Hidden in Plain Sight: The Life and Message of Raymonde Fiol

Kevin Ostoyich

Kevin Ostoyich

Valparaiso University

Prof. Kevin Ostoyich was a Visiting Fellow at AICGS in summer 2018 and was previously a Visiting Fellow at AICGS in summer 2017. He is Professor of History at Valparaiso University, where he served as the chair of the history department from 2015 to 2019. He holds his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and his A.M. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Prior to moving to Valparaiso, he taught at the University of Montana. He has served as a Research Associate at the Harvard Business School and an Erasmus Fellow at the University of Notre Dame. He currently is an associate of the Center for East Asian Studies of the University of Chicago, a board member of the Sino-Judaic Institute, and an inaugural member of the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum International Advisory Board. He has published on German migration, German-American history, and the history of the Shanghai Jews.

While at AICGS, Prof. Ostoyich conducted research on his project, “The Wounds of History, the Wounds of Today: The Shanghai Jews and the Morality of Refugee Crises.” The Shanghai Jews were refugees from Nazi Europe who found haven in Shanghai, and thus escaped the Holocaust. For this project Ostoyich has interviewed many former Shanghai Jewish refugees and has conducted research at the National Archives at College Park, MD, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. At Valparaiso University he co-teaches a course titled “Historical Theatre: The Shanghai Jews,” which fuses the disciplines of history and theatre. To date, students of the course have co-written and performed two original productions based on the history of the Shanghai Jewish refugee community: Knocking on the Doors of History: The Shanghai Jews and Shanghai Carousel: What Tomorrow Will Be. In addition to his work on the Shanghai Jews, he is currently working on projects pertaining to the experiences of ordinary Germans during the bombing of Bremen, German Catholic experiences in nineteenth-century Württemberg, German Catholic migration, and U.S.-German cultural diplomacy during the first half of the twentieth century.

Click here for an article by Ostoyich on the Shanghai Jews.

He is currently trying to interview as many former Shanghailanders as possible. If you would like to be interviewed or know someone who might want to be interviewed, please contact Professor Ostoyich at kevin.ostoyich@valpo.edu.

As we celebrate the holiday season, Prof. Kevin Ostoyich shares the story of the risks one family took to save a young girl from the Holocaust.

A Call from the Past

It was a Saturday in 2007. Raymonde Fiol was sitting on a sofa in her home in Las Vegas. The phone rang. She answered. The voice of a French woman said in broken English, “I am looking for Raymonde Nathansohn.” Taking pity on the woman, Raymonde switched to French and said, “This is she.” The woman was shocked and asked if, perhaps, she was, in fact, speaking with Raymonde’s daughter. Raymonde said, “No. I am Raymonde.” The woman then explained that she is Christine Dollard-Leplomb, a teacher researching the fate of the Jews of the Ardennes region, and that she had been searching for Raymonde for the last four years. She continued to explain that the following day there would be a commemoration in a small village in France where there had been a labor camp, and that a plaque would be dedicated to all the victims of the camp. Raymonde was one of only two persons that Christine Dollard-Leplomb had yet to find. On that day, Raymonde Nathansohn had finally been found. When Raymonde’s husband, Phil, returned home, Raymonde was hysterical. Phil said, “Well, obviously, you cannot go tomorrow. But it’s time to go back.” The following year, Raymonde returned to France, to her past, and there, with Dollard-Leplomb, she learned the details of her own story. It was a story that Raymonde only knew in fragments. She had been too young to comprehend most of what had happened as it had transpired, and the memories had been either too vague or too painful for her to tell in the decades thereafter. After receiving Dollard-Leplomb’s telephone call, Raymonde determined to find her past and finally bring it out into the open. When she was seven years old, Raymonde’s parents had made the decision to hide her with a Christian family. This was how Raymonde survived the Holocaust.[1]

When she was seven years old, Raymonde’s parents had made the decision to hide her with a Christian family. This was how Raymonde survived the Holocaust.

