The site of Louis Malle’s film Au revoir les enfants was the Petit-Collège d’Avon, a residential prep school located on the grounds of the Carmelite monastery abutting the park of the fabled French palace of Fontainebleau. Malle attended this school during World War II and was deeply influenced both by its founder and headmaster, Père Jacques, and by the events of those days, which, forty years later, he poignantly explored on film.
Those events took place in Nazi-occupied France. By the fall of 1940, one year after the German invasion of Poland, the Nazis dominated almost all of continental Europe, including France, which had been overwhelmingly defeated by Hitler’s forces. Everywhere in occupied Europe, Jews were subject, sooner or later, to the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazis and eventually targeted for extermination. As the Nazi vise tightened in France, two key trends emerged: many Jews sought to escape detection by hiding or fleeing, and, gradually, a small network of Christian rescuers grew and came to the aid of the persecuted Jews.
In France, geography aided those Jews seeking to hide, since there were countless small villages and scattered farms, especially in the southern half of the country. For those in flight, France provided potential, but often perilous, routes to Spain and Switzerland, officially neutral neighboring countries, where the dream of safety still survived. The Christian rescuers in France worked clandestinely to provide hiding places, forged documents, escape routes, and, above all, hope to the persecuted Jews. Those Christian rescuers contributed to the fact that 75 percent of French Jews survived the war, a far higher proportion than in Belgium or the Netherlands. Still, of the 300,000 Jews in France, 75,000 perished.
In Au revoir les enfants, Malle was not aiming to produce a documentary film about the Holocaust in France. Rather, he was striving to evoke his experience during the darkest days of the Nazi occupation, especially the day on which his Jewish schoolmates and Père Jacques were arrested and taken away, never to return.
Père Jacques, legally named Lucien Bunel, was the third of seven children in a close, devoutly Catholic, working-class family. He was born in 1900, in Barentin, a Norman mill town in the Seine Valley, near Rouen. From his boyhood years, Bunel developed four enduring characteristics: a deep religious faith, a tireless work ethic, an active love of learning, and a staunch sense of social justice. In 1912, he left home to enter the seminary in Rouen, and for the next thirteen years, until his ordination to the priesthood, he devoted himself to his studies and contemplative prayer. He excelled in French literature and foreign languages. Socially, he emerged as a youth leader of exceptional merit, particularly as director of the summer programs for the needy youngsters of his home parish. During these years, the impact of distant events first directly impinged on him. His brother André was killed in World War I. His own two years of compulsory military service brusquely introduced him to the harsher realities of modern life.
Because of his outstanding performance in the seminary, Bunel was eventually selected to serve, first as a proctor and subsequently as a teacher of religion and English, at St. Joseph’s Institute, a distinguished Catholic prep school for boys in Le Havre. Very quickly, the young Father Bunel won the admiration of his colleagues and students for his total dedication and innovative teaching methods, taking an interest in each pupil’s personal progress and unpretentiously practicing the moral ideals he preached in the chapel and explored in the classroom. Still, Father Bunel longed for a stricter, more contemplative life. This quest led him, in 1931, to enter the Carmelite monastery in Lille. The Carmelites had a long, rich tradition of spirituality, but they were not a teaching order. Not long after Father Bunel entered, however, the Carmelite leadership determined that the future of their order required the establishment of a premier Catholic preparatory school for boys, some of whom would potentially join the order in the years ahead.
Père Jacques, as Father Bunel was now called, was, of course, superbly suited to undertake the establishment of such a school. He was enthusiastically selected for the position of founding headmaster. He toiled tirelessly to make the school first a reality and then a model of educational excellence. The Petit-Collège d’Avon first opened its doors for the fall term of 1934 and quickly became one of the most highly regarded Catholic schools in France. Its student body included sons of several of the most prominent Catholic families in France, boys like Louis Malle and his brother.
From its planning to its staffing, every dimension of the organization and operation of the school reflected the guiding spirit of Père Jacques. The idyllic early days of the school ended, however, in September 1938. For Père Jacques, the Czech crisis meant a call-up to military service, and the Munich Accords, far from guaranteeing peace, represented the betrayal by France of its faithful friend Czechoslovakia. He prophetically asked at the time: “How many French citizens no longer appreciate that death is preferable to dishonor?”
With the outbreak of World War II, in September 1939, Père Jacques was called up once again for military service. With the fall of France, in June 1940, he became a German prisoner of war, after his entire artillery battery was captured near Lunéville, in eastern France. Eventually, he was released and returned to Avon, in time to prepare for the delayed reopening of the Petit-Collège, in January 1941. France was now markedly different. The country was not only defeated militarily but also demoralized and divided. The Germans occupied the northern half of the country (including Paris and Avon). A nominally autonomous, but increasingly collaborationist, French regime ruled in the southern half, often called the Free Zone, or simply Vichy.
Gradually, the essential depravity of the Nazi and Vichy authorities was revealed. For conscientious Christians like Père Jacques, the government’s anti-Semitic policies were particularly repugnant. Père Jacques considered Jews theologically to be God’s chosen people and humanly to be his brothers and sisters. He was outraged when he saw his friend Lucien Weil, a distinguished botanist and fellow member of the local Resistance network, wearing the yellow star, as all Jews were required to do. After Professor Weil was deprived of his teaching post at the Lycée Carnot, in Fontainebleau, Père Jacques welcomed him to teach science at the Petit-Collège when school reopened in the fall of 1942.
By this time, there had emerged in France a small but crucially important spiritual resistance movement called Christian Witness (Témoignage chrétien). Through its underground publications, that movement awakened the consciences of countless Christians to the fundamental immorality of Nazism and to the urgency of helping persecuted Jews. In the spirit of this movement, Père Jacques was contacted and implored to shelter three Jewish boys who were in grave danger of deportation and death.
Au revoir les enfants re-creates the experiences of those three Jewish students at the Petit-Collège d’Avon. The film concludes with the arrest of the boys and Père Jacques. The three Jewish students were deported directly to Auschwitz, where they were executed upon arrival, along with their science teacher, Professor Weil—who had been deported on the same train—and his family.
Père Jacques was eventually condemned to the Mauthausen concentration camp, in Austria. Within the camp, he quickly won the respect and admiration of his fellow prisoners, even the Communists. More than anything else, his selfless care for the sick and the dying, to whom he routinely gave half of his meager ration of food, touched his fellow French-speaking prisoners. They unanimously chose Père Jacques to represent them in their interactions with the liberating forces and the home countries of those who survived when their release finally approached, in May 1945.
By then, Père Jacques weighed only seventy-five pounds and showed undeniable signs of terminal pneumonia. Still, he refused special transport back to France and pledged to remain until the last French prisoner was repatriated. Four weeks later, he died in Linz, Austria. His remains were returned to France, where he was buried in the monastery garden of the Petit-Collège, on June 26, 1945. At his burial, Rabbi Jacob Kaplan, the future Grand Rabbi of France, eulogized Père Jacques with these words: “Thus we have seen cruelty pushed to its extreme horror and benevolence carried to its highest degree of nobility and beauty.”