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Hitler Made Me a Jew
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1940--To Be Jewish with Honor
Chatenay-Malabry Occupied 1941
Spain: Illegal Border Crossing Through the Pyrennees 1942
Portugal: Illegal Border Crossing by Canoe 1943
Philadelphia, PA USA 1943
Without My Mother (Concord, NH/Reading, PA) 1943
New York City/High School 1944-46
Summer Camp Jobs 1946-47
New York University 1947-49
Important Decisions 1949
Paris: La Sorbonne, My First Child, Marriage 1949-53
1940: To be Jewish with Honor
I was thirteen when I discovered I was Jewish. American Jews find this hard to believe. How can that be? Didnt your parents tell you? They dont understand what it was like to live in a country where the French Revolution and the Catholic Church were the important influences. My parents were atheists.
As free thinkers, they had no reasons to tell me I was Jewish. Both my parents were born in Poland when it was occupied by Russia. My fathers parents went to live in Moscow. This privilege was given only to a few Jewsthose with special skills. My grandfather as a textile engineer was considered desirable and was allowed to live in the capital. My mothers family went to settle in Harbin, China. There the Jews were encouraged to settle and establish their own businesses. The Russians were occupying Manchuria and were building the TranSiberian Railroad that would link Japan, Korea and China. They gave the Jews many incentives so that they would move in that frontier region and develop it. My grandfather quickly became a successful businessman selling lumber for the railroad. He made a fortune and was a powerful citizen in his community.
My fathers parents were not religious. My mothers parents on the other hand were very religious and followed all the practices of the Jewish religion.
Being Jewish became a problem for us only when the Germans occupied France in 1940. The Jews in France were either French-born, unrecognizable, or they were foreigners (etrangers). My parents were foreigners with a strong Russian accent, and because the French are xenophobes, my parents accent caused me distress in public. I would have preferred them to be like every one else, just ordinary French people.
To learn I was Jewish came to me as a relief. Even though, we are sometimes told surprising things about ourselves, once the initial shock wears off, we feel free, cleansed, as if, deep down, we had known the truth already. I remember feeling that it made more sense for me to be Jewish. I knew in my gut that I wasnt really Russian. Jeannette, who lived in my house, had said I was Russian Orthodox, once when I had been asked what was my religion if I was not Catholic. I thought Russian Orthodox sounded great and exotic. No one in school had ever heard of it, and I loved being different. Being Jewish didnt conjure up anything romantic for me. I accepted it as reluctantly as I did my brown eyes and straight hair. It was also part of my penance for feeling different from my parents because I didnt have a foreign accent. I felt guilty about it but I couldnt help feeling embarrassed my parents accent.
I escaped the Holocaust thanks to my parents, their friends, the Jewish organizations that gave us money when we reached Spain, and the American Quakers who arranged for children like me to come to America in 1943. But I still often wonder why I had to leave Francethe only country I knew at fourteen. Why did I have to give up the language I loved? Why did I have to stop singing the songs I could sing so well? I was French. I loved France and the blue, white and red flag. I had been well instructed in my French school that France was the center of the Universe. Why did I have to leave?
Since I was thirteen, when I learned I was Jewish, it is clear to me now, some fifty years later, that I was a pretender for most of my life. I was born in Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace, the land the French went to war in 1914 to recapture from the Germans. I was profoundly touched by the patriotic fervor of this region which I had the honor to represent because I had been born there, had worn the costume of the Alsatian women with its voluminous black bow in all the pageants and special ceremonies of the schools I attended. Yet my parents left Strasbourg when I was nine months old, and I had no recollections of that city.
Nevertheless, it served me well to have been born in Strasbourg as a child because it gave me distinction. In school I was always the only representative of the Alsace province. Alsatians stayed home; they didnt move around the country; they kept their mystery. But in the end it was the fact of my being Jewish, the meaning of which I didnt even understand, that determined my fate and not Strasbourg, the city of my birth.
My father had left Moscow when he was sixteen. He was not interested in politics, so he escaped the Russian Revolution and survived by his wits, traveling across Russia as the assistant of a guru, a man who preached about living a healthy life by eating no meat, drinking no wine, and doing exercise. This was quite revolutionary in those days.
