conditions were difficult, Yvonne felt that they were finally out of danger when her father tracked them down and joined them. Papa had escaped from a German prison camp, returned home to find the family had fled, and so he headed south, as well. With everyone back together again, life began to feel normal for Yvonne. The girls went to school, and the whole family began to develop a social life with the other Jewish refugee families who were assigned to live in the town. Papa and Maman gathered with their new friends in the café to play cards, and sometimes Maman would take the girls to the Garonne River to swim and sunbathe. Yvonne loved to spend time at the farms playing with the other kids and the animals. As the days passed, Yvonne was content to wait until the war was over. She didn’t realize the hardships that her parents and the other adults were quietly confronting.