Quiet Heroism in Monteils During World War II

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 convent is the large building with the tree-lined hillside behind it

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.  

You might also be interested in:

Copyright Life on La Lune 2022. All rights reserved.

11 comments

  1. I am always amazed at the heroism displayed during the last war by civilians. I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to step up. When we first started coming here and after we retired there were the occasional stories in la Depeche of the children of children hidden in our area coming to thank family members and see the places that housed their parents. I read somewhere that the population of Bretenoux reached over 10,000 after the fall of Paris although it dropped again later. If I come across anything relevant I’ll pass it on.. thank you for this story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I often wonder how I would have reacted under those circumstances. I suppose one can’t know unless one is faced with such a challenge in reality. At all events, it is heartening to read about these people’s bravery. I also remember stories in the local Dépêche about people coming to thank those who saved their families. Do pass on anything you hear about. I’m always interested to know about this.

      Like

  2. A moving example of quiet heroism indeed. It is difficult to imagine the courage it took both by the sisters and the children they protected. It all seems so long ago yet as history goes, it was yesterday. Helps put some of our current problems in perspective!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Vanessa,
    Another very interesting post on a subject that interests me greatly.
    I appreciate that many French people find this dark period in their history difficult to reconcile because of the actions of some but very important I feel to remember these selfless heroic deeds,that by there very nature were often unknown to many.
    How those individuals must have felt when they were at the greatest danger when liberation and safety was so close.
    Keep up the research,these stories deserve to be told.
    Best wishes
    Stuart

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought this one would interest you, Stuart. I also feel it’s important that we remember and commemorate what these people did. We can only try to imagine the stress and pressure they must have been under every day, especially as the Liberation drew near, There is another story of a convent in Capdenac near Figeac (about 50km from us) where more than 80 Jewish children were saved. This is somewhat better known and documented than the story I recounted. Here is a link to read about it: https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-54033792
      I hope you’re well. Best wishes, Vanessa

      Like

  4. Vanessa,
    Another fascinating post regarding a subject I know you appreciate interests me greatly.
    Although this is a period of history that must be extremely difficult for many French people to reconcile because of the acts of some,more important to recognise the many often little known heroic acts demonstrating great courage and humanity in putting themselves at terrible risk to help vulnerable individuals.
    Also important to remember those in authority who either turned a blind eye or deliberately avoided giving unwanted attention to others whose main hope of not be discovered was to remain as unobtrusive as possible.I recall reading a story of a Policeman in an excellent museum in Mayenne who gave his life and family suffered because he was protecting others.
    Also,how dreadful that at the time of possible liberation and safety,they were at the most risk.
    Please keep up the research and do not be deterred from writing about this subjects as I feel it is extremely important to remember these brave,selfless people.
    Kind regards
    Stuart

    Like

    • I’m sorry, Stuart, I see that for some reason WordPress consigned this to Spam. I can’t see why that should have happened. Anyway, apologies. I saw another comment of yours, but since they were very similar, I have kept only this one. Fortunately, I check the spam bin every day.

      Like

  5. A lovely story. There must have been lots of heroic deeds and unsung heroes ( and heroines ! ) from those times. Some we will never know about . Thank you for telling this one.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply to lynnefrancophile Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account.Log Out / Change )

You are commenting using your Twitter account.Log Out / Change )

You are commenting using your Facebook account.Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.