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On to Marseille

By Michel Margosis

Frustrated after many weeks on the farm vainly awaiting developments, my mother decided to take the family to Marseille, the largest French seaport metropolis on the Mediterranean in Provence. She had hopes of personally seeking out the Persian legation for assistance in securing an exit visa for the four of us shown on Mother’s Persian passport. We arrived in the second largest city in France in mid-October 1941 with what little money Mother had managed to salvage. But upon arrival in Marseille my mother did obtain a transit permit stamped with “Pending Immigration,” valid until the 15th of January 1942. When that day came and went, the thought of extending or renewing the permit came and went as well, because of safety reasons. That was the time that our status technically changed from refugees to illegal residents.

We rented a small two-room flat with a toilet located up or down half a flight of stairs. It was located just down seemingly hundreds of steps and a side street from the St. Charles rail station in a poor, run-down section of town among a daunting ethnic mix of Corsicans, Arabs, Armenians, and Chinese at 34 Rue des Petites Maries. We had been advised to keep good relations with all the ethnic groups in the area, as the people along the Mediterranean were perceived to be temperamental and mercurial. The Chinese in their den with blackened teeth, supposedly from smoking opium, were constantly indulging in their favorite pastime of mah-jongg and brooked no interference from us. We cooked on a small wood alcohol burner, as we had in fact no actual kitchen. Bed bugs and lice became our constant, though unfriendly companions, and had we been in the commerce of vermin, we could have made a fortune.

Possibly for security reasons, we moved just a couple of blocks away to 25 Rue Dominicaine sometime later in early 1942. The bug infestation did not improve. We were situated directly across from a bakery that regularly ran out of merchandise, but if and when bread became available, we would scamper over there to stand in the queue.

My brother Willy confided, years later, that shortly after our arrival in Marseille, he was arrested by the police while participating at a pro-Gaullist demonstration. Willy had been detained overnight at the Préfecture, but was released the following morning without being stripped, thus not revealing his Jewishness. Vichy had apparently not yet begun enforcing Nazi laws and luckily it was the police and not the Milice.

We bathed with a washbasin in cold weather, but as soon as the weather permitted and especially in the heat of summer, I went to the beach every single day. The only beach I really knew was the Catalans Baths, straight out on the Quai de la Rive Neuve just past the Pharo, a small promontory protruding into the sea. This landmark was a military bastion overlooking the Mediterranean and the Vieux Port, the Old Port. I have fond memories of two strength-training gymnastic apparatus available on the beach at the Catalans, a high bar and rings that I attempted to learn to maneuver by watching and emulating. I was especially impressed seeing over-muscled adolescents pulling their own selves up and around on the high bar and then revolving several times with body and toes straight, landing on their feet. Even more awe-inspiring was witnessing the ‘iron cross’ on the rings. A move that requires pulling one’s body up to full and straight stature with the rings at hip level and then slowly lowering oneself by holding the rings firmly and out to the side at shoulder level. It requires an inordinate amount of strength. I tried and tried to execute this move, and managed to lower myself to barely hip level, but my friend Raphäel was able to snap a picture showing my beautiful abs. I am convinced that the little gymnastics we dabbled with on the beach in Marseille helped me to gain more self-control that helped me cope better later in life.

Raphäel and I were always together and did absolutely everything together. He taught me to swim, albeit without grace or form, but he moved with both grace and form. He was able to dive from a high board into water three feet deep, looking almost like a dolphin. He used to sneak in and learn from the swim club that was perched high next to the Catalans, where I believe Jacques Cousteau researched and where the butterfly stroke was said to have been created.

On hot summer days, after an evening of delightful music appreciation, we would strip to the skin, run out of the house, and swan dive straight into the polluted waters of the Vieux Port, between small boats. We would occasionally get flippers and spring-loaded spears, and we would search the waters farther out to sea where the water was clean for a sizable target to make a good meal. Once in a great while we spotted an octopus, while frightening images from Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea frightened me enough to scamper away. But, Raphäel explained just how to handle the little octopi and the first time I tried I was a success. This experience somewhat allayed my fears.

