Columbia educator Aline Kultgen remembers the Holocaust

Tuesday, May 4, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:14 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Aline Kultgen sits in her living room on Monday. Kultgen was born in France and grew up during the German occupation of World War II. She spoke at the Mizzou Hillel about the Holocaust.

COLUMBIA — Aline Kultgen was only 3 when the Nazis invaded France, putting her Jewish family at risk of violent persecution and eventually leading to the death of her father.

Now, nearly 70 years later, she's making sure no one forgets it.


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Kultgen, a retired French teacher who has lived in Columbia for almost 40 years, often speaks to groups about the Holocaust and how her family left Paris and struggled to make a living by farming after the Germans occupied France.

She talks about the French who suffered under the Nazis, including her father who worked for the Resistance, was arrested, brutally interrogated and killed.

“When people think about the Holocaust, they usually think about Eastern Europe: Germany, Poland and the Ukraine, but it was happening all over in Europe, she said.

Later she came to America with an aunt and uncle, studied at the University of California-Berkeley, moved around the country, finally settled in Columbia and taught in the public schools.

For most of those years, she has dedicated her life to fighting for peace and educating others. She is a firm believer that if the past is forgotten, it is doomed to be repeated.

Her mission began 70 years ago when the Nazis stormed her country and began their systematic purge of Jews.

It was May 10, 1940, when the Germans began their push into Belgium, Holland and, ultimately, France. After France surrendered on June 22, the Nazis divided the country into what they called the Occupied Zone in the north and a Free Zone in the south.

Nearly 76,000 Jews in France were deported to the death camps in the early 1940s, but Kultgen and her parents managed to keep a low profile in the south, which was under a puppet German government but unoccupied by soldiers.

Kultgen, 72, doesn't consider herself a Holocaust survivor. She thinks the words are more appropriately applied to the tiny fraction of European Jews who managed to escape death in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

She was too young to remember what her home country was like prior to Nazi occupation, she said. Nor does she remember much about her biological parents, who had died by the time she left for America at age 9.

“I had a normal childhood in some ways,” she said. “I knew that things were going on and I was scared, but I’m not sure to what extent I understood.”

Her father, Yves, was born in Palestine — now Israel —  then moved to France to study medicine. Kultgen's mother was a Jewish immigrant as well, fleeing her native Ukraine after the Russian Revolution.

Her parents met in Paris, married and had Aline. They were there when the war broke out.

Kultgen’s father was drafted into the French army when war was declared. Six weeks later, the fighting was over.

Meanwhile, in the southern French town Brives, Kultgen's mother had died from an infection that would have been easily treated by modern antibiotics, leaving her daughter in the care of her father’s sister, Alice, and her husband, Robert.

After the fighting, the family was reunited in Marseille where they spent a difficult year before moving to a farm in Vaucluse for another year. Kultgen's father later went to Lyon to direct the information service of the Resistance movement; during that time, Kultgen stayed in nearby Le Puy with her aunt and uncle.

Blending in was relatively easy. She was a French native, along with her Catholic uncle. Although her aunt had emigrated from Israel like her father, she was a secular Jew and had been in France long enough to be fluent in the language and culture.

This gave them a leg up over many Jewish refugees from war-torn Eastern Europe who had a more difficult time avoiding attention.

“If someone asked, I was told to say I was Protestant. I’m not even sure that I knew I was Jewish.”

Now, a casual observer might not know she was born in France. She doesn’t have a noticeable accent, although she speaks French with a native’s pronunciation and confidence. She admires her adopted city, smiling at squirrels dashing through the trees that grow up to her back door on a steep hill in her forested back yard.

She doesn’t hesitate as she recalls her and her family’s past, but she’s audibly somber at times, especially when she discusses particular hardships.

Working a farm was difficult, for instance. Kultgen describes her family as “city folk” who didn’t know the first thing about agriculture. Since farm owners were not provided ration cards, they had a hard time scraping by.

They had to be on the lookout for other ways to eat. Kultgen said her aunt had a nice stroller from the city for walking Aline — so nice that neighbors took notice and offered a trade.

That luxurious stroller became two large sacks of barley, which would be a mainstay in their diet for months.

“We had barley soups, barley desserts, my aunt even roasted barley to make coffee,” she recalled in a recent talk in Ellis Auditorium. “I don’t think she ever ate barley again.”

Their stay on the farm came to an end more abruptly than planned. Some neighbors were always suspicious of her family. Eventually, someone reported them to French authorities.

Although they were in unoccupied France, the government collaborated with the Germans. Kultgen still remembers being rushed to pack up and leave quickly on a bus.

Had they waited another hour, they would have been arrested, she said.

Kultgen then moved with her aunt and uncle to Le Puy where she lived until they left for America. At the end of the war, Kultgen’s aunt and uncle adopted her because her father never returned from his service with the Resistance movement.

Kultgen’s surviving family did their best to shelter her from the details surrounding her father’s death, but in recent years she has learned more. 

