Paul Nguyen Cong Anh was a young Vietnamese college student in France who married a Polish Jewish refugee and saved her, along with three of her relatives, from deportation to Nazi death camps.
Paul was born in 1919, when Vietnam was a French colony known as Indochina. He was a bright, inquisitive child who excelled academically, and after high school Paul immigrated to France, where he enrolled at the University of Nice. In college, Paul met fellow student Jadwiga Alfabet, a Polish Jew who was forced to flee Poland after the country was invaded by Germany in 1939. Although much of France was also under German control, Nice, in the south of the country, was occupied by Italy and Jews were relatively safe there.
Paul and Jadwiga both spoke fluent French, but they were foreigners and didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Nice student body. They became friends and, despite their disparate backgrounds, the friendship turned into a romance. Paul proposed to Jadwiga in the summer of 1942 and she said yes. Around this time French police began arresting foreign-born Jews, meaning that Jadwiga was in danger. Paul insisted that they get married immediately because that would give Jadwiga the protection of French citizenship. The couple wed on September 5, 1942 and for a year Jadwiga was safe from Nazi persecution.
Everything changed in September 1943 when Italy surrendered to the Allies. Germany suddenly occupied the Italian-controlled zone in the south of France, meaning that Nice was no longer a safe haven for Jews. Nazi storm troopers began searching for Jews in homes, hotels, even schools and hospitals. No Jew was safe on the streets of Nice. Jadwiga was trapped inside the apartment, and was soon joined by her uncle and aunt, Jakub and Salome Berliner, and their toddler son Roland. For two months, Paul hid his wife and her relatives, keeping them safe and providing for their needs. However it was only a matter of time before Nazis started searching the apartment building. Paul knew the only safe place for Jews in Europe was Switzerland, so he determined to do whatever it took to get his Jewish family members there.
Somehow Paul obtained false identity papers for Jadwiga, Jakub, Salome and Roland. He traveled first with Jakub by train to Annecy, an alpine village near the Alps, where he hired a smuggler to take him safely to Switzerland. Next Paul brought Salome and little Roland to Annecy where the process was repeated. Paul and Jadwiga joined the Berliners and they stayed safe in Switzerland until France was liberated.
After the war ended, Paul and Jadwiga returned to France, where they raised two daughters and enjoyed a 65-year marriage. On April 30, 2007, Paul Nguyen Cong Anh was honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem, the only Vietnamese person to receive the award. Jadwiga was at her husband’s side during the ceremony. That year he was also awarded the French Legion of Honour, the country’s highest order of merit. Paul died in 2008, at age 89.
For saving the lives of four Jews during the Nazi occupation of France, we honor Paul Nguyen Cong Anh as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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