Painful Memories

Roughly sixty-seven years before the telephone call, on May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded France. Within weeks, German troops entered Paris. At the time, Raymonde Nathansohn was three years old.[2] She had been born on August 22, 1936, to David and Esther Nathansohn. David was from Minsk and was the youngest of six sons.[3] He had done his studies in Germany, and in Paris, he “went into the handbag business” working for his uncle.[4] In Paris, he met Esther Bendet, who was one of six daughters, and who had come to the city from Poland. Esther had fled Poland because she was a communist. She had taken on the identity of her sister, Liba, and had her sister’s identification papers. Thus, to the outside world, Esther was Liba. Esther worked as a dressmaker in Paris.[5] Raymonde says that, later in life, she was told by her older cousin that David and Esther “lived in sin” for some time in Paris before getting married.[6] David and Esther did eventually marry in Paris, and in 1936, Esther gave birth to their only child. They named the girl Raymonde after David’s deceased mother. Raymonde would never meet any of her grandparents. The Nathansohn family lived in an apartment on the Rue de Turenne in the Jewish section of the city known as Le Marais. Raymonde remembers it being a “fairly big” walk-through apartment on the third floor of the building with combined kitchen-dining room, a big living room that overlooked a yard, a bathroom, and a bedroom.[7] The apartment had a balcony, and Raymonde remembers once throwing her bracelet from the balcony and it landing on the terrace below from which it could not be retrieved.[8] She says she remembers the kindergarten she attended and that it was located just a block from the family’s apartment.

Photo courtesy Raymonde Fiol.

Raymonde has vague memories of her parents. She believes that her father was the more outgoing of the two. She was later told by her uncle that her father had a beautiful voice, was an opera buff, and was an avid photographer.[9] She believes her mother was a progressive thinker and had a special elegance, as evidenced by the photographs of her, some of which Raymonde believes were taken by her father. She notes that he had an old-fashioned camera that opened like an accordion.[10] Raymonde remembers a sewing machine in the house, and believes that her mother worked from home as a dressmaker.[11]

She remembers the beginning of the war. She remembers sirens, gas masks, and going down with her parents into a common cellar for the whole apartment building. She also remembers her mother and her being stopped by a German soldier, who asked Esther why her daughter was not wearing the yellow star with the word “Juif” (“Jew”) on it. Raymonde was not yet of the age in which Jews had to wear the yellow star, but Raymonde explains that since she was somewhat big for her age, the soldier wanted to know why she was not wearing it. Esther had Raymonde’s birth certificate with her, and, thus, was able to show the soldier that Raymonde did not yet have to wear the star. Esther was wearing her yellow star.[12]

Raymonde has very little memory of her parents beyond this. She believes that her memory is “blocked.” Much of what she knows of what happened next is based on what she was told after the war. When asked once in an interview what her happiest memory of her parents is, Raymonde responded, “I don’t think I have any.”[13]

She states that her father was rounded up in a raid of foreign-born Jews and sent to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, a stadium in Paris where the Jews were held until they were sent to various labor camps. According to the official website of the organization Anonymes, Justes et Persécutés durant la période Nazie dans les communes de France (AJPN), the raid that David got caught up in was the “Rafle du billet vert” or “green ticket raid” of May 14, 1941, and the camp he was sent to was Joué, in Gironde.[14]

Photo courtesy Raymonde Fiol.

Whereas David was sent to a labor camp, initially, Esther and Raymonde were not. Raymonde got sick and was sent to a hospital, leaving Esther alone. Eventually, David was given what appeared to be a choice—although it is not clear if there actually was one—for the family to live together in a different labor camp in the village of Bulson, in the northeastern part of the country close to the border with Belgium.[15] According to the AJPN website, David arrived in Bulson on March 29, 1942, and Esther and Raymonde arrived on July 18, 1942.[16] In Bulson, they were forced to work as farm laborers.[17] Raymonde explains, “The Germans forced the residents [out and] made a camp out of a small village. And they forced the people out and lodged several Jewish families in one house. All I remember is steps and an alcove, and I think this is where we were put.” She remembers “my father’s hands being dirty and scraped [from having] to work the land.”[18] She also remembers seeing her father cry. She thinks that her mother may have been pregnant and that her parents did not know what they were going to do, and her father was very upset.[19] According to the Yad Vashem website: “The living conditions were very difficult, and when rumors circulated that the Jews there were to be deported, the Nathansohns decided to look for a shelter for […] Raymonde.”[20] David Nathansohn approached Gabriel Cailac, who was delivering agricultural products to the occupying Germans.[21] It was decided that Raymonde was to be taken in by Gabriel Cailac and his wife, Sara. Raymonde explains, “I was turned over to the Christian family that saved my life.”[22] She remembers parting with her parents in front of the Cailacs’ home in La Besace: “I remember being taken […] by my parents, I guess it was nearby where the camp was, so they probably had the possibility to get out or snuck out, and left me with this couple. And they said, ‘We’ll come back for you,’ and said, ‘Goodbye.’ That was the last time I saw them.” It was June 1943, and Raymonde was seven years old.[23]

Hidden in Plain Sight…with the French Resistance

The Cailacs were a devout Christian family who ran a café called La Bagnole on the ground floor of their house. They had a garden that supplied food for the café. The family also used the garden to grow food for members of the French Resistance. The café was frequented by the occupying Germans. Mr. and Mrs. Cailac relayed any information they could glean from their German patrons to the Resistance.

