Nadine Rossol, Senior Lecturer at The University of Essex ran a blog forum on Moodle for her Public History course (HR213). As her course is dedicated to the life and work of women in 20th century Britain, her students were asked to write a blog based on women, their lives, and the general issues which women face. In this three-part series, Sophia Pinheiro Vergara is seond to talk about the extraordinary life of ordinary women!
Have you ever thought about ordinary women in history? Throughout time, writers and historians have mostly focused on leaders, the elite, royalty, celebrities, influencers. And very often, these people were men. It’s very easy to forget about the wives, sisters and mothers of those significant, illustrious people – because most of the time, that’s all they were portrayed as. That’s why I’d like to shed some light on the extraordinary lives of ordinary women. Women who maybe were not famous, leaders or royalty, but still have amazing stories to tell. I think it’s time they were heard and celebrated, as they should be.
This story is about Marcelle Vergara, Marcelle Guillemot and Suzanne Spaak. Marcelle and her husband Paul Vergara were both part of the resistance, and he led a centre to hide Jewish children during WWII called La Clairiere. Though Marcelle was not the leader of this resistance group, she helped her husband and their associates, Suzanne and Marcelle Guillemot. Marcelle Vergara often welcomed and hid Jewish children in her home, and with her husband, they would procure false identification papers to send them to safer places. One of the people she hid was a half Jewish young girl, Yvonne Van Nierop, who eventually became her daughter-in-law (Needless to say, Yvonne Van Nierop’s story is a remarkable one as well).
Suzanne found out that there were threats to the children under the protection of a network and contacted Paul and Marcelle Vergara. It was confirmed on the 12th February 1943 that the Jewish children would be deported from the UGIF (Union Générale des Israélites de France) where they had been placed by the Gestapo. The members of La Clairiere asked people loyal to the cause to take out a Jewish child or two from the UGIF for the day – only to never return them. This mission singlehandedly saved 63 children, aged three to eighteen, who were given new identities and taken to safe homes.
On the 16th of February 1943, only days after the miraculous mission, the Gestapo sent agents to La Clairiere community centre, and Marcelle Guillemot was found. She quickly destroyed all compromising information regarding the rescue of the Jewish children and her links to the Resistance. She somehow managed to flee and escape the Gestapo.
Marcelle Vergara, not long after, was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Fresnes prison, a special location used by Germans to hold and question members of the Resistance. She was released later that same year. Her own son was captured and taken to Buchenwald
Suzanne Spaak had to flee and take her children to Belgium in October 1943, only to be arrested later on the 8th of November. She was tortured and sentenced to death in January 1944. On the 12th of August that same year, two weeks before the liberation of Paris, Suzanne was executed.
Suzanne Spaak, Marcelle Vergara and Marcelle Guillemot were all recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations”. It’s an honorific used by Israel to recognise non-Jewish people who helped Jews during WWII and the Holocaust by risking their lives.
These three women, though not particularly famous, had amazing stories to tell. Their bravery and resilience in the face of oppression is a tale to remember and celebrate, as are other countless women’s stories. Though my goal is to share the extraordinary stories of ordinary women, I have to admit this one is special to me because it’s personal, as Marcelle and Paul Vergara are my great-grandparents. Yvonne Van Nierop (now Vergara), the half-Jewish girl they hid, is my grandmother.
There is so much more to these women’s stories to tell, and other women’s stories – which is why I asked at the very beginning: ‘what about ordinary women in history?’ There are many fantastic voices undiscovered, only left to the memories of their families. Most of history has been a world led by men, so much so that women’s history is often cast aside for grander tales of men’s deeds. But women’s lives and stories are no less grand or extraordinary, simply often left to the shadows – they should be celebrated and remembered. To the readers out there, I highly encourage you to share your untold stories for them to never be forgotten, and to remind others that ordinary women have extraordinary lives.
•AJPN, available at: http://www.ajpn.org/juste-Marcelle-Vergara-2753.html, [Accessed 30th November 2017].
•AJPN, available at: http://www.ajpn.org/juste-Suzanne-Spaak-2591.html, [Accessed 30th November 2017].
•AJPN, available at: http://www.ajpn.org/sauvetage-La-Clairiere-121.html, [Accessed 30th November 2017].
•AJPN, available at: http://www.ajpn.org/juste-Marcelle-Guillemot-1364.html, [Accessed 30th November 2017].
•Yad Vashem, available at: http://db.yadvashem.org/righteous/family.html?language=en&itemId=4021460, [Accessed 30th November 2017].