November 14, 2022
By Albert Garih
I was affected by racism from my birth. When I was two years old, my native France was invaded by her neighbor, Germany, who immediately started to implement anti-Jewish laws that affected me before I was old enough to know it. First, we were expelled from our home, which was the janitor’s house of the garment factory where my father worked as an accountant. We had to find an apartment overnight, in the middle of the war and in the midst of a terrible housing crisis. I was four years old.
That same year, due to the anti-Jewish laws adopted by the collaborationist government of Pierre Laval, the French police started rounding up Jews to deport them to the East. We had no idea for what reason, and my parents were scared about what would happen to those deported. They decided to send us to a farm, not far from Paris, arguing that we would be better fed than in Paris where everything was rationed or simply not available, but more importantly, they were afraid of us being deported.
We spent the winter of 1942–43 on that farm in Thoiry. My parents had not told the ladies who were tending the farm that we were Jewish, but one day, in the conversation with these ladies, the four-year-old boy I was disclosed this secret, and they sent us right back home. That was my first brush with antisemitism: we were persona non grata, pariahs to these people. When we came back home, my father took me aside and told me never, NEVER, to say that we were Jewish again. That was my first lesson on antisemitism.
Later, after the war, when things went back to normal, I would go to public school, where I witnessed kids using antisemitic slurs. I was still traumatized by my experience of two years earlier and still afraid to say that I was Jewish. When I was 11, I was hospitalized for an appendectomy, in a hospital where the nurses were nuns. The nun who was taking care of me was very nice, but always questioned me about whether I was studying the catechism to prepare for my First Communion and I would lie to her, because I was still afraid, or ashamed, to tell her that I was Jewish. It took me a few more years, until I was 15 or 16, to come out openly and talk back when I would hear some insults made toward the Jews. And since then, I have never stopped being vocal about my Jewishness.
This attitude was not only about Jews. In the mid-’50s, when we were in the middle of the Algerian war in France, the country was divided, split between supporters of an independent Algeria and those who wanted Algeria to remain French. I could not stand hearing the anti-Muslim slurs used against Algerians. When I was in college, I got a job as an assistant teacher in a secondary school and, there again, people were divided. Of course, I was with the group who were in favor of an independent Algeria and the other group, mostly Corsicans, wanted to keep Algeria French, against the will of the majority of the Algerian population who wanted their independence. Supporters of a French Algeria planted bombs everywhere, including one in the school where I was working. Thankfully, the bomb exploded at night and no one was hurt.
In the ’60s in France, I followed closely the unrest in the United States, and of course, I was once again on the side of the people who were fighting for justice and equality for Black people. In 1965, the MRAP (Mouvement contre le racisme, l’antisémitisme et pour la paix), which supported that fight, sponsored a gala where the guest of honor was none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with a concert by Harry Belafonte, of whom I already was a big fan. Of course, I went to that gala, and it remains to this day one of the great moments of my life. Unfortunately, three years later, Dr. King was assassinated, which came as a shock, like the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963, and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, the same year as King.
At that time, I was already looking at possibilities to get a job overseas, and my first job as an expatriate was in Cameroon in 1969, where I also experienced racism, or more precisely resentment against the French. We were resented as the new generation of colonizers, although I was sent there under the French technical assistance to coach some junior Cameroonian translators at the Office of the President. The country had become bilingual with its union with a former province of Anglophone Nigeria which had separated from that country in the early ’60s. I couldn’t help feeling the hostility of the local population. However, this was for me an enriching experience, and for four years, with my wife and my eldest daughter, Judith, who was only three months old when we emigrated, we lived in a totally different setting. We had some advantages, an easier life, but also with difficulties in adjusting to a population that was more resentful than appreciative of our presence there. Anyhow, that experience lasted four years for which I am grateful, because it broadened my vision of the world.
From there, in 1973, we moved once again, not back to France, but this time to Montreal, Canada, where I got a job with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN agency. In Canada, we witnessed some antisemitism from the locals, but we also made some good friends, particularly our neighbors who didn’t know much about Jews, except what they had heard from the general French Canadian population, but soon discovered we were “not so bad” as we looked in their imagination. We stayed three years in Canada, and that is where our two younger daughters were born. I was already looking for a position at the World Bank. We have very fond memories of the country, where we keep going back to visit our daughter Judith, who married a Canadian and lives there.
After three years in Montreal, we moved again, this time to the States, where we have been living for the past 45 years, after I was offered the job I was looking for at the World Bank. Here, we also have witnessed many cases of racist incidents, including the murder of Stephen Tyrone Johns, a guard at the Museum, by James von Brunn, a white supremacist, Holocaust denier, and neo-Nazi, in 2009, and the killing of Heather Heyer by James Alex Fields, in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. These are only two of the hate crimes that were committed in recent years, but there are many more, and the list would be too long for me to recall here. I mention them here only to illustrate my point.
France, Cameroon, Canada, and the United States: these are the countries where I lived and witnessed, at various degrees, racism.
© 2022, 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.
PREVIOUS POST: My First Theatrical Experience
NEXT POST: What Makes a Good Relationship