We swam to small islands near the beach and hunted for sea urchins, starfish, mussels, clams, and crabs that were plentiful in the area; the less mobile targets were easier to capture. After bringing the catch home, Mother likely fought her revulsion of shellfish to cook them into a Jewish-style bouillabaisse that turned out to be succulent.

One time, Raphäel and I swam to the Chateau d’If on a small island 3.5 kilometers west of the Vieux Port. When we finally got there, tired and a bit winded, we noticed there were uniformed guards there. We kept away without seeking to step ashore. We rested for several minutes by floating until we felt sufficiently recovered and then we swam back. On occasions, we also borrowed our Algerian friend Mustafa’s two-seat kayak to enjoy, observe, and survey the many sites along the Corniche shore away from the Vieux Port past the Catalans, especially towards the Joliette area.

I clearly remember partaking in a fistfight at the Catalans against an older and taller, but still ugly, Armenian who called me some choice names. I threw a punch that hit him in the stomach, but he came back with at least one on the jaw that knocked me cold to the ground for several seconds. Raphäel helped me up and pulled me away, telling my opponent a fabulous story to call a halt to the scuffle.

At about that time in early 1941, history tells that Hitler had signed an order that before the end of 1942 Germany was to be Judenfrei, or free of all Jews. This was followed by 15 high-ranking Nazi Party and German government officials gathering on January 20, 1942, at a villa in Wannsee near Berlin. The implementation of a program called the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was discussed and coordinated. Over the years, the characterization of the “Jewish Problem” in the Nazi vocabulary evolved increasingly to presage ominous conclusions.

Various previous practices had included voluntary emigration, confinement to ghettos in urban centers, forced removal to concentration camps, and finally, extermination. The ultimate aim of the Nazis all along had been to remove Jews from every sector of German society and from German soil. They sought legal tactics initially by encouraging Jewish emigration by establishing The Reich Central Office for Jewish Emigration, but this proved to be totally inadequate for their purpose. A mid-day buffet luncheon was provided for these high-ranking Nazis to finalize the annihilation of the Jewish people in Europe.

I could not have comprehended these events, given the small world around me at that time. I still don’t know for sure how my mother found longtime friends from Antwerp, the Ostreicher family. They were confectioners who were also hiding in Marseille. Those friends along with others became for Mother a major source of entertainment with friendly games of poker. They may also have been a major source of commodities for her new trade in the black market. In order to survive without the possession of valid documents or identity cards and ration coupons, my mother enhanced her proficiency at dealing with essential but rare commodities by purchasing them at relatively low prices and reselling with a substantial profit margin. Her latent talent for black marketeering was painfully acquired and earned during the Bolshevik experiences of her younger days.

According to posters, the practice of black marketing was most hazardous to one’s health: it was punishable by hanging. Still, we had to survive, and I noticed commodities like white sugar, black domestic or blond American cigarettes, and very highly prized chocolate confections and Belgian praline boxes and halvah hidden away and out of sight. French cigarettes like the Gauloise or Gitanes were made from black Middle East tobacco, but the rich and luxurious blond tobacco from Virginia was all but non-existent, except at a steep price. White sugar had been rationed, and I do not ever recall seeing any of it during my stay in Marseille, but a slightly crystalline and very soggy purplish grape sugar was commercially available. The ration books we were able to “secure” entitled each individual to 250 grams or a half-pound of bread daily, which we could purchase only when available at the bakery. This was painfully meager for a nation of bread eaters.

Certain rationed commodities—for instance white sugar, butter, and other dairy products, fats, meats such as beef, pork, and lamb, and shoes—were hardly ever available in the local commercial stores. Fortunately, because of its geographical location on the Mediterranean coast, all kinds of seafood were readily sold at the Vieux Port. As I walked along the quay towards the Catalans Baths, I would frequently stop to swoop down after locating some wooden barrels leaking under the hot sun, and I would furtively consume what I could of the thick, warm, and sweet grape sugar oozing out. 

