In Trenton, French women honored as rescuers
Roughly seven decades after the horror they endured saving the lives of three Jewish children, the heroism of two French women was remembered in Trenton.
Adolphine Dorel and her daughter Jeanne Bonhomme died many years ago, but on Oct. 4, in a ceremonial presentation during the voting session, State Sen. Raymond J. Lesniak (D-Dist. 20) presented a resolution acknowledging their heroism to Camille Ponchaut, Dorel’s great-great-granddaughter and Bonhomme’s great-grand-niece.
Lesniak learned about Dorel and Bonhomme’s courage and kindness from one of the people they saved, Dr. Bernie Schanzer, the Elizabeth neurologist who treated the senator after a stroke he suffered several weeks ago. He told Lesniak how the two hid him and his twin brother Henry and their sister Anna from the Nazis during the German occupation of France.
Dorel, who died soon after the war, and Bonhomme, who died in 1988, were recognized in 1980 as two of the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial museum.
The Schanzers have stayed in touch with the family all through the years, and they invited Ponchaut, 17, who lives in Saint-Cyprien, France, to come on a vacation to the United States. Bernie requested a favor from Lesniak: He asked him to show the young French visitor around the Statehouse in Trenton. Lesniak wouldn’t hear of doing just that. Instead, he organized the special ceremony.
“We have honored other people involved in the Holocaust, but this was the first time I can remember an event like this,” said Lesniak, who has represented his district since 1978. “It was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate human decency.” The event, he said, gave him a new appreciation of the saying in the Mishna, “Whoever saves a single life saves an entire universe.”
He also cited Simon Wiesenthal’s comment, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing,” and added, “These two French women did something; they stopped the evil set upon the Schanzer children,” and allowed their extended family — including dozens of grandchildren — to flourish. He pointed out that many of the Schanzer family descendants have gone on to become doctors, further extending the benefits.
The Schanzer brothers’ sister Anna Steinberg died some years ago. Bernie himself was away on a trip to Israel and missed the Trenton ceremony, but Henry, a lawyer now living in Edison, was there, accompanied by his wife Sheila and about two dozen family members, and a number of friends.
“Jeanne Bonhomme responded as a human being, caring about human beings,” Henry told NJJN. While her mother kept the two boys on her farm, Bonhomme kept their sister and their cousin Annie in her home behind her dress shop throughout the war. Their father was killed in Auschwitz, but their mother survived the war, thanks to false papers Bonhomme managed to acquire for her.
“Madame Bonhomme treated us as if we were her own children,” Henry said. “She took our family under her wing and it is thanks to her we survived the war.”
Ponchaut, who has been staying with Henry and his wife, is quietly spoken, perhaps because English is not her first language. In an e-mail response to NJJN she explained that Dorel and Bonhomme died before she was born, but, she wrote, “the ceremony in Trenton was a great honor for me and my family. The resolution was very touching and we were very well received.”
At the ceremony she showed those assembled a special memento, a silk blouse made by her great-grand-aunt. She explained that Bonhomme had a clothing business situated across the street from the local Nazi headquarters. Some of the German officers were customers. What she didn’t tell those men was that the silk in her blouses came from the parachutes of Allied soldiers who descended in the region.
Rabbi Mathew Gewirtz from Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills gave the invocation at the ceremony. Lesniak told those assembled, “The atrocities committed during the Holocaust were an affront to all of humanity, and we must never forget not only man’s capacity for evil, but also his capacity for good. Madame Dorel and Madame Bonhomme, at personal risk, were among the many people who stood against the Nazi regime and the extermination of a people based on their faith. Their heroism is a beacon for all people — Jewish and non-Jewish — to aspire to and to admire.”
The Schanzers and their guests were invited to a kosher meal at the Statehouse before the ceremony, and treated very graciously, Henry told NJJN. He said, “We wanted to do something special for Camille to make her trip memorable, and this was the perfect opportunity. We were all honored and thrilled to participate. Sen. Lesniak and his aide Shane Derris went out of their way to welcome us, as did all present at the Statehouse.
“This was a perfect way to honor the courageous acts of these wonderful women.”