Jeannette Olson

"The United States is the closest country to perfection. Appreciate it. Learn that when people are in power, they can be evil. Watch them."

Name at birth
Jeannette Gerstl
Date of birth
Where were you born?
Where did you grow up?
France until 11 years old, then to the United States
Name of father, occupation
William Gerstl, Custom tailor
Maiden name of mother, occupation
Pauline Gerstl, Seamstress
Immediate family (names, birth order)
Parents and myself
How many in entire extended family?
Who survived the Holocaust?
My parents and I, my father’s family, and some members of my mother’s family.
My parents were living in Vienna, Austria.  After Kristallnacht, in 1938, they decided to flee.  They hired a guide to lead them through a forest known as No Man’s Land, in order to get into Belgium.  It was not possible to enter legally.  They could not bring their belongings, only what they could fit into a backpack and briefcase.  They traveled through Germany by train to Aachen where they and a group of people waited for the guide to take them into Belgium.  
On a freezing, snowy night of January 1, 1939, he led them across the forest, and after a ten hour walk they arrived exhausted.  
Cars sent by a Jewish organization were waiting to take them to Antwerp.  My grandmother and my uncle stayed in Vienna and perished at the hands of the Nazis.  One aunt went to England; one married a Catholic man, and converted to his religion to save her life.
In Antwerp, my mother became pregnant with me.  She decided to terminate the pregnancy but changed her mind at the last minute.  This saved her life twice. In early 1940, Germany invaded Belgium and all Jewish male refugees were rounded up and taken away.  My mother saw my father being herded into a box car and threw him a briefcase filled with food.  He ended up in a French detention camp called St. Cyprien.  
The day after my father was taken, my mother and other Jews boarded a boxcar train to France which transported them to Camp Fremont, in Vallon-en-Sully, another detention camp in France. 
Hundreds of people were incarcerated there for five months, sleeping six or seven people in stalls for horses. Little by little, some nationalities were liberated, including pregnant women. My mother was freed and went to Nice, France. Her life was saved because the Austrian and German Jews could not leave the camp, and were eventually sent to the death camps.    My father and his brother were already in Nice.  They had escaped from St. Cyprien.  My father had made a suit for a captain of the camp who liked him and provided him and my uncle with an identification document that did not reveal that they were Jewish.  .
My mother was reunited with my father in Nice, France.  I was born three weeks later in October 1940.  In 1942, the Germans invaded the south of France and rounded up German and Austrian Jewish men.   My father was hidden by non-Jewish friends who risked their lives doing this. After a while, women with children over the age of three were being rounded up.  
I was not quite three yet, which saved my mother again.  My parents were hidden by the same group of brave people, and I was given away to a non-Jewish couple, Emile and Lily Lasfargues, who took me in as their child.  They promised to return me if my parents survived.  My parents were saved by the Picco and Francone family, French people who hid them in their attic in Vence, France.
In 1944, France was liberated by the Americans.  I was returned to my parents and had to relearn German, as I had forgotten it.  They didn’t speak French and we had difficulties communicating for a while. We left for the United States in 1951.
Where were you in hiding?
Houses of non-Jewish people.
When did you come to the United States?
November 27, 1951
Where did you settle?
We went to New York for ten days and then to Detroit where my father’s sister lived
Occupation after the war
French Teacher
Jerry, Retired Mechanical Engineer
Sheldon, computer engineer; Stacey, medical illustrator; Susan, teacher; Hilary, financial advisor
Seven: six boys and one girl
What do you think helped you to survive?
The heroism of non-Jews who risked their lives by hiding us, as well as my parents’ courage and luck.
What message would you like to leave for future generations?
The United States is the closest country to perfection. Appreciate it. Learn that when people are in power, they can be evil. Watch them.
Charles Silow
Interview date:
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