- Associated Press - Sunday, October 8, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - The chestnut trees in Paris were in stunning bloom when Hitler’s army invaded France on May 10, 1940. In six weeks, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands fell before the Nazi fighting machine like crushed blossoms.

Nicole Marie-Claire de Vizcaya was in her late teens, had graduated from a Catholic convent boarding school and was staying outside Paris in the countryside with friends at the time.

She and her mother soon fled their Paris home at 3 Rue Regine Eugène-Labiche in the 16th arrondissement and took refuge in Le Puy-en-Velay in mountainous southern central France. They returned when they heard that the Germans were not hurting civilians. However, the man in her divorced mother’s life, a French Army officer, was a prisoner of war.

By winter, she noted in an interview with the Virginia Holocaust Museum, “We didn’t have anything to eat. We didn’t have any heat. We were freezing.”

As time went on, horror unfolded around them.

The Germans commandeered several floors of an apartment building across the street. Rumors abounded that the Germans’ favorite activity there was waterboarding prisoners in bathtubs to extract intelligence.

She saw Nazis ram tree branches into the eyes of students caught working with the French Resistance, blinding them before carrying them down the street as cautionary examples.

“In 1941 or ‘42, one day I was walking down the street and saw German buses stopping in the street,” she recalled. “The Germans were beating people. Parents were separated from their children. I saw some parents throwing their children from the windows. They were taking the Jews away.

“That stayed with me. We knew they had camps, but we didn’t know (the Germans) were torturing people. We didn’t have any idea. We were horrified (when we found out).”

Her mother, whose cousin and her daughter were in the Resistance, announced one day that they would be cooperating with the underground in safehousing Jews and other escaping refugees. “I said, ‘All right. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it,’” she said, noting that her French fiancé already had joined.

Nicole de Vizcaya, who with her mother saved about 200 people and later became Nicole Hylton by marriage, was celebrated at 11 a.m. Wednesday at a memorial service at Virginia Veterans Cemetery in Amelia County.

Mrs. Hylton, 96, died of congestive heart failure Aug. 27 at the home of her daughter, India Jane Gaylor, in Chesterfield County, where she had lived since 2010. She was a former longtime resident of Chester.

“Young people are not very scared,” she said in the interview, recalling that when bombs fell she refused to go to a bomb shelter, preferring to die in her own bed. “I knew if I got caught (hiding people), I would be shot.”

Their three-bedroom apartment, with commodious bathing facilities and a big kitchen on the ground floor of a six-story apartment, accommodated 10 to 15 “guests” at a time - thin and pitifully dressed old men, old women and young women’s children who didn’t cry because “they were completely in a state of shock.”

Refugees always came after dark, washed up, ate and tried to catch a few hours’ sleep before melting into the nearby Bois de Boulogne oak forest with members of the underground before daylight.

“What bothered me was that we didn’t know if they were saved or not. We never knew,” Mrs. Hylton said.

Hiding in the apartment, located about 15 minutes from the Eiffel Tower and on the same street as a mansion of the wealthy Rothschild family, was almost like hiding in plain sight - and just as dangerous.

Mrs. Hylton bicycled into the countryside to black market farmers to bring home enough food to feed everyone. When Germans stopped her, she joked with them, and they let her pass because of her youth.

One night, when Jews were in the apartment, two drunken Germans came banging on their metal shutters, wanting to come in. Mrs. Hylton’s mother called a German Lutheran chaplain she had met, who came and chased them away. The chaplain also removed soldiers who came to their front door.

Mrs. Hylton thought the chaplain might have sensed what was going on and looked the other way. She was sure that was the case with some of her neighbors and the concierge of her building, who was supposed to visually check when a stranger rang the bell - but didn’t when it rang for the de Vizcayas.

During the war, she was shot at three times and grazed once, on her foot. She kept the bullet.

In 1944, she met U.S. Army Sgt. Thomas Preston Hylton, a military photographer her mother and new stepfather had met and brought home. She took a year to decide to marry him and not her Frenchman. They walked down the church aisle Sept. 1, 1945 - she in a bridal gown sewn from white parachute silk her husband had found.

Born March 7, 1921, in Paris, Mrs. Hylton was the daughter of Marie Jean-Pierre, Baron de Vizcaya, a Spanish national, and his French wife, Madeleine Marie-Antoinette Henriet, who lived in Paris and had a country home as well.

Her paternal grandfather was a banker who financially backed Ettore Bugatti in establishing high-performing, luxurious sports cars. Her father and his brother raced Bugattis.

Her parents divorced when she was 3, and Mrs. Hylton was 12 when her father died July 15, 1933, in a traffic accident.

She was 25 when she arrived as a war bride in New York from Cherbourg, France, on April 2, 1946, aboard the Zebulon B. Vance.

“She came from a wealthy upbringing, but when they came back to America, my parents didn’t have much,” said a daughter, Maryah Nona Saunders of Chesterfield.

“She wanted a family - she was an only child. I think she was lonely.”

Mrs. Hylton sang lullabies and read Babar the Elephant books in French to her five children. She spoke French with her mother, who had moved to Canada and visited the family in Chester during summers.

“We grew up speaking ‘Franglais,’” Saunders said - some children more fluent that others.

Simple things made her happy. She sent cards to remember special occasions and loved receiving them. She loved flowers, animals and people. She loved Christmas and the beach.

Mrs. Hylton took in strays - two-legged as well as four-legged.

“There always was room at our table for one more,” Saunders said. “She fed people, nurtured people and loved people.

“She taught us to nurture and care for people in ways that are not obvious but made a difference - taking someone a meal when you knew they were having a tough time, sending a card, making a phone call to say, ‘How are you today?’ Those are not huge things, but mean so much. She was a kind soul.”

Her husband of more than 55 years died June 6, 2001, never knowing of her Resistance activity. However, her mother had told her eldest son, Raymond Pierre Hylton, about it. He answered an ad placed by a Jewish group in The Catholic Virginian searching for World War II rescuers and took his mother, who was shocked that he knew, to record her experience on videotape.

“I thought (what I did) was just normal. I don’t want to be a hero,” Mrs. Hylton stated in her interview.

“I think (the Holocaust) never should have happened. People should have done something, but who, I don’t know. People were so scared of the Germans. I know whole villages took (in) Jewish children. I wish I had done more.”

Besides her son and daughters, survivors include another son, Buckner Gordon Hylton of Roanoke; and another daughter, Claire Ethel Sheppard of Ashland; and nine grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.


Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.richmond.com

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