The North Shore Weekend, Dec. 13, 2013
During World War II, as a Jew in occupied France, Serge Ross escaped from two labor camps and survived a Nazi firing squad, after which he joined the French resistance. Serge, who moved to Chicago and later Skokie, passed away last month at the age of 86. His perilous journey, never before recounted in print, began in July 1942, at the time of the infamous mass arrests known as “The Great Roundup.”
Serge’s parents were Polish Jews who immigrated to France in the early 1920s. Serge grew up near the Bastille, in a tough neighborhood where Jewish and gentile boys fought together, went to school together and hung out together.
A month before his 13th birthday the Nazis invaded France and captured Paris. Jews were forced to wear the yellow Star of David and were prohibited from many ordinary jobs.
Then on the night of July 15, 1942, a friendly policeman tipped off the family that mass arrests were scheduled for the next day. They fled to the country village of Cressely, where they had a small summer home and friendly neighbors.
Serge shuttled back and forth between Cressely and Paris, dodging the Germans and taking odd jobs to pay for essentials for his family. He joined a Communist cell and was with a comrade who planted a bomb in a movie theater frequented by German officers and nurses. Forty-two Germans were killed.
Later the same day he was stopped by police – not for the bombing but on suspicion of being a Jew – and sent to a prison camp in Pithivier, a small town near Orleans. Prisoners worked in the fields planting and harvesting food for the Third Reich.
One morning, while sitting in the back of a truck going to work, Serge decided to try to escape. When the truck slowed at a curve he jumped and fled into the fields, hiding by day and walking eastward at night, bound for Vichy, the part of France not then occupied by the Germans. At the border to Vichy, he was caught and sent to a labor camp at Beaune-la-Rollande. He escaped again, hiding in a garbage truck. Again he hid during the day and fled east at night, stealing food from fields and clothes from scare crows, and sleeping in forests and barns.
At the Swiss border he was detained by Swiss guards, who transferred him to a local orphanage. Even though he was safe there, he escaped a week later, determined to get back to his family in Cressely. But it was soon clear that, without money and papers, it would be too dangerous to try to cross the country by foot.
So he made his way to Rives, a small town 270 miles southeast of Paris. Rives seemed safely out of the crossfire of war, and Serge was tired of running. He found work at a local sawmill, rented an attic room and kept mostly to himself.
One morning a German convoy stopped in town and two soldiers strolled over to a local park, not far from the factory where Serge worked. A band of French underground fighters, down from the nearby mountains, captured them. In retaliation the head of the German convoy ordered a mass reprisal. German soldiers surrounded the sawmill Serge worked in and ordered the manager to pick 80 workers. Serge was one of them.
The men were lined up against a brick wall behind the village hall and soldiers trained machine guns on them. Just before the firing started, the man next to Serge, whom he barely knew, whispered, “Maybe I can save you.” The man stepped in front and fell on top of him, shielding him from the gunfire. When the Germans left, the grieving townspeople gathered up the bodies. “I was the only person to survive the massacre,” Serge said.
Wounded in the leg, he was driven to a doctor outside town for treatment. When he recovered, he asked a local farmer to take him to the partisans fighting in the mountains outside Grenoble.
Serge was only 16, too young to join the fighters, but he lied about his age. He was trained to use an automatic rifle. Coded orders from the Free French leadership specified targets in quick hit-and-run raids: German patrols and camps, railroad trains and tracks. He fought with the partisans from October 1943 to June 1944, when American troops occupied the area.
With the American liberation sweeping through France, Serge hitchhiked home. Miraculously, his immediate family had survived the war. But many other family members did not. An aunt and three uncles died in Auschwitz and his grandmother died in Treblinka. Altogether, 17 relatives were killed by the Nazis.
After the war Serge met his wife, Claire, who had also survived The Great Roundup, and they started a family. Serge worked as a furrier and tailor. Determined that their two daughters “shouldn’t go through what we went through,” in 1961 the family moved to Chicago, where Serge operated a dry cleaning store. In its own way, it was a hard life. “We had to start over, learning a new language and making new friends,” he said. He retired in 1985, and over the last few years had struggled with heart and other health problems.
Yet he continued to triumph over adversity, and in his charmingly Gallic way, shrugged off the traumas of his life, even near the end. About his amazing journey, he once said, “God must have wanted it that way. All the tsuris, it’s normal for me.”
Serge died on Thanksgiving Day. He had much to be thankful for, and so did the people who knew, admired and loved him.