It is easy to be fooled by Francois Wasservogel’s casual dress and unassuming manner. Here is a man who served as Corporate Director of Renault’s Product Planning Division back in the 70’s, and as Vice President of Usinor Sacilor’s Automotive Division in the 80’s. For those of us who don’t happen to know the steel business, the Paris-based Usinor Sacilor Corporation is one of the world’s largest steel companies, employing 66,000 people worldwide.
Since becoming observant and moving to Israel a few years ago, François Wasservogel has not changed professional gears too drastically. He is still very much involved in industry. As a special advisor to the president of a major Israeli bank’s investment subsidiary, he assists European companies in establishing themselves in Israel by finding local partners for joint ventures.
However, it wasn’t professional achievements that Dr. Wasservogel wished to discuss during his interview at Arachim’s international headquarters in Bnei Brak. Rather, it was his own odyssey, and the Hand of Providence which he and his wife saw over and over again.
Wasservogel was born in Auschwitz. Not the concentration camp itself – he is quick to clarify – but the prison next door. Long before he sounded his first cry, the Nazis had murdered his father, a mathematician and pianist, when he resisted arrest. His mother was shipped off to the Auschwitz prison camp, where she gave birth to François. An attorney who spoke perfect Polish, she managed to foil her captors’ efforts to identify her as a Jew.
Following the Liberation, the young widow set out with her baby for South America. A stopover in Paris gave rise to second thoughts. She decided to stay in France and try to rebuild her life in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. A kindly Jewish intellectual from Berlin came into her life, and the two refugees decided to try to rebuild their lives together. The second husband, Wasservogel, treated the young François as his own son in every way.
The household the new couple built together was identifiably Jewish – complete with gefilte fish and the accouterments of Passover. But earnest mitzvahobservance and an appreciation of HaShem as the Giver of Torah were lacking. That was to come to François Wasservogel long after leaving his parents’ home, after accumulating not one, but two doctorates, writing a book on the appropriate role of the car in modern life (L’auto Immobile), and carving out a notable career for himself in French industry.
Why Change Gears?
While Wasservogel's wife Batya had begun taking an active interest in Jewish practice already in the 80's, his own movement towrads Torah Judaism began more recently, thanks to his daughter Sophie. A college friend of Sophie's suggested that she might enjoy a talk given by R' Eli Lemel, the Coordinator of Arachim's Paris center.
Did she enjoy herself? Suffice it to say that Sophie’s dialogue with the speaker after the presentation stretched late into the night, so late that the venue had to be moved to the Lemel’s home. Here, Sophie also had an opportunity to hear Mrs. Lemel’s perspective.
For this “liberated” young French intellectual, the evening was an eye-opener. She had never encountered such eloquent spokespeople for Jewish Tradition. The next day she shared her find with her parents.
Although Sophie herself let her enthusiasm for Torah wan, aliyah to