Sunday, September 13, 2015

Denise Levy-Gamzon (1909-2002)

Denise Levy, the only child of Maximilian and Sophie Levy, was born in Paris on 26 April 1909.

On 4 August 1930 Denise, who had a master’s degree in German literature and was a counselor in the scouting organization EIF (Les Eclaireurs IsraĆ©lites de France), married the founder and director of the movement, Robert Gamzon, an acoustics engineer. In 1934 she was the secretary of the International Committee for Refugee Intellectuals and in 1936 worked for both WIZO and the Jewish National Fund. 

A woman with strong left-wing political leanings, Denise supported both the Zionist movement and the movement for social justice. Upon joining the EIF leadership, known as the Conseil National, she became the first Jewish woman in France to hold a high-ranking position in a community institution.

When World War II broke out, Robert was drafted together with most of the male members of the movement and Denise coordinated the evacuation from Paris of the children of needy Jewish refugees. While the authorities evacuated the children of holders of French citizenship, the EIF movement decided to take responsibility for the fate of the children of Jewish foreigners.

The plan included opening children’s homes in the country districts of southern France, establishing technical and educational teams to operate them and, of course, fundraising—of which Denise was in charge—in order to finance the entire project. In the summer of 1940, after France was defeated and the movement’s members demobilized, they opened a number of farms. She was appointed as the director of the agricultural center in the village of Lautrec in the Tarn district, which comprised a hakhsharah and two farms. At the beginning of the summer of 1942, the center took in three Jewish boys and a group of thirty Jewish girls, all of whom came from the internment camps. When she learned of their impending arrest in August 1942, she went into action, guiding the children to a hiding place in the nearby forest and arranging a smuggling route for the girls until they were taken into permanent hiding places, some of them in Switzerland. In December 1942, when Denise was about to give birth to her third child, she was released from her position as director of the agricultural center but continued to work as part of the EIF’s underground, known as “the sixth”, which engaged primarily in hiding adolescents.

After the war, together with her husband, who had joined the Maquis in 1944, Denise established the Gilbert Bloch College for the training of young leaders in Orsay, in the suburbs of Paris. With their four children (Lilette, Daniel, Elie and Myriam) and a group of their students, the Gamzons emigrated to Israel in 1949 and first settled in the religious kibbutz, Sde Eliyahu, and then in Nir Etzion. In 1953 they moved to Herzliya.

Robert worked as an engineer, while Denise taught French at high schools of the Alliance IsraĆ©lite Universelle in Ramat Aviv. In 1959 Robert was engaged by the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot. After his death in September 1961 Denise began teaching at Tel Aviv University. In 1970 she successfully gained a doctoral degree with honors from the Sorbonne for a thesis on “Aspects of the Old Testament in the Poetic and Dramatic Works of Paul Claudel.” She retired from university teaching in 1977, moved to Jerusalem in order to be near her daughter Myriam, published her memoirs in 1997, and died at the Hod Yerushalayim retirement home on October 26, 2002.

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