Research

Gerstl (Bender), Pauline

Survivor/Escapee
Vienna (Austria), Vallon en Sully, Nice, Vence

Gerstl was born in 1909 in Vienna, Austria, one of four children of well-off reform Jewish parents. She received commercial training in the Viennese school system and entered the work force when her father died. She and her family lived in an outlying district of Vienna where very few Jews resided and they experienced no anti-Semitism. Following her marriage in 1935, Gerstl and her husband moved to Vienna's second district where most of the Jewish people lived. Her husband, a tailor by training, was a pattern maker in a cutom tailoring firm and the couple shard a good life.

Following Germany's annexation of Austria in March 1938, life became increasingly more difficult for Viennese Jewry. Gerstl's cousin was arrested in April 1938 and murdered while being transported to the Dachau concentration camp. The Nazi authorities asked for a large sum of money to deliver his ashes to his family. Gerstl recalls being arrested and forced to scrub a building on one occasion. They avoided the mass arrests during the Kristallnacht riots by moving in with her mother in the outlying district of Vienna for a few days.

Unable to obtain proper visas for emigration, Gerstl and her husband entered Belgium illegally in December 1938. With the invasion of Belgium by Germany imminent in May 1940, Belgian authorities arrested aliens, including her husband. He was deported to the St. Cyprien internment camp in France. Gerstl fled from Belgium with many others on the last train prior to the German occupation. French authorities arrested all the refugees and confined them in a detention camp at Vallon en Sully.

Living conditions at Vallon en Sully were extremely bad with no toilet facilities or even running water. Most inmates were housed in barns and slept on straw. Since Gerstl was in the fourth month of pregnancy, she was given better treatment and allowed to stay in the stables. She was also provided with more food. Since the detention camp had no medical facilities, she was released just prior to her expected delivery date. She joined relatives in Nice on France's south coast. Her husband had escaped from St. Cyprien and was also there. She delivered a daughter on October 10, 1940.

Even though Nice was in the unoccupied part of France, i.e., Vichy France, Germany demanded the deportation of all Jews in 1943. To provide easier accessibility to them, all the Jews were confined in a hotel. Women with children under the age of three were exempt from deportation, but Gerstl and her husband fled from the hotel and went into hiding. About the time the baby had her third birthday, the southeastern tip of France was ceded to Italy and Italian forces occupied the territory. Gerstl considers this a miracle since it saved them from being ultimately picked up by the Gestapo and deported to a German concentration camp and probable death.

The Italians created a detention camp for refugees in the town of Vence, about one hour from Nice. A part of the town was ghettoized, kept under surveillance, but not surrounded by barbed wire or walls. Inmates lived in apartments. Movement was restricted, and everyone was required to report to camp officials twice each day.

When Italy capitulated the camp was abandoned and the Gerstls returned to Nice. Once again under German control, they went into hiding. Since this became very difficult, especially with a very young child, Gerstl's daughter was placed into the custody of aquaintances, and then for over 1 1/2 years with a childless couple in a small town, Antibes, about an hour from Nice.

Following the liberation of southern France by American forces, Gerstl regained custody of her daughter. The family stayed in France several more years, but came to the United States in 1951.

Gerstl's mother and brother were deported to Riga and died there. Her sisters survived. Most of her aunts, uncles, and cousins also perished.

Interview Information:
Date: January 9, 1996
Interviewer: Hans R. Weinmann
Length: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Format: Video recording