Page 43 - WTP Vol. VII #1
P. 43

insists, “I wasn’t frightened. I don’t know why.”
duty of keeping memory alive. Perhaps, this history is too traumatizing. Writing, now, at my computer, I’m aware of the danger of that collective noun, the French. Never all. Yet, enough to mostly keep that teaching out of the schools.
 I want to say, Of course you were frightened. Fear pro- pelled you and gave you strength, a pregnant woman, holding a baby, dragging a toddler, heart pounding, belly cramping, adrenaline pumping your legs.
Valerie learned her history, studying in Israel where she became more religiously Jewish. Still, she needed a link to memory in order to understand what had happened in her country. Leon Poliakov was that link. In his life’s work, Leon Poliakov explored anti- Semitism, rooting hatred of Jews in European myths of origin. He showed how proponents of myths of superiority transformed bias into pseudo-scientific theories, painting Europeans as the norm and others as inferior, the Jew becoming the symbol of some- thing inhuman, an inhumanity planted in the Euro- pean mind.
A single mother after the war, Germaine and her three children travel to a settlement camp in the pletzl, Yiddish for little place, also called the Marais, the Jewish section of Paris. Community gone, build- ings mostly rubble, scout leaders prepare orphaned children for aliyah. Germaine leads a chorus, teach- ing children to sing songs she learned when she was ten, a Girl Guide in Madame Gordin’s group. I look down into my cup of golden tea. I have never seen golden tea. And this porcelain cup, so French. Is it authentic? Did it survive?
The Metro rocks along, metal ratcheting against metal. Staring out the window, my thoughts turn to the East- ern European women of my childhood, my maternal grandmother, my great-aunts, all short and stocky with soft flesh, full breasts and round bellies, all of- fering tea and cake, “a little something sweet.” And something more. A practicality born of hardship and survival. “Germaine’s family,” I say to Valerie. “Did she see them at all?”
Germaine’s bright lipstick has worn off. She speaks of a granddaughter who became very religious and lives in Israel. A few days ago, she came with her children, boys who wore peyes, side curls. They would not eat in her home or at this table. She offered lunch. She offered tea. Germaine knew they were orthodox. Still, she felt insulted.
I want to tell that granddaughter to forget her damn rules of kashrut. Take a cup of tea. Give the boys a cookie. To break bread, to share a meal with family and friends, this is naches. More than simple pleasure, naches is the joy a child gives a parent, a grandparent, and like most Yiddish words, naches squiggles out from under definition.
“Not for seven years.”
Germaine has been to the edge, and she has survived. And that’s what she keeps track of, Hilda, her friend and fellow guide in Beaulieu, who died a year ago, Juliette Levy, a child from that children’s house, who lives nearby and Amy, Madame Gordin’s daughter, liv- ing in Boston.
Valerie touches her cheek. “She converted became a Catholic. I don’t know when. Germaine had an aunt. She died in the camps. Forty-four years old. She can’t accept it. The more and more she gets old she can express what she feels.”
Riding back to Paris on the Metro, our seats facing, Valerie is contemplative. The day before, when we met for lunch, she talked of the second generation, her generation, having no memory. Jewish culture had been erased, subsumed into silence and shame. No one talked about Vichy France, occupied France, mass killings, deportations, the complicity of their neighbors, the French police, the bureaucrats. Still reluctant to talk, the French argue. Is it advisable to teach their children le devoir de la memoire, the
My stop approaches. Unwilling to leave Valerie, I ride further, saying, “I’ll walk back. It can’t be that far.”
I am seeing Germaine’s photographs. Leo Cohn bend- ing to his young daughter, captured, deported. There were others, Germaine repeating, “Déportés, déportés, déportés.” I imagine waves of bitterness and of anger spilling over her, then sadness, such deep sadness that she created her fantasy. It was an ordinary life. I didn’t complain. I was busy.
“Her mother?”
Valerie lifts an eyebrow. Standing, I follow her from the train. In the underground station, we hurry along corridors, push through turnstiles, climb stairs until, finally we emerge into light. “Would you like to see the
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