On May 31, 1944, a group of border-runners was apprehended near the town of Annemasse. There were twenty-eight Jewish boys and girls in the group, aged four to sixteen, along with their guide, Marianne Cohn, a young underground activist.
Cohn and the children were imprisoned in a wing of the Pax Hotel, which had been converted into a Gestapo prison. The mayor of Annemasse, Jean Deffaugt, was summoned to the hotel by the underground, and with cunning and courage, persuaded the Gestapo commander to release the youngest children, those aged four to eleven. After Deffaugt promised that he would return the children to the Gestapo upon being ordered to do so, the Germans released seventeen children.
In a complex operation, Deffaugt transferred them to a safe haven. The Gestapo commander was impressed by Deffaugt and gave him a prison entry permit. Before each visit, Deffaught collected food, medicines, blankets, and other vital necessities for the Jewish prisoners. He visited them before they were deported, fed them, bandaged their wounds, and comforted as best he could.
Deffaugt and his wife knew that they were also in danger with the occupation regime. After the war, he admitted, "I was afraid. I never went up the prison steps without crossing myself or murmuring a prayer." Five boys and six girls remained in the Pax Hotel with Cohn. They were marched along the street every day en route to the various tasks their jailers had imposed. The Jewish underground asked Deffaugt to smuggle Cohn out of the prison by waiting with a car at the street corner and abducting her as she walked by with the children. When Cohn heard the plan from Deffaught, she demurred, considering it her mission to look after the children. She refused to abandon them and feared that the Germans would punish them if she escaped. Aware that her survival chances as a Jew were nil, she courageously told her interrogators, "I have saved more than two hundred children, and if I were free, I would continue to do so."
On the night of July 8, 1944, twenty-year-old Cohn was abducted from the prison and murdered by the French militia. Later that month, the Gestapo commander in Annemasse informed Deffaugt that the children had to "disappear" due to congestion in the hotel prison. Deffaugt foiled this scheme and once more effected the conditional release of all the children. On the last Sunday of July 1944, these children were taken to join the younger children.
Annemasse was liberated on August 18, and all the Jewish children were relocated to Geneva, where they were sent to Jewish organizations who oversaw their rehabilitation. Twenty years later, Deffaugt was still in touch with most of the children, receiving moving letters from Alsace, England, and Israel. In their correspondence, the survivors often mentioned Marianne Cohn, who had given her life on their behalf.
On February 25, 1966, Yad Vashem recognized Jean Deffaugt as Righteous among the Nations.
Sources: Yad Vashem