He eventually joined a merchant ship, which he jumped to land in Palestine. There he had relatives and could work and save the money he would need to study at the University of Liège in Belgium.
My mother was able to go to study in Liège also. Her father preferred that she attend the University of Liège rather than any university in Russia. He didnt like Communism.
My parents met and fell in love at the University of Liège in Belgium. My mother told me how my father courted her and how he would show off and ride a motorcycle, standing on the seat of it, with his arms spread out. They had many friends which they kept to the end of their lives and which I met later on also. They were all young people from Poland or Russiaall Jews. Then my parents transferred to the University of Strasbourg. I believe they wanted to live in France. When my mother thought she was pregnant, they quickly got married.
When they finished their studies they remained in France since they could not return to either of their countries. The Communists were in Russia, and Japan was at war with China. But as foreigners, in France, they could not work. They were stateless and carried for identification a document called Nansen (sans nationalite or without nationality). I, on the hand, was French by birth and also by naturalization.
When I was three, my parents were working on a milk farm in Provence. There, I have memories of having been a cat torturer. I played with a small kitten that I dressed in doll clothes. I put him in a box and looked through a hole to see what it would do and I saw his big yellow eyes staring at me. I was also fascinated by his movements when I pulled out his legs. My mother was surprised the animal didnt scratch me. I didnt understand why the cat ran off and disappeared. I looked for him in vain going under the cows in the meadows. My mother also marveled at the sensitivity of these large beasts that never stepped on me even though I was a nuisance to them.
On the farm, I also had several pretty standard childhood memories of accidents that caused me my first pain. I fell on a rock and cut the corner of my mouth. It made a lump inside my mouth that I can still feel today with my tongue. I remember tasting my blood for the first time.
I fell on my crotch into a milk can as I jumped from can to can, one leg in the can the other outside. The blood ran down my legs and my parents rushed me to an old country doctor who quickly reassured them that I had not lost my virginity. Later, my mother told me, they had been amused because that had not been their worry.
One day I was in the farm truck when it crashed in a trap that a neighbor had made for another neighbor with whom he was feuding. My fathers arm grabbed me before I could fall out, and I was surprised to feel his chest tremble. I had never imagined that my parents could be afraid.
Of these days I also remember hating the shoes laced up above my ankles that my parents insisted I wearbrown boys shoesa mortifying style for me who dreamed of wearing black patent leather shoes with straps and pearl buttons. My parents were convinced these ugly brown shoes would make my ankles stronger.
Since we didnt go to church, I had no Sunday clothes, and my father was annoyed because I never looked clean. Each time we got dressed up to go on a visit or a special outing, I had a fight with him. He always found a stain somewhere on my clothes. "Look at you!" he would roar. "When are you going to learn to keep food off of yourself? Youre as bad as your mother!" I hated it when he screamed at my mother. "Why cant you pay attention to her? You two disgust me!" My mother would raise her eyes to the sky but she never answered back. "He thinks he is right. What can I say?"
Meanwhile, I imagined myself wearing a coat with a black velvet collar and underneath a lace collar on a velvet dress to match. I daydreamed and wished that I had long curly hair like some little girl I must have seen in a magazine.
I was five when I first went to school. We were living in Aix-les Bains, a small resort town in the French Alps, and I was bewildered by the large number of children in my class. It was the first time I had ever seen so many children at once. The teacher, tall and kind, saw that I was uneasy and tried to comfort me. I was given a new slate and homework to do. I didnt understand what I was supposed to do.
My father cleaned my slate with his blue denim apron when I came home. He was then working with my mother in a vegetable store that supplied luxurious hotels in the region. He always took great care to dry the slate so that it looked dark and was easy to write on. We did my homework together, but my feeling of uncertainty about it has never left me. I can feel it today.
Neatness was very important in French schools. We all wore black aprons to protect our clothes from ink spots. In kindergarten we didnt yet use ink, but we had to be clean anyway. I was anxious most of the time I was in school.
The teacher was the wife of my parents boss. One day she stopped coming to school. Later, I learned that she had killed her son with a butchers knife. People said she had a fit of madness in the middle of the night. They took her away and locked her up in an asylum. I was sad she was gone. I had liked her, and she had told my mother that I was a good child. When my mother told me that, after the teacher was gone, I missed her even more.
