The God Within: A Jewish Refugee’s Path to Quakers Perspective

According to Quakers, God is present in everyone. I first learned the great truth of this saying in a time of war, in the strangest of places—the remote Cévennes Mountains of southern France. I was only six years old at the time my Jewish family sought refuge from the Nazis there, but the simple kindness of the many Cévenol villagers who saved us has shaped my life ever since.

The Kindness of Strangers

When I was born, in the fall of 1934, in Brussels, my life seemed charmed right from the beginning. Both my parents were highly respected throughout the community—my father as a popular, free-thinking Chemistry professor, and my mother as a generous friend to all who knew her. Although we were assimilated, non-practicing Jews, my father and his brother recognized the threat presented by Adolf Hitler before most other Europeans. By the time the Germans invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940, the two brothers and their families had sold their apartments, put their furniture in storage, and moved to the southern coast near the French border, ready to flee.

Early on the morning of May 11, the ten of us—my paternal grandparents, my parents, my uncle and aunt, my two cousins, my sister, and I—piled into my grandfather’s big, black Buick and crossed the Belgian border into France. We did not know exactly where we were going or what would happen to us that day and all the days ahead. All we could do was rely on luck, our own wits, and the help of strangers we met along the way.

Le Pays de Misères

Two weeks later, we, the Dujarli families, arrived in the Department of Lozère, deep in the Cévennes Mountains, just northwest of Provence. Although this area is wildly beautiful, with deep, scenic valleys and lush chestnut forests, it was often called "Le Pays de Misères" ("the country of miseries") because of the suffering of the Protestant Huguenots who fled there to escape religious persecution in the 17th century and because of the dearth of natural resources.

By the time we arrived in Lozère, the Germans had invaded and occupied nearly all of France, including the Cévennes Mountains, and harboring Jews was already a dangerously defiant act, even in the unoccupied area where we lived. Even so, the two brothers reasoned, the Germans would seldom enter into this area since it was so sparsely populated, rugged, and resource-poor. More important, the brothers hoped that the descendants of the Huguenots who had escaped here would remember their own history and offer a similar refuge to us. So we stopped there.

The brothers were right. When my father walked into a nearby village and asked for help, the mayor himself found us an abandoned farmhouse where we lived in the open and made friends with the country folk who lived nearby. Still, as the puppet Vichy government intruded more and more into the mountains during the next four years, the two Dujarli families, helped by the community around us, kept moving on, always in search of more isolation and safety.

Our last home was in a remote, two-family hamlet on the other side of the mountain, where we shared a home with a woman called Mamé (grandmother) and her daughter Tata (aunt). By then, my father and uncle were hiding with the French Resistance, which was very active in the area.

Like so many other families throughout France, Mamé’s whole family was suffering from the two world wars. Mamé herself, a large woman with long, dark hair, always wore black in memory of her husband, who had been killed in the First World War; both women survived on a small pension given by the government to compensate for his loss, yet they shared their resources with the four of us—me, my mother and sister, and my baby brother, who was born during the war. Down the mountain from us lived Mamé’s brother, who had been gassed during that war. Depleted in mind and body, the only job he could perform was to sit on a rocking chair by the railroad station and lower and raise the bar over the track crossing whenever a train passed through; the rest of the time he just rocked and napped. In the meantime, for the year and a half we were there, Tata never received any word from her husband, whom we assumed was fighting somewhere in Germany. (Later, we learned he had been a prisoner of war in Germany, and after the war he returned as a broken man, unable to earn a living or even manage the simple chores around the house.)

Although in many ways our lives seemed uneventful, the fear of disclosure was constantly with us, the gnawing fear that one day a single collaborator would tell on us, or that a German soldier would discover and take us away. In fact, a lot of people knew about us but closed their eyes and kept silent. Indeed, a few collaborators who lived in the area told the Germans where some of the Resistance camps were. But there was also a lot of trust in those small communities—and an awareness of who the collaborators were.

One night we heard that a large convoy of German soldiers was approaching our tiny village. Every one in the hamlet, including us refugees, fled to the other side of the mountain and camped in the cemetery grounds the entire night, afraid that the soldiers would come down to demand food or some other kind of favor. But the Germans didn’t want any trouble either. Afraid of a Resistance attack, they kept their lights on all night and left first thing in the morning. That’s how it was in those days; everyone was afraid—soldiers and villagers, friends and enemies alike.

Some months after we arrived, Tata took me along with her to a small group of Quakers who met in a private home nearby. They were called "Les Amis," the French word for Friends. I was introduced to them, as to everyone else in the area, with a false name and identity—France Millard, a distant cousin from the city. As far as I can remember, the meetings did not include singing or any formal programs beyond the silent worship. No more than ten people attended each meeting.