Courtesy Yad Vashem

The Cailacs had a daughter who was between 16 and 18 years old named Eveline. Raymonde says, “Eveline loved me, and I loved her, as sisters.” The two were in connecting bedrooms, and one night Eveline told Raymonde a very big secret: When she often left during the night, it was in order to take supplies out into the forest to members of the French Resistance. Thus, all the members of the Cailac family were helping the French Resistance. In time, Raymonde, too, would help, albeit, unwittingly.

The Cailacs had concocted a story that Raymonde was their niece from Paris who needed a place to live because, as they said, there was “no food in Paris.” Raymonde notes, “Then they had to bring me to the commandant of the village to register me, because I’m hidden in plain sight.” They went to the German commandant’s office. When the commandant asked Raymonde her name, she immediately answered, “Raymonde Nathansohn.” The Cailacs’ faces went white. They had forgotten to tell Raymonde to give their name as hers. The German commandant stood up from his desk. Confronted with a Jewish child in plain sight in his office, the German commandant reached for his revolver. There was then a pause, and the commandant moved his hand away. He chose not to kill Raymonde and her supposed “aunt” and “uncle.” Only later would Raymonde find out that “he didn’t shoot us because I looked like his daughter.” She explains that as one learns more about the history of the Holocaust, one finds that often people survived simply due to “sheer luck.”

She explains that as one learns more about the history of the Holocaust, one finds that often people survived simply due to “sheer luck.”

The family had to lay low. From time to time, the commandant visited the Cailac’s La Bagnole café.[24] On such occasions, Raymonde sat on the commandant’s lap, and he talked to her. Given the similarities between Yiddish and German, Raymonde was able to relay to the Cailacs what the commandant had said to her. This she did, regardless of whether she understood the meaning of what the commandant said or not. In this way, Raymonde helped the Cailacs, who “were trying to get information and bring it back to the Resistance.”

While living with the Cailacs, she attended a one-room schoolhouse that involved a long walk. Raymonde became sick with jaundice, and she received private instruction from a teacher at home for a time. Raymonde attended catechism class as well. She explains, “I had to blend in totally, which I did.”

In 1944, the Cailacs got information through the Resistance that the Americans were invading. As the Americans started to move through France, Mr. Cailac painted a white square on the top of his truck to show American bombers that he was part of the Resistance. Raymonde explains, though, that this did not help, for one time as she was riding along with Mr. Cailac in the truck, he said, “Jump!” Raymonde and Mr. Cailac jumped out into a ditch by the side of the road, and the truck was bombed by the Americans.[25]

During the summer of 1944, the Americans swept through France and the Germans retreated. In August, Paris was liberated. Raymonde remembers the liberation happening around her eighth birthday. “Everyone was just rejoicing, hoping that was the end.” She remembers the Cailac family becoming much more relaxed and laughs when she explains that Eveline no longer had to go out late at night to give food to the Resistance.[26] The eight-year-old Raymonde hoped that she would soon see her parents.[27]

In the immediate aftermath of the war, Raymonde continued to attend school. The Cailac family continued to treat her as a member of their family. When asked about which adjectives best describe her “Godparents”—as she continues to refer to the Cailacs—she says, without hesitation, “kind” and “loving.”

Second Separation

One day in 1945 or 1946, Mrs. Cailac told Raymonde that they were going to have company. The three visitors were David’s brother, Gabriel, and his wife, Paula, as well as the daughter of David’s brother, Leon, named Stella. Gabriel and Paula Natanson were from Paris, Stella from London. It had been Stella’s brother, Leslie Natanson, who had been instrumental in tracing Raymonde to La Besace—Leslie was a soldier in the British army, and he had asked his commanding officer to help trace his lost cousin. Raymonde explains that if she had not given the German commandant in La Besace her real name when he had asked her, she probably would never have been found by her extended family members. It was determined that the Cailacs had to take Raymonde to an orphanage near Paris.[28] Raymonde begins to cry as she recalls having to leave the Cailac family. When asked what her thoughts were upon being taken from the Cailac family, she says that “I figured if my parents came back, they wouldn’t find me.”[29] During her time in the orphanage, Raymonde remembers encountering people who knew her but whom she did not remember. These people claimed to know her parents and told her that her parents had had a chance to go with French forces, but that her father had refused to go.[30] Also during her time at the orphanage, Raymonde made a trip to her Uncle Leon’s family in London for a few weeks. She very much enjoyed this trip, saying “it was great having family.”[31]