Some came from a book of reports detailing events by witnesses, captured guards and others during and after the war; others are in a collection of testimonials compiled by her uncle so she would be aware of her father’s character.

She now knows that a woman in her father’s Resistance group was having an affair with a German officer, and her information led to dozens of arrests, including Yves'.

He was held in Montluc, a municipal prison still in use near Lyon, from which he was shuttled to Gestapo headquarters for brutal interrogation.

Meanwhile, the Allies had landed in Normandy and were sweeping east across France. Other Allied troops coming north from the Mediterranean were less than 30 miles away. German troops were falling back and destroying evidence of their crimes.

On Aug. 20, 1944, the Nazis rounded up two busloads of prisoners and took them to a nearby cemetery where they were taken to the caretaker’s house and shot. The Nazis then burned the bodies and blew up the building.

An estimated 120 people died that day. The only evidence Kultgen had that her father was among them was a small piece of fabric that her uncle identified as part of a shirt he was wearing.

Even after losing both her parents, Kultgen considers her childhood far better than others.

Circumstances weren’t as fortunate for many Jewish children during and after the war, she said: “A lot of children my age were sent to Auschwitz, or had to hide, or were placed with families in less than ideal situations. I was really lucky.”

In 1947, Kultgen's adoptive parents brought her to California.

She attended the University of California-Berkeley as the Civil Rights movement was unfolding and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

“It was the beginning of the free speech movement, an exciting time,” Kultgen said in her living room. “Everyone was majoring in sociology. We were going to change the world.”

She reflected for a moment on the history after the Holocaust and the fight for civil rights in America, then softly conceded that “we never did.”

“We’ve come a long way in civil rights but we still have a long way to go,” she said later, over the phone.

“We talk about the Holocaust and genocide, but there are still genocides going on now. Sudan, Congo, Rwanda, Darfur, Yugoslavia, Bosnia. There are still a lot of people killing other people and a lot of intolerance. Our work is not done, not by a long shot.”

She married her first husband in California, before moving first to Minnesota, then Iowa where her daughter, Rachel, was born in 1964, then back to California where she gave birth to son, Daniel, in 1966.

She moved to Toronto in 1969 and then came to Columbia in 1972.

Before becoming a teacher, she worked in Minnesota with the National Urban League and then as a social worker for the county welfare department, licensing foster homes.

It was in Toronto that she first began working in a classroom, teaching French in the newly bilingual nation. After moving to Columbia, she first worked with students who had learning disabilities at Oakland Junior High School, then taught French there and at Jefferson Junior High until her retirement.

She quickly earned the admiration of other people in her department, including Annice Wetzel, a good friend and former colleague who now coordinates elementary French at MU.

“Her background is in learning disabilities,” Wetzel said. “She is basically able to teach anybody anything. She brought that to how we did French.”

Wetzel credits Kultgen for writing a curriculum and compiling a notebook of activities that came to be used at almost every school in the district.

“Her students really appreciated her thoroughness,” Wetzel said. “She is able to break down complicated concepts into teachable parts. She really knows how to teach something."

Her ability and commitment earned Kultgen the Lewis Award, given to outstanding teachers as recognized by their peers, in the late 1980s.

Her dedication to Holocaust remembrance was inspired by visits to France that revived childhood memories. 

She first returned with her children in 1972, and they traveled to Lyon to see a memorial built in honor of her father and other prisoners who were killed.

In 2004, she was part of a group of educators who spent several weeks studying on a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The experience was “life changing” for her. Though she’d been back to Lyon and had seen her father’s grave, there was something different about talking to people who had lived through it. They attended seminars in a Holocaust museum that had been Gestapo headquarters.

“There were still cells you could see downstairs as part of the museum,” she said. “It was real to me in the present and real to me in the past. It was really emotionally and intellectually a huge challenge.”

Since then, she’s given dozens of lectures on the Holocaust and her experiences.

Kultgen and her husband divorced after coming to Columbia, and in 1980 she married John Kultgen, an MU professor of philosophy who also has been an advocate for peace through the peace studies program on campus.

In the Kultgen's home it is apparent how much her family means to her. Dozens of pictures of her parents, two children and three grandchildren adorn a chest against the wall. She also treasures works by her adoptive mother, local artist Alice de Boton, who lived in Columbia until her death in April.

“She’s very social, very intense, and she’s very intelligent,” her husband said. “I think she’s concerned about people and concerned about social problems. The result is she gets out in the world.”

During Holocaust Remembrance Week in April, she gave a lecture to about 70 people in Ellis Auditorium regarding her experiences in France during the 1940s. She told them we should do more than just remember.

“We mustn’t think of the Nazi perpetrators as these monsters unique to this period, that they’re gone and we don’t have to worry about it,” Kultgen told her audience.

“The seeds for what the Nazis did exist in all of us, including you and me. Under the right circumstances, normal people can do evil things.

"We must learn from the past so that this doesn’t happen and stand up for our convictions despite what others are doing.”


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