We were able to buy a liter of skim milk about once every other week and one pound of meat at most about every two or three weeks, and at times a small piece of horse meat. Rutabagas and topinambours (Jerusalem artichokes) were not rationed and were more or less available in the stores and became, of necessity, a major staple. They could be filling, but became symbols, as well as a subject of derision of the culinary plight of the city and likely the nation. I was also quite fortunate to befriend an Arab neighbor who was a seaman who sailed periodically to Djibouti and often brought back kilos of east African peanuts which I thoroughly enjoyed and found quite filling.

Through her poker playing Jewish friends, my mother met and conferred in Russian about problems with Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who apparently offered free advice. Anna, my sister, had been taking secretarial and accounting courses, but because of hearing problems that began to afflict her, she was counseled by the Rabbi to consider learning haute couture or high-fashion dressmaking at ORT (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training). She began the training in Marseille and persevered for another year in Barcelona where she became skillful in a vocation that served her well later on in Palestine and then in Israel. Anna recalls that when she accompanied my mother to pay a visit to Rabbi Schneerson, he had my sister on his lap and gave her a big kiss on the cheek. Rabbi Schneerson, whose advice was seemingly much sought after, had studied engineering in France and actually escaped via Marseille and Spain and came to America in June 1941 on the Serpa Pinto, the ship I would take two years hence. He subsequently became the venerated spiritual leader of the Chabad Lubavitchers movement in America.

In 1940, the EIF (Éclaireurs Israélites de France) was a liberally and religiously oriented but patriotic French Jewish Boy Scout group. It founded an agricultural training camp, Hachshara, in Moissac that became the epicenter of the EIF located in unoccupied France. Somehow, my mother had signed me up for a stay of two or three weeks in Moissac. But learning to till and work the land and plant small things with simple hand tools in preparation for aliyah, or immigration to the land of Israel, represented Hachshara to me. A little room served as a library where books were available, and I did take the time to read the history of the Jews during that time. We also celebrated the Shabbat every Friday evening. But I remember from the Moissac experience the long solitary train ride on the SNCF, the French National Railway Company, and my increasing distaste and aversion for lentils in any shape or form. I later learned that soon after one Oneg Shabbat, the senior staff decided to curtail or even dispense of these activities, and most of the kids returned home. Likewise, the ORT programs that had been offered just tapered off, then ceased, and everything and everybody associated with it just vanished. In fact both ORT and the Jewish Boy Scouts were under the umbrella of the UGIF, a union of Jews in occupied France and many from the Jewish Boy Scouts went practically underground to form contacts with Zionist groups. I still do not know why my mother sent me to Moissac. After all, we were in the socalled unoccupied zone of France that had surrendered but under covert and severe German control.

In no time, I lost my Brusseleer accent and readily acquired the one from the local Southern region, and indeed I became a typical Marseillais teenager. I had met Raphäel Bernet at the Catalans Baths, and we soon became fast friends and constant companions for the rest of my stay in Marseille. He described himself as Café au Lait, born from a white Danish mother and a Negro father who was born in Cameroon when it was a German colony. He was bilingual, and spoke English at home and French with everyone else. He was quite handsome, with a light brown skin that darkened very quickly in the summer sun, with soft features and beautiful wavy jet black hair, and a lean but well-muscled body like a great many of us at the time. He could not explain why his two attractive younger sisters were darker skinned and crowned with kinky hair, but neither of us knew anything about genetics and frankly we did not care. As I climbed the stairs up to their flat at the Quai du Port, the western side of the Vieux Port, I could hear the youngest, Lisette, gently and lovingly call out my name. She had been permanently confined to a special type of high chair because of a serious incapacitating muscular disease and could only extend her hands to me while her head bobbed slightly. Raphäel would play records while I would occasionally read stories to her or hold her hand. I became particularly taken with the music played in that home, particularly the aria “Lucevan l’Estelle” from Puccini’s Tosca sung by Beniamino Gigli, considered the premier opera performer of the day. This became a momentous experience as I discovered the great beauty the human voice could achieve. We also listened frequently to the Emperor Waltz of Johann Strauss that became for me a door opener to great classical music. The family would speak at times in a foreign unfamiliar tongue, apparently English, although the parents could speak French rather well even with a pronounced accent. I liked that family and Lisette, who did not survive long, but her short life had been sweetened with much love. The older attractive sister went her own way and would have nothing to do with her brother or with me. Raphäel played the harmonica, and I took it up also well enough to play simple tunes like “Frère Jacques,” “Yankee Doodle,” and “Donkey Serenade” that I picked up from the movies. I never did learn to read music, but I was proud to be able to play a simple few tunes on that harmonica.

