Today, all around the world, Paris is known as the “City of Light” or the “City of Love,” but 80 years ago, for many inhabitants, Paris was a city of fear. The lights faded, and love became hatred on June 14, 1940, when Nazi soldiers entered the city that inspired so many poets, writers, philosophers and architects. French author Jules Renard once said: “Ajoutez deux lettres à Paris et c’est le paradis” (Add two letters to Paris, and it’s paradise). But on that fateful day, many people thought they were in hell.
Among the Parisians who witnessed the German occupation was Yervante Beurkdjian, an Armenian Christian who lived with his family in Colombes, in the northwestern suburbs of Paris. His wife was an Armenian woman named Elbis, and together they had a son named Alfred-François. Yervante was a kind and helpful man who worked really hard to provide for his family.
At the same time, Joseph and Hélène Goldhamer, who were originally Polish Jews, were living in the third arrondissement of Paris. After falling in love, they got married in the early twenties and opened a small children’s clothing store. Like all Jews who lived in Paris in 1940, the Goldhamers feared the worst, and the worst was about to happen.
In June 1941, a law prescribing the “Aryanization” of Jewish property came into effect, and just like that their business was given to an “Aryan” Frenchman who collaborated with the Germans. With no income, the couple left their apartment and moved into an attic in the same building.
The following year, on July 16, 1942, Joseph and Hélène miraculously escaped arrest during the massive roundup of Jews. All across the city, 13,152 Jews, including 4,115 children, were rounded up by the French police on orders of the Germans and were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The Goldhamers had been lucky, but they knew it wouldn’t be long before the police or the Nazis found them.
Before the war, Yervante was a regular customer of the Goldhamers’ store, so he knew Joseph and Hélène. When he heard about their situation, he immediately listened to his heart. The Beurkdjians knew the terrible consequences of helping or harboring Jews, but as Armenians they also knew what it was like to be persecuted for who you are. So together, they made the decision to risk their own lives to save Joseph and Hélène. They told the Goldhamers to leave their little room and move in with them in Colombes. Yervante even helped the Jewish couple move to his home, while his 10 year-old son stood in the street ready to give the alert if any police truck or German vehicle appeared down the road.
The Beurkdjians were not wealthy, and their apartment was very small, but Yervante and Elbis gave the Goldhamers a room of their own and refused money for it. The Jewish couple stayed with the Armenian family for eight months until the spring of 1943, when the Nazis announced cruel punishments inflicted upon persons caught harboring Jews. In order to spare Yervante’s family further danger, Joseph and Hélène Goldhamer left the apartment in Colombes and managed to hide until the liberation of Paris in August 1944.
When the war was over, the two families reunited and remained very close friends. Joseph and Hélène later settled in Israel, but they never forgot the kindness of the Beurkdjian family. Decades went by, and memories faded, but one man remembered everything. It was Alfred-Francois Beurkdjian, Yervante’s son. In 1982, he managed to find Hélène Goldhamer, who was then 82 years-old, in an emotional moment. That same year, Yad Vashem recognized Yervante and Elbis Beurkdjian as Righteous Among the Nations.
On July 5, 2012, in Paris, the “Association Nationale des Anciens Combattants et Résistants Arméniens” (ANACRA), which is the French Association of Armenian veterans, organized a beautiful ceremony to honor the memory and salute the courage of Yervante and Elbis Beurkdjian. The ceremony was attended by their son Alfred-Francois and by many members of the French-Armenian community.
Yervante and Elbis Beurkdjian could have stood with the crowd and been spectators of these persecutions, but they stood alone and risked their lives to save the Goldhamers. In those days, many Parisians looked at Joseph and Hélène and saw two Jews. But Yervante and his wife just saw two human beings who needed help. In reality, they gave them more than help, they gave them hope. Eighty years ago, in the darkness of war and occupation, light and love were in a tiny apartment in Colombes.