After staying in the orphanage for a year, Raymonde went to live with her Uncle Gabriel and Aunt Paula in Paris. She would have preferred going to London.[32] She explains, “By French law, there was a family gathering that had to decide who would be my guardian, and he was appointed. He had no children.”[33] She says that the Cailacs “fought to keep me, but legally they didn’t have a standing, and I didn’t have a say. I was never asked.” Gabriel Natanson had custody of Raymonde during the school year. Gabriel and Paula Natanson had survived the war in Italy and had since moved into Raymonde’s parents’ apartment in Paris.[34] Raymonde says that she had “mixed emotions” living in her old apartment without her parents, but notes that her uncle and aunt soon moved to a different apartment.[35] Raymonde wanted to go back to the Cailacs and remembers throwing a lot of tantrums, something she had not been prone to do in the past. With the Cailacs she had felt protected.[36] During the first summer, she was sent to London to live with her Uncle Leon and his wife, Mary. During subsequent summers she lived with her cousin, Stella, and Stella’s husband, Harry Simons. Stella is sixteen years older than Raymonde. The arrangement in which Raymonde spent the school years in Paris and the summers in London lasted until she was sixteen.

Life with her Uncle Gabriel and Aunt Paula in Paris was not easy. She explains that although her uncle had survived the Holocaust, he had lost most of his family. As a result, she thinks he lost his faith. Thus, religion was not observed in the house. She explains, though, that her cousin in London was religious, and, thus, when she went to London in the summers, Judaism was observed. She explains her relationship to Judaism at the time being thus a “paradox” whereby she was “taught the religion in some way, and then I would come back to Paris and [we would] just live our lives without observing the Jewish religion at all.” She describes her upbringing in Paris with her uncle as being “a form of hiding; [it was a form] of you don’t tell you’re Jewish and you won’t get hurt.”[37] Reflecting on the years living with her uncle and aunt in Paris, Raymonde states simply, “I did not have a nice upbringing.”[38]

For many years, Raymonde did not receive any information about her parents. Raymonde explains that her Uncle Gabriel “didn’t speak about the Holocaust; nobody did.”[39] For many years she hoped her parents would return. During her teens, it became obvious that they would not. For years, she “was left in the dark” about the fate of her parents. Then, finally, when she was nineteen,[40] her uncle gave her the papers from the French government which noted that her parents had disappeared and that “their last staging area was Drancy then Auschwitz.”[41] According to the United States Holocaust Victims Search website: David and Esther (listed under her sister’s name, Liba) “Nathanson” were, indeed, on Convoy 66 that left Drancy for Auschwitz on January 20, 1944.[42] Raymonde does not know when or how her parents were moved from Bulson to Drancy.

After completing high school at age sixteen, Raymonde started to attend Pitmans College in London, which Raymonde describes as a secretarial school. After two years at Pitmans College, she earned an associate’s degree.[43] Upon completing her studies in London, Raymonde returned to Paris and entered the workforce. She started working for an import-export business. She explains, “They were representatives of department stores in the U.S., who would do the fashion buying in Paris. At that time, in the early fifties, Paris was the center of fashion in the world.” She found this all exciting. There was very little room for advancement, however, so she took a job in the Paris office of an American aviation company.

While in Paris, she met a Jewish-American G.I. on Rosh Hashanah in 1955.[44] Philip “Phil” Fiol, who was stationed south of Paris in Orléans, was visiting Paris with another Jewish G.I., and the two were “feeling homesick and seeking a Jewish environment.”[45] Raymonde was hanging out with friends in front of the Jewish Community Center. The Center was closed, and the director was trying to shoo Phil and the other G.I. away. Raymonde laughs and says, “I literally met him on the sidewalk in Paris! But don’t tell that to anybody!” Raymonde says Phil was very handsome, and they “felt a kinship immediately.” When Raymonde introduced Phil to her aunt and uncle, they noted that he resembled Raymonde’s father, David.[46] In October 1956, Raymonde and Phil got married. They were legally married on October 4, but had the religious ceremony on October 7. Mr. and Mrs. Cailac attended the religious ceremony. It had been more than ten years since Raymonde had seen the Cailacs. She says, “It felt strange, but I’m glad they came.”[47] This was the last time Raymonde ever saw them. In the meantime, Eveline had gotten married and had children. Raymonde had received a photograph of Eveline’s first baby. Raymonde quit her job with the aviation company and briefly worked for the U.S. Army in the Department of Army Civilians. Raymonde and Phil were offered to go to Vietnam. They declined and left instead for New York. They went by ship, and Raymonde was seasick for roughly two weeks. She remembers arriving in Brooklyn on April 7, 1957.[48]