Most of the time I played by myself near the store where my parents worked. One day I was playing in a truck across the street, making believe I was a trucker. I screamed at imaginary drivers on the road until I fell asleep. When it was dark, my mother shouted for me to come in, but I didnt hear her. Everyone in the neighborhood began looking for me, and, finally they called the police. When I appeared, groggy with sleep, there were cheers of delight. For a moment. I was the center of interest, and I liked that feeling.
Later, my parents worked in a girls boarding school. My father was the cook and my mother, the nurse. We lived at the school, and I had plenty of time to poke around on my own. The Head Mistress was very strict. The girls were not supposed to wear make-up, but they kept face powder and lipstick hidden in their lockers. One day, I opened all the lockers and had a great time playing "Beauty Salon." I took out the creams, eaux de colognes and powders and started mixing them, putting the results on my cheeks and lips. I also found money. Forgetting the "Beauty Salon," I left the room in wild confusion and headed straight for the bakery shop where I bought chocolate animals. As I was walking aimlessly home, eating my spoils, I heard my mother calling from the window. I waved happily at her. She rushed down to meet me, astonished to see me in the street when she thought I was in school. As she began to question me I answered innocently. She was horrified and began to reproach me. I had to answer for playing hooky, stealing and leaving a mess in the dormitory. My father decided I would have to apologize to my victims in public.
A special assembly was called. On stage I repented, in front of the entire school. My father publicly gave me a spanking with my pants down. However, the humiliation and the pain of this evaporated quickly because I became a martyr to the girls who then gave me money, and I was able to buy chocolate as often as I wished. Also I had liked being on stage with a sympathizing audience.
The Head Mistress, too, was very generous with me. Once she bought me the most beautiful Christmas tree I had ever seen which she had decorated herself, placing many presents under its branches.
When we were not at the school we lived in a sparsely furnished apartment in Aix. But we were rarely home. It was then that I began to go to church by myself. I liked the quiet and the splendor, the candles burning, the paintings on the walls and the stained glass windows when the sun shone. I began collecting pictures of saints. I was thinking about going to catechism, and someone had made me sign my name in a book. It impressed me that someone wanted my signature, and I practiced writing it with elegant flourishes. I was pleased to know by sight regular members of the church who approved of my being there, something my parents had no idea of. But going in secret made me feel righteous and close to God.
Occasionally, my father worked as a cook in an expensive restaurant in the Alps near a huge lake. My mother and I went to visit him and eat the specialty of the area, tiny fried fishes. I found the Alps an unforgettable sight and was sure I had seen one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Life was hard for my parents in Aix-les-Bains and they thought they could do better in Paris. My father went ahead to find us a place. He found us La Cité Nouvelle, a collective in Chatenay-Malabry, a southern suburb of Paris.
Chatenay-Malabry was a small city, with a tortuous cobbled main street and an imposing church on its square. Statues of Voltaire, who is said to have been born there, are displayed in many places. Chateaubriands home is in Chatenay. There is also nearby the Chateau de Sceaux with its large park built by Colbert.
When I first came to Chatenay it seemed to me a big and important place. The road from the Cité Nouvelle to school appeared long. Actually, as I realized much later, it was just a very short distance. The Cité was at the corner of the Avenue Jean Jaures and the main street where the bus stopped and about three miles from the metro station in Sceaux.
Our new home was surrounded by high stone walls, and you had to push the majestic front gate hard to get in. The spacious house looked so much like the classic house of my drawings that I liked it instantly. The furniture was sparse and simple. On the walls were colorful reproductions of paintings by artists I had never heard of beforeMatisse and Picasso. Not many people paid attention to such works of art in 1936. The dining room had an extended table that could seat, and often did, at least fifty people.
The house was filled with people. I had never seen so many grown-ups together. Marcel, who was the head of the house, became a sort of surrogate parent to me, as did many of the others who lived there. Marcel inspired me to draw. He thought my drawings were "original" and funny, and he gave me courage to draw what I pleased.
Marcel was one of the founders of the unusual living arrangement at the Cité. He was an architect, interior decorator and a former patient of the doctor Paul Carton, a tuberculosis specialist who had the reputation of having saved thousand of lives, a man ahead of his time because his prescriptions are still recommended today. During his lifetime, he was unique. Marcel had been told he wouldnt live long, but after years of close adherence to Dr. Cartons regimen, he lived to be a healthy old man.
