Charlotte Sorkine: Unknown hero of the French resistance

Charlotte Sorkine Noshpitz

In Nice, France, during World War II, Charlotte Sorkine as a teenager conveyed groups of children to the Swiss border to be rescued. Under Maurice Loebenberg, a member of the French Resistance and former engraver, she created thousands of false papers. It is estimated that some 20,000 identity cards were produced, saving many lives. Among her many responsibilities was guiding men to Toulouse, where passeurs took them to the Spanish border. “Here at night they crossed the Pyrenees to the Spanish frontier and were brought to bordellos as safe houses. Some went to join the Resistance in North Africa.”

Charlotte Sorkine Noshpitz, mother of Claude Noshpitz, grandmother of Jonathan Cummings and Samuel Joseph Dowd,  died in Washington, D.C. on January 12, 2017.

By a curious coincidence, the 2012 spring issue of Prism Magazine, an interdisciplinary journal for Holocaust educators, contained a photograph of a woman who had taken hundreds of children to the Swiss border before the Gestapo captured, tortured and killed her. It so happened that Charlotte Sorkine was the one who continued the work of Marianne Cohn.

Charlotte Sorkine was born in Paris on February 15, 1925. Her mother was born in Braila, Romania, and her father in Rogachev (now Belarus). They were not French citizens at the time of the German occupation. Foreign nationals were taken in the first round-ups. As early as 1940, Vichy laws revoked the citizenship of naturalized Jews. On July 16, 1942, French police came for her mother and brought her to the Velodrome d’Hiver where she was kept for five days without food or water, then to internment camps in Drancy and later to Auschwitz where she was killed.

Her father went into hiding in Nice, but Charlotte realized that she must get him out of the country immediately. She made false papers for him and led him to think that she would accompany him to Switzerland but as they approached the border, she bid him goodbye. He was met by a passeur and led to safety where he survived the war. Her brother, Leo Serge Lazare Sorkine, a poet who served in the Resistance was betrayed and sent to Silesia to work in the salt mines. He was killed before the Russian liberation, too weak to survive a forced march in freezing conditions.

Charlotte Sorkine grew up in a highly intellectual household. Her maternal grandfather, Wolf Louis Horowitz, born in 1866, was a professor of anthropology who spent much of his professional career at Kings College, London.  There were weekly salons with such individuals as French philosopher Henri Bergson and art critic/philosopher Gerard de Lacaze-Duthiers and others. Charlotte Sorkine was a frequent visitor to these gatherings in her childhood.

Later, she recalled riding her bike, with its basket loaded with weapons and weapon parts, when German soldiers confronted her. At that split second—with no time to think—she let her bicycle fall at the feet of the soldiers. They assisted her in getting to her feet, and she rode off.

Among those in Jewish Resistance organizations in France during the war, some 40% were women—an astonishing figure, considering that women had few rights at this time, including the right to vote, which was not granted until 1944. In the passage from child to Resistance fighter, she spoke of the difference between risks and fear. “When you are young, you don’t think about what could happen to you, you just have something you must do.” For her work in the Resistance, she received many awards including the Medaille de la Resistance, the Croix du Combattant Volontaire de la Resistance, and others.

After the war, Jean Paul Sartre met with some of the young people who had served in the Resistance in coffee house, cellars and cafes.  His thinking about existentialism seemed to be in accord with their lives at that time. Charlotte Sorkine began to study—first at an atelier for life drawing classes, then to the Sorbonne to study psychology,  to the Louvre for the study of art history and to language school. She had a darkroom in her house, and at the time, Richard Wright was in Paris and arranged with her to work there. Black Boy, the first half of his memoir, had recently been published.

Charlotte Sorkine was offered the opportunity to come to the United States to study mental health treatment centers and new  therapeutic disciplines, and to aid a group of French doctors planning to build a treatment center outside Paris, modeled on the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. She boarded the Ile de France and headed toward New York. The lengthy and rough trip caused many to be ill; however, she and a few others weathered it well. Among her companions were Ernest Hemingway and the folk singer Josh White.

It was here in Kansas that she met her husband-to-be.  Charlotte Sorkine was married in Paris in a civil ceremony to Joseph Noshpitz, a child psychiatrist and child analyst. Concerned that her American husband-to-be might not have sufficient command of French, her fellow members of the Resistance showed up and all pronounced “Mais Oui,  Monsieur!”  at the crucial moment. “I married them all!” Charlotte said.

Joseph Noshpitz  died in 1997 at the age of 74. He was the author of numerous works including  the encyclopedic five-volume  Basic Handbook of Child Psychiatry and a two-volume Handbook of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. About his wife, he said that she was a “genuine hero, saving hundreds of lives as a teenaged underground fighter in France during World War II, and the measure of her merit is in a category far away from that which most of us will ever know.”  Of their beloved son Claude, Joseph spoke of him as “the cup into which so many of our hopes and dreams for the future are poured.”

Myra Sklarew live in Bethesda.


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