“They became my children too”: The Multi-layered meanings of family letters from the Jewish Maquis in France


On 6th June 1944, Robert Gamzon, the leader of the Jewish Scouts of France, wrote a letter to his wife, Denise Gamzon about a local underground scout group he’d visited. The group was situated near the southern French city of Castres, just across the Agout river from another team he had worked closely with already. When their leader had to move away, Gamzon assumed charge of this new group too. Writing to his wife, he explained this new development in a code that not only helped obscure its true meaning from the censors but, also, reflected his approach to scouting: “I am now their father too”.1

Robert Gamzon – Yad Vashem Photo Archiv, 4613, 272

Robert Gamzon was born in 1905 and lived until 1961. Aged 18, in 1923, he helped found the Éclaireurs Israélites de France (EIF), the Jewish Scouts of France. These Jewish Scouts formed part of the broader scouting movement in France, alongside other religious denominational groups. Unlike other Jewish youth movements in Europe, however, the EIF was not political and attracted young Jews from across the ideological spectrum. At the outbreak of war, Gamzon served as a communications officer in the French Army, then, after the fall of France in June 1940, he worked to reestablish the EIF in southern France. As yet unoccupied by the Germans, southern France became a refuge for large numbers of Jews seeking to escape the invaders. Following in the increasingly popular tradition of hachsharah – the Hebrew word for ‘training’, given to the Zionist centres that taught young Jews agricultural and other skills in preparation for emigration to the British mandate of Palestine – Gamzon set up rural training camps for Jewish youth to learn agricultural skills and reconnect with their Judaism. As the war went on, the EIF was increasingly radicalized towards underground and resistance activities. All the time operating under the auspices of the sixth division (youth) of the Union Générale des Israélites de France (General Union of Jews in France; UGIF), the EIF developed a clandestine wing known as La Sixième (the sixth). This enabled them to maintain an official above-board presence, while also forging identity papers and smuggling children to safety in Spain and Switzerland. After the EIF was officially disbanded in January 1943, Gamzon moved them further underground, establishing a resistance movement in the southern Tarn mountainous area. By June 1944, this became a full fighting unit named the Compagnie Marc Haguenau, after one of their commanders who was killed in battle.2 What had started as a pre-war scouting movement thus evolved into a ‘maquis’ group, the term used to define guerrilla fighters in the French underground, named after the Italian-derived word for the woods and mountains where such groups mainly operated.3

Letter of Robert Gamzon from June 6th 1944, Yad Vashem Archive, O.75/525.

The wartime period – particularly the latter years of the war – was, therefore, a time of intense adaptation for the EIF and its members. During this time, Robert Gamzon wrote letters to his wife and children in hiding. A collection of ten of these are now held at the Yad Vashem Archives in Israel, donated by Denise Gamzon. Unfortunately, they cover only a short time period towards the end of the war, thus not reflecting the long and developmental journey that Gamzon and the EIF underwent over the course of several years. Nonetheless, spanning May to July 1944, the letters cover a crucial time during which Gamzon transformed the EIF from a half-clandestine scouting and rescue organization into a maquis fighting force. Reading them closely shows how they have multi-layered meanings and held a dual purpose: to emotionally connect two members of a family at a dangerous time and to secretly pass details about maquis activity.

The letters Gamzon sent to his family in hiding offer a window into his personal experience of this, as he shared his feelings and emotions of their successes and failures. In doing so, they make it possible to recognize and understand the human man at the center of a story of persecution and resistance. These letters, however, were more than the personal correspondence of a wartime leader, they were also a means of secret communication about resistance activities. Recognising this dual-purpose changes how we understand the letters as ego-documents (documents made by, or relating to, an individual). The letters form part of multiple historiographies – they are a document created not only for the individual but, also, for the institution and the resistance.

