Survivor, Member of the French Resistance
Brussels (Belgium), Vichy
Bernard Mednicki was born in Brussels, Belgium in 1910 to parents who fled the Russian pogroms in 1904. Their family was part of a small, liberal Jewish community in Belgium. His mother was very devoted to her faith, and his father, a tool and dye maker, possessed a milder commitment, but he did enjoy telling Jewish stories and singing traditional Jewish songs to his eight children during the Seder and other ceremonies. He remembered very little anti-semitism growing up. Most of the anger from others came in the form of xenophobia. Overall, Bernard recalled “a life of satisfaction” before 1927.
Bernard’s faith suffered a serious blow in that year. His mother died and his one brother drowned in one of Brussels’ canals. He was devastated and filled with anger and rage, especially towards the Jewish religion.
In 1933, he married his first wife and they proceeded to have two children before May 10, 1940. On that infamous date for Bernard, the German army bombed Brussels and began the blitzkrieg. Three days later, he fled the city with his family and eventually moved south into France, bypassing Paris and settling in Vichy.
In Vichy the family lived in a stable while Bernard looked for work. For a time, before the fall of France, he was drafted to work in a French factory, but returned to Vichy once the French army surrendered. He was still unsure of the true attitude of Germans towards the Jews. He knew they were not wanted during the 30s since Brussels absorbed thousands of German Jews who fled there. But Bernard avoided everything Jewish anyway, mainly because of his dissatisfaction with the faith. He passed himself off as a Belgian Gentile. He was fighting for his family only. He said he really had no idea about the greater war.
At the end of 1941, Bernard received a letter from the German army to report to the nearest French town to be exported to a factory across the border in Germany. He was ordered to appear in work clothes and to bring food. He instead dressed in his best suit. He was allowed into the central hall where the Nazis had set up headquarters and asked a young woman there to report his presence. Being impressed by his appearance they asked him if he could make pocketbooks. He said yes, lying, and instead of going to Germany was sent to a local pocketbook maker who made them for the wives of Nazi officers.
There, he amazingly ran into a friend from his childhood back in Belgium. He was soon taught to make pocketbooks, and more importantly, he found out that this operation was a front for the French Resistance. This began his active participation in the resistance. Among other activities he worked in a Nazi radio factory and stole materials that could be made into bombs. He remained with the resistance until the end of the war.
Though his immediate family survived the war, his extended family suffered greatly. Eighty-five members of his extended family in Belgium and Poland died in the Holocaust. Only two nieces, one brother-in-law, and one sister survived.
In 1947, without being able to speak any English, he and his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He visited his sister in Belgium every year, and he slowly regained his Jewish faith.