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I Never Went Up the Prison Steps...Without Murmuring a Prayer

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Life: May 31, 1896 - July 1, 1970

Why you should know him: Jean Deffaugt was the mayor of the French town of Annemasse during World War II and helped save the lives of many Jewish children.

In May 1944, a group of Jews were arrested by the Nazis as they tried to find freedom by crossing from France into Switzerland. Nabbed near the town of Annemasse, the group included 28 children. The mayor of Annemasse, Jean Deffaugt, convinced the Gestapo to release the youngest children - those ages four through eleven - to his care. Deffaugt then hid the children away, keeping them from the Nazis.

The kindly mayor also cared for the older children and other captured Jews, all of whom had been imprisoned. Deffaugt paid visits to these "prisoners," bringing them food, medicine, blankets, and other necessities. He knew that by caring for these Jews, he and his family were in danger. But Deffaugt said after the war, "I was afraid. I never went up the prison steps without crossing myself or murmuring a prayer."

Marianne Cohn, a young Jewish member of the underground resistance, had been leading the children to safety and had also been imprisoned. Sadly, she was murdered by the French militia who were conspiring with the Nazi occupation.

The older Jewish children who Deffaugt had not been able to hide were soon to meet the same end. But the mayor worked to have them released and soon hid them away, as well, until August 18, 1944, when the town was liberated. All of the children's lives had been spared, thanks to the mayor of Annemasse's courage.

For decades fter the war, the children kept in touch with Jean Deffaugt, and in 1966, he was named Righteous Among the Nations for the many innocent lives he saved.

Tags: Stories , Partnerships and People , Advocacy

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