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Righteous Among Nations

As the Nazi shadow spread across Europe, two future Swarthmoreans experienced the worst—and the best—of humanity

In July 1938, a 7-year-old Jewish boy boarded a train in Vienna, bound for Brussels. First, he would have to pass all the way through Nazi Germany

The boy, Franz Leichter ’52, carried false travel documents belonging to a different child. The woman with whom he traveled, a Gentile family friend, instructed Franz to call her “Mutti” (“Mommy”) in the presence of German authorities. Just hours before, Franz had left the arms of his own mother. He would never see her alive again. 

Frightened and confused, Franz could not fully comprehend the threat, nor the subterfuge required to pass through the Nazi heartland unharmed. In a swirl of emotion, Franz forgot his instructions. “Irma!” he shouted, calling his guardian by first name. 

“If we had been discovered, the consequences would have been very serious,” Franz says, nearly 80 years later. 

By some unknowable combination of good fortune, preparedness, and the benevolence of others, Franz arrived safely in Brussels. Along with his father and brother, Henry Leichter ’48, he would escape. 

So would France Juliard Pruitt ’56, who survived the Nazi occupation of her native Belgium by hiding with her family in the remote Cévennes mountains of southern France. 

“We were saved by people who didn’t even know us,” France says. “It’s a beautiful story: of love, of freedom, and of careful planning. My parents knew that if we stayed in Belgium, like 64 other members of our family did, there was no hope.”

Both Franz and France would go on to create meaningful lives and careers in America, “minding the light,” to quote an unofficial Swarthmore motto, despite the darkness they survived. 

 

‘Fortunate’ Son

When Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Franz’s parents, Otto and Käthe, found themselves among the Gestapo’s most wanted. Not only did they share Jewish heritage, they were also prominent members of the banned Social Democratic Party of Austria. “The real risk at first was as socialists and anti-fascists,” Franz says. “My parents were in immediate danger when the Nazi occupation occurred.”

Within days, the Gestapo came looking for Otto, who slipped out of the country with a false passport. Käthe perhaps should have left then, too, but she stayed in Vienna to arrange safe passage for her mother and two young sons. For Franz’s escape, she accepted the help of Irma Turnsek, a friend, political associate, and housekeeper for the Leichter family.

Irma had applied for—and received—visas for herself and her son, Helmut, to resettle in England. Franz, age 7, was to impersonate Helmut, his beloved playmate, as he crossed Germany to meet his father in Brussels. Käthe planned to follow weeks later. Then Irma would return to Vienna to retrieve the real Helmut.

Why would Irma endanger herself and her son to help save his life? “She had a great friendship with my mother,” Franz says. “She wanted to be as helpful as she could.” 

Irma’s smuggling of Franz into Brussels was ultimately successful, but the night before Käthe was to leave Vienna to join Franz, she was betrayed by an associate and arrested.

Around that time, the Gestapo learned of Irma’s ruse and barred her return. “She was not able to pick up her son until 1947,” Franz says, with an audible burden of guilt. “Meanwhile, Helmut spent a miserable eight years in foster care and orphanages.”

As for Franz, his brother Henry, and their father, they remained hunted people on an increasingly hostile continent. After settling in Paris, they had to flee when Nazi tanks rolled in. They briefly found refuge in the Zone Libre of southern France, a poorer, less industrial part of the country that Hitler’s army largely ignored. The three took refuge in the city of Montauban as part of a group of two dozen prominent Austrian socialists. They’d been there for about three months when the entire group was suddenly offered visas to resettle in the United States, thanks largely to social connections between Austrian socialist émigrés and the White House. 

By the end of 1940, young Franz was on a ship bound for America. For a third time—after his mother and Irma Turnsek—one woman’s conscience and willingness to work against the grain of a racist system had helped save his life. This champion exemplified an important, if uneven, tradition of courageous American leaders accepting wartime refugees over the xenophobic complaints of their countrymen. 

“The State Department was very anti-Semitic and didn’t want to admit Jews,” Franz says, referencing historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time. “But Eleanor Roosevelt leaned on FDR, and he leaned on the State Department.”

Two years later, in boarding school in Darien, Conn., Franz received word that his mother had died in Ravensbrück. “The Nazis were always trying to disguise what they’d done,” he says. “There was still an aunt of hers living in Vienna, and she heard my mother had died of typhoid. But that was a lie. She was gassed.”

Franz survived, but he lost his mother, his nationality, and his childhood to the Nazis. “It’s one of the millions of stories of what people endured in these difficult years,” he says. “I was one of the fortunate ones.”

 

Learning to Lie

As the Leichters and their fellow Austrian refugees cut across southern France in late 1940, they may have passed within miles of 5-year-old France Juliard (now Pruitt). Lacking the international political connections of the Leichters, France’s family took a different approach to survival: They sought deep cover. 

The seeds of their escape were planted in the early 1930s, when France’s father, a chemist, traveled to the United States and happened to sit next to Albert Einstein on a train. In conversation, the famous German-born physicist spoke of the dangers on the horizon for Europeans of Jewish descent. 

Returning home to Belgium determined to plan for the safety of his family, France’s father scoured maps of Europe and came to focus on the Cévennes mountains, a Huguenot homeland and longtime bastion for victims of religious persecution.

