Alice Resch est née en 1908 aux États-Unis, de parents norvégiens. Elle passe son enfance en Norvège.
Infirmière, elle arrive à Paris et prend un emploi d'infirmière privée auprès de riches américaines.
En juin 1940, Alice Resch rencontre Helga Holbek, une Quaker danoise qui vit à Toulouse et travaille depuis plusieurs années au service des réfugiés espagnols.
A l'origine, les bureaux sont installés dans le palais épiscopal avant d'être déménagés au Château de Larade.
De nombreux réfugiés arrivent à Toulouse en mai 1940 et les Quakers installent une cantine dans la “Halle aux grains” où ils offrent aux réfugiés 4 000 diners chauds durant 3 mois.
One day in August 1941, a 10 year old German boy stepped off a train in the station of Toulouse Matabiau and sat down on a bench. He had been promised that someone would meet him. After some time, no-one having arrived, he walked outside and asked a taxi-driver “Qvakers?” in a thick German accent. The driver pointed across the canal, and there on the Boulevard Bonrepos at number 16, Hal Myers, a German Jew found a brass plaque that said “Society of Friends, Société Quaker”.
This story is told in an epilogue to Over the Highest Mountains by Alice Resch Synnestvedt. Hal Myers and his family had been evicted from their home in Karlsruhe, Germany, and sent by train to the appalling concentration Camp de Gurs in SW France. Five months later, he and 47 other children were rescued by Alice Resch and transferred to a children’s orphanage in Aspet, 50 miles south of Toulouse. Alice Resch convinced the Vichy authorities that the Quakers would care for these children, thus relieving the French from further responsibility. Of those 48 children, all but one were eventually saved from the fate which befell all of their parents. In 1983, she and her colleague in Toulouse were awarded the title of “Righteous Gentile” in Jerusalem.
Alice Resch was born in the USA to Norwegian parents, but most of her childhood was spent in a remote part of Norway. She moved to Paris to train as a nurse and then as a physiotherapist. She became a private nurse, and accompanied sick rich women to and from America. All this was to change with the outbreak of war.
In June 1940, Alice met Helga Holbek, a Danish Quaker who was based in Toulouse, and had been working for some years with Spanish refugees. Initially this work was based in two small rooms in the Episcopal Palace, and then in the Chateau de Larade. Alice describes this as an old dilapidated building with a pompous name, and eventually this became the hiding place for Jewish children. I have been unable to locate this “chateau”, although there is a street named “Larade” just north of the canal.
As refugees began to pour into Toulouse in May 1940, the relief workers took over a large warehouse, the “Halle Aux Grains” which I believe is now a concert hall. Here, 4,000 hot dinners were served daily for the next 3 months. All this work was being funded by the American Friends Service Committee. By now, Alice had arrived, and was given the job of overseeing the work at these two sites. She was joined by a Dutch noblewoman known as “Toot” who had studied at Woodbrooke and came to Toulouse by way of the Berlin and Paris Quaker offices. Eventually, a derelict shoe-lace factory was found opposite the station – No. 16 Boulevard Bonrepos, with storage rooms, offices, dining room and a large courtyard to accommodate the several vehicles that had been acquired in various ways. Alice wryly remarks that the sign “Quakers Americains” was somewhat inappropriate as there was only one American involved, and only one Quaker! However, supplies of clothing, food, medicines and money were being received from the American Friends in Philadelphia. The first winter, the “Quakers” were feeding 8,000 children daily, within a year this had increased to 30,000! – not of course all at Bonrepos! – mostly the children were in schools, orphanages and camps.
The work directed from Toulouse reached out into more distant areas. Helga Holbek discovered that there were two deserted villages in the Tarn which would make suitable homes for the refugees. Here, Spanish and displaced persons from Lorraine were resettled, and encouraged to make wooden toys in a well equipped workshop. Soon orders for their products were coming in from various sources, and the former refugees were settling down to a life of self-sufficiency and self-respect. I visited one of these villages the other day, Puycelci near Caussade. It is now a tourist spot, high on the hill with superb views over the surrounding countryside, and is one of the “Most Beautiful Villages of France”. I tried to find clues to what happened there in 1940, but no-one seemed to know. The only confirmation of the story I could find, was a board outlining its history, and stating that between the wars it had become depopulated.
