Published August 14, 2014
Without a dab of Jewish blood in her veins, born and raised thousands of miles away in Lima, Peru, this bank clerk and occasional babysitter gave her life to save hundreds of lives in France during World War II.
“She was a working-class hero,” said Luis Cam, who directed a documentary about her two years ago. When the film came out, in Peru the media proudly dubbed her “the Peruvian Schindler.”
But Madeleine (also Magdalena) Truel’s story remains largely unknown — albeit not for long now. A Hollywood studio, Transcendent Entertainment, plans to take to the big screen the suspense and drama that ensued when in 1943 Truel joined the French Resistance and became one of the best-regarded forgers.
The setting is Paris, where Madeleine had arrived in 1924 at 20 years of age. She got there with her seven older siblings, after both mom and dad died within a year of each other back in Lima. Following philosophy studies at the Sorbonne, she took a job in a branch office of the Spanish Banco de Bilbao and moonlighted taking care of children – including Jewish children.
To one of the Jewish kids she babysat, Pascal, she wrote and dedicated a book, “L’ Enfant du Metro” (“The Boy of the Metro”) about a kid that lived in the subway and imagined the world on the surface based on the names of the Parisian stations. The book includes drawings by her sister Lucha, who had remained living in Paris as well.
Along with the language – she was fully bilingual – from Peru Truel also brought a deep Catholic faith she would keep until her very last day, Cam said.
Her decision to join the French network in support of the allies and against the Nazi forces came after a one-year stay in the hospital, recovering from a vehicular accident that caused head trauma and left her with a severe limp.
Her specialty within the Resistance movement was forging all kind of documentation, which was handwritten at the time, including safe-conducts for Jewish families to exit the country and official papers that allowed members of the allies forces move in France with a fake identity. Hundreds of saved lives are attributed to her and the forged documents she provided.
“It is a nice heroism story because we always have the choice of doing nothing,” said Rosa Maria Palacio, a Peruvian journalist interviewed in the documentary. “She could have abstained from participating; however, she did what she thought was her duty: to help other people.”
Luis Cam, who is actually an odontologist, bumped into the story one day of 2012 when chatting with his friend and journalist Hugo Coya, who was researching for his non-fiction book “La Estación Final” (“The Final Station”) about Peruvians who had ended in a concentration camp. When Cam heard the name Truel it sounded familiar, and he was able to locate a niece of Madeleine, Teresa, working at the university he had attended years before. He arranged a meeting between the two, and was allowed to sit in during the interview.
“When I heard the story I was shocked. I said to myself, ‘This story cannot be forgotten,’” he said. “I thought an audiovisual project would reach more people than a book.”
Madeleine died a horrible death on May 3, 1945, just four days before Germany’s surrender. She was arrested in June of 1944 and spent almost a year captive in a Sachsenhausen camp, north of Germany. She died when she was being transferred – by foot – to Lubech with dozens of other prisoners.
According to Coya’s research, Madeleine was one of the many who was fatally beaten after expressing a hint of joy when she saw German troops blending in with civilians: the allied victory was imminent.
“She is probably the main Peruvian hero of World War II,” Coya said. “She was deeply Catholic, deeply Peruvian, from a large family of entrenched Christian values, and when she had the chance to do good, she did it without hesitation.”