Marie-Rose Gineste and the Bishop’s Letter

On June 22, 1940, about one month after the German invasion, France signed an armistice with Germany. To establish a German order of control in the unoccupied area of France, a puppet government, the Vichy government named after its southern French town of establishment, was created. The Vichy government was defined as a neutral regime but, says Holocaust survivor and writer of Holocaust-themed literature, Alexander Kimel, ”in order to gain favor with the Germans the Vichy government began instituting a number of anti-Semitic policies,” none any kinder in nature than the strictly German policies. All Jewish individuals were labeled as such and then quickly deprived of basic rights. Then they were placed in concentration camps until ”the Final Solution began,” Kimel explains, when ”the Vichy government volunteered to round up and hand over to the Germans all the foreign Jews from the unoccupied zone of France” for deportation.

Kimel acknowledges the Archbishop of Toulouse, France, Jules Gerard Saliège, as being the ”first to raise his voice in the defense of the Jews,” particularly through his use of written documents as a form of persuasion. The Archbishop wrote directly to the Vichy authorities, protesting their ill-treatment of the Jews. He was particularly influential and afterward especially remembered for his pastoral letter which read, in part, ”There is a Christian morality…that confers rights and imposes duties. These duties and these rights come from God. One can violate them. But no mortal has the power to suppress them. Alas, it has been our destiny to witness the dreadful spectacle of women and children, fathers and mothers treated like cattle, members of a family separated from one another and dispatched to an unknown destination –it has been reserved for our own time to see such a sad spectacle. Why does the right of sanctuary no longer exist in our churches? Why are we defeated? … The Jews are real men and women. Foreigners are real men and women. They cannot be abused without limit. … They are part of the human species. They are our brothers, like so many others. No Christian dares forget that!”

Yad Vashem, which in 1969 declared Saliège as Righteous Among the Nations, notes, ”Overnight, the document became a manifesto; hundreds of thousands of copies were made and were circulated by members of the Resistance throughout France.” The letter was received by all priests in all the churches of Saliège’s diocese and, consequently, read from some 400 pulpits at Sunday mass on August 23, 1942. The written protest was ”vastly influential in the abrupt turnabout in French public opinion at the time, in which support for the Vichy regime plummeted,” Yad Vashem cites historians as noting. Saliège, then 72 years old, was ordered and threatened to retract his remarks. When he refused, feeling ”It is my duty to teach morals to the members of the diocese and when it is necessary to teach them also to government officials,” he was persecuted and underwent trying jabs to his character and reputation.

Archbishop Saliège’s letter had wide implications. It was read for four days on Vatican Radio, and the BBC covered news of Saliège’s protests. Following the example of Saliège, Monsignor Pierre Marie Théas, Bishop of Montauban, France, wrote a letter for the priests in his diocese to read to their parishioners during mass on the following Sunday, August 30. Théas’ message mirrored that of Saliège’s: ”In Paris, tens of thousands of Jews have been treated with the utmost wild barbarism. Even in our own regions, one witnesses a disturbing spectacle: families are uprooted; men and women are treated as wild animals and sent to unknown destinations, with the expectation of the greatest dangers. I hereby give voice to the outraged protest of Christian conscience, and I proclaim that all men, Aryans or non-Aryans, are brothers, because created by the same God. [I further assert] that all men whatever their race or religion, have the right to be respected by individuals and by states. Hence, the recent antisemitic measures are an affront to human dignity and a violation of the most sacred rights of the individual and the family.”

Théas, who was distinguished as Righteous Among the Nations on the same day as Saliège, was recognized as having been well aware of the discrimination Saliège underwent as a result of his document. Further, the 48-year-old Théas had taken into account the substantial attempts that were made to halt the mass distribution of Saliège’s letter and its message. Thus, he ”hid his plan from intelligence services,” says Yad Vashem, and ”turned to Marie-Rose Gineste, a long time activist in Catholic social work, to see to it that the pastoral letter be replicated and delivered in time” for the Sunday services.

Gineste joined the underground in 1942 at the age of 31 and her house, which was only about 100 yards from a Gestapo building, ”became a center for refugees and underground activity” cites Yad Vashem, and she became a sort of social worker, ”involved in every stage of the [forged identity card] production process, from obtaining the paper to printing the documents to forging the signatures” to delivering the finished cards. A Catholic who lived in Montauban, Gineste worked as the church secretary and says of her involvement, ”I never refused anything that was asked of me. I didn’t know they were exterminating people [she knew the Jews were being taken to Germany but was unaware of their holocaust], not until after the war. But I did see children torn from their parents.” With this motivational backdrop, Gineste proposed what has become her most celebrated assignment – a bicycle jaunt across the outlying towns of the Montauban area.

When Bishop Théas informed Gineste of his plans for his letter of protest, she ”told the bishop that it was not advisable to send the letter through the post office, for the Vichy authorities would surely censor it,” Yad Vashem states. ”We were afraid it would be stopped by the Germans or the French police if it were mailed,” Gineste recalls. So beginning early the next morning, because ”it was with great enthusiasm that I accepted this mission,” Gineste set out for the more than 62 miles she was to peddle ”through dozens of towns, villages, and hamlets” of ”all the parishes of the Tarn and Garonne district,” distributing copies of Théas’ letter, which implored parishioners to ”go forth and protect Jews from deportation.” ”For four days I rode my bicycle, delivering the letter by hand to all priests in the diocese,” save one who was a Nazi supporter. ”After that, Monsignor Theas asked me to be in charge of the hiding of every Jew in Montauban.”

Gineste continued her work as she had done before her August bicycle trip and arranged for Jews to be hidden in convents near Montauban, collected and provided baptismal certificates, money, food, ration cards, explosives, warnings of impending danger and instructions for refugees on how to reach safety and avoid detection. Refugees sometimes found temporary shelter at the Gineste home as well, where Marie-Rose lived with her mother who prepared all the meals for their various guests. Gineste and her mother were questioned by the Montauban police and Marie-Rose was once followed for eight days but, due to lack of evidence and their declaration of innocence, they never faced any serious implications.

Following the distribution of his letter, Monsignor Théas continued to actively denounce anti-Semitism. He provided a location ”to be used as a document-forging factory,” cites Yad Vashem, and, in June 1944, refused to receive Marshal Henri Pétain, president of the Vichy government, during his visit to Montauban. On June 9, 1944, the night after giving a talk in his cathedral against anti-Semitism, he was arrested by the Gestapo and interned in Compiegne for ten weeks. While in prison, he preached the importance of forgiveness, especially of one’s enemies and of the Germans, stating ”My friends, I cannot proclaim anything except what the Lord said: Love your enemies. No more, no less.” When released from prison, Théas returned to Montauban and, in March 1945, with the support of the Archbishop Saliège, became co-founder of Pax Christi, the International Catholic Peace Movement.

Gineste, too, continued her humanitarian work after the war. She ”was made a member of the jury for the war criminals and I judged those who denounced Jews.” Gineste acknowledges the various awards she has received over the years, ”but the most important of all is the medal from Yad Vashem [granted in 1985] because it is specifically for saving Jews.” In 1997, a film, ”Woman on a Bicycle,” based on her resistance work was released as part of the three-part drama, ”Rescuers: Stories of Courage.” At age 89, Gineste donated her bicycle to Yad Vashem, shipping it from her home – still in Montauban – to Jerusalem. The donation was not made sooner as Gineste still used the bicycle for traveling around town. ”Since my childhood Christianity has dominated and oriented my entire life,” Gineste once stated, ”– before the war, during the war, during the occupation, and afterwards until this day… in my various and numerous deeds, and all the days of my life.”

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