In September 1943, Benjamin Garih, my father, received a summons. We didn’t know where they were going to send him. But, my father has always made a point to comply with the rules, and besides, he would not want to put his family in danger. He decided to go to this ominous designated rendezvous. I was five years old, and despite the commotion around me, I didn’t realize how threatening the situation was for my father, but also for us. When the day of his leaving came, he was ready. I remember that he was given a gas mask in a cylindrical metal box. As a child, it was like a toy for me that I would play with, putting it on. When he left, he had this box strap slung around his shoulder. I don’t remember what other luggage he had. I only remember this gas mask, a frightening reminder of the first world war.
We lived in Montrouge, a close-in suburb of Paris, where the closest metro station was Porte d’Orléans, a 20-minute walk from our home. Usually to go to the station, we would take a bus, the 126 or the 194, but that night, in order to stay a little longer with my father, we decided to walk to the station. I remember my father saying goodbye to us, not knowing whether he would ever see us again. My mother and my sisters were in tears. I was intrigued, but not overwhelmed at seeing my father go; I did not realize that it might be the last time we saw him.
I had no idea where the metro was to take him. Now, in retrospect, I suppose he probably went to join his fellow deportees, perhaps at Saint-Lazare train station. From there, they must have been taken to Cherbourg and then, by boat, to the island of Alderney.
At the camp, my father was still able to write to us so that we could follow what happened to him through his mail. I still remember his letters, all bearing the infamous postmark with the eagle and the swastika. Mum would read us these letters, probably omitting scary details. But, I still remember hearing of some bad times he lived through and what he told us about his captivity after we were reunited.
I remember having heard this story. One day, he had concealed some money (I have no idea where he had it from) in his beret’s lining. When a soldier searched him and discovered that money, he punched my father in the face, breaking his glasses. My father had lost an eye in an accident before the war, and he needed his glasses. He burst out crying. I had never seen my father cry, and hearing about that episode impressed me so deeply that it remained forever in my memory.
At the camp, their job was to build bunkers that were to be part of the Atlantic Wall that was supposed to stop an Allied invasion. One day, as he was carrying a trough of cement on a scaffold at the top of a cliff, he stepped on a loose board that tilted up to hit him in his head, and he fell down the cliff. He stayed there, losing a lot of blood, until he was picked up by the soup truck. They closed his wounds with some stitches, and he survived. My father was a strong man, but until his death, he had these deep scars on his bald head, so visible on the photograph below, and he suffered migraine headaches for the rest of his life. In his final years, he would pass out without warning, sometimes in the street, and finally he suffered a seizure that left him brain dead. He passed away two weeks after, in February 1993. This was three months short of his 90th birthday.
My father did not talk much about his captivity. However, I remember that he talked about the cruelty and viciousness of the guards. He also told us about a German soldier who, one day, gave him a potato. It was not much, but that was enough to touch him, for him to remember it and to tell us about it.
I knew nothing about the transfer of the inmates from Alderney to Boulogne, but somehow, I remember that one day, my mother mentioned with concern, the bombardments over Boulogne. I suppose that she must have been aware that my father was there. I also remember that one day, during one of these bombardments, everyone had to lie flat on the ground under the bombs and the strafing by the Allied aircraft. My father told me that he was lying side by side next to a German soldier, and when the raid was over, he stood up, but the soldier did not.
Finally, at the end of August 1944, when Paris was liberated, our mother came to bring us home from hiding in Catholic boarding schools in Montfermeil. Shortly thereafter, we heard that my father and his fellow deportees had been loaded on a train bound for the East. What would Albert Garih’s father, Benjamin Garih Courtesy of Albert Garih Echoes of Memory 15 have happened to him if they had reached their destination? We’ll never know, because his train was stopped in Belgium by the Belgian resistance fighters who had blown up the railroad or a bridge—I don’t know exactly. There was some fighting, and in the confusion, the Germans released all of their prisoners. This is how my father was liberated, in Dixmude, in northern Belgium. After staying a few days with a Belgian family to regain some strength, he set out to walk home, covering some 200 miles.
He arrived home on the morning of Rosh Hashanah. For the first time since before the war, we were preparing to go to the synagogue. My mother was dressing me when she heard some steps in the corridor leading to our apartment and a knock at the door.
When she opened it, in the darkness of this long corridor, it took her a few seconds to realize that it was her husband standing there. He had changed so much, had lost so much weight; he was gaunt. He had not fully recovered from his fall off the cliff and still suffered from the bad treatment at the camp, but finally, our family was reunited.
We lost relatives in the war. First, my maternal grandmother, an uncle, an aunt, and cousins were killed in Orléans in June 1940 during the Exodus. Some cousins on my mother’s side were deported to Auschwitz and didn’t come back. But, our nuclear family was intact—my father, my mother, my sisters, and me—and life could begin to resume its normal course.
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