Nelee Langmuir, French Holocaust survivor and influential Stanford teacher, dies at 78

Langmuir considered her family’s survival a miracle and was grateful to the many strangers who risked their lives to help.  Students say her classes were filled with “lots of laughter.” The film on the popular teacher’s Holocaust experience will be screened next year.

Chuck Painter Nelee Langmuir

Nelee Langmuir, a Stanford lecturer in French, brought an 'infectious enthusiasm' to her classes. She is photographed here in 1981.

Nelee Langmuir and sister

Nelee Langmuir and her younger sister Mina. Under the Nazis, even their bicycles were taken away.

"I remember taking the stars off," said Nelee Langmuir. In Nazi-occupied France, her family’s brave decision to rip the yellow cloth stars off their lapels made life immediately more perilous. They were on the run.

"To break the law in this way meant that we were in even greater danger, but we had to do it," she recalled years later. Her journey would eventually take her halfway around the world, where she would teach French and marry a Stanford historian who was an expert on medieval anti-Semitism. Eventually, it also led her to make a film, Tombées du Ciel, about her family’s Holocaust survival.

Nelee Langmuir, a Stanford lecturer in French since 1972, died Aug. 11 at her Stanford home of cancer. She was 78.

Tombées du Ciel will have an April 28, 2011, campus screening and commemorative reception. At that time, the first recipient of the Nelee Langmuir Award will be announced. The award will be offered to a student in European modern history, with an emphasis on the Holocaust. The 2012 award will honor an outstanding undergraduate studying the French language. (The annual prize will alternate between the two areas of study.)

"Nelee was the heart of our program in French language instruction.  She was a magnetic and generous teacher and a memorable colleague; it's not too much to say that many people in the languages and literatures at Stanford loved her," said Roland Greene, head of Stanford's Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages (DLCL). 

“She was a remarkable woman.  She started working on the movie and really turned it into not just her project, but a Stanford project," said Vered Shemtov, a former student of Langmuir's and co-director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies, noting the involvement of the Language Center, the Forum for Contemporary Europe, the Humanities Center, the Department of History and DLCL.  "Many departments and students were involved in creating something really special, about not just her experience, but about how many good people it took to save two little girls.”

Nelee Rainès-Lambé was born in Paris on Oct. 18, 1931, the daughter of a Lithuanian electrical engineer and his wife, who had emigrated to France. Her sister Mina was born in 1935.

In Our Stories, a publication by Bay Area Hidden Children (the local chapter of an international organization), Langmuir recalled the first day in 1942 when she wore the yellow star. Her school’s director told the assembled children that she was heartbroken and ashamed of the government action, and that she would not tolerate any discrimination toward the Jewish children. Privately, she offered to help.

The French police soon came to the Rainès-Lambé door, targeting her father in their notorious raids. A friend hid him and spirited him away to the home of a policeman who worked for the French underground. The rest of the family quickly found shelter with another family friend.

Her parents soon left Paris concealed in a wooden box under the false floor of a meat truck. A network of friends, acquaintances and strangers protected the separated family on its prolonged journeys. "I had to take care of my sister, so I didn’t stay a child very long," Langmuir told Stanford Magazine in 2005.

The two sisters were eventually sheltered by the brother of the school director, a one-eyed World War I veteran, Albert Béraud, and his family in Chabanais, near Limoges.  Béraud, who owned a shoe factory, was a local leader in the Resistance, which met in his home.

The sisters attended Catholic school with their five new siblings. They were protected by the nuns and the Bérauds, but feared for their parents. The family survived the burning and sacking of Chabanais as the Germans retreated in July 1944. After liberation, Langmuir said that the nuns who had educated the sisters, and the Bérauds who had sheltered them, refused any reimbursement from the reunited family.

Their extended family in Poland and Lithuania had been murdered in the Holocaust, triggering the Rainès-Lambé's decision to make a new start in America, where the only survivors of their family lived. They renewed the visa application they had made a decade earlier and moved to Sacramento in 1949.

Nelee Langmuir married Paul Wanner, who received his PhD in psychology from Stanford, had two daughters and taught adult classes in French at Menlo-Atherton High School for years. She received a master's degree from Stanford in 1972 and, by that time divorced, remarried the same year.

Her second husband, Gavin Langmuir, was one of the founders of the Jewish Studies program and the interdisciplinary Program in Medieval Studies, as well as the author of the seminal Toward a Definition of Antisemitism and History, Religion, and Antisemitism, both published in 1990. With her husband in 1979-1980, she taught at the Stanford-in-France program in Tours. He died in 2005.

She won a Walter J. Gores award for excellent teaching in 1979. The citation praised "the infectious enthusiasm with which she brings French language and culture to American students … blending clarity with humaneness, intellectual rigor with empathy."

Kathryn Strachota, a senior lecturer in German, recalled at Stanford’s Language Center in 2006 that in Langmuir’s French classes "there was lots of laughter every day."

"I was amazed at how she could create, spontaneously, out of an informal conversational exchange about what students had been up to, one teachable moment after another," she said. "Decades later, she remembers individual students and they remember her and stay in touch. She creates and maintains connections. And she keeps widening the circle."

Langmuir continued actively teaching until three years ago, and still had an office on campus.

Over the years, she was able to reconnect with many of the people who saved her family in France. But the Béraud family eluded discovery until 1998, when the families reconnected again after half a century.

"A reporter from the Sud-Ouest newspaper came to interview us at our hotel," Langmuir recalled years later. "The article appeared at the time of the [Maurice] Papon trial [for crimes against humanity]. It did, I hope, counterbalance somewhat the atrocities talked in all the media. There were some French men and women one could be proud of, and Albert and Marianne [Béraud] were two striking examples."

Langmuir mounted a successful campaign to enroll Albert and Marianne Béraud at the Yad Vashem Memorial for the "Righteous Among the Nations."

"It was so important for me to help her get that film finished," said Kimberly Hayworth, who manages Stanford's Academic Technology Lab and helped edit and distribute the final film.  "The story of what they went through with so many people willing to risk their own lives to save them – sometimes total strangers, at a time of war, to their own peril. These stories need to be remembered."

Langmuir remained deeply grateful to those saviors throughout her life. "That our nuclear family survived does seem to be miraculous," she wrote in Our Stories. "It is certain that there was an element of luck, but had it not been for the many people who risked their lives for us, we wouldn’t be here. I often wonder if I would have their courage."

She is survived by her sister, Mina Parsont of Gaithersburg, Md.; daughters Debra Wanner of New York City and Jennifer Wanner of San Francisco; a stepdaughter, Valerie Langmuir of Millbrae; two sons-in-law; and two granddaughters.

A memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 12, at the Stanford Memorial Church.

In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes donations to the Nelee Langmuir Award. Checks made out to Stanford University and earmarked for the Nelee Langmuir Award should be sent to Taube Center for Jewish Studies, 450 Serra Mall, Building 360, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2190.