A Righteous Mayor in Occupied France

Stand for Israel  |  August 21, 2023

Mayor Jean Deffaugt and the Jewish children he saved in Nazi-occupied France
(Photo: Yad Vashem)

The mayor of the French town of Annemasse during World War II, Jean Deffaugt saved the lives of many Jewish children.

It was May 1944. A group of French Jews were trying to find freedom by crossing into neutral Switzerland. Alas, they were arrested by the Nazis before they reached the border. 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, promising to return them to Nazi custody. But instead, Mayor 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 Jewish people, 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 was imprisoned with them. Mayor Deffaugt devised a plan to break Marianne out of the prison. But she refused to leave the children, knowing the Nazis would punish them if she escaped. As she was being tortured and interrogated by the Gestapo, Marianne defiantly told them, “I have saved more than two hundred children, and if I were free, I would continue to do so.” Sadly, she never found freedom, as she was murdered by the Nazi-aligned Vichy French.

The older Jewish children who Deffaugt had not been able to hide were going to meet the same end as Marianne. The Gestapo commander told Deffaugt that the children were going to “disappear”—meaning the Nazis planned to murder them.

So the mayor worked to have them released and soon hid them away with the rest of the younger children he was sheltering until the town was liberated by the Allies. All of the children’s lives had been spared, thanks to the mayor of Annemasse’s courage.

For decades after the war, the Jewish children all grew up, but kept in touch with Jean Deffaugt, and in 1966, Yad Vashem named him Righteous Among the Nations for the many innocent lives he saved.

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