My parents were originally from a small town near the larger city of Lodz, in Poland. They came to live in Paris right after their marriage in 1930, and I was born there in August of 1931. Ours was a large family. My mother and father were cousins and each had six brothers and sisters. The two families were very close. They helped one another. My mother, for example, worked for her brother. Life was difficult, as far back as I can remember. The 30’s were, after all, depressions days. Work was hard to find. But, we had a life rich with companionship and caring for one another.
The war broke out in 1939; but the fighting was soon over. In the meantime, there was such fear of the impending German invasion in Paris that it started an exodus from the city. I remember the reasoning my mother had for my father’s leaving: The Germans would have no use for women and children, so we–my mother, and my twin sisters and I–would be safe enough in Paris, but she worried about my father and thought he should run away . And he did, along with many others. He and a friend took the road South together on foot. They were strafed on the way, and my father’s friend was killed as they walked side by side. My father made it all the way to Bordeaux; but, as soon as he got there, he had second thoughts. He began to wonder what he was doing there alone while we remained in Paris. So he hopped a freight train, and he came back.
I remember the Germans marching into Paris in 1940. I remember the air raids, the foul smell of the gas masks, the run on sugar, flour and other staples, the rationing, the rumors… Fear and worry began to hang in the air like a fog. First the Jews were ordered to register at the police station. Not long after that, we were told to turn in our radios. Then we were issued Stars of David to wear on our clothes. My mother was a finisher (tailor/seamstress)–she sewed linings into garments for a living. In my mind’s eye, I can still see her sewing that vivid yellow Jewish Star of David onto the left breast of our clothes. It was outlined in black, with the word “JUIF” written in the center in bold black letters – JEW, in French.
My mother refused to be intimidated. She wore that Star of David with pride. I’ll never forget the day she wore it on a tailored black suit one of her brothers had made for her–the way she stared down the German officer who was facing us in the first class metro car. By then, Jews were forbidden to ride in first class. And I was wearing the star that day on my best green plaid dress… I remember how I mimed my mother’s stand-tall posture, despite the fear, despite the danger.
The first raids took place in 1941–several of my uncles were arrested at that time. They were sent to so-called work camps. The last letter we received from one of them warned of some impending, but unnamed, danger. He had dropped it from the train that was taking him to Auschwitz–but, of course, he didn’t know that at the time. It was now 1942.
One of my uncles escaped from one of those work camps and actually made it back to Paris. He went into hiding for the next three years in his own apartment, never leaving it, day or night, never even looking out the curtained windows for fear he’d be denounced by a neighbor. His wife–who was French-born–had not registered herself or their two children.
The most devastating blow came on July 16 and 17 of that year, 1942, when thousands of Parisian Jews were arrested–among them more than 4,000 children. Rumors of a raid (or roundup) had been circulating for a while. Supposedly, it was to take place on July 14–Bastille Day, the most important French holiday, when France overthrew the Monarchy and became a Republic.
My mother was afraid that my father might be arrested and decided it would be best if he slept at my aunt’s apartment–she lived in the same building. My uncle had already been arrested the year before, so they would not be looking for him. But nothing happened on the 14th, and my father stayed on at my aunt’s apartment for a few days more, “just to play it safe.”
I didn’t hear the early morning knock on our door on the 16th–I always was a heavy sleeper. I just woke up to the sound of strange voices. Half asleep, I got up to find my mother at our dining room table. My twin sisters were up, but unusually quiet–they were two years younger than me.
Two policemen and a man in plain clothes were standing over my mother, questioning her as to my father’s whereabouts. She was lying to them. He’d left her, she said. She didn’t know where he’d gone to. He was just gone. She would tell them nothing. They finally gave up and said we were to dress, pack enough clothes and food for two days, and follow them.
They rushed us along without giving us time to even think. My mother grabbed this and that, and suddenly we were on the street, walking…. and as we walked, my mind was racing. There was such an eerie, unreal feeling about the familiar street. The sun was shining. It was a beautiful day, but the streets were deserted except for the other families I could see who were also being marched off. I looked up at neighbors’ windows, but they were all tightly shuttered. It was as though the city was empty and there was no one to see us, or hear us. Years later, I learned my father had watched us being marched off from my Aunt’s apartment window, helpless. They had come to my Aunt’s apartment also, but when they began to bang on the door, my Aunt slapped her hand across my little cousin’s mouth to muffle his cries, and she did not answer. After a while, they left.