The diet recommended by Dr. Carton was subversively un-French. It forbade wine, liquor, meat and coffee. According to Dr. Carton, for a healthful life one needed rest, exercise, hydrotherapy and sunshine. On the whole the people in the Cité agreed with everything he recommended. They were vegetarians, nudists and addicts for the outdoors. But in contrast to the doctor, they were also Marxists. Dr. Carton was a good Catholic and the people in the Cité were atheists. My parents were not communists, and they made no pretense of being so. I wanted them to be like everybody else in the house, but there was nothing I could do about it.
Because my mother didnt have a job, she was hired to cook for the Cité. Albert, a small man who went camping and wore short pants while riding his bicycle, was paid to do the garden work. When he worked, he would grow wonderful vegetables. But he was a free soul and often went away to roam, which was most unusual for a Frenchman. Germans were known to do this kind of thing, but not a respectable Frenchman. Once, Albert planted a lot of small potatoes and he told my mother that she should boil them and serve them to company with the skins on. This way they wouldnt eat so much because they would be so busy peeling the skin off them. This tip impressed me very much.
My mother often unnerved her "customers," who, ten minutes before the meals were supposed to be served, sulked and walked around the kitchen. They were sure they would starve. Then suddenly she would arrive and throw everyone out, put up pots filled with water on all the ranges with the heat turned full blast and rushing about here and there, finding the ingredients, and in ten minutes, everything would be ready.
My job was to set the table. Jeannette, the daughter of Maria and Emile was about one year older than I. She was like my sister and we were to share the job but she could say "No" and she never set the table. It made me mad, but no one paid attention to the injustice of it.
In 1938, the summer when I was seven-and-one-half, I was sent to a public summer camp on the Cote dAzur. I remember waiting on line in the sun with crowds of children and hearing muffled sounds around me. Then I woke up in a white room with nuns in immaculate white uniforms smiling down on me. I was in the hospital of Saint Raphael and they said, "Thank God, youre alive!" I had had une angine diphterique. It was very serious, and I had been very sick for ten days.
I was thinking I was alone and perhaps going to die when my door opened and a tall man walked in. He was wearing very short shorts and thick leather sandals, and looked like a cave man with long curly hair on his bare chest. The nuns seemed alarmed at his wild looks. He was Achilless husband, Charles Navel, a poet who also wrote books about his experiences as a manual laborer. Achilles and Charles were friends of the Cité and visited almost every weekend. My mother was very fond of Achilles who was also a writer. She had studied Russian and loved to practice it with my mother. They were Socialists. My parents had asked Charles to go see me in the hospital. I was very happy with his visit and pleased to show the nuns that I had not been abandoned, after all.
Sometimes, my mother worked in Paris, selling trinkets at a street market. Then Annie, who lived in the Cité with her husband Marcelot, took over the cooking job of my mother and also took care of me and helped me with my homework. No one had asked her to take care of me, but it was customary for whoever was home to take care of the children. Annie was not as fast a cook as my mother. I sat with her in the kitchen and helped her peel vegetables, and she talked to me as if I were a grownup. I liked that. She told me the gossip, listened to my complaints, and was always on my side, even if I was wrong.
Annie and Marcelot were newly married and they kissed all the time. Everyone teased them about it. She had just arrived from a farm in Normandy, she used to tell me about how they did things back home. She thought Dr. Carton was weird, coucou as they say in French, but it was not up to her to criticize him, she would add. She, however, craved real food and a glass of good ordinary red wine. Marcelot was a carpenter. He made me an oak desk when I was nine. He had designed the desk himself. It was modern with a cobalt blue linoleum top. It was one of his best pieces and when I had to leave the Cité, Marcelot took the desk back.
Jean was our neighbor on the first floor landing. He was thirty and married Guida shortly after we arrived. He also had had tuberculosis. Guida was perfect for him, everyone said, because she was a nurse. She was a foreigner and talked like my parents with an accent. Jean was tall and lanky. He was a civil servant in the city hall of an adjacent locality and spent a good deal of time in his room because he needed a lot of rest. I visited him often, and I became the first member of the childrens club he was organizing. Jean had a gigantic table in his room with electric trains on it. These could be made to race and one could place bets on them. It was a very elaborate setup with miniature buildings and elevators and cars and light signals which all were operated with electricity. Its countryside was filled with tiny farms and animals, rivers, lakes, a cascade and mountains. Jean was constantly adding diminutive objects to this train table and embellishing its panorama.