Gamzon the Man, Husband, and Father

On 30th June 1944, Robert Gamzon turned 39 years old. Surrounded by fellow scouts and living an underground existence after Jewish Scouting was banned the previous year, they nonetheless celebrated his birthday with presents and joviality. When Gamzon wrote to his wife a few days later, he recalled the occasion and the gifts of clothes, a book, and a wristwatch he had received.4 But, he also added a deeply personal note, one which stands out among his correspondence as particularly profound. ‘It was’, he said, ‘since the beginning, the only evening where I felt the depression caused by your and the children’s absence. I would have preferred to see fewer children, but my own’. This reflection is a significant remark for Gamzon to have made, as at all other times he talks deeply and passionately about his connection with the scouts as if they were his own children. This single line in his letter therefore serves as a powerful reminder of how his private family life continued and remained something which meant a lot to him. In a narrative so heavily dominated by his work and the familial nature of the scouts, recognising Gamzon’s actual family is an important part of understanding the human man at the centre of this story.

Indeed, the letters show the close connection Gamzon had with his wife, Denise, herself a major part of the Jewish Scouting movement in France. Gamzon treated her as a confidant, expressing his anxieties and uncertainties as well as his pride and triumph at a time when the institutions he worked for and led were in flux. On 10th June, for example, he wrote about how he was unsure which groups he should be in charge of and complained critically about some of the other leaders in the area.5 Conversely, just twelve days later he was full of praise for other key figures in the movement and how well they got on with the scouts.6 Despite this success, in the same letter he commented how he felt uncomfortable, saying ‘it is a bit too beautiful for something so hard’. Gamzon’s unease is understandable, occupying as he did a senior role in an underground movement several years into the Second World War. By reading these letters, we gain a window into his personal anxieties as he presented them, both consciously and unconsciously, to the person who knew him the most. This is a side of Gamzon that is rarely presented in historical literature.7 Indeed, when we think of a hero of the resistance, we don’t imagine a figure plagued with uncertainty and even sometimes depression. Yet we should, because recognising this shows us the individual and the human existence at the centre of a narrative of heroism; it rehumanises a figure otherwise turned into myth; and it makes it possible to understand how Gamzon’s actions influenced his life and how he experienced the war himself.

‘It was the first time in several years that I had two hours of peaceful work’, Gamzon reflected in a letter to his wife on 21st May 1944. Writing from his room in Castres, near the southern French city of Toulouse, Gamzon tells her of the business and intensity of his work. By May 1944, the EIF had undergone several reformulations, becoming increasingly clandestine and oriented towards resistance. The stressfulness of this is brought into sharp focus in his letter of 21st May, where he explains that these two hours were interrupted by news that a close friend of his, Leo Cohn, had been arrested. A pre-war immigrant from Germany, Cohn had become the spiritual leader of the EIF and worked closely with Gamzon at their rural training camp in Lautrec, where he led the scout choir and religious services. Earlier in May 1944, Cohn had succeeded in smuggling his own wife and three children into Switzerland, where they survived the war. He himself, however, was arrested on 16th May while attempting to smuggle another group of children to safety. He was taken to the Drancy internment camp from where he was later deported to his death in Auschwitz on convoy number 77 on 31st July 1944. Cohn’s arrest was the latest in a string of arrests and deportations that decimated the EIF throughout the latter part of the war. When Gamzon reported the news of Cohn’s arrest, he did so in a code, referring to a friend of his, Dr Sigismond Hirsch, who had been arrested, sent to Drancy, and deported to Auschwitz on the 62nd convoy on 20th November 1943. Although Hirsch survived the camp, Gamzon would not have known anything of his fate when he heard that Cohn had been arrested too. ‘He has been taken to the hospital [Gamzon’s code name for Drancy] where Djogo [Gamzon’s code name for Hirsch] was, and had without doubt the same treatment [deportation] as him’ wrote Gamzon plainly. ‘It is terribly sad, I don’t know if I can do well to talk to you about him, as you don’t know anything more, in all cases, we shan’t talk about it to Rachel [Cohn’s wife]’. This heart-breaking line tells of the immense loss and emotional trauma as Gamzon lost yet another close friend, while also thinking of the wider community who knew him and how they might react. It’s juxtaposition in his letter next to a line about the first peaceful work he achieved in years accentuates the ever-changing and challenging environment that so characterised Gamzon’s wartime life. Expressing this rollercoaster of emotion to his wife, our window into how he felt at the time, is arguably best summarised by the last line in this letter: ‘the nature is so beautiful, but the people are so stupid’.

