I was born in Paris in 1938 to Jewish parents who had emigrated from Turkey in the 1920s, as they no longer felt secure in a new modern nationalist Turkey born from the ashes of the former Ottoman Empire. In Turkey, my parents had been educated in schools from the Alliance Israélite Universelle and were already perfectly fluent in French. At these schools they had received a Jewish education better than I ever received in France in the 1950s. There I only attended public schools. My Jewish education was reduced to bare minimum preparation for my bar mitzvah, which I quickly forgot, as we never went to synagogue afterwards.
Although secular, my parent had a strong sense of their Jewish identity, which was probably reinforced by their exposure to antisemitism for the first time in their lives. Indeed, in Turkey, although the Jews lived together with fellow Jews, in their dealings with the Turks, there never was animosity, and they were treated with respect. My father would recall that as an immigrant, when he first arrived in France he had to report periodically to the immigration office, and there, the lower ranking bureaucrats would treat them like cattle. My father was a very proud man, and he suffered from this humiliation. So, whatever the circumstances, my parents didn’t have to be reminded that they were Jewish. The context was always there to remind them.
In 1942, when things became critical for the Jews in France, my parents sent my sisters and me to a farm, not too far from Paris, not telling the two ladies who were tending the farm that we were Jewish and arguing that we would be better fed in a farm than at home. So, we spent the winter of 1942–43 in that farm, and while my sisters were going to school, I stayed with these two ladies. Being very social, I would talk to them, and one day, I told them that we were Jewish. I was only four. The ladies sent us right back home, afraid of the danger of hiding Jewish kids. Needless to say that back home, my parents made sure that I would not tell anymore about our Jewishness.
During the war, we were exposed to different experiences with the French people. We didn’t live in a Jewish area and were surrounded with non-Jews who treated us nicely, with respect. However, my father was sent to a slave labor camp after being turned in by one of his coworkers. On the other hand, when he was taken away from us, my mother was fortunate enough to meet this lady, Madame Galop, and tell her that she was living in constant terror of the Gestapo or even some French police coming to take us away. Madame Galop told her husband, and they invited us to come and live with them. The Galops had two little girls, age four and three, with whom I would play and forget about the war. The Galops were a Protestant family. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the French Protestants had been exposed to persecutions by the Catholic church, and also, they had a better knowledge of the Bible than the Catholics.
Therefore, they were almost naturally inclined to help us. One perfect example of this inclination was the episode of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where a Protestant minister, Pasteur André Trocmé, with the help of the population of surrounding villages in the Cevennes region of France, hid and saved thousands of Jews and non-Jews. So, with the Galops, we never felt different. We were fellow human beings protected from the mortal dangers of deportation by other fellow human beings. So, that experience contributed a great deal to shape my outlook on the world. Later on, we had to go back home because it was getting too dangerous to stay with the Galops, as the people in the small street where they lived began suspecting them of hiding Jews, and one of them threatened to denounce the Galops.
So, home we went, and a few weeks later, two French police inspectors came to take us away. Once again, whatever their motivations might have been (human decency, the feeling that Germany was losing the war, as this episode coincided more or less with the D-Day landing of the allies in Normandy) these police inspectors let us go, after recommending to my mother to leave the apartment right away. Once again, we were helped, this time, by a Communist couple, Robert and Suzanne Ménétrier, who were our next-door neighbors. Robert had been summoned to Germany for mandatory labor service and had not reported for duty, and therefore, could have been arrested at any moment. That didn’t stop them from taking us into their tiny apartment for a few days, until the social worker that my mother had gone to after the visit of the police inspectors found another hiding place for all of us (my mother as a governess for a family with 10 children near the Eiffel Tower, and my sisters and me in Catholic boarding schools in a suburb east of Paris).
So, if we are alive today, we owe it to people from all walks of life: a Protestant family, a Communist couple, and Catholic boarding schools. That went a long way in shaping my attitude toward the rest of the world. I know that we were particularly lucky to get such help from such diverse kinds of people, and that it was not the same for everyone else. Hence my ambivalence about the world today.