When my mother, my sisters and I arrived at a sort of garage a couple of blocks from our apartment, we were made to wait on line until we reached a table where we were questioned again. Then we were loaded onto buses and transported to the Velodrome d’Hiver–a stadium where they would have bicycle races and boxing events. I still find it very hard to talk about the days I spent at the Vel d’Hiv, as it was called. We found my Aunt Sourcha and Uncle Itchik there with my cousin Rachel, who was just one year older than me–by then, I was almost 11. The 6 of us huddled together.
The air was green and thick with dust. There were people everywhere. I had never seen so many people in one place before. That afternoon, it began to rain through the leaky glass roof of the stadium, and my mother said G-d was crying for us. At one point, the women started to call out for milk for their babies, and the stadium was filled with their voices for a long time. The place was a mad house. I remember waiting to go to the bathroom on a very long line that never moved, and people saying the toilets were not working. I don’t remember ever reaching the bathroom.
In a book written about those terrible days at the Vel d’Hiv, I later read that there were about 7,000 people crammed into the stadium–out of some 13,000 who were arrested those two days in July–and that there were not enough toilet facilities. People were urinating and defecating wherever they could, and the smell was insufferable, but I remember none of that, thank G-d.
On the third day, my mother fainted–probably because she had not been eating–and she was taken to the center of the stadium, which they had designated for the sick. My Aunt Sourcha said they wouldn’t let me in to see her, but she couldn’t dissuade me. I found my way down to the lower level, and I snuck in through the crowd.
I saw a woman there dressed in black, rocking back and forth–she looked dazed. I stared at her, trying to understand. Someone said that she had killed her little boy by hitting him over the head with a bottle, and now she was crazy. There was also talk about a woman who had killed herself by jumping from the bleachers.
When I finally found my mother, she was begging someone to let her go because she was sick, and he was answering that she would first have to spit blood, and they might not let her go even then. I took her hand and I gently pulled her away from him and, as we made our way back stepping over the bodies of all those sick people who were sprawled across the floor, we spotted someone we knew. She was the social service nurse who had arranged for my convalescence after an operation on my arm in 1939.
My mother fell to her knees, begging her to get me out. I was transferred to Rothschild Hospital the next day, under guard. My mother cried as she said goodbye to me, but I couldn’t cry–and I couldn’t say goodbye.
As best I can remember, I was at the hospital for a couple of weeks. There were a number of people there (30 according to the book I mentioned before) who had been transferred from the Vel d’Hiv. Simon was one of them. Simon and I met a few times on the hospital grounds while out on a pass. We would go to a spot that we found near a greenhouse, where there was a small meadow alongside the wall that surrounded the hospital grounds. We would lie on the warm green grass and gaze at the sky. We fell in love, as only kids do. He was 13 years old.
The last time I saw Simon, he asked me to escape with him. He had it all planned. He knew the exact interval of time between the guards’ rounds. We could go over the wall together and escape. But I said no. I was sure I would never be able to make it over the wall with my bad arm, that I would fall and break a leg, and then we’d be caught.
So we separated, as usual–Simon went back to his ward first. I waited a few minutes before going back to mine, so that no one would suspect we had been together. But when I got close enough to the building that I could see clearly, I stopped dead in my tracks. There was a truck at the entrance, and it was surrounded by soldiers carrying guns, and hospital personnel were loading people into it quickly, one after another. I saw them load a little old lady in a wheelchair–she was all wrapped up as if it were winter instead of summer. It was then I realized they were taking all of them back. My eyes went dark as though a curtain had been drawn across that scene. I can recall nothing more. I don’t know what happened after that. I don’t even know how I got out.
The next thing I recall, I was walking down the street with my father. We spent one night sleeping on the bedroom floor of the apartment that had been our home. The furniture was gone now–confiscated by the Germans or the French Police–there was only a mattress on the floor. The door had been sealed, but my father had broken the seal. He had not yet found a better place to hide. Hiding, and hiding places were the main preoccupation from then on.
My father found a little room on the fifth floor of an apartment building in our neighborhood. It was impossible for him to keep me with him, so he got one of my aunts to find a place for me. I can’t remember its name, but it was in a tiny little village about 50 kilometers from Paris, on the edge of a large estate owned by the Rothschilds–the estate had been taken over by the Gestapo. The village had a church facing the town’s square–they held a weekly farmers’ market there. Also there was a tavern, and a one-room school house.
