An unknown identity: The woman who lived decades without knowing who she really was


Monique Saigal-Escudero signs her book, French Heroines, for people attending her talk (Matthew Salcido/Community News)

Matthew Salcido, Community News Reporter

Monique Saigal-Escudero was raised Catholic in France in the 1940s.

It wasn’t until she was in her sixties that she learned that she was born Jewish and adopted by a Catholic family as a 3-year-old to protect her from the perils of Nazi-occupied areas of Europe during the Holocaust, which claimed over six million Jewish lives.

Saigal-Escudero, who is now in her eighties, told her story at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27. The attendees were members of the synagogue and others, including an official from the French consulate in Los Angeles.

Saigal-Escudero said her grandmother put her on a train out of Paris to the South of France, where her adoptive mother took her in.

Saigal-Escudero moved to California as a 17-year-old but she said she still remembers the strict regulations placed on Jewish folks during her youth. “They could not be doctors, entertainers, psychologists. They had to ride in the last car of the train or the metro. They could only shop at certain times of day,” recalled Saigal-Escudero, who was a professor of French literature at Pomona College for 45 years and wrote a book called “French Heroines.”

“Because of her I was a French major,” said Tracy Kincheloe, a former student of Saigal-Escudero’s and a longtime friend. “I’ve known her since 1983, and she was my most influential teacher at school. Just a fascinating woman and fascinating life.”

During a question-and-answer session, an audience member asked: “Would you consider yourself closer to your biological mother, or adoptive mother?”

After a long pause, Saigal-Escudero said she’s closest to her adoptive mother and felt hostility toward her birth mother, but tried making amends before her passing.

The audience member who asked the question bought her book after the event, and shared that he really related to her story because he, too, was adopted.

Rabbi Jason Rosner said Saigal-Escudero’s story is inspirational because of its message about the unity of humankind.

“I feel like in Los Angeles we often hear a particular narrative about what happened during the Holocaust, and this is a different narrative than that,” he said. “It’s about a non-Jewish family stepping up and saving a young Jewish woman at great risk and I felt it was a positive story.”

Community News reporters are enrolled in JOUR 3910: University Times. They produce stories from under-covered neighborhoods and small cities on the Eastside and South Los Angeles. Please email feedback, corrections and story tips to [email protected]