One chapter in the book describes the Quaker work in the concentration camp at Gurs. The Toulouse Quakers became involved in October 1940, when the camp was filled with Jewish inmates. A day-care centre was established in the camp, and a school for the older children. When it was discovered that the prisoners were only receiving around 1,000 calories a day, a Quaker kitchen was installed, and as a result, conditions improved. In the summer of 1942, the first deportations began to take place. It was to save the children from this fate, that after much arguing with the Vichy authorities, many of them were taken by the Quakers to the orphanage at Aspet. Here, Alice Resch moved in with the children, sleeping in a dormitory with only two hanging sheets for privacy!
On her return to Toulouse, Alice became involved in hiding families from the authorities, and this meant working with the resistance. Helga said to her “You have to choose if you want to work for the Quakers or for the resistance. We can’t risk compromising our work. If you are discovered, it will be the end of us!” Although she describes her resistance work as “extremely peripheral”, it is evident from the letters of those she sheltered and helped escape that she played an important role.
By now, other concentration camps were filling with Jews, and the Toulouse Quakers set up a base in Rivesaltes. Hiding places were found in convents and monasteries, La Trappe de Saint Marie to the west of Toulouse for example, La Motte convent near Muret, and the Chateau de la Hille in Ariège.
There is so much more in this fascinating book. Perhaps the most surprising thing is the attitude of the Gestapo guards to the work of the Quakers. When a tip-off was received that a deportation train was on its way from Rivesaltes, vast quantities of boiled rice would be prepared and rushed to Toulouse Matabiau station, along with gallons of water. Only the Quaker contingent would be allowed onto the platforms to feed and water the prisoners in the cattle wagons. Apparently this was out of recognition for the relief work which British Quakers had done in Germany at the end of the first world war.
After the departure of the occupying forces, Alice, by now married to Magnus Synnestvedt, transferred her activities to the north with Helga Holbek to start Quaker relief amongst the war-torn region of Normandy. But the main part of this book tells the story of the incredible work done under the name of Quakerism in and around the city of Toulouse. To fully appreciate the magnitude of this work you must read the book for yourself! Like me, you will find yourself looking at Toulouse with different eyes, searching for places mentioned in the book, and wondering if people who live and work there today have any knowledge of what was achieved there all those years ago!
Maurice Georges Bézagu
(14/11/1941 - 17/11/1944) Préfet délégué de Haute-Garonne (1880-1969)
(21/08/1944 - 31/12/1944) Préfet de Haute-Garonne (1887-1963)
(29/12/1944 - 04/01/1946) Préfet de Haute-Garonne (1884-1957)
(21/09/1935 - 13/10/1940) Préfet de Haute-Garonne
Léopold Chénaux de Leyritz
(25/06/1940 - 24/01/1944) Léopold Marie Frédéric Chéneaux de Leyritz, Préfet de Haute-Garonne et préfet régional de la région de Toulouse à partir de 1941 (Ariège, Gers, Haute-Garonne, Hautes-Pyrénées, Lot, Lot-et-Garonne, Tarn et Tarn-et-Garonne et les parties non occupées des Basses-Pyrénées, de la Gironde et des Landes (1896-1970)
(24/01/1944 - 06/02/1944) André Paul Sadon, Préfet régional de la région de Toulouse (Ariège, Gers, Haute-Garonne, Hautes-Pyrénées, Lot, Lot-et-Garonne, Tarn et Tarn-et-Garonne et les parties non occupées des Basses-Pyrénées, de la Gironde et des Landes (1891-1965)
(1944 - 1944) Commissaire régional de la République de la région de Toulouse (Ariège, Gers, Haute-Garonne, Hautes-Pyrénées, Lot, Lot-et-Garonne, Tarn et Tarn-et-Garonne et les parties non occupées des Basses-Pyrénées, de la Gironde et des Landes (1897-1981)
(1944 - 1946) Pierre Félix Berteaux, Commissaire régional de la République de la région de Toulouse (Ariège, Gers, Haute-Garonne, Hautes-Pyrénées, Lot, Lot-et-Garonne, Tarn et Tarn-et-Garonne et les parties non occupées des Basses-Pyrénées, de la Gironde et des Landes (1907-1986)
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