It’s hard to argue that fate didn’t intervene in the lives of John and Renee Rothschild.
The Rothschild’s story begins in one of the darkest periods of human history, the Holocaust. This time of persecution under the Nazi Regime inadvertently lead to the meeting of two people whose love for each other saved them.
The couple shared their story with a group of North Oldham Middle School eighth-graders March 13 as part of their literary curriculum. Language arts teacher Janet Gruenberg said that learning about the Holocaust helps form a basis to learn how people deal with social challenges.
The students had read various fiction and non-fiction works about the Holocaust before the Rothschild’s came to share their story. Gruenberg organized the event, now in its second year, and hopes that the Rothschild’s story inspires the students to become well-rounded people.
Renee lived in Kehl, Germany when the rumblings of a second world war caused people to take action to secure their futures. She and her father went to Paris and were to be followed by her mother and sister. This plan changed with the Kristallnact, or Night of Broken Glass. On Nov. 9, 1938, the Nazi party spurred on violence against Jews across Europe by trashing and looting Jewish-owned businesses, hospitals, schools, synagogues and homes, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Renee worked in Strasborge from Easter 1937 to Sept. 1, 1939. During this time she befriended a woman named Rita who lived in the same work housing. This chance friendship would later prove to be a key part in John and Renee’s story.
While on her way to visit her grandmother in Niort, France, a train derailment stopped Renee’s travels. After discovering that all of the hotels were full, Renee remembered that her friend Rita lived in the area. She called to ask to stay the night, Rita agreed and Renee set out for the St. Radegonde, the estate and farm were Rita lived with her extended family. Rita’s aunt had purchased St. Radegonde in southern France so her extended family would have a safe place to wait out the war.
After staying one night, Rita’s aunt asked Renee if she would stay on to help with work on the farm. The majority of the men had gone to war and they needed help bringing in the harvest. Renee agreed and set to work around the farm alongside Rita’s cousin, John.
“It was a lucky day for me,” John said. “Our romance started while we walked, talked and worked together.”
After three weeks, nineteen-year-olds John and Renee decided that they wanted to become man and wife. They informed John’s mother and she told them that they could not marry until John had served his time in the Swiss military. They agreed and John left his home country of Switzerland after the fall harvest of 1941. Renee returned to Paris in 1940 because her visa to stay in the free zone of southern France expired and she could not get a new one. While taking care of her uncle’s children in Paris, Renee was arrested four times. The first time for being German, the other times for being Jewish.
In 1940 Germany deported all Jewish people living within its borders and Renee’s mother was taken to Camp Gurs, an internment camp in southern France. When Renee’s father heard where his wife was, he went to visit her but was kept as a prisoner because he was a foreign Jew.
John visited Renee’s parents in Gurs but was not kept because of his Swiss citizenship. During his visit, John received notarized written permission from Renee’s father to marry her, a letter the couple still has today.
Renee’s parents were then sent to Auschwitz in 1942 where they became casualties of the war. Renee’s sister was collected in 1943 by the Nazi’s in Germany while working at a Jewish senior citizen’s home and sent to Theresienstadt before she was sent to Auschwitz.
On May 18,1940 Renee was interred then released and on August 14,1942 she was arrested for the final time at 5 a.m. and taken to Camp de Rivesaltes in Southern France. While Renee was being arrested she gave one of the officers her fiancée’s address and some money and asked him to send a telegram to John so he would know where Renee was being taken. The officer sent the telegram and John began working to free his fiancée.
As a citizen of Switzerland, a neutral country in the war, John had more rights even though he was also Jewish. John got a permit for Renee to come to Switzerland on Oct. 1, 1942. He sent the permit to the camp but they did not release Renee. The camp officials said that John had to come and pick up Renee for them to release her.
On Friday, Oct. 10, 1942 John received a call from the Red Cross saying that Renee had been selected for transport to a concentration camp. John had until midday Monday to get to the camp and save Renee.
While interred, Renee had worked with the Red Cross to get milk for babies and also made herself available for translating documents and conversations that took place in the camp. By making herself valuable, Renee garnered friendships that saved her life.
After taking off work and being given an advance on his pay, John arrived the following Monday and entered the camp to free Renee.
“I had a frightening feeling as the gate closed behind me,” John said.
John met with the commander of the camp who said that Renee was “worth her weight in gold,” for the translating she had done for his office. He agreed to release Renee if the mayor agreed. John left the camp and waited for a response. He checked in with the Swiss consulate twice a day to let them know he was still there and see if they had word on Renee.
On Oct. 15,1942, Renee was freed and John picked her up from the camp.
The reunited couple’s next move was to wait for visas to travel back into Switzerland. After waiting for nearly a month, they heard that US Forces had invaded northern Africa and thought that the Reich would soon take over the free zone in France. They decided to take a risk and continue on their journey with no visas before they were caught in southern France by a Nazi invasion.
While on their way to the Swiss border, the cab driver informed the couple that they would have to pass through six checkpoints. With no visas, John and Renee could end up in jail.
“We pulled up to the checkpoint and the crossing gates were up,” John said. “No one was around.”
This same scenario played out five more times for John and Renee. They later found out that the French military had left the posts and the Nazi’s had not yet arrived to take over control of the border crossings.
The couple made it to the last city before Switzerland, Annemasse. John and Renee then went to the Swiss consulate where they were told that legal passage into Switzerland would be impossible. The agent gave them the names of two men who worked at a local Jewish-owned department store. They visited the store and discovered that the men had already crossed into Switzerland. A woman who worked at the store gave them the name of a guide who could safely take them across the border for 180 Swiss Francs.
On November 13, 1942 John and Renee walked into a bar around 8 p.m., ordered a coffee and waited for a man seated at the bar to give them a signal. He pushed his hat back then left, John and Renee soon followed and were led to a fence that marked the border. They then walked until they came to a downed section of the fence where they walked into the safety of Switzerland. After giving their guide a password to take back and exchange for his payment, John and Renee set off to start their life together. They were married on December 5,1942.
John found work as an engineer for a company that made machinery to build automobiles. After exporting machinery to America, John asked his company if he could go and learn the American process for building cars. They allowed him to quit his job but agreed that if he ever returned he would have a guaranteed spot in their company,
In May of 1951 John and Renee moved to Detroit, Mich. where John got a job at General Motors. Renee got her masters degree in Romance Languages and began teaching at a community college. The Rothschilds had two children, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. After retirement the couple moved to Louisville to be near their son.
When asked what their favorite memory together is, Renee answered “Everyday. He’s my knight in shining armor.”
The couple went on to explain that they had saved each other from the death knell through their love. Without the proposition of marriage, John probably wouldn’t have been urged by his mother to carry out his military service early. That means that he would have been at St. Radegode when the Nazi’s came for his family on July 16,1942 and sent them to Auschwitz. And without John’s intervening for Renee’s release, she too would have been sent to a concentration where she would have likely died.
After 71 years of marriage Renee said, “Everyday we get up and are grateful to be alive.”