I lived with a childless couple. She was a housewife, and he was a railroad worker. They lived in a row of houses around a small courtyard with a well, an out-house (a place where you went to the bathroom), and rabbit hutches. We also had a rain barrel right outside our front door, and a cat. To my great amazement, that cat would land on its feet whenever the man of the house would throw him out the second floor window–which he would do whenever he got angry after drinking too much. I had to use an assumed name, a non-Jewish name (by that time the penalty for hiding Jews was death).
Every day I went to school in the one-room school house. Every Sunday I went to church. I got to know the Mass in Latin by heart. I don’t remember it anymore, but I will never forget kneeling in that church and repeating to myself over and over again that I was a Jew. The woman I lived with wanted me to be Catholic.
I lived there for about a year, until I became ill. The doctor said I had chronic appendicitis, and he advised me to go to Paris–which had the nearest hospital–and have it removed before it burst. So, I took the train back to Paris alone and went to see my father, but he refused to hear of an operation. He was afraid. It was too dangerous, he said. He begged me to go back, and I didn’t argue.
I left my father, but I didn’t go back. Instead, I took the subway to the hospital clinic I knew so well, and there I sat and waited my turn. My doctor–who, no doubt, had helped to get me out of the Vel d’Hiv–was a prominent surgeon, and he had his usual entourage of young interns. He was surprised to see me, and he asked me in a whisper what I was doing there. When I told him, he winked and said not to worry. I was admitted the same day.
The surgery was uneventful and, ten days later, I was back to see my father. It goes without saying, he wasn’t expecting to see me, but, he didn’t argue when I told him I would not return to my hiding place. I was afraid I wouldn’t be safe there much longer–the man’s heavy drinking at the tavern seemed to me to be a great danger and I was afraid he would betray me to the Germans or French police one day.
My Aunt found another place for me to hide–this time close enough to Paris that I would be able to visit my father. The woman was a widow whose father lived with her. I lived with them until the end of the war. I went to a private school there because, by then, Jewish children were being rounded up from public school classrooms.
Mme Godin was the school’s director and only teacher, and I had only about a dozen classmates. Mme Godin became a very important part of my life the next three years, until the war was over. She kept my secret safe, my Jewish identity. I didn’t know it until the war was over, but she was also the head of the local French Underground, and she ran a printing press and kept arms in her basement.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The town where I lived was called Bondi and once each month or so, I’d take the bus to a metro station to go to see my father. We would spend an hour or two together, and then I’d go back to Bondi. The trip was also risky, because one had to have the proper identity cards.
When we got word the allies had landed in Normandy, on June 6, 1944, I was ecstatic. I took the bus to Paris my very next day off from school– which was Thursday, June 8th. The war was nearly over. I couldn’t wait to celebrate with my father. I was walking on air.
The concierge stopped me just as I was about to start climbing the stairs to the fifth floor. She invited me in. She said my father had been denounced and arrested on the 1st of June. He’d been taken to Drancy–by then a well-known and dreaded transit camp just outside of Paris. The words reverberated in my head.
I remember staring at the towers of Drancy as I rode past them on the bus going back. I kept thinking that my father was there, so close, but there was absolutely nothing I could do. I was now three months shy of my 13th birthday, and I was alone.
Earlier that same fateful year, one of my uncles–one of the two who had escaped from a work camp–tried to get his wife to jump out the window of their second story apartment while the police pounded on their door. Their three children (about 2, 3 and 4 years old) were not home (my uncle had long since had them baptized and placed in a convent for their own protection). My aunt was too frightened to jump. He jumped alone as they were breaking down the door and got away–he survived, but she never returned.
And then one day there were flags flying everywhere. The war was finally over, but not one of them came back. Not a single one survived, but I remember all of them. By some miracle I will never understand I was one of a mere handful to come out of the Vel d’Hiv alive.
That first year after the war, I was full of hope that what had happened would change the world forever. I thought selfishness and cruelty would go out of style, that the big lie would no longer work and anti- Semitism would never again rear its ugly head. I was wrong, of course. Neither did I realize, during those early years after the war, to what extent every event of my life would be colored by what I had experienced. I cannot even begin to imagine the person I might have been without the Holocaust. In many ways the war was not over for me but had just entered a new phase.
After I came to the US in 1946, I had many very difficult years fighting depression and trying hard to just hold on to my will to live and somehow cope with yet another difficult situation. I married. I raised two children. I worked. I did all these things, but through it all, I always felt somehow alone–a small piece torn from a greater whole. Some of that remains to this day, but I no longer look to change that. I know this will always be with me to some degree. I have made my peace with it. I can share it now with all the other child survivors who have now become my extended family, and for that I am grateful.
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