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Marie Claire Wrage, professor emerita of French at Ohio University, leads a discussion about a memoir written by Rita Thalmann, who escaped from Nazi occupied France with help from Wrage's mother at the start of World War II.

Marie Claire Wrage, professor emerita of French at Ohio University, leads a discussion about a memoir written by Rita Thalmann, who escaped from Nazi occupied France with help from Wrage's mother at the start of World War II.

Photographer: Ben Siegel

Ursel Maier listens and participates in a panel discussion about Nazi Germany during a summer teaching seminar hosted by the Charles J. Ping Institute for the Teaching of the Humanities at Ohio University.

Ursel Maier listens and participates in a panel discussion about Nazi Germany during a summer teaching seminar hosted by the Charles J. Ping Institute for the Teaching of the Humanities at Ohio University.

Photographer: Ben Siegel

High school teachers from across Ohio attend The Charles J. Ping Institute for the Teaching of Humanities' summer instutute for teachers titled,

High school teachers from across Ohio attend The Charles J. Ping Institute for the Teaching of Humanities' summer instutute for teachers titled, "Remembering Nazi Germany: Two Women's Memoirs."

Photographer: Ben Siegel

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OHIO professor emerita tells mother’s story of helping girl escape from Nazi Germany


Fifteen high school teachers from across Ohio visited the Athens campus last week for a three-day seminar sponsored by the Charles J. Ping Institute for the Teaching of the Humanities. Two readings were discussed, including the late Rita Thalmann’s memoir, “It All Began in Nuremberg,” which details her escape from Nazi Germany to Dijon, France at the start of World War II.

At a time when Jews were forbidden to attend school, the mother of Ohio University Professor Emerita Marie-Claire Wrage taught English to Thalmann at home and helped her escape to the Free Zone in 1942 by disguising her as a student taking a class field trip to Southern France.

Wrage, who stayed in contact with Thalmann until her death in August 2013, told those attending the three-day teaching workshop about her mother’s challenges and eventual success at concealing the girl’s identity, at the risk of her own safety.

“Mother gave private lessons in English, so Rita would come to our house, and once a week they would have lessons,” Wrage explained. “One day my mother realized she was upset, and Rita said she was trying to get out of the country, but didn’t know how.”

Her mother then told Thalmann about a class field trip to Southern France, and said it might be possible to aide her in crossing the French Demarcation line to reach safety.

Traveling from Northern France to Southern France was permitted by the Nazis if there was a class field trip, Wrage said. Her mother assumed someone would be absent from her class the day of the trip, and in that student’s absence, an extra passport would be available for Thalmann to use.

In Thalmann’s memoir about the experience, she describes being scared traveling on the train through the Demarcation Zone on the class trip. “The train was stopped and patrols were checking everyone’s papers,” said Wrage, who also was on the train at the time. “Essentially there was great confusion with 30 girls running around and looking for their passports. Other girls were looking at Rita as if to ask why she was on the train. Rita pretended to sleep to avoid suspicion, because she was still kind of conscious of her slightly different accent. As the patrols were getting closer, by miracle or bad luck, the officers were called away because they found Jewish people in the restroom. They didn’t check the rest of the girls’ documents, and that’s how she made it to the other side. She then stayed for a few days, and was sent on to other connections.”

According to Wrage, Jewish people were commonly hidden throughout various parts of trains traveling from Northern to Southern France in an attempt to flee. “I’ve heard the most incredible stories about railroad people and the amazing feats they did to help refugees hide, like hiding them in the empty boilers,” she said.

“We had many Jewish friends who left for Southern France, but others who just simply disappeared,” Wrage continued. “There were at least two little friends of mine when we were 9-years-old or so who just vanished. I didn’t know why they disappeared. One ended up in Palestine and the other I have no idea. My parents had a lot of Jewish friends who either left voluntarily or were arrested and ended up in concentration camps.”

Once she arrived in Southern France, Thalmann made other contacts and eventually ended up in Switzerland, where she lived with her grandparents, and in her memoir she details her experience growing into adulthood living in a traditional Jewish home where girls were not encouraged to pursue an education. She was later reunited with her brother, who also made his way to Switzerland, but the two learned several years later that their father had died at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. Their mother was committed to a mental hospital in Dijon, France prior to their escape.

Thalmann eventually found work in a children’s orphanage designed for refugee children who were separated from their parents. “She had to help make them comfortable, but also reassure them and help them be familiar with their heritage and appreciate the value of it,” said Wrage. “Some changed their names and hid, and some were baptized Catholic and didn’t know where they belonged anymore.”
“There were incredible stories of escape,” Wrage continued. “There were horrible stories of people denouncing each other, but there were so many stories of people helping. Children left their communities and were adopted by Catholics and Protestants, who said, ‘We’ll call you something else now, and keep your mouth shut.’”

After the war, Thalmann was determined to continue her education and participate in the struggle against anti-semitism and discrimination. She achieved the highest level of university teaching in France while publishing seven books. Her last work, “Tout commença à Nuremberg” (It All Began in Nuremberg), was translated into English by Wrage and Lois Vines, who teaches French at OHIO. Thalmann died in August 2013.

“This year’s seminar focusing on Rita Thalmann’s memoir was especially interesting, thanks to Marie-Claire Wrage, whose parents organized one of the first resistance groups in France,” said Vines. “Her recollections of the Nazi occupation and her description of her mother courageously saving the life of a Jewish teenager made the memoir all the more poignant.”