Hidden from Family

Raymonde and Phil lived in New York from 1957 until 1998, first in the Bronx, but eventually moving to White Plains.[49] Raymonde says, “I was just happy to be married and start a new life.”[50] With respect to moving to the United States, she says she looked forward to a life of freedom that would be free of prejudice.[51] Raymonde breaks down as she expresses how overwhelmed she was by Phil’s family’s warmth, saying, “they embraced me as a daughter. I finally had a family.”[52]

Within a week of arriving in New York, Raymonde found a job as a bilingual secretary in import-export. She started working in Rockefeller Center. Meanwhile, Phil found a job with a jewelry store. Eventually she got a job with Air France. At Air France, Raymonde worked as the assistant to a woman who promoted Air France travel for first-class passengers. Phil eventually started a silk screen printing company with a partner. After this business failed, he started to run a retail store in White Plains, New York.

In New York, Raymonde and Phil started a family. Raymonde says, “Nothing was going to deter me from having that.”[53] Raymonde gave birth to a son in 1960 and a daughter in 1964. When her daughter reached first grade, Raymonde went back to work part-time, working for an antiquarian book seller who specialized in medical publications. She did this for a few years until she was ready to return to work full-time. She took a job at Dansk International Designs, which made tabletop products. After quitting her job at Dansk, she worked for a time for a clothing import business called Terramar Sports. She then returned to Dansk, working in marketing, purchasing, and inventory control until she retired in 1998.

As Raymonde and Phil raised their two children, Raymonde exchanged letters and Christmas cards with the Cailacs. Unfortunately, Eveline died relatively young, so Raymonde never did get to see her “older sister” again after having been taken from the Cailac family in 1946. As the years passed, Raymonde eventually lost touch with Mr. and Mrs. Cailac. In her interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, Raymonde admits she had feelings of resentment toward the Cailacs for letting her be taken away from them. But she quickly notes, “It’s not them. They had no power. I was taken from them.”[54] In 1998 the extended members of the Cailac family tried to find Raymonde so that she could come to surprise Mrs. Cailac on her 100th birthday (April 16, 1998).[55] Unfortunately, they were not able to find Raymonde. She only found out about their attempts many years later. Reflecting on her absence from the birthday celebration, Raymonde thinks back on how the Cailacs must have felt when she was taken from them: “It was probably a hole in their heart when [my uncle] took me away.” Sara Cailac passed away on January 5, 2000. Gabriel Cailac had long since passed, having died in 1972. Raymonde knows that her godparents, her saviors, wanted her to stay in their family.

The story of the Cailacs and her parents remained hidden during these years. Raymonde never spoke to her children about her childhood. She explains that her children knew that her parents had died and that she had been raised by her uncle and aunt. A few years ago, Raymonde learned that when her daughter was in school, she would tell people that her grandparents had been killed in a car accident.[56]

While living in New York, Raymonde made an initial, but unsuccessful, attempt at coming to terms with her past. She joined a therapy group consisting of hidden children of the Holocaust. During the meetings, the former hidden children gathered around a table and shared their stories. Raymonde did not find the therapy helpful. The sessions were causing her terrible nightmares, and finally Phil suggested that perhaps it would be better for her mental health if she stopped going. She agreed.[57]

Upon retirement, Raymonde and Phil moved from New York to Florida. They thought Florida would be a good choice given that their daughter was living in California and their son in Manhattan. When their son moved to California as well, Raymonde and Phil decided they were too far away from their children and moved to their present home in Las Vegas. As in New York and Florida, Raymonde’s past remained hidden. In either 2003 or 2004 Raymonde learned about The Holocaust Survivors Group of Southern Nevada, which had been founded by Henry and Anita Schuster. Henry Schuster had been a Kindertransport child from Germany to France. After the Schusters stepped down, the leadership was turned over to Bruno Borenstein, who was second generation, and his wife, Linda. Raymonde knew the group was doing important work and she helped out in various ways. Nevertheless, she still did not feel comfortable communicating her story. Then, on that fateful Saturday, the telephone rang.

In Plain Sight

It was not until after receiving Christine Dollard-Leplomb’s phone call that Raymonde resolved to take her family with her to Paris so that together they could learn about her past. In Paris, they returned to where Raymonde had lived with her parents. They also traveled to Bulson to see where her parents had been forced to work as farm laborers. Raymonde states, “that is when I decided to speak about the Holocaust.”[58]

Photo courtesy Raymonde Fiol.

