“Remembering ORT France’s Activities during the War and under Occupation” – an exhibition by ORT Strasbourg
From providing refugees with false papers to providing spirit-raising training programmes in an internment camp, ORT France did more than survive Nazi domination, it resisted it – Jules Bloch, the organisation’s former Director General, was even wounded while fighting for the Resistance.
Its noble wartime record under direct occupation as well as under the collaborationist Vichy regime has been on display at ORT Strasbourg this week in an exhibition timed to encompass Holocaust Remembrance Day. You can see it online here.
Education as a weapon
During the war, ORT France combatted the hopelessness of refugees and internees through training programmes which not only provided purpose but also prolonged lives by postponing the deportation of those who had acquired useful skills.
The courses were an effective weapon against enforced idleness that was physically and mentally debilitating
A source of hope and vitality
Although founded in 1921 as a fundraising organization for World ORT’s programmes in eastern Europe, by the war ORT France had built a network of eight schools and training centres, some of which had boarding facilities to help meet the needs of refugees from Nazism.
The German invasion meant the closure of the schools in the north and the relocation of the headquarters to the south-east of the country which was under the administration of the collaborationist Vichy regime.
There, ORT France added to existing operations to create a network of 14 schools and centres which not only housed refugees but offered them a range of vocational, scientific and agricultural skills which rekindled hope and prolonged lives by enabling many of them to qualify as essential workers.
Among those activities were workshops in four grim internment camps at Rivesaltes, Récébédou, Gurs, and Brens which mirrored ORT’s activities in the ghettos of Kovno and Warsaw. In Brens alone, more than 1,600 people received training and the ORT workshop in Rivesaltes produced 1,500 pairs of shoes which were distributed to needy captives.
ORT goes underground
In addition to its official activities ORT France conducted clandestine operations such as the production of false identity papers in a workshop at Rivesaltes internment camp. This kind of activity became increasingly important as its official centres were forced to close, the last being abandoned in 1944 when the Nazis took over Vichy.
Secret activities included hiding students and staff from deportation round-ups, providing food for those on the run, placing people in jobs and helping others escape the country.
But, despite its best efforts, thousands of its students and teachers – Jews from all nationalities and backgrounds – still perished in the Holocaust.
ORT France rises again
The settling of ORT Strasbourg in the building that had been used by the Gestapo during the occupation is symbolic of ORT France’s post-war re-emergence as a leading force in implementing ORT’s mission of Educating for Life. Today, ORT France’s network of seven colleges provides top quality modern, practical education at high school and tertiary levels that sets its students on the road to success.