Heard on campus: Academy Award-winning filmmaker Lisa Gossels

Filmmaker Lisa Gossels shared her Emmy award-winning “labor of love” with Penn State Harrisburg recently.

The producer, co-director, and co-editor of the acclaimed documentary film "Children of Chabannes," Gossels told the audience in the crowded Olmsted Auditorium, “It’s a joy to share 'Children of Chabannes' with you. It was truly a labor of love. Films of goodness are in short supply these days.”

Goodness may be an understatement of the true story depicted in the 90-minute film that tells the story of the unsung heroes of Chabannes, a small village of 300 in France, who saved more than 400 Jewish refugee children during World War II -- including Gossels’ father and uncle. “Children of Chabannes is not just about the Holocaust; it’s a celebration about people who chose to save lives because it was the right thing to do.”

An installment in the college’s ninth annual International Film Series, the documentary showing and Gossels’ appearance was co-sponsored by the Penn State Harrisburg Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies, which is committed to preserving and presenting the legacy of the Jewish experience and Holocaust survivor generations in the region, and the Harrisburg Jewish Film Festival, a program of the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg.

The documentary was filmed during a 1996 reunion of townspeople and the more than 70 children who were evacuated to Chateau Chabannes by a Jewish organization from Nazi-held territory between 1939 and 1943. The children -- taught by non-Jewish teachers -- were immediately integrated into the small town, quickly taught French, and attended school with the resident children in a effort to make them less visible to the Vichy government.

Not thinking of themselves as heroes, one of the aging former teachers said in the film, “We saved them because they were Jewish, but before they were Jewish, they were children. This is a lesson for the world -- different people can live in peace.”

For the first several years, Chateau Chabannes was mostly isolated from the war, except for those children who received letters from parents in Nazi-occupied nations. But in 1942, the war came to the children. They were banned from attending school with the French native children and surprise roundups by police took 12 of the oldest boys away to work camps and then to concentration camps. Of them, four died in the hands of the Nazis -- the only fatalities of the Chabannes children -- while the others were either rescued or liberated. “It was four children too many,” one of the survivors lamented.

With increasing threats and fears that all the children remaining at the chateau would be taken, town leaders decided in 1943 to evacuate them to neutral nations. The massive effort was successful with all arriving safety in places such as Switzerland, Spain, or the U.S. And some of the older boys joined the French Resistance.

During the question-and-answer session that followed the showing, Gossels was asked about her visit to Chabannes for the reunion. “We were welcomed royally to the village. They really don’t think of themselves as heroes. It was the right time to tell their story; since my father was involved, the people opened up to me. I am privileged to tell their story.”

As for the flow of Jewish children through Chabannes, she noted there was a constant flow as children were sent to safety elsewhere and others were brought in. Her father, for example, went to the U.S. with the help of Quakers and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in 1941. Sadly, most of the children of Chabannes never saw their parents again.

And, she added, Chabannes was not unique. There were 14 other similar homes for refugee children throughout France during the conflict.

The final question may have been the most poignant. One person asked, “Why did non-Jews help?” Gossels replied, “It’s the character of that region of France; they have wonderful core values. And they were isolated and not exposed to the Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda.”

Contacts: 
Last Updated March 19, 2009