But all these experiences surely had a deep impact on my personal identity, particularly as a Jew. When the war was over for us, in August 1944 after the liberation of Paris, I was eager to go to school and resume a normal life. I was six, and it was time to go to elementary school. Of course, my parents, being secular and too poor to send me to a private school, that was never an option. Besides, we were strongly in favor of public school. Therefore, on October 1, back-to-school day, I remember I was very excited to start my education. I already knew how to read and write, having learned with my mom when we were with the Galop family. I had an edge over my classmates and soon found myself among the top three students of the class.
It was at school that I witnessed the first antisemitic incidents in my life, hearing some kids using antisemitic slurs against a Jewish kid. Having been instructed by my parents never to tell that I was Jewish, I was afraid to fight back and kept it for myself, but I soon began to realize that I was not one of them, that I was different. My close friends knew that I was Jewish, and that was never an issue with them, but the general environment was not helping me to fully integrate into the surrounding society. Somehow, I always felt a bit different. So, it was not only the Holocaust that shaped my Jewish identity, it was the society I was living in. In a way, I was a bit envious of those kids who were “real French” kids, something I never really felt personally. When I turned 10, I saw all these kids doing their first communion, wearing beautiful suits with a white bow on their arm, and I felt a little more like an outsider. And I was still hiding my Jewish identity. When I was 11, I had an appendectomy in a hospital where the nurses were nuns, and when one of the nuns asked my whether I was going to catechism, I didn’t dare to tell her that I was Jewish.
When I was about to turn 13, I asked my parents for a bar mitzvah. By then, my parents were no longer going to synagogue. After returning from deportation, my father refused to set foot in a synagogue. Only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would I go with my mom. Therefore, my parents didn’t feel the urge, and they were poor and could not afford a costly affair. So, I got a minimal preparation, and a luncheon limited to my family. Even my present, a beautiful watch, was paid in part from my own allowances. But I certainly was proud to have my own celebration. However, my parents were not encouraging me to pursue my Jewish education, and besides, in our neighborhood, we were surrounded by people from all walks of life and exposed to the most liberal ideas and therefore, anticlerical, even towards the Jewish faith. Furthermore, my parents had been stateless for 25 years after they immigrated to France (they got their French passports only in 1948), and they were eager for us to become real French citizens. For instance, at home, they would speak Judeo-Spanish among themselves, but not to us. They wanted us to focus on French, which didn’t stop me from learning their language.
It took me about ten years to get “out of the closet” and say openly that I was Jewish. When I turned 19 and became a student at the Sorbonne, I remember sitting in a philosophy class next to a Catholic girl who wanted me to join her in the annual Chartres Pilgrimage. When I refused, she stopped sitting next to me.
When I turned 20, I even had a German girlfriend, whose father had been the right age to have belonged to the Hitler Youth. She never told her parents that I was Jewish. What motivated me to keep this relationship? The fact that I was in love? Also, the dream of an ideal world where everybody loved everybody else? I don’t know. But I am not too proud of having put up with the fact that she concealed to her parents the fact that I was Jewish.
Anyhow, little by little, I came to terms with all these experiences that did nothing but strengthen my Jewish identity. In the early 1960s, Israel was very popular in France, and I was eager to go and visit. So, when I graduated from the school of translators and began my career, my first trip overseas was to Israel. The year was 1963. I have made many trips to Israel since.
History sometimes has strange twists. After having had several non-Jewish girlfriends, in 1967 I finally met a young religious Jewish woman whom I married. Today, our house is strictly kosher. We observe Shabbat and the Jewish holidays. My three daughters were raised religious Jews, and my ten grandchildren all have a rich Jewish education. Curiously enough, my parents also received a Jewish education in the schools of the Alliance Israélite in Istanbul, and mine is the only generation deprived of that education. But that doesn’t stop me from being an outspoken advocate of Jews and Israel, and a fierce critic of antisemitism. One way of doing it is by being a volunteer at the Museum, where I have an opportunity to educate people about the dangers of hatred, racism, and antisemitism.
That has been my itinerary as a 20th-century Jew, and the Holocaust is more than certainly one of the reasons for my strong sense of my Jewish identity.
©2015, Albert Garih. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.