Michael Klahr – French Holocaust history in Maine

I learned about Maine’s historical connection to the tragedy of the Holocaust while visiting the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in Augusta and speaking with the Executive Director Shenna Bellows. Between 1941 and 1945, around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe, or about 6 million people, were systemically murdered during the Holocaust.

During the Jewish High Holy Days, when observances are held during Rosh Hashanah (“Jewish New Year”) and Yom Kippur(“Day of Atonement”); I thought about this as an appropriate time for Maine people and our state’s Franco-Americans to learn about the French history connected to the Holocaust.

Michael Klahr (1937-1998) was a Jewish survivor. His survival during the Nazi occupation in France while hiding on a rabbit farm is a story about tragedy that ultimately led him to Maine. In spite of the challenges of being an orphan of the Holocaust, he arrived in New York City, along with other orphans after World War II, and eventually became a successful businessman.

Moreover, he found the love of his life when he married Phyllis Jalbert, a Maine native.

Coincidentally, while researching for this blog, I happened to find a photograph taken when my husband and I were on one of our visits to Paris, about 15 years ago. This picture is a plaque I saw embedded in a concrete wall, seen while my husband and I were walking.  It sadly describes what happened to a group of French Jewish children who had been hiding in Paris, until the Nazis found them.

Holocaust children's plaque in Paris

Plaque mounted in a concrete wall located in Paris. This plaque is located in Paris at Promenade Sur La Butte Montmartre. (L’Heureux photograph)

Michael Klahr video is at this link:  https://vimeo.com/150181176

Michael Klahr was hidden on a French rabbit farm by his parents, to protect him from being captured.

Appreciation goes out to the staff at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center (HHRC) in Augusta, for making this information available to the public.

“More than a million Jewish children died in the Holocaust. When I ask myself why I survived, I look at my children. I lived for them. Here I am, fifty years after losing my parents, after losing my childhood, here I am holding my grandson – and telling my story to you. That’s what it means to survive.”

– Michael Klahr, 1997

Michael Klahr

Michael Klahr was a survivor of the Holocaust. He was hidden on a rabbit farm in France by his parents. (HHRC photograph)

Michael’s Story – The Michael Klahr Center is named in honor of a child Holocaust survivor who eventually settled in Maine.

In May of 2008, the Michael Klahr Center at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center transformed the building’s entrance to include an interactive mixed media installation called “Michael’s Story“.

Vivid murals, archival photographs, and a short original film combine with artifacts of startling emotional resonance, to describe the history of a hidden child of the Holocaust – a survivor whose legacy now touches every visitor to the splendid Center that bears his name.

“My parents must have heard the stories, everybody did. Terrible stories about work camps and death camps and Nazis killing all the Jews.”

“One morning at dawn we packed, just a few bags, and without telling a soul we were leaving or where we were going, we boarded a train to Lyon, about four hours from Paris. We left everything behind – furniture, silver, my toys – everything we owned. The Nazis took it all.”

“I lived with the rabbits as a hidden child from the Winter of 1943 to the end of the war. In those three years I had no friends, I never went to school, and both of my parents were murdered.”

Naming donor Phyllis Jalbert spoke at the public opening of the Michael Klahr Center about her late husband and his legacy . . .

architecture of HHRC

Holocaust Human Rights Center (HHRC) of Maine, University of Maine, Location: Augusta ME, Architect: Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbot, SBRA

Michel Klahr was only five years old in the winter of 1943, when his parents found a place to hide him. A rabbit farm in the village of La Tronche outside Grenoble, some five hundred kilometers from his home in Paris.

Michel lived in the hayloft because the house wasn’t safe, and he could only come down late at night – after the SS patrols. The boots, he would say, he remembered their boots. Peering down through the cracks in the floorboards, frozen stiff on his belly, he could see their tall black boots. And the dust they raised searching the barn made it hard not to sneeze. It wasn’t a game. It wasn’t like hide-and-go-seek.

Of the thirty-five thousand Jewish children living in Paris in 1941, almost all of their stories ended suddenly. Most of them never grew up.

Only a few people remember these events.

One lucky boy escaped, grew up, did well – and never forgot.

“This splendid Human Rights Center, isn’t just for Michael,” said Ms. Jalbert at the HHRC opening. “It’s for you. For your grandparents and parents, your children and grandchildren. It’s for us – here, to explain now. Hatred wears many faces – we are all survivors of something.”  At the HHRC, the Klahr Center is as an active, living resource for learning lessons of the past and applying them to today’s world.

Klahr was born in Paris in 1937. His mother was deported and probably killed, and his father was shot by the Nazis. In 1946, Klahr arrived on an orphan ship in the United States. He became successful in New York after investing in real estate. He later moved to Maine, where he married Phyllis Jalbert. The two ran sporting camps until Klahr died, in 1998.

The positive message carries over into the very design of the HHRC building’s structure, because the founders deliberately avoided incorporating death camp imagery.
Newpaper reports published at the time of the opening described the creation of the Klahr Center.

With a succession of four curved roof lines arching toward the southern sky before ending abruptly with walls of glass, the architecture is striking. But inside the new home of Maine’s Holocaust and Human Rights Center, visitors may find what they see and hear even more moving.

“We didn’t want to concentrate on the darkness of the Holocaust. We wanted something more hopeful,” said one of the building’s designers.

A competition for a winning design attracted more than 120 submissions. A Boston firm’s drawings were selected. Harold Hon of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott said he and fellow architect Son Wooten visited other Holocaust centers and museums and read up on the Maine group’s mission as they formulated a design.

“We came up with the idea of a flower,” said Hon. “The light bulb went on… The architects ended up with a design that resembles petals of a flower, a symbol of life and renewal.

For all his childhood suffering, Michael Klahr was an optimist. “Bad is good”, he liked to say. “Look closer, work harder, find the opportunity in loss.” The future, Michael believed, was our strongest asset.

The gift of Phyllis Jalbert, Michael’s Story was written and directed for HHRC by Jeffrey Lee Pressman, video design by Matt Dibble of Dockyard Media, sound design by Douglas Quin of dqmedia, artifact case design and installation by Don Bassett and Robert Katz.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.