Her Family’s Only Survivor

The Fellowship  |  April 27, 2021

Rochelle Kokotek (oldest daughter) and family, 1942
Rochelle Kokotek (oldest daughter) and family, 1942

July, 1942. A young Jewish girl named Rochelle lies ill in a Paris hospital bed. Little does Rochelle know, but her life-threatening illness will save her life. In the Paris streets, the Nazis have begun rounding up the city’s Jews, deporting them to death camps. Rochelle’s family – her parents and her four-year-old sister Fernande – fell prey to the occupying Germans and their anti-Semitic “Final Solution.”

Her Family’s Sole Survivor

On July 31, Rochelle’s father was sent to Auschwitz. The Nazis forced her mother onto a cattle car bound for the camp a week later. And little Fernande, frightened and alone, spent the rest of the month in a cell before being sent to Auschwitz on August 28. Once at Auschwitz, all three family members were murdered in the gas chambers.

But Rochelle didn’t know any of this, lying sick in her hospital bed. She didn’t know her family had lost their lives while she clung to her own.

Out of the Hospital, Into Hiding

Once Rochelle recovered, a neighbor from the apartment building where she used to live came to the hospital and picked her up. Out of kindness, Madame Registel told the 11-year-old girl that her mother would come get her – knowing the awful truth, but protecting Rochelle from it. Decades later, Rochelle recalled, “That lie haunts me to this day because I still dream my mother didn’t love me enough and abandoned me. In reality Madame Registel was the woman that my mother asked to look after me and my mother’s last thoughts that terrible day in July were of me.”

From there, Rochelle lived with a Christian family who ran a bakery in the country. Despite Nazis all around, and the danger that their actions posed to their own young daughter, Roger and Jeanette Voinot sheltered Rochelle for the rest of the war, telling any suspicious people that they were simply housing their niece Renee, who’d been sent to the country for health reasons.

A Postwar Postscript

After liberation, Rochelle reunited with her paternal grandparents who had survived the Holocaust by escaping to the United States. Rochelle raised her own family, including three children and five grandchildren. Those descendants, knowing Rochelle’s story, urged her to share it with Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.

And in 2010, Jeanette Voinot (then 98 years old) and her late husband Roger received the title Righteous Among the Nations. Rochelle attended that ceremony, and soon after, Yad Vashem also reunited her – at the wedding ceremony of her own granddaughter – with relatives of her mother’s, relatives Rochelle met for the first time in over seventy years since she’d been the only one of her immediate family to survive this dark chapter in Jewish history.