‘An Example Worth Far More Than All the Teaching I Could Give’
The Fellowship | February 2, 2021
His name was Lucien Bunel, but everyone called him Father Jacques. An English teacher in the French town of Le Havre, Father Jacque was well-liked by all, especially the port city’s poor dockworkers, who he cared for. Having opened a school, Father Jacques would put it to a use other than education once the Nazi occupation of France began, caring for even more of his hometown’s residents.
Three Jewish boys came to the school, needing shelter as the Nazis and their collaborators rounded up and deported French Jews to concentration camps. Jacques Halpern, Maurice Schlosser, and Hans Helmut Michel all began to study at Father Jacques’ school under false Gentile identities. And working at the school was a Jewish science teacher named Lucien Weil, who had lost his old job because of the Nazi ban on employing Jews. And this is how it went for some time, the kindly French priest sheltering three Jewish boys and their Jewish teacher from the Nazis. All was well.
But then one day in early 1944, all was not well. The Gestapo arrived at the school, barged in, and arrested the three boys, as well as Father Jacques. At the same time, other German officers arrested Lucien Weil and his mother and sister at their home. The three Weils were sent to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
An informant had given them all away to the Nazis — Father Jacques, as well as those he was harboring. Shortly before his arrest, the priest had told someone that, if such a thing should occur and “if per chance I should be killed, I would thereby bequeath to my students an example worth far more than all the teaching I could give.”
Father Jacques was taken to Fontainebleau prison, and then to Mauthausen concentration camp. And for more than a year, he managed to survive the harsh conditions there. But only days after liberation, Father Jacques’ weakened body gave out and he died, the same as the Jewish friends whose lives he had tried to save.
An Example Worth Far More
Father Jacques’ good deeds would have been forgotten, as there were no survivors…at least that’s what was thought. But when young Hans was living at the school, Father Jacques would arrange for secret meetings between the boy and his sister. And it was this sister, who survived the Holocaust, who would go on to tell her rescuer’s story.
His story would also be told to a global audience by one of his Gentile students many years later. Filmmaker Louis Malle had been a pupil of Father Jacques. So Malle made a movie (above) titled Au Revoir Les Enfants (Goodbye, Children) that told the priest and his charges’ story. Malle recalled to a reporter the actual scene as Father Jacques and the three Jewish boys were being arrested: “Something took place that was very bizarre. Somebody started to applaud and then everybody was applauding, despite the shouts of the Gestapo to keep quiet.”
And so, 75 years later, those of us who stand for God’s children still stand and applaud Father Jacques, a Christian advocate and ally of the Jewish people.