The flat I normally slept in was even more confining and morose than the one we left in Cazères, our first dwelling in France, so that I sought to escape more. In the cooler season I learned to shoot billiards, and I became quite good at calling each shot. I would also ride the trolley through Rue de Rome and the Préfecture to a roller skating rink near the hippodrome by the Corniche where I got to skate to the point when I could almost spin and twirl, but I did do figures eights forwards and backwards. We loved to talk about and chase girls, or preferably women, on the beach or in the rink. Obviously, it was in Marseille that I experienced my first sexual encounter, and it was indescribable. On the other hand, chasing trucks was far easier, but when we caught one and jumped onto it when it slowed down to turn, we gobbled what we could of the juicy cantaloupes or watermelons, and frankly we were not really aware of where we were heading, nor did we really care. We also borrowed bicycles from Mustafa and headed out onto the lower Corniche to the many picturesque towns hugging the inside of the coast. One such trip to Nice, a couple of hundred kilometers away, took days, with many stops such as the interesting hiding alcoves and beautiful little fishing village of Martigues where I marveled at the size of the tuna that was caught and hanging on a hook. That was the first time I tasted fresh Mediterranean tuna fish, although the famed bouillabaisse of Marseille contained all the strange and exotic sea beasts mentioned before. That thick fish soup became a frequent staple in Marseille, because it was easy to cook up left over marine life with a couple of potatoes and onions when available, and flavoring it with garlic and southern herbs. I also befriended Armand, the sole offspring of a master pastry chef, but because of the shortages, the patisserie could not be stocked as fully and as frequently as desired. Nevertheless, I was able to get more than my share of sweet pickings when I volunteered my services with Armand. I had some luck with René who occasionally assisted his older sister to work their parents’ restaurant and café. I became acquainted with the famed southern Ricard, known as the Pastis, akin to the other more popular licorice Pernod liqueur; I could practically guarantee that it was the most popular French drink in those days. I began smoking by sneaking one or two from the packs of cigarettes concealed for selling on the black market. When cigarettes were not openly available, a very common occurrence, I found an herbal leaf whose name escaped me as a substitute; it was more plentiful, but also more malodorous. I even rolled and smoked corn silk, but with less enthusiasm.

I adored the movies and easily became an aficionado when I had the money to go, and when I didn’t, I would sneak in. Thus, I became most familiar with movie pictures and American superstars of the day. I can still visualize old movies that have become classics. I was particularly awed me when I heard a Boys Town resident reciting the kiddush blessing before a meal, and another awed moment when I saw the magnificent and awesome statue of President Lincoln in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Similarly, of course, I could not forget some great French movies.

One main used book store near Raphäel’s house allowed me many hours of pleasurable surreptitious reading of westerns and detective stories and even classics like Gogol’s Tarass Bulba, and Cervantes’s Don Quichotte de la Manche which I read again later as Don Quixote de la Mancha in Spanish. My time was totally my own because I had no school to attend, and I even found time to start a philatelic collection. I was ever so proud to possess the new series of stamps celebrating Maréchal Pétain and the Blue Legion of French volunteers fighting on the Russian front with their German patrons.

The safest source for getting some spending money was by shining shoes. We’d set up a little wooden box with the tools of the trade and locate a spot on the street in the local casbah. I felt safer and more secure there where I could attract customers with leather shoes. Many of the North African Arabs preferred wearing espadrilles, corded summer sandals, rather than leather shoes. When I needed more cash than I could make by legitimate and honest work, I would on rare occasions borrow a few cigarettes from the packs my mother safely kept under the bed, and sell them one at a time at a substantial net profit.