One of the first things she needed to do was express her gratitude toward the family that had risked their lives in order to save hers. She wrote a letter about the Cailacs to Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel. After a lengthy investigation, Yad Vashem officially declared Gabriel and Sara Cailac Righteous Among the Nations. According to the official Yad Vashem website, the idea behind the concept Righteous Among the Nations is “that each individual is responsible for his or her deeds.”[59] Moreover, “the program is aimed at singling out within the nations of perpetrators, collaborators and bystanders, persons who bucked the general trend and helped the persecuted Jews.”[60] The honor “Righteous Among the Nations” is reserved only for those non-Jewish persons who helped save Jews without any material gain to themselves.

In May 2011, there was an official celebration of the Cailacs in France. Raymonde flew to France for the event. Given that Gabriel, Sara, and Eveline had all passed away, Eveline’s husband accepted the Righteous Among the Nations award on behalf of his parents-in-law. Eveline’s two children and their families were also in attendance. The names of Gabriel and Sara Cailac are etched in the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations in Jerusalem.[61]

A few years ago, Raymonde again returned to France. During this visit she made inquiries about the German commandant who had spared the lives of Raymonde and the Cailacs due to Raymonde’s resemblance to his daughter. Raymonde was informed that at the end of the war, the commandant had been shot dead by the Resistance. Upon learning this, Raymonde immediately thought, “Well, another child lost a parent.” She was saddened by the news and wondered whether the daughter whom she resembled survived the war.

Very few members of Raymonde’s family survived the war and the Holocaust. Three of the six Natanson brothers survived: Gabriel Natanson, with whom Raymonde went to live in Paris, had lived in Paris then survived the war in hiding in Italy and then moved back to Paris; Leon Natanson survived the war in London; and Jacob Natanson survived the war in Palestine.[62] Raymonde knows that one of the brothers who did not survive was Isaac Natanson, who traveled widely and had “returned to Europe from the United States at the wrong time.”[63] Raymonde notes that “No one, to my knowledge, survived [from] my mother’s family, and I am the only survivor, without documentation.” All her attempts to find survivors have ended without success. She was informed that the village in which her mother’s family lived was “totally decimated.”[64] The website of the non-profit organization JewishGen, Inc. states the following regarding Esther’s hometown of Działoszyn: “By the end of the Second World War, the Jewish Community of this ancient town had been liquidated, ending a history of over 400 years in the region.”[65] Raymonde possesses no photographs of her mother’s family.[66]

Courtesy Raymonde Fiol.
For many decades, the way Raymonde dealt with the loss of so many of her family members was the same as that of her uncle: to hide it away. After returning from France, Raymonde knew the time had come for her to share her story. She became much more active with the Holocaust Survivors Group of Southern Nevada. After having directed the organization for a couple of years, Bruno Borenstein got sick.[67] It became clear that someone needed to take over: “We said, ‘Well, somebody’s got to do it,’ so I said ‘I’ll help.’ [She smiles] And when you say, ‘I’ll help,’ that becomes your job. So I did it for about eight years.” She served as president of the group roughly from 2008 to 2016. Regarding the Holocaust Survivors Group of Southern Nevada, she says, “It’s amazing to see the resilience of all the survivors, and it’s quite evident that they survived whatever experiences they had during the war because of their strength, the will to live, and [desire] to make something of themselves. They have children, have raised families, and they teach the Holocaust. Many of them do, and that is very important.”[68] It was through her work with The Holocaust Survivors Group of Southern Nevada, as well as her service on the Governor’s Advisory Council on Education Relating to the Holocaust and the Coordinating Council of Generations of the Shoah International, that Raymonde learned “that I can speak about the Holocaust, that in spite of my silence for so many years, I realize how important it is to teach the world that the Holocaust is so relevant today that it has to be taught for people not to do the horrors that happened in the past and learn the lesson.”[69]

“Every human being has a right to live, irrespective of your beliefs, your race. A human being is a human being.”

Raymonde was succeeded by the current president, Esther Finder. She remains very active in the group, however, and says that she and Finder speak on the phone almost every day. The group supports teachers and arranges for Holocaust survivors to visit schools. Over the years, Raymonde has spoken at schools many times. During her visits, she emphasizes the story of survival and tries to convey to the students that “You can make something of yourself no matter what you start out with in life” and “Education is [something] that no one can take away from you.” With her presentations she aims for children to learn “about the Holocaust but also the message of hope: That they can succeed and make something of themselves and have happy and productive lives.” She hopes that young people will study the history of the Holocaust, saying “If they learn, they will pass on their knowledge to their family members, hopefully, to their children, so that it never happens again. Every human being has a right to live, irrespective of your beliefs, your race. A human being is a human being.” Ultimately, she hopes that young people will focus on the similarities rather than the differences between people.

