Professor’s book uncovers stories of female resisters to the Third Reich

Joanne Gilbert is on a journey that has taken her to Paris and 70 years back in time.

Gilbert, a Summerlin resident and an adjunct English professor at the College of Southern Nevada, said she had always been under the impression that the Germans followed Adolf Hitler and allowed him to annihilate the Jews.

A few years ago, another CSN professor offered a class called German Resisters to the Third Reich.

“Her class started 10 minutes after mine ended, and it was in the same building, so I thought, ‘Hmm, maybe I’m supposed to learn something,’ ” she said.

Gilbert audited the class and said she was “surprised to learn that there were German resisters as soon as Hitler made himself visible back in the mid-’20s. He wrote ‘Mein Kampf’ … while he was in prison. And Germans who were patriots —- sophisticated intelligent people —- had their own kinds of resistance because they didn’t want this thug ruining their beautiful country.”

Part of the course told how there was significant resistance among college students and detailed the work of Sophia Scholl, who was part of a resistance group called the White Rose Society.

“Most of them were executed,” Gilbert said. “These were kids, 19, 20 years old. And they fought with everything they had to keep this monster away from the government of Germany … So it gave me a whole new way of looking at things.”

She resolved to use her personal history business, Your Write Time, to document the recollections of surviving female resisters.

Not long after Gilbert audited the class, the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas had an exhibit about Polish resisters, where she met a man, Ben Lesser, who had survived the Holocaust. Lesser, also a Summerlin resident, was writing a book about his experience, but it was only partially written, and he was unsure how to proceed.

Gilbert’s personal project was put on hold as she edited Lesser’s book, titled, “Living A Life That Matters: From Nazi Nightmare to American Dream.” They worked together for two years.

“She gave so much of herself,” Lesser said. “She crafted it beautifully.”

The book is available at abbottpress.com and amazon.com. Lesser’s book took priority over her commitment to documenting the female resisters’ stories. In 2010, she started on her own project. The first step was locating women in the resistance.

“I sent out emails to every Jewish organization, ever,” she said. “People would respond with, ‘I can’t help you, but here is someone who can.’ “

A fan of genealogy, Gilbert also used search tools to try to locate any surviving women who were part of the resistance movement. She said sometimes she found their grandchildren and located resisters that way.

She found a handful, some in their 90s. She found one survivor each in Toronto, Detroit and Grand Rapids, Mich., four in Paris and three in New York City.

“I didn’t want to tell another heartbreaking story of victims and monsters,” she said. “I wanted to tell a story of people who stood up for themselves and others, and of the people who didn’t have to but did … of the inspirational (aspect ) amidst the tragedy.”

Gilbert flew to Michigan in July and began interviews. She heard firsthand how they saved children by sneaking them out to the countryside, where they stayed with farming families. Some were able to save downed American and British fliers. And some were beauties who charmed their way past young Nazi soldiers as they carried vital information.

Gilbert learned that some of the resisters would pretend to be pregnant so that they could sneak in medicine. The resisters even concealed correspondence in their babies’ diapers. They snuck out, sometimes past curfew, to paste fliers throughout the community. If caught, she said, their entire family could be executed.

“By the end of our sessions, I felt as if each woman had unofficially adopted me,” Gilbert said.

The French women ensured she received an invitation to the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, the first roundup of more than 13,000 Parisian Jews, including women and children. She was also honored to make a presentation at the Shoah Memorial Museum in Paris.

In all their conversations, Gilbert said, the resisters laid no claim to doing anything extraordinary.

“I asked them, ‘Did you feel like a hero?,’ and every one of them said, ‘No, I wasn’t a hero. I did what had to be done.’ And ‘No matter how many people I saved, there were always so many that I couldn’t.’ They all felt like failures because they couldn’t do more.”

Gilbert used the material for a four-week program that was taught at the Jewish Community Center at Temple Sinai, 9001 Hillpointe Road, in August.

Raymonde Fiol, president of the Holocaust Survivors Group of Southern Nevada, said it is very important that history honor the female resisters.

“Maybe they were in the shadows for a long time,” she said. “It’s time that they be recognized for all the courageous things they did. A French lady saved me, and she was part of the resistance, too … I think Joanne is doing a great job of (documenting) what they did. It gives you a new slant on the Holocaust story.”

Gilbert’s book, “Women of Valor: Female Resisters to the Third Reich,” published by Gihon River Press, is expected to be released in late 2013.

Contact Summerlin/Summerlin South View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 387-2949.

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