Although I was only nine, I was impressed with the silence and simplicity of these meetings. Most of all, their emphasis on the commonality of all humankind—the sacredness of each individual person, regardless of circumstance or belief—intrigued and consoled me. Here we all were, I thought, surrounded by fear and hatred, yet daring to declare that all people—those whom we loved and those whom we feared—have the potential to be good.

A Grateful Family

After the war, the two Dujarli families emi-grated to Philadelphia, where they started to attend Merion Meeting outside the city and became members of the Religious Society of Friends. Later, as an active adherent to Quaker ways, I went to Swarthmore College and got my first job at Davis House, the Quaker international center in Washington, D.C.

Through the years, we Dujarli children have never forgotten the stoicism and deep ethical commitment of our many friends in the Cévennes Mountains. For me, part of this inspiration also came from my mother, who died of breast cancer just a year after we arrived in this country. Although she had never been religious in a formal way, her sense of ethical responsibility, so intertwined with that of the Cévenol community, inspired all three of her children to work for the betterment of the world around them—my sister through her continued involvement with the Quakers; my brother through the Peace Corps and his development work in Africa; and I through my career as an international education specialist.

On June 2, 2005, over 64 years after the families’ first arrival in southern France, my cousins, brother, and sister decided to honor our friends and their families in southern France with a bench made from local granite. Over 100 local residents and their children attended the dedication ceremony. Many later told me how grateful they were to feel appreciated and to know that their children had learned all that their families had done to better the world. "It was the best day of my life," many people said to me over and over again.

On the bench was the following inscription:


My sister also presented the local community with a small replica of the Liberty Bell and with these words: "After the war, our parents took us to Philadelphia . . . where the great Quaker William Penn, in the 17th century had opened the doors of his colony to those who were persecuted for their religious beliefs. . . . Today we are bringing you a copy of this Liberty Bell, because you also fought for your liberty."

After the ceremony, I learned that a conference of historians held in the Cévenol town of Valleraugue in 1984 concluded that about 800 to 1,000 Jews and other refugees hid in the neighboring Departments (Provinces) of Lozère and Gard during World War II. It concluded: "The majority of the 20,000 to 40,000 inhabitants of this area risked their own lives to hide and protect these refugees ‘with solidarity and without failure.’"

The God Within

Now that I am 71 years old, I can truly say that my life has been charmed, although not in the way that anyone would have suspected back in Brussels, where I was born. Although I remain a Quaker to this day, I am also proud of the ancient religion of my ancestors. I know that my parents, who were persecuted because of their Jewish blood, wanted to shed their ethnic identity once they arrived in the New World.
I also know that Friends faith in the Divine within each of us somehow touched a deep part of their own beliefs —the concern and respect for others that they and their own parents and grandparents had practiced all their lives.

Perhaps, then, I should not have been surprised to discover that many Jews also speak of that little bit of God, which they call the Divine Spark, within each per-son; or that both religions in my life, the Jewish and the Quaker, believe that this "spark" or "presence of God" is both a gift and a responsibility to help our fellow humans in need.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, founder of Panim, the Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, put it this way: "Genesis 1:27 says that the first human was created in the image of God. Judaism derived from this verse the value of ‘tzelem elohim,’ literally the belief that every human being is a divine creature with a spark of God within. It is a value that calls upon Jews to treat every person regardless of race, religion, or ethnic heritage, with the utmost respect and compassion."

"It’s startling to think that you could use these words interchangeably for both the Jewish and Quaker religions," said Byron Sandford, executive director of William Penn House, an International Quaker Center dedicated to promoting social justice. "All of us, no matter where we live and what religion we follow are obligated to make a difference in this world."

Whatever its origin, this image of the divine presence within still inspires me today. True, I have never forgotten the fear and cruelty that one person can inflict on another, especially in a time of war. But I also believe from firsthand experience that the potential for human kindness is inside every person, everywhere—even in the most isolated places in the world.

As a pacifist and a Quaker, France has devoted her life to promoting international peace and understanding through international education. In the 1970s, she toured through Africa under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, advising prospective students on entering and adjusting to U.S. universities. Her research helped to persuade the State Department to include a "Student Advisor" as part of its staff in many U.S. embassies around the world. Recently, France has been a consultant for the Agency for International Development and the Japanese government, and she volunteers for the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA), where she has frequently chaired its Embassy Dialog Committee for Education. She is also active in Rotary International as a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Club.

France’s husband, Dean, also a Quaker, is a social psychologist whose research has focused on conflict resolution as a way to solve international and personal disputes. The couple has three children and four grandchildren, all living in the Washington, D.C., area.

France Pruitt

France Pruitt, a member of Friends Meeting of Washington (D.C.), attends Bethesda (Md.) Meeting. She is a semi-retired international education consultant. Judy Priven, a member of the Adat Shalom Reconstructionist synagogue in Potomac, Md., is a freelance writer specializing in memoirs and the author and publisher of Hello! USA: Everyday Living for International Visitors and Residents.