When Jean was feeling well, he went to Paris with his trains to raise money for the
Party. His stand was always the most popular because people loved to gamble at his table. Jean wanted me to recruit young people my age about nine or ten-years-old to join the club. It was not easy, most of my friends had things to do on Sundays. The only children willing to come to the meetings of the club were the poor ones. They didnt mind coming for the food, but they were not dependable, and they dropped out quickly when we had to work hard. They were not as loyal and devoted to Jean as I was.
I attended all the meetings of Jeans club. Sometimes I was the only one present. But Jean and I didnt mind: Jean made me feel a part of something important. We collected money for the Spanish refugees from the Spanish Revolution. I thought the civil war in Spain was terrible and I felt bad for the people who had had to leave because of a dictator like Franco. Guida, his wife, was tolerant and patient but sometimes she had enough with Jeans trains and his club members. She would tell me to go to my room because she needed to be on her own. That meant we had to stop the meeting.
Maimaine was my best friend. Her name was short for Germaine. I was called Nana short for Nadia. We met in school the first day I arrived in Chatenay, and we were inseparable from that time on. We knew how to please grownups, how to be polite and say "Oui, Madame" but then do as we pleased. We were naughty and got away with it. We rang doorbells in the street and ran as fast as we could to hide. No one ever suspected the good little girls that we feigned to be. We were always ready to laugh hysterically at anything.
We were both short and the best students in the class. Madeleine who was Maimaines sister was a teacher. She helped Maimaine with her homework. She was more qualified than Annie who helped me with mine. Maimaine and I took turns at being the first in the class, la première. Class rank was important for us in school, but we competed with good humor. I loved going to Maimaines big stone house. Her father was the plumber in Chatenay. He knew everybody, and he smelled of wine, grease and soap. He thought I was funny, so as soon as I saw him, I was funny, and I loved him for making me say funny things without my even thinking about saying them.
Maimaines mother was a great cook. I ate my first pigeon with tiny green peas cooked with lettuce in her kitchen. There I could eat all the forbidden foods listed by Dr. Carton that we didnt eat in our house: dry garlic sausages, small pickles in vinegar and mustard.
Maimaine told me she liked coming to my house because she liked seeing the weird people in short pants, and she liked the grated raw carrots and sprouted wheat germ we atestrange foods in those days when the French considered green salads food for rabbits.
Once we played hooky and went to a movie in Sceaux. It was thrilling to be where we were not supposed to be. I was sure we would meet people who would recognize us. However, nothing happened.
A day came when Maimaine suddenly stopped playing with me. She was hiding something, and it tortured me. Later I saw her with Monique, a girl from our class that we didnt like, but I remembered that Maimaine had said, "Isnt Moniques brother cute?" She had begun to like boys before I did. I felt betrayed and forsaken.
Around that time, I misbehaved in school and got a zero in conduct on my report card. I signed the card myself thinking that no one would know the difference, but to my astonishment it didnt work. They made a fuss in school, and I was ashamed and ridiculed. Later Marcel teased me for many years about having signed so badly. The incident also embarrassed my parents, and I felt regretful. After that I was careful to tell the truth.
Monsieur Richet was both our art teacher and the Mayor of Chatenay. Whatever picture I drew, he picked it and put it on the board to show the class what he was trying to have them do. I didnt take drawing very seriously and I didnt know why he liked my pictures that much. If I met the Mayor in the street, he always said "Hello" and introduced me to his friends as une artiste de grand talent. The art teacher who replaced him when I was promoted to the next class was also very amiable, and my good fortune in art class continued. This teacher was a very tall lady with hair the color of a lions mane. She asked me to make invitation cards for her, and she gave me money to buy a box of paints. I felt privileged and successful.
Once we had to make a mural of the French Revolution for school, and I was put in charge. I loved the French Revolution. I liked the idea of the poor people rising up to liberate the Bastille. We made stick figures with round faces and detailed clothing for the crowd. And although I felt sorry for Marie Antoinette who was guillotined, I enjoyed drawing her fancy dress.
