Yvonne’s Story

Communion photo of Denise Feiler, Seiches, France, May 18, 1944.Yvonne

Yvonne never saw Nazis in her village, but the radio did broadcast news about the war. Papa and Maman tried not to reveal their concerns to the girls, but they worried that the situation could get worse. Papa and Maman considered fleeing across the border to Spain by foot, but feared that the journey would be too difficult for the small girls and their elderly grandmother.

As a precaution, Maman and Papa went to the city in 1941 to ask the Archbishop of Toulouse, Jean-Gerard Saliège, for help. They had learned that the Archbishop was an opponent of the Nazis. He agreed to hide Yvonne and Renée in a local convent . Yvonne was 12, and Renée was 7 years old. The only condition was that Mr. and Mrs. Ferstenfeld had to allow the girls to have a baptism and participate in all the Christian rituals. The Archbishop explained that otherwise the whole community would be in danger, because it was strictly forbidden for anyone to help Jews.

One day Maman packed a suitcase and told the girls they were going to live at a convent , for their own safety. Mother Superior, the nun in charge of the convent , greeted the family when they arrived. She wore a traditional black robe, white bonnet, and black veil. Everything about the convent was strange and unfamiliar at first. However, Yvonne gradually began to accept her surroundings and realized the generosity and kindness of her caregivers. Within a short period of time, she even made a lot of new friends. She understood that she had to learn how to adapt to her new life.

But Renée was having a very different experience: First she lost her home, then her dog, and now her parents and everything familiar. She had grown up tenderly loved and cared for and was not prepared to be alone. During her free time, Yvonne would find Renée crying and neglected. Yvonne remembered pretending to take care of Renée when she played the baby in their childhood games. Now, Yvonne actually had to take on the role of parent to Renée and did her best to protect and give comfort to her little sister under these new conditions.

“You were supposed to give the big pieces of bread to the bigger girls…”
—Yvonne Ferstenfeld

Yvonne and Renée never had any kind of religious upbringing, so they received their first religious education at the convent , as Catholics. Two weeks after their arrival, Yvonne was baptized and renamed Marie Marguerite. Renée was renamed Marie Therese. Dressed in white for the ritual, Yvonne felt like a bride. The nuns (called “Sisters”) at the convent were kind, both the ones who knew the girls were Jewish and the ones who did not know. Yet, during the ritual Yvonne could hear Maman quietly crying in the chapel when she came to watch the ceremony. Maman didn’t know how this new and different lifestyle would affect her children. While they never practiced Judaism in their home, Yvonne did know that she was Jewish. How would life in a convent affect her identity? Maman simply hoped the girls would be safe.

Papa had befriended a warm and protective monk named Père Agathange who helped the girls while they were at the convent . Yvonne and Renée thought he was very handsome, and his visits brought sunshine into their lives. He always made sure to remind them that they were Jewish, and tried to reassure them by telling them that they would return to their family at the end of the war. He also promised that, if it were necessary, he would bring the girls into his own family and take care of them.