For many decades, the message of Raymonde Fiol’s history remained hidden, but now, by confronting her past and communicating it to young people, Raymonde has found her message and continues to keep it in plain sight: We are all members of one family.


Kevin Ostoyich wishes to thank Dean Jon Kilpinen of the College of Arts and Sciences at Valparaiso University and the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation for their financial support. He also wishes to thank Esther Finder of the Holocaust Survivors Group of Southern Nevada for putting him into contact with Raymonde Fiol. He hopes that young people will continue to learn the valuable lessons at Raymonde’s presentations for many years to come and that people the world over will practice the goodness embodied by Gabriel and Sara Cailac when confronted with others in need.

[1] The article is based mainly on five interviews: Two of the interviews were conducted by Kevin Ostoyich. The first on September 3, 2019, in Las Vegas, the second via telephone on December 4, 2019. The two interviews conducted by Ostoyich are the sources for all information in the article that is not otherwise specified in citations. Two additional interviews are available on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) website: https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn608181. The USHMM provides the following provenance information for the two interviews: “The Esther Toporek Finder, President of Generations of the Shoah – Nevada, produced the oral history interview with Raymonde Fiol in partnership with Raymode Fiol, President of the Holocaust Survivors Group of Southern Nevada, Brett Levner, film professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV), and Sun City Anthem TV in Henderson, NV.” The first interview is 18 minutes 29 seconds long and the interviewer is Esther Finder. In the present article this interview is cited as “USHMM Interview (Esther Finder).” The second interview is 1 hour 12 minutes 31 seconds and was conducted under the direction of Prof. Brett Levner and is the raw footage for the documentary, “Passing the Torch,” which students made in Prof. Levner’s FIS 447: Documentary Techniques course. The “Passing the Torch” documentary can be accessed at https://vimeo.com/89576631 (last accessed: December 7, 2019). In the present article this interview is cited as “USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).” The fifth interview is available through USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive Online: http://vhaonline.usc.edu/viewingPage?testimonyID=10310&returnIndex=0. This interview was conducted by Wendy Kreeger on January 16, 1996, in White Plains, NY. In the present article this interview is cited as “The USC Shoah Foundation Interview.” The reader should note that the five interviews were conducted over a span of almost 24 years (January 16, 1996 to December 4, 2019) and deal with events that transpired when Raymonde was very young. The present author and Raymonde have corresponded in order to try to clarify any discrepancies among the interviews. In certain instances, the present author has noted specific instances in the narrative that are not clear to Raymonde due to the remoteness of the incidents and the limits of human memory. The present author has also used other resources in order to provide as much clarification to the historical narrative as possible. The present author has chosen to use the present tense when referring to Raymonde communicating her history in all five interviews.

[2] Raymonde says that the family name was technically Natanson, but her father used Nathansohn. She thinks this may have been due to his having done schooling in Germany. The rest of the family used the Natanson spelling. The variation Nathanson also appears in various records. For the article Nathansohn is used for David, Esther, and Raymonde and Natanson for the extended members of the family.

[3] In the USC Shoah Foundation Interview, Raymonde states incorrectly that her father was born in Warsaw. She identifies Minsk in later interviews and Minsk is mentioned in the USHMM database.

[4] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[5] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[6] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage). Raymonde smiles when saying this and surmises this may have been indicative of her mother’s Communist streak.

[7] The USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[8] The USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[9] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage). She remembers her father had a little stool that he would sit on while waiting in line for opera performances. The USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[10] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[11] The USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[12] Raymonde speaks about this incident in detail in both the USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage) and the USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[13] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[14] AJPN Website: http://www.ajpn.org/personne-Raymonde-Nathanson-6161.html (last accessed December 1, 2019). When asked about the veracity of this information, Raymonde says that she simply does not remember, but feels the information is plausible.

[15] Bulson is provided as the name of the village on the Yad Vashem website: https://righteous.yadvashem.org/?search=cailac&searchType=righteous_only&language=en&itemId=7490587&ind=0 (last accessed: December 1, 2019).

[16] AJPN Website: http://www.ajpn.org/personne-Raymonde-Nathanson-6161.html (last accessed: December 1, 2019). When asked about the veracity of this information, Raymonde says that she simply does not remember, but feels the information is plausible.

[17] Yad Vashem Website: https://righteous.yadvashem.org/?search=cailac&searchType=righteous_only&language=en&itemId=7490587&ind=0 (last accessed: December 1, 2019).

[18] The USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[19] The USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[20] Yad Vashem Website: https://righteous.yadvashem.org/?search=cailac&searchType=righteous_only&language=en&itemId=7490587&ind=0 (last accessed: December 1, 2019). The spelling has been corrected to Nathansohn from the Yad Vashem text.

