Isabelle Wekstein

What is your background?

I was born in Paris. My parents were French too. When my mother died three weeks ago, we discovered in some of the papers that she kept at home that she had been an agent for the resistance from October1943 until October1944 during the Second World War. We never knew about it. She never told us. The movement she worked for was quite famous. It was called “Brutus” and we bought a book about the history of the movement the next day on Amazon. It was written by the heirs of the man who founded it. The book is very interesting. At the end there is a list of all the people who used to work for the movement and my mother’s name is on it.

Do you know what kind of work she did?

No, we don’t. But it was a very amazing discovery, because my mother and my father used to talk about everything very openly. There was a story about my mother helping her old mother get out of a camp in France, a very famous one called Drancy, where people were imprisoned just before they were sent to the concentration camps. They were both caught but my mother, who was 16 at the time, managed to pretend that her mother, who was a tailor, was needed by the Germans. This story is very well known in our family but the day my mother died I also found documents showing that my grandmother was freed from Drancy thanks to my mother in august 1942, just before the first trains were sent to the concentration camps.

What happened to your mother?

With the help of relatives she went into hiding and managed to survive. After the war she studied medicine and she became a doctor for children and women, a paediatrist and a gynaecologist. She used to work for the poor, the rich, prostitutes, all kinds of women. She was very popular among her patients and had a very rich and intense life with my father. The last 15 years she had Parkinson’s disease. She died when she was 90 years old. After she died there were a lot of testimonies from women who mentioned how much my mother had helped them.

She must have been a very strong women. And your father?

He was an eye surgeon. He was a real character too. He decided to study Physics again when he was 40 and became a teacher (while he was a surgeon). He was also a talented painter.

So both your parents were doctors? Strange that you became a lawyer? Didn’t you want to follow in their footsteps?

Yes, I did. I applied for medical school at the same time that I applied for Law School. But after one month at medical school I chose to become a lawyer instead. However, after a year, when I passed the exams, I changed my mind and thought maybe I should become a doctor, so I applied again. But I never attended classes because I hesitated. I was seventeen, and it was very difficult to make a decision.

Seventeen? That’s very young! When did you finish law school?

I was 22.

You have four children. One of them is still very young, nineteen months.

Why did you want another baby at your age, when you already had three children?

I don’t know. I always needed some time to recover from giving birth. It takes a lot of love and energy. I never wanted to start thinking about having another child immediately. And now it took even more time then the previous three.

You’re a mother, a lawyer, but you also make documentaries.

I made two. The first one I made was about my father-in-law, who is quite famous but never wanted to talk much about his life. So I decided to produce some interviews with him to keep something for the family. This documentary is only for the family. Maybe one day we’ll show it, but not against his will.

Why did you want to make a documentary about him?

I think my father-in-law is someone really very extraordinary. He was born in Czechoslovakia and came to France when he was six. He came from a very poor, orthodox Jewish family. His father was sent to Auschwitz. My father-in-law fought against the Germans, spent time in gaol and became part of the resistance. After the war he became a famous doctor. He was a urologist and performed surgery on President De Gaulle, President Mitterrand and other famous people, and at the same time he became very influential in the Jewish community and was elected president of several institutions. But he was a very low profile kind of man, very modest. A lot of people wanted to interview him, write books about him, but he never wanted to talk about his background or his life in the shtetl. So that’s why I wanted to make a movie about him, only for family and friends.

And the second one?

It’s about a project that I started in 2004 and 2005. The film was going to be shown in schools, trying to interact with young students coming from different origins, helping to express themselves about their own identity, about racism, anti-Semitism and about what they felt they were victims of – but also their own prejudices. In the beginning I used to go to schools in the banlieues accompanied by one Jew and one Arab, not to chat but we had a whole process to follow. We didn’t have any money or a network. Initially we had no legitimacy but it became very successful. There were articles written in magazines and newspapers about this project. I did this for ten years in different areas, in schools in Brittany, Paris and Brussels.

What did you want to achieve? Awareness? To help?

Both. In 2004 there was an alarming report on what was happening in schools and first we just wanted to meet those students and to understand how they felt, what was going on. I wanted to see for myself how dramatic the situation was and see how maybe on a very small scale we could help because teachers were too busy and had their own problems. The film is funny in some places. Half of the time the kids thought I was the Arab. And when you asked them why, they expressed their prejudices: because you have this hair or this nose, crazy things.

Did they accept you?

Yes, they did and that’s the amazing thing. Students can say horrible things but at the same time be very nice to you. I took the kids to Drancy, where my grandmother was held for a while. There is a museum now, which explains what happened during the war. I took them to Notre Dame and the synagogues.

The documentary was a big success here when it was broadcasted on French television and now we have sold the rights in different countries and it has also been shown in Canada. In November I will fly to Los Angeles to show the film to students over there and other American universities, I hope.

That was one thing. And as part of a different project I took some teachers I met at those schools to Israel and Palestine, because they told me that they found it very difficult to talk about the Middle East to their own students because of the prejudices. I wanted the teachers to get an idea of what was going on in that part of the world. It was a great success, this trip, and now we want to bring Palestinian, Moroccan and Israeli students together in France to spend five days together with French students in 2018. That’s what I’m working on now.

It’s all very impressive, Isabelle. What drives you?

I’m trying to do something. There’s so much to do. There are a lot of people who are doing important things. Those teachers I have met over the years, to me they are real heroes. They have to deal with so many problems with these kids. And if you wait too long, it becomes too late. I think I’m very lucky to have my law firm, to live in this part of Paris but I think it’s also very important to see what’s going on elsewhere.