France’s earliest memories are of the days following the Nazi occupation of Belgium in May 1940. Her family—her parents, grandparents, aunt and uncle, and cousins, including Chantal Juliard Astore ’56—fled Brussels immediately. France dimly recalls spending a night outdoors at the French border, unable to cross because of a large mass of refugees. The family slept on the grass near a canal, she says, and she nearly rolled down into the water during the night but was rescued by her mother. 

The next day, her father was wrongly accused of theft. “We were all in the family Buick, with a trailer in back, surrounded by the police, because the car of the king had been stolen,” she recalls. This primordial scene of persecution, suspicion, and danger would set the template for the next several years of her life.

After proving their ownership of the vehicle, France’s family immediately made for the south of France, where they settled in a small valley village. They found the locals welcoming and even willing to help them learn to farm. 

“The whole family had never touched dirt,” she explains. “But my father helped the farmers turn their plums into prunes. They never had done that. Later on, my father taught people how to make soap out of fat. It was a win-win. My parents learned how to grow carrots, and they were the best in the town, because they used chemical fertilizer.”

As the Nazis continued their string of early victories, France’s parents began to look for refuge even deeper in the mountains, taking up residence on an abandoned farm with no running water. For food, they kept goats, rabbits, and a pair of pigs named—without affection—Goebbels and Göring.

One day, word came that decrees had gone out to round up Jews. 

“I still remember the face of the woman who came running up from the village to warn us,” she says, emotion in her voice. “That night, we had to empty the farm.” 

Their escape came at a very personal cost for young France and her cousin Chantal. They had adopted a dog, which accompanied and protected them as they hiked the mountain path to the village and its one-room schoolhouse. That night, the family decided that, to keep their tracks hidden as they sought cover, they would have to shoot the dog—a heartbreaking sacrifice for the children.

A couple active in the French Resistance hid the younger adult men—France’s father and uncle—in an unheated barn for a year and a half, while France and her mother were sheltered by a widow two mountains away. After hiding for a year, France attended school, but under a false name. “I was a new person, France Millard instead of France Juliard,” she says. “I had to learn to lie at age 8.”

Still, she says, her situation was easy compared to that of Chantal, who hid in a teacher’s apartment above a schoolhouse. Chantal was not allowed to move during the day, for fear of provoking the students’ suspicions.

France and her family received help from a large number of families and individuals over the course of the war, each acting for their own reasons. Some, she thinks, were motivated by their Huguenot heritage of resistance and respect for religious freedom. Others were Quakers, the first she ever met, and from whom she learned values she would forever hold dear. Her greatest help, she says, was her own resilient character. “I would call myself a lucky person,” France says. “I tend to remember only the positive things.”

 

Broken Bridges

When Berlin fell in May 1945, the extraordinary threat to the lives of European Jews ended, but France and Franz faced uncertain futures. France remembers traveling with her family back to Belgium over a scarred landscape. “Most of the railroad bridges had been blown up by the Resistance, trying to stop the German retreat,” she says. “It was quite a sad adventure.”

Eventually, the family resettled in the United States, where her father accepted a position as one of the first Fulbright professors of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, choosing a place with a strong tradition of religious freedom and tolerance. “They decided to come to Philadelphia,” she says, “because this was the City of Brotherly Love with Quakers.”

In college, Franz preferred not to look back, but to instead focus on improving the future. “My parents’ commitment to a political life, and also to social justice, had a deep influence on me,” he says, “which was heightened at Swarthmore.” 

As a New York state assemblyman and state senator from 1968 to 1998, Franz made a career fighting for civil rights and the public good. His legacy includes an early statewide abortion legalization that influenced Roe v. Wade; important bills on LGBT marriage, tenants’ rights, campaign finance, and consumer protection; and two New York City parks—Riverbank State Park in upper Manhattan and Hudson River Park from the Battery to 59th Street. (His brother and fellow alum, Henry, would serve in World War II as a combat medic as well as a U.S. soldier, earning two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star for heroism. He died in 2010.)

Over the years, Franz fell out of contact with Irma and Helmut Turnsek. That changed in 2013, when the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem let him know that it was considering bestowing on the recently deceased Irma the designation of Righteous Among Nations, awarded to people who risked their lives to save Jews during the war. When Franz learned that Helmut was still alive—albeit very ill—in London, he rushed across the Atlantic to visit the man whose identity he’d once borrowed to escape certain death.

 “Of course, I promised I’d do everything I could,” he says, and Irma was officially honored in 2015 with a ceremony in London with her surviving relatives. (Sadly, Helmut died one week after Franz’s visit.)

For France, who also chose to look forward rather than back, her education at Swarthmore was a time of great freedom and self-discovery. “I was a child in a chocolate shop,” she says. “I’d never had such opportunities.” 

After college, France started a family—which went on to include Paul Pruitt ’84 and Katherine Pruitt ’20—and made a career in international education. About 10 years ago, she published a memoir, Faith, Courage, and Survival in a Time of Trouble, and she is working on a new edition covering the French Resistance.

Sharing her story, France emphasizes the compassion of those who helped her, in particular the religious-minority communities of southern France. (In fact, the couple who hid her father and uncle and the town that sheltered them all have been named Righteous Among Nations.)

So what inspired Irma Turnsek and so many others to courageously risk their lives to protect others in the face of unimaginable horror?

France’s answer comes from her understanding of the Quaker faith.  

“Whether you’re a general or a laborer or a child, whether you’re an enemy or a friend, there’s a part of God in each person, and you need to help them survive,” she says. “Every human being counts.”