Aznavour Family Risked Their Lives Saving Jews and Armenians Under Nazi Occupation
By Prof. Yair Auron
When World War II escalated, my father volunteered in the French army. He wanted to thank the country that had sheltered him and his family. A group of foreigners and apatrides – people without citizenship, such as my father, joined the French army as volunteers. Many of them were Jews. They did not really have time to fight — France surrendered very quickly. It was a strange war (“drôle de guerre”). My father, Mish, went to war with his “tar” (Armenian string instrument). The Jews – later my father told me laughingly – came with their pajamas.”
“But,” continues his son, “when my father came back from the war, his courage was revealed. During the whole period Paris was occupied by the Nazi Army, my father gave shelter to some Russian-Armenian and Jewish immigrants.” The Nazi army occupied Paris for more than four years; from July 1940 to August 1944. Anyone who sheltered a Jew risked his life, the life of his family, and that of others around them.
The person who wrote these two paragraphs is no other than Charles Aznavour — the great singer, actor, writer and composer — probably the last “chansonnier” of the French ‘les chansons époque’ –from around WWII to 1980s; the Ambassador of All Armenians.
A couple of weeks ago, I spent two wonderful days with Aznavour at his house in a little village located in Southern France. Two wonderful and unique days. I had the chance to meet this great artist and great human being – a great humanist.
Charles Aznavour was born in Paris 91 years ago in 1924. His sister, Aida Aznavour-Garvarentz, who is a little older, was born in Salonica, during the exile resulting from the Armenian Genocide of 1915. His parents, Mish and Knar, risked their lives and the lives of Aida and Charles continuously, for three years, day and night. Charles and Aida, two young adults 16 to 20 years of age at that time, actively took part in the heroic actions.
I asked Charles why he wrote only these two short paragraphs about the heroic actions of his family in his autobiography “As Long as My Heart will Beat” published in 2013, his answer was: “I do not know exactly, sometimes I am shy.”
Aznavour is a very courageous man, who freely expresses his opinion and positions to the people, media, presidents and often to his critics.
“Actions are important, not words,” he told me, even though poems and novels are such a significant part of his success. “I am a poet who has the ability to sing his poems” he said.
Why did the Aznavours risk their own lives to save others? Why did Charles speak so little about the unique story of his family? These questions remain unanswered.
“You should be proud of yourself and your parents. They were rescuers, righteous. In my opinion, risking your life for the sake of others is the greatest action any human being can do.”
“Yes, he told me, but …. ”
His sister Aida tells more about the “unusual” behavior of their family. In her book “Petit Frère” (Little brother) published in French in 1986, she states: “In the beginning of the war, we understood that the war was here to stay and the Jews would be victims of cruelty. We looked with sadness and sorrow at the Jews. We knew what Genocide was. We, Armenians, were not afraid, as the Nazis considered us Armenians as Aryans.”
The Aznavour family started hiding Jews as early as the 1940’s by giving shelter to a Romanian Jew, who had escaped from Germany. He had deserted the German army in 1940. He had escaped to France with a German soldier’s uniform. The Gestapo looked for him. At the last moment he was brought to the Aznavours’ small apartment by his brother, who was a friend of Mish, Charles’ father. “I can only trust you,” he told Mish. “It was extremely dangerous for our family,” Aida wrote. “If the Nazis found us, we would disappear in a second. We knew it and we were conscious of this fact. However, my father did not hesitate even for a minute. “Our house is your house,” my father told the deserter, “and we treated him as a close and good friend of ours.” For several days he slept in the same bed with Charles. The Aznavours do not know his name, or what happened to him after he left their house.
“I was young at the time,” said Aida. “I did not know that we would continuously be sheltering foreigners.” The children, Charles and Aida, tried to move on. Both were young artists, who wanted to hit the stage and went from audition to audition. They had some success, especially Charles. Aida and Charles were part of a family of survivors, who had lost the majority of their relatives during the genocide. They did not have French citizenship, except Charles, who was born in France. When the French government distributed gas masks to the population in Paris, they gave one mask to every man and woman of all ages. Charles got one because he was French. All the other three got only one gas mask for the three of them. “We were refugees, we were survivors, we were apatrides. We could be killed by gas…..”
One day a madam named Carmen (her real name was Aida), an Armenian woman, came to their house. She needed to hide with her husband Simon, a Jew, who had escaped from the Drancy concentration camp near Paris (the Jews of Paris were sent to Drancy and then to Auschwitz). She did not know where to hide her husband Simon. “She was right to come to us. This was practically only the beginning.” (Simon’s last name also remained unknown; therefore we do now know what happened to him afterwards).
The family gave shelter to Armenians who were taken forcedly into the German army, but later deserted.. Mish and Knar gave them a place to hide. Charles and Aida were actively involved. They burned the uniform of the soldiers who had escaped. Sometimes Charles liked their boots and hid them in the ground floor. He did not realize he risked the lives of his entire family.
Charles and Aida stopped going to school at the age of 10. At the time, even primary education was not free. The Aznavours, refugees with poor French, struggled for their survival doing different temporary jobs. They had no money to send their children to school. The children also looked for opportunities to earn some money.
Paris was in severe austerity partly because thousands of German soldiers used up all the supplies. Many suffered from hunger during that time, and everything was extremely expensive. The black market was thriving, but everything was very expensive…. However, the Aznavour parents were very optimistic. They found ways to give food even to the strangers hiding in their house, sleeping in their small apartment. In the morning they had to be hidden in different corners of the house in case somebody knocked on the door. Friends used to come. But not only friends…. A German neighbor named Liza came several times. It was very dangerous.