Gamzon the Resistance Fighter

The letters’ second purpose, as a means of communication about underground activities, enables us to learn about how the EIF resistance operated and how Gamzon perceived of its work. Gamzon was the coordinator, a fact that comes through in many of his letters where he describes how he directed others to go on missions and recounts the activities of others under his command. On 22nd June, he wrote that in order to hear news about what had happened to Leo Cohn he had ‘sent Sancho, she is an old EI [Jewish Scout] from Strasbourg and is active and resourceful. I await impatiently her return for news’.8 Later, on 5th July, Gamzon again sought information about what was happening in another part of France, this time sending a girl called Jeanie Cerf to Lyon ‘despite the danger’ that such a trip posed.9 The fact that both of these couriers were female is significant. Women were often used by underground movements across Europe as couriers, largely because they were perceived as being less easily identifiable as Jewish. Gamzon’s comments here resonate with a statement he made after the war concerning Marc Amon, another young scout who helped coordinate underground activities. ‘As from 1943’, Gamzon wrote, ‘his service included to position all the youth of a mobilizing age for the Maquis that I directed, and for social assistance by working as smugglers’.10 When Gamzon wrote this, however, he used the female version of the French word ‘smuggler’ – ‘convoyeuse’ – reflecting his gendered association of smuggling and courier work with women. That we see this gendered division in the letters to his wife reveals how much of an integral part female couriers were in the work of the underground. When Gamzon speaks of them, he is waiting ‘impatiently’; they are the lifeblood of the organization as they provide the intelligence and information vital to its success. In this way, the letters show us how the EIF operated as an underground organization, its similarities with others across Europe, and Gamzon’s central place within its activities.

Click on the annotations in the letter for further information. The annotation of the document was made possible by Neatline (an Omeka plugin).

Letter of Robert Gamzon from June 22nd 1944, Yad Vashem Archive, O.75/525.

Just as Gamzon used code to tell his wife about Leo Cohn’s arrest, he also used coded language to describe the clandestine activities of the increasingly resistance-oriented Jewish scouts. Building on the medium of the family letter, Gamzon employed family terms to refer to maquis groups. On 27-8th May 1944, he told of how he’d met one underground group in Toulouse, writing in his letter that he had met ‘Roger’s children’ and that ‘the atmosphere of this family is remarkable’.11 Similarly, on 6th June he used the term ‘Armand’s children’ to refer to another group in the area.12 This code tells us much about how he approached the resistance. As a scout leader, Gamzon had a close connection to the youth. The familial tone of the letters thus chimes with his familial approach to scouting and the maquis. When he used the phrase ‘my children’ to refer to maquis members, Gamzon showed the profound connection he had with his comrades. The family words employed to communicate news about the resistance were, therefore, more than a code to convey information, they also expressed Gamzon’s relationship with the maquis. Because of this, they hold a dual function, both as ego documents describing Gamzon’s personal experience and as sources that explain how the resistance functioned and what it meant for those involved. As Gamzon reflected in a letter on 5th July, ‘it is a family’.13

The letters also convey the long history of the EIF as a movement that transitioned organically from scouting to resistance during the war. In several letters, Gamzon refers to the ‘colonies de vacances’, the children’s ‘summer camps’ that they organised before and at the beginning of the war as training centres for Jewish youth during their school holidays.14 By summer 1944, however, these were no longer holiday camps, but centres of resistance and rescue. Although certainly partially a further aspect of the coded language Gamzon used to refer to the resistance, the continued use of this term is also again reflective of his broader approach to the underground as something that grew out naturally from pre-war scouting. His reliance on figures like Sancho, a former scout, as well as the preponderance of scout leaders within the higher echelons of his maquis group, further attests to this fact. Gamzon’s letters, as ego documents with their duality of purpose, are ideally placed to convey this reality. The code Gamzon used was a meaningful one, one which reflected his philosophy about the Jewish Scouts and was deeply rooted in it. Because of this, his personal ethos and the work of the group cannot be separated, as they were deeply intertwined and fed off each other. This moves us towards a better understanding of how the Jewish scout maquis was constructed, recognising the long-term trajectory from scout to maquis and the intimate nature of the group.


