Olson, Jeanette

Olson, Jeanette

Nice (France), Vence (then Italy, now France), Antibe

To avoid persecution of Jews in Austria following its annexation by Germany in 1938, Olson’s parents fled from Vienna to Belgium. With the invasion of Belgium by Germany imminent, Olson’s father was arrested and placed in a detention camp. Her mother, Pauline Gerstl, was able to flee on the last train leaving Belgium for France. In France Mrs. Gerstl was placed into the Vallon en Sully detention camp. At that time she was already three months pregnant. Because the camp had no medical facilities, Mrs. Gerstl was dismissed from the camp approximately three weeks prior to the expected birth of her child. Mrs. Gerstl proceeded to Nice where she met relatives and her husband who had escaped from the camp.

On October 19, 1940, Mrs. Gerstl gave birth to her daughter Jeanette in Nice (later to become Jeanette Olson). During the first round-up of Jews, Olson was exempted because she was under the age of three and her father went into hiding. When the south-east part of France was ceded to Italy, the family was placed into a ghetto in Vence, north of Nice, controlled by Italian authorities. However, her father was able to continue to work as a tailor for a Mr. Eugene Francone who was very helpful to them. When Italy capitulated and changed sides in 1943, the family fled back to Nice to avoid being deported to Italy. They went into hiding when the Germans started to deport Jews to concentration camps.

Because remaining in hiding with a young child was very difficult, Olson was placed into the custody of non-Jewish French couples. This was only possible for short periods of time since having a new child immediately placed these people under suspicion of harboring Jews and having to pay the consequences for that. Through the efforts of Mr. Gerstl’s former employer, Eugene and Marguerite Francone, a childless couple, Emile and Lili Lasfargues, was found in the nearby town of Antibe. They were willing to take the risk of harboring the child under the pretense of the child being their niece. During the interview Olson states that, according to her mother, she immediately accepted this couple. Although very young at that time, Olson clearly remembers her caretakers and various specific events that took place while she was with them. She was treated very well. The arrangements with the Lasfargueses were that, should her parents not survive the Holocaust, the Lasfargues couple would adopt the little girl.

Olson’s parents returned to Vence and remained in hiding in an attic at the home of Mr. Francone’s in-laws, Delphin and Antoinette Picco. At the end of the war, the Gerstls found that a reunification with their daughter was difficult. Approximately two years had elapsed since their separation and the little girl, now about four and a half years-old, spoke only French whereas her birth parents’ primary language was German. Additionally, Olson considered Mrs. Lasfargues as her mother and didn’t want to leave. Mr. Lasfargues had passed away earlier and Mrs. Lasfargues had become very attached to Olson. Nevertheless, reunification was eventually accomplished although it was very traumatic and quite some time elapsed before a proper relationship between Olson and her parents could be re-established.

An attempt was made by her parents to return to Vienna in the late forties, but conditions there were intolerable to Olson’s mother considering the abuse she suffered there during the Nazi period. The family emigrated to the United States in 1951. In Detroit, Olson completed her education and received a degree from Wayne State University. She married, had four children, and now has two grandchildren.

Having led a busy life, she has not allowed her past to interfere with the demands of a normal daily life. She has kept in touch with those in France, or their offspring, who probably saved her life and the lives of her parents. Several photographs were displayed during the interview.

Note: A personal history video interview of Pauline Gerstl, Mrs. Olson’s mother, was taped on January 9, 1996, and is on file at the Holocaust Memorial Center.

Interview Information:
Date: March 19, 2001
Length: 1 hour 5 minutes
Interviewer: Hans Weinmann
Format: Video recording