Through the Morgue Door: One Woman’s Sto­ry of Sur­vival and Sav­ing Chil­dren in Ger­man-Occu­pied Paris

  • Review
By – February 13, 2024

Col­lette Brull-Ulmann was a twen­ty-two-year-old med­ical intern at the Roth­schild Hos­pi­tal in Paris dur­ing the Nazi occu­pa­tion when she slipped off her man­dat­ed yel­low star and joined a team to smug­gle chil­dren from the hos­pi­tal. Her bold deed is remark­able enough — but what is even more remark­able is that, after sev­en decades of keep­ing the sto­ry to her­self, she wrote a mem­oir about it. Brull-Ulmann’s sto­ry was first pub­lished in French in 2017. She died in 2021 at the age of 101

Through the Morgue Door is non­fic­tion, but it is so vivid­ly writ­ten and full of sus­pense that it reads like a nov­el. That is in part due to Brull-Ulmann’s col­lab­o­ra­tor, French jour­nal­ist Jean-Christophe Portes. He com­piled her notes, inter­viewed her at length, and helped shape this grip­ping story.

Trans­la­tor Anne Lan­dau writes in her intro­duc­tion, Roth­schild is a micro­cosm of occu­pied Paris, and Brull-Ulmann’s mem­oir is a micro­cosm of Jew­ish life at that time … she hides noth­ing.” The book thus gives an inti­mate view of Jew­ish life under the Nazi occu­pa­tion, as well as one young woman’s jour­ney from inno­cence through ter­ror to dar­ing resistance.

The hos­pi­tal, built by the wealthy Roth­schilds in the late 1800s, was locat­ed in the 12th Arrondisse­ment, a grit­ty, work­ing class neigh­bor­hood with grimy streets and build­ings black with soot.”The area was pop­u­lat­ed large­ly by poor Jews who had immi­grat­ed from East­ern Europe. Next door to an orphan­age and a hos­pice, the Roth­schild Hos­pi­tal was con­sid­ered an excel­lent facil­i­ty and served not only Jews but all Parisians seek­ing med­ical care. Under the new laws of occu­pa­tion, how­ev­er, it was the last hos­pi­tal in which Jew­ish doc­tors were allowed to practice. 

Brull-Ulmann befriend­ed sev­er­al nurs­es and social work­ers whom she learned were part of a group of women who, after Kristall­nacht, ded­i­cat­ed them­selves to res­cu­ing orphans and bring­ing them to France. Now at Roth­schild, these hos­pi­tal work­ers plot­ted to keep patients longer in the hos­pi­tal so they wouldn’t be arrest­ed and sent on the trains East.” 

As the noose tight­ened around Parisian Jews — with a night­time cur­few and laws against own­ing a radio or bike; using a pub­lic tele­phone; and attend­ing muse­ums, restau­rants, or swim­ming pools — the role of the under­ground resis­tance became both more cru­cial and more dan­ger­ous. Many pris­on­ers from Dran­cy were sent to the hos­pi­tal, only to be returned and deport­ed, mak­ing it an antecham­ber of depor­ta­tion.” The Nazi occu­piers and their French col­lab­o­ra­tors car­ried out roundups in the hos­pi­tal, lit­er­al­ly drag­ging patients from their beds. Brull-Ulmann recalls that the hor­ror had reached here and was seep­ing into our build­ings and into our souls.” She des­per­ate­ly pon­ders, What use was this hospital?”

When a coura­geous social work­er recruit­ed Brull-Ulmann to the clan­des­tine oper­a­tion of res­cu­ing babies and chil­dren from the hos­pi­tal and orphan­age, she accept­ed on the spot. That was how she learned there was a way out oth­er than the main gate, which was manned by armed guards — there was also the epony­mous morgue door. On her first res­cue mis­sion, she removed her star, took a six-year-old girl by the hand and car­ried her three-year-old broth­er, and walked out the morgue door. On the oth­er side,” Brull-Ulmann writes, a dark chasm: rue San­terre, com­plete­ly emp­ty. I was already out of breath, my arms strain­ing from the boy’s weight.”

Today, as bombs are falling around the world, and doc­tors and nurs­es risk their lives to care for their sick and wound­ed neigh­bors, Brull-Ulmann’s sim­ple ques­tion — What use was this hos­pi­tal?” — res­onates still. Hope­ful­ly, this remark­able sto­ry of a coura­geous young Jew­ish woman in Paris dur­ing World War II will remind us all about the pow­er of com­pas­sion and humanity.

Elaine Elin­son is coau­thor of the award-win­ning Wher­ev­er There’s a Fight: How Run­away Slaves, Suf­frag­ists, Immi­grants, Strik­ers, and Poets Shaped Civ­il Lib­er­ties in Cal­i­for­nia.

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