As the Second World War drew to a close, Robert Gamzon worked as the Free French Army’s area commander for the Tarn area, overseeing the arrival of allied parachutists and saboteurs. On 19th August 1944, his own EIF maquis group was successful in capturing an armored convey and went on to liberate the towns of Castres and Mazamet themselves. In the years that followed, Gamzon issued certificates testifying to the activities of EIF scouts in the resistance, detailing their heroism. Distributed into the individual files of hundreds of young people, many of these are now housed in the Yad Vashem French Underground Jewish Fighters’ Personal Files Collection. In 1949, he emigrated to Israel, where he had a successful career as an electro-acoustical engineer, before his death in 1961.

Reading through his letters to his wife from the spring and summer of 1944 gives us an insight into the personal life and experience of this hero of the resistance. As with other ego-documents, the letters are imbued at every level with Gamzon’s individual personality. Simultaneously, however, they have a clear institutional function, conveying the latest news about the Jewish Scouts and the war, as well as reflecting the institutional structure and modus operandi of the underground. Because of this, they contribute to multiple historiographies, telling us something about resistance, Judaism, youth, and gender in general as well as the specific history of Robert Gamzon, his emotions, and his life experiences. It is in this duality that they are most powerful, revealing how the institutional and the personal are two sides of the same coin. For an organization like the EIF, where individual characters like Gamzon were pivotal for framing the culture of the youth group, this duality sat at the heart of the movement.


Kedward, H. R., In Search of the Maquis: Rural Resistance in Southern France, 1942-1944, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993).

Knout, David, Contribution À L’histoire De La Résistance Juive En France, 1940-1944, Résistance Juive En France, 1940-1944 (Paris: Éditions du Centre, 1947).

Latour, Anny, La Résistance Juive En France (1940-1944), Collection Témoins De Notre Temps (Paris: Stock, 1970).

Lazare, Lucien, Rescue as Resistance: How Jewish Organizations Fought the Holocaust in France (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

Lazare, Lucien, “Gamzon, Robert” Encyclopaedia Judaica, Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik (eds.), 2nd ed., vol. 7, (Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), p. 374.

Lee, Daniel, Pétain’s Jewish Children: French Jewish Youth and the Vichy Regime, 1940-1942 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Moore, Bob, Survivors: Jewish Self-Help and Rescue in Nazi-Occupied Western Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Pougatch, Isaac, Robert Gamzón; Héroe De La Resistencia Judía En Francia, (Buenos Aires: Ejecutivo Sudamericano Del Congreso Judío Mundial, 1969).

Poznanski, Renée, ‘Reflections on Jewish Resistance and Jewish Resistants in France’, Jewish Social Studies, 2 (1995).

  1. Letter of 6th June 1844, Yad Vashem Archives (henceforth YVA) O.75/525, p. 55.
  2. Lucien Lazare, “Gamzon, Robert” Encyclopaedia Judaica, Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik (eds.), 2nd ed., vol. 7, (Macmillan Reference USA, 2007), p. 374.
  3. H. R. Kedward, In Search of the Maquis: Rural Resistance in Southern France, 1942-1944, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), p. 29.
  4. Letter of 5th July 1944, YVA O.75/525, pp. 58-9.
  5. Letter of 10th June 1944, YVA O.75/525, p. 56.
  6. Letter of 22nd June 1944, YVA O.75/525, pp. 57-8.
  7. Daniel Lee, Pétain’s Jewish Children: French Jewish Youth and the Vichy Regime, 1940-1942 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 116-7; Isaac Pougatch, Robert Gamzón; Héroe De La Resistencia Judía En Francia, (Buenos Aires: Ejecutivo Sudamericano Del Congreso Judío Mundial, 1969).
  8. Letter of 22nd June 1944, YVA O.75/525, pp. 57-8.
  9. Letter of 5th July 1944, YVA O.75/525, pp. 58-9.
  10. Certificate by Robert Gamzon regarding his work with Marc Amon, YVA O.89/50, p. 6.
  11. Letter of 27-8th May 1944, YVA O.75/525, pp. 54-5.
  12. Letter of 6th June 1944, YVA O.75/525, p. 55.
  13. Letter of 5th July 1944, YVA O.75/525, pp. 58-9.
  14. Letter of 22nd June 1944, YVA O.75/525, pp. 57-8.

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