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Behind the Scenes in Wartime France

In a new film, a Stanford lecturer recalls being hidden from the Nazis as a child.

Courtesy Sally Rubin

FAMILY FIRST: “I had to take care of my sister, so I didn’t stay a child very long,” says Langmuir.

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View clips from Tombées du Ciel (They Fell from the Sky).


“I remember taking the stars off,” Nelee Langmuir says softly as she looks at images of Paris on the screen.

The senior lecturer in French is recalling the yellow fabric stars that Jews in Nazi-occupied France were required to wear beginning in June 1942. The 11-year-old Langmuir, born Nelee Rainès-Lambé, sewed them onto coat lapels that her mother, father and younger sister wore. By the time she cut them off two years later, most of her extended family members had perished in ghettos and camps in Lithuania and Poland. But her nuclear family had survived, thanks to friends who housed and protected them.

Langmuir emigrated to the United States in 1949 and has taught French at Stanford since 1972. She is putting the final editing touches on a DVD titled Tombées du Ciel (They Fell from the Sky) that will be a language-teaching tool and a carefully documented oral history project.

Using still photographs interspersed with recollections of events, the film tells the story of two of World War II’s so-called “hidden children”—Langmuir and her younger sister, Mina. They are spirited into unoccupied France by a one-eyed veteran, live in his home (a meeting place for leaders of the Resistance) and, with five new “sisters and brothers,” attend Catholic school, where they learn to make the sign of the cross. The young girls’ constant worry about the safety of their parents, who leave Paris concealed in a wooden box under the false floor of a meat truck, is palpable. “I had to take care of my sister, so I didn’t stay a child very long,” Langmuir says.

Paris Before the War poster
VIDEO: Paris Before the War.

Telling the story took a village—or at least a campus. When Kathryn Strachota, a senior lecturer in German, heard about Langmuir’s plans to return to France in 1998 for a reunion with the family that had shielded her, Strachota championed a film project that would document the sisters’ wartime journeys. Joseph Kautz, head of Meyer Library’s digital language lab, loaned Langmuir a Sony digital camcorder and taught her how to use it. Sally Rubin, a 2004 graduate of the documentary film and video master’s program, watched the interviews Langmuir taped and created a storyboard of index cards on the walls of Langmuir’s office. The division of literatures, cultures and languages, the program in Jewish studies, the Language Center, and the Humanities and Sciences dean’s office helped finance the project.

Colleagues and students have previewed the film. Audrey Calefas, a lecturer in French who enrolled in Occupation in France: Between History and Memory in winter quarter, says she was fighting back tears when the lights went up. “It’s wonderful to see the family that helped Nelee and her sister,” Calefas says. “One of the women talks about how, as a Catholic, she had to protect and teach those little Jewish girls, and that really touched my heart. Seeing those adults putting themselves back into the children they were is wonderful, and very authentic—like a movement of the heart.”


Online Exclusive: View clips from Tombées du Ciel (They Fell from the Sky)


Paris Before the War


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