The German woman was very proud to explicitly announce that she was a Nazi herself. Most of the refugees slept in the living room on the floor. They used one toilet, not really a bathroom. In the mornings there was not a single sign of the foreigners sleeping there at nights. When the German neighbor visited, all the sheltered people had to stop breathing. However, in the evening after the very modest dinner, they sang quite often. Mish even found ways to bring wine! Aida sang in Yiddish (a Jewish language used by Jews from Eastern and Central Europe) with the Jewish refugees. They knew that the people around them understood that they were giving shelter. “We didn’t speak with anybody about it. Some of them knew, but they kept silent,” she said.
When the French police came to interrogate them, the concierge and his wife said that they had not seen any foreigners coming to visit the Aznavour family.
Mish became the manager of a restaurant called “Raffi,” which became a place where young Armenians who deserted the Nazi armed forces came to ask for a shelter. Besides the three Jews who hid in the house and left, quite many Armenians came to them. “We could not shelter all of them at the same time. After a while they had to leave, because new people came. But we could not send them without any papers that could protect them from to French police and the German authorities. They looked for a solution and it was through forged documents, the falsification of papers. The Aznavours fabricated them in very simple ways, in their apartment. “Only after did I begin to realize how dangerous it was. How could we risk doing so?” Only then, I began to understand how difficult it was for my father. He knew at that time that by saving Jews and Armenians he put the very lives of his beloved family in danger — his children and his wife — and continued consciously to risk again and again….”
The last adventure of the family is related to the story of Missak Manouchian, the leader of the underground military group known as “L’Affiche Rouge” (The Red Poster) or the “Manouchian Group” which was related to the communist Franc-Tireurs et Partisans de Main d’œuvre Immigrée (FTP-MOI). It was the first underground resistance group that took action against the German forces in Paris, including the killing of two very high ranking German officers. The underground network of about 100 members engaged armed resistance in the metropolitan region of Paris between March and November 1943. Among the leaders were Poles, Hungarians, one Italian, one Spaniard, two Armenians — one of them was Manouchian; and only three Frenchmen. The group consisted of 11 members – seven Polish-Jews, three Hungarian-Jews, and a Jewish Romanian woman. Among the photos of the 10 “criminals” posted on the “L’Affiche Rouge” were seven Jews. After being tortured and interrogated for three months (and not telling anything), 23 of them were sentenced by a German court. Twenty two were executed on February 21, 1944. The Jewish Romanian woman, Golda (Olya) Barcic was taken to Stuttgart, where she was beheaded with an axe on May 10, 1944.
In the spring of 1944, the French authorities launched a propaganda campaign designed to discredit the group. The German and French authorities distributed about 15,000 copies of posters including the photos, surnames, and nationalities of the members. They characterized them as the foreigners’ conspiracy against France and the French people.
Charles and Aida expressed a lot of love, esteem and admiration for their parents, who were a wonderful mother and a father, and wonderful human beings. “Everything that we have, we got it from our parents,” said Charles.
The young Armenian poet Missak Manouchian and his wife Meline were close friends of Mish and Knar Aznavour. On November 16, 1943, the Gestapo arrested Missak, while his wife Meline succeeded to escape. She stayed with the Aznavour family till the group was executed. They tried to hide his execution from Meline for a while, but she found out. She continued staying at their house and had a close relationship with Aida. Many of the deserters who passed through the Aznavour house joined the partisans. New deserters came replacing the ones who left and the situation of the family became more and more dangerous. Mish and Knar decided to send Aida and Charles to Normandy. After a while, Knar joined the children and Mish stayed alone in Paris: the photos of his children and wife were always with him.
The Aznavours saved the lives of Jews and Armenians alike. They were Armenians but they did not hesitate to save Jews. They did not save them because they were Jews, but because they were human beings who were in a life threatening situation. The Aznavours were “Justes” — Righteous, they acted to save the lives of people they did not know!
In every humanitarian disaster, instance of ethnic cleansing or genocide, there are perpetrators and there are victims. And then there is the “third Party,” people who are neither perpetrators, nor victims. These are the absolute majority of humanity. Many among the third party support the perpetrators, a small minority supports the victims, and then there is the majority who remains silent — practically almost all of us. Very few choose to support and save people. In every genocide, there are a few righteous souls, who, despite the great risk, take action to save lives. Sometimes their deeds become known later, sometimes not.
The history of the Aznavour family was not known till now. Their unique story of rescuers, Mish, Knar, Aida and Charles is a source of pride for Armenians, and a significant story for Jews to know that there were people who supported them not succumbing to the dominant culture of that period. It is an important and significant story for humanity — to know that there are people who choose to save others. It has an enormous moral educational value. It is crucial to acknowledge these positive deeds, the highest level of human behavior, meaningful and superior to all actions of mankind.
In Jewish sources (the Mishna), as in Muslim sources (the Koran), as well as in other religions, there is this universal sentence: “Thus was created a single man, to teach us that every person who sustains a single soul, it shall be written about him as if he has sustained the entire world.” It shall be written about the Aznavour family as if they sustained the entire world.
I live in the only Palestinian-Jewish village in Israel, Wahat-al-Salam – Neve Shalom (“Oasis of Peace”). Early this year, we inaugurated the Garden of the Righteous — rescuers, in our village. I invited Charles and Aida to come and plant a tree in the memory of their Righteous parents. Hopefully, they will come with their children and grandchildren.
I am an Israeli Jew and a scholar of genocide studies. I am studying the stories of rescuers — “Righteous,” during different genocides. For the last 30 years, I have struggled for recognition of the Armenian Genocide by my country, Israel, and the world.