I began to like and use geometry in drawings when we had to compose friezes to decorate the top of our page each school day, below an ethical saying like why we shouldnt gossip or steal.
In Chatenay, people scorned the way we lived in the collective. We were considered revolutionary and dangerous. I realized this only after I had a fight with the girl whose grandparents lived next door to us. We were exchanging words in the schoolyard when she screamed to me Va avec tes couche tout nus which in English meant, "Go with your people who sleep naked," a reference to our being nudists. I was shocked. I said I dare you to repeat that and she repeated what she said with great pleasure, in a loud voice in front of everybody. "I am going to tell your grandmother," I said outraged. And she said "Go ahead, that is what she calls you, les couche tout nus, see if I care." I was dumbfounded. Then I dared everyone to follow me. I would go to face her grandmother myself and hear this insult. I raised my arm as if I were to assault the Bastille. I was sure the grandmother would back me up, and I was going to show this nasty girl how stupid and mean she was. Imagine my mortification when the grandmother sweetly said to me, "Listen, Nana, isnt it true that you sleep in the nude?" I was so stupefied and humiliated I couldnt answer. Anyway it was true, we did sleep in the nude.
Before the war had begun around the end of 1938, the French police came to our house and arrested my father, Marcel and several other of the men. They were accused of having typed a Communist leaflet on my fathers typewriter. My father was rarely at home my mother told the police, and he was not a communist, but they didnt want to hear it.
The comrades who were Communist and Party members were supported by Party lawyers, but they refused to include my father in their defense because he was not a member.
My mother was bitter about this. Ironically, it was she who managed to have my father released with the help of her own lawyer, who happened to have been a Jewish friend and who did the job for free. Consequently, the others were also freed as well. After that my father left Paris to join the Foreign Légion, since as a foreigner he couldnt be in the regular French army. My father told me that a man who would have been heir to the throne if France had still been a monarchy, a Monsieur Henri (I guess, as a royalist, he couldnt be in the regular army either), was with him in the Légion too. In the early thirties, the popular singers and later Edith Piaf sang great love songs about the soldiers of the Légion Étrangère.
The war was getting closer to our small locality, and the Mayor decided that the school children should be evacuated to the country. Thats how I was separated from my mother for the second time.
Thérèse, another of my teachers, who lived at the Cité, was chosen to accompany the children of Chatenay. Jo, her husband, a high school teacher in a different locality, was put in charge of the evacuation camp.
I loathed my teacher Thérèse. In France, if you want to be popular with your peers, you are automatically against your teacher. As a teacher, Thérèse was very careful to be fair and not to show any favoritism. It seemed to me she went too far and picked on me. Once I urinated in her class because she wouldnt let me go to the toilet. At first I didnt really have to go, but as I kept up my charade and pinched my bladder and kept moving my legs tight together, I started really to need to go. In a moment of insolence and scorn toward Thérèse I took my pants off and relieved myself to the glee of my friends and the horror of the cleaning woman who was called in a hurry. "Next time you are going to lap it up," she murmured between her teeth.
I was dragged to the Principals office, and while I was being admonished, I began to wail, "I couldnt help it...I had to. " I went on and on, and the Principal took me in her arms to comfort me. She gave me candy to cheer me up, and at that instant I realized that I could make myself feel anything and make others believe me. It was frightening.
My relationship with Thérèse became strained at home as well. I began a campaign of terror, hiding her toothpaste and putting other peoples property in her cubby so people would get angry with her. I didnt put her mail under her door as I was supposed to but dropped or lost it deliberately then claimed it was an accident. Annie backed me and told lies for me.
Annie and I couldnt stand the way Thérèse flirted with Gilbert, who was married to Maryse, whom I loved. It was Maryse who taught me the hundreds of folk songs I knew. She taught me to enunciate clearly when I sang so people would understand the words. All the tips she gave me about singing folk songs have served me well.
I had to rethink my hatred of Thérèse when we were evacuated because I had only her to turn to, and I was glad we were "family." I began to love her, and in turn she loved me. I think she also needed me then. In the country, away from home, I missed my mother, but having Thérèse was a great comfort.
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