[21] E-mail correspondence between Raymonde Fiol and the present author.

[22] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[23] There is a discrepancy between the Yad Vashem website and the AJPN website regarding when Raymonde was taken in by the Cailacs. The Yad Vashem provides October 1942 and AJPN states June 1943. The present author notified Raymonde Fiol of this discrepancy, and she clarified that the June 1943 date is the correct one.

[24] Raymonde is not exactly sure when they learned that their lives had been spared due to her resemblance to the commandant’s daughter. In the USC Shoah Foundation Interview, she notes that the commandant may have said something to this effect in his office. When asked in the December 4, 2019, telephone interview she says that he may have revealed this during one of the visits of the commandant to La Bagnole. Regardless of when and where this information was divulged, Raymonde is sure that she and the Cailacs knew this while she was living with them.

[25] In the USC Shoah Foundation Interview, Raymonde tells the story of Mr. Cailac’s truck being bombed with the variation that Mr. Cailac was alone. In e-mail correspondence with the present author, Raymonde clarified that she was definitely with Mr. Cailac during the truck incident. She explains that during the USC Shoah Foundation Interview she was upset—it was her first time telling her story on film—and she believes she lost her concentration at this moment in the interview.

[26] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[27] USHMM Interview (Esther Finder). In the USC Shoah Foundation Interview Raymonde mentions that she remembers Americans overseeing German prisoners-of-war in a camp located near the Cailacs after the area was liberated. She remembers Americans coming to La Bagnole café and giving her chocolates.

[28] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[29] USHMM Interview (Esther Finder).

[30] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[31] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[32] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[33] USHMM Interview (Esther Finder).

[34] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[35] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[36] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[37] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[38] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage). In the December 4, 2019, interview of Raymonde conducted by the present author, Raymonde noted that her Aunt Paula had not liked Raymonde’s mother and would like to leave it at that.

[39] USHMM Interview (Esther Finder). In the USC Shoah Foundation Interview, Raymonde notes that her cousin Stella often spoke to Raymonde about her memories of Raymonde’s father.

[40] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[41] USHMM Interview (Esther Finder).

[42] Note: Information on Raymonde’s parents are to be found in the database under the following spellings: David Nathanson: https://www.ushmm.org/online/hsv/person_view.php?PersonId=5354447 and Liba Nathanson: https://www.ushmm.org/online/hsv/person_view.php?PersonId=5354448. Given that Esther had changed her identity to that of her sister’s explains why she is listed as Liba rather than Esther. The birthdate information may also be that of her sister. The USHMM database provides the following information as the source for the information for the Nathansons: “Electronic data compiled by Georg Dreyfuss regarding deportees from France, based on Serge Klarsfeld’s “Le mémorial de la déportation des juifs de France” and other sources; data includes names, dates of birth and convoy, places of birth and convoy destinations, nationalities and convoy numbers.”

[43] USHMM Interview (Esther Finder).

[44] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[45] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[46] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[47] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[48] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[49] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[50] USHMM Interview (Esther Finder).

[51] USHMM Interview (Esther Finder).

[52] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[53] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[54] USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[55] The Yad Vashem Website notes that Sara Cailac was born on April 16, 1898. https://righteous.yadvashem.org/?search=cailac&searchType=righteous_only&language=en&itemId=7490587&ind=0 (last accessed: December 2, 2019).

[56] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[57] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[58] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[59] https://www.yadvashem.org/righteous/about-the-program.html (last accessed: November 29, 2019).

[60] https://www.yadvashem.org/righteous/about-the-program.html (last accessed: November 29, 2019).

[61]https://righteous.yadvashem.org/?search=cailac&searchType=righteous_only&language=en&itemId=7490587&ind=0 (last accessed: December 2, 2019).

[62] The USC Shoah Foundation Interview. Raymonde met her Uncle Jacob when her choir group visited Israel in the 1950s.

[63] The USC Shoah Foundation Interview.

[64] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage).

[65] https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/dzialoszyn/home.htm (last accessed: December 1, 2019).

[66] USHMM Interview (Passing the Torch Raw Footage). The fact that her mother took on her sister’s identity when she left Poland for France, has complicated Raymonde’s attempts to find precise information about her mother. She explains, for example, “When I look up Liba Bendet, I have two: One who died [having been transported from] the Łódź Ghetto to Auschwitz, and my mother, who also died in Auschwitz.”

[67] Bruno Borenstein has since passed away.

[68] USHMM Interview (Esther Finder).

[69] USHMM Interview (Esther Finder).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.