Monteils is a pretty village of early medieval origins on the banks of the River Aveyron, its houses built from the pinkish-honey coloured stone of the area. It lies in a valley between Villefranche-de-Rouergue and Najac, encircled by wooded hills. On a slope overlooking the valley and the village, stands a massive convent. I recently discovered a story of quiet heroism that unfolded here during World War II.
The facts of this story have not been easy to find after nearly 80 years, and the protagonists themselves probably shunned publicity or recognition. However, I’m not giving away spoilers when I say there is a happy ending.
Hidden in plain sight
The Dominican convent of Monteils was constructed in the 1880s and inaugurated in 1889. This solid building is constructed around a cloister right up against a steep hillside and is visible for some distance around.
When World War II broke out, the convent housed a school. A lycée still exists next door. Marie-Albert Delpérié was Mother Superior of the convent, and sœur (Sister) Hyacinthe Galtier ran the boarding school.
From summer 1942, as the net tightened, particularly around non-French Jews, the two nuns took in and sheltered about a dozen Jewish girls at the convent. One account even suggests that they kept the girls’ true identities secret from the other nuns. It’s hard to imagine how this was possible in such a close-knit community, but mère Marie-Albert and sœur Hyacinthe would have been anxious not to put the other nuns in danger. Whoever knew, the girls remained safe there for some time, hidden “in plain sight” among the Catholic girls.
The only names I have found associated with the convent are two sisters, Hanna and Rachel Weiler. Their parents had fled to Montpellier from Dijon. The sisters were sheltered in different homes there while their parents made several fruitless attempts to get the family to Switzerland or to America.
Having failed to leave France, the Weilers turned to the OSE (Œuvre de Secours Enfant), which helped to shelter and save Jewish children. The OSE placed the two sisters in the convent in Monteils.
Life must have been confusing and disturbing for all of these children. They were separated from their families, lived in a strange place and ate food they were not used to. They probably had to take part in religious ceremonies they didn’t understand so as not to look out of place. However, they were safer in the convent than in earlier boltholes.
Beginning of the end
Even this did not last. In May 1944, while the war began to wind to its protracted conclusion, and the Allies prepared the invasion, the searches for Jewish children intensified. Mère Marie-Albert and sœur Hyacinthe realised the convent was no longer safe. They may have been tipped off about an imminent raid. At all events, the children were quickly spirited away to other places further South.
Until 2006, Monteils had a small station, really a halt. Were some of the children taken away by train? If so, the journey would have been fraught with dangers. Despite this, none of the girls was picked up. They all survived. The Weiler sisters were taken to Toulouse and re-joined their parents on a farm further South in Ariège, where they awaited the Liberation.
Righteous Among the Nations
Yad Vashem recognised mère Marie-Albert and sœur Hyacinthe as Righteous Among the Nations in 2001. They received la Médaille des justes in 2006. It’s not clear if they were still alive then; I suspect not. A short newspaper report says only that mère Marie-Albert’s nephew took part in a commemorative ceremony in Monteils in 2007.
This is just one of many such stories, testimony that human decency can triumph over grim and dangerous circumstances. Other silent rescuers’ histories will never become known now, but maybe that’s what many of them would have wanted. They just did what they knew was right.
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