Fortunately, some buildings in certain sections of the city were connected by passageways, making it easier for someone to hide and slip away when necessary. With practice, Raphäel taught me to become more adept at moving about stealthily in the greater neighborhood. We sought mainly to seek extra food, such as äoli, a popular regional oily garlic type spread, sandwiches that we could most often liberate. But more than once, we came upon weapons such as woodsmen’s knives, gunpowder, and pistols by our surreptitious entry into some of the better tents and wooden shacks of the temporary outdoor festivals behind the stock exchange. These tents faced the Cours Belzunce, a favorite hangout, parade, and meeting site for many homosexuals of the area. Two gendarmes very nearly discovered us hours after closing time, possibly around two o’clock in the morning, after I made a faint sound when I accidentally bumped lightly into a chair. But the gods had apparently been propitiated on our behalf that night, because I sighted a rat, which I thankfully was able to nudge with my foot to convince it to squeal. The cops walked away with some loud unflattering expletives cast at the rats while I sighed with relief.

These occasional outdoor festivals and rides on the square by the Cours Belzunce provided days of great entertainment, especially rides on the whirling seats, high and fast. There were wrestlers with beautiful physiques and rippling muscles who challenged any comer onto a wrestling ring for prize money. One of the men was African with glistening bulging muscles who displayed his biceps and deltoids under the strains of an American march, which I finally recognized as “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” The music presumably indicated the performer’s origins. Also during fair days there were all kinds of wares hawked. I remember mostly standing by a middle-age caricaturist, at least 25 years old, sporting an elegant but trim narrow beard and mustache from ear to ear. I was particularly entranced when the artist placed little smiles on the faces he sketched in charcoal or colored crayons.

I slept out many a night, which allowed me the freedom for illicit activities. Raphäel conceded that his father, Mr. Bernet, was relatively secure because he was employed as an interpreter by the German authorities secreted in the unoccupied French zone in Marseille. We did secure some explosives from a booth at the fair with nefarious intents towards German offices near the Corniche, past the hippodrome. Raphäel may have found, through his father’s employ, where some of these were located. That part of town was not as familiar to us as the Algerian Arab section we called the casbah, thus we studied it in greater detail so that we could evade whatever predicament might ensue. The seashore was just rocks with an occasional alcove here and there, but Raphäel was an excellent swimmer and was able to check out some of these points from a short distance out. The streets nearby were not patrolled any more than any others, presumably so as not to attract attention. We just wanted to do something nasty to the Boche. I suppose the planning we pursued was haphazard at best. We had decided to steer clear of some parts of that area so as to minimize danger to Mr. Bernet, because we believed he worked there. My mind remains somewhat fuzzy about what we did or the escape routes. I do remember hearing some kind of boom and later on hesitatingly getting off a bus near the Préfecture, the headquarters of the Départment of the Bouche du Rhône. We just strolled diffidently around a bit to see if there was any undue commotion, and then hastened on to the protection of the local casbah.

One bit of news came through in the spring of 1942 when we heard that there was an Allied raid on the beaches of Dieppe, apparently a probing assessment of German defenses of the western French coast. Evidently, this raid was decisively repulsed and soundly thrashed. This incident was discouraging, but did not deter our own activities. We preferred to ignore this setback. Listening to the BBC in occupied France was indubitably most insalubrious, for if one was caught by the authorities, one would most assuredly be taken away to disappear permanently. Needless to say, there were hosts of other inauspicious activities for which the Germans authorities would mandate a death penalty via the Vichy cohorts.

A researcher at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, the late Robert Kesting, delved into and published some papers on the subject of the black experience in the Holocaust. I usually mention that when I address various groups because of my relationship with Raphäel.

In retrospect, my days in Marseille were not as carefree as I seem to indicate in these notes. When I visited Marseille in 1972, I could find no trace of Raphäel or his family. I even searched the German archives and wrote to the Préfecture in Marseille. The father was an interpreter of English, French, and German and quite likely worked for the Germans, and I suspect the family disappeared totally, especially with a badly handicapped sister. However, there does not appear to be any citation of the Gabovitch family, the farmer with whom we stayed before Marseille, nor of Raphäel Bernet in the Bad Arolsen Archives. To my immense relief, this indicates that they were not apprehended by the Nazis.

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