By Fred Coleman
Potomac. 231 pp. $27.50
At one point during her yearlong imprisonment at the Auschwitz extermination camp, the typically resilient Odette Rosenstock broke down in an anguished crying jag. When a fellow prisoner asked why she was in tears, Rosenstock answered, “The children.” And when the woman asked how many children Rosenstock had, she replied, “Hundreds.”
Before she was taken captive, Rosenstock and her partner, Moussa Abadi, ran a clandestine operation based in Nice, France, that saved 527 Jewish children from being deported to Nazi death camps. The Jewish couple, operating under false Christian names, worked to find safe refuge for Jewish children whose parents felt their own capture was practically inevitable as the Gestapo’s crackdown intensified.
In “The Marcel Network,” journalist Fred Coleman details how Rosenstock and Abadi risked their lives to hide children in cooperative Catholic boarding schools, convents and the homes of Protestant families. The pair also managed to smuggle some children into neighboring Switzerland or Spain.
At first, their efforts were rushed and haphazard. But when they quickly realized there was danger in that approach, they began a more methodical process called “depersonalization,” in which they painstakingly taught each child a false back story. “Before being hidden, they would have to learn new Christian names for themselves and their parents, new places of birth, and hardest of all, they would have to say their parents were dead,” Coleman writes. “Many feared just saying that could somehow make it so.”
Because the couple (Rosenstock survived Auschwitz, and Abadi managed to escape imprisonment altogether) and their conspirators refused for decades to talk about their life-saving work, Coleman’s is the first narrative to weave together accounts from the hidden children with information culled from diaries and interviews with Abadi, Rosenstock and their friends. The story of the Marcel Network is an extraordinary one, full of so many brushes with failure, arrest and death that its pace feels like that of a novel. Each narrow miss threatened not only a particular child or Abadi and Rosenstock. These incidents imperiled the entire network, including clergymen, nuns, families, messengers and the hundreds of children they were hiding or otherwise protecting. Remarkably, only two of the children the couple helped were discovered and sent to the gas chambers, a testament to their resourcefulness and dogged commitment to the mission.
Coleman’s account not only focuses on the couple’s heroism; it also reveals their deep and poignant love. When Rosenstock was at Auschwitz for a year and neither she nor Abadi knew if the other was alive, it was the hope of being reunited that propelled them forward in their bleakest moments. In this way, Coleman’s portrait is not just one of exceptional courage, but also of unwavering devotion.