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< Echoes of Memory

Some Were Neighbors

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By Albert Garih

When I saw this title of the upcoming exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I felt that couldn’t have thought of a more meaningful one, so true was it in our case. This is how we lived during World War II in occupied France. While most were indifferent or just struggling, trying to survive in difficult circumstances, some were fighting in the resistance, some were helping, and some were in the militia, doing the dirty jobs for the occupying forces.

In the spring of 1944, we had to go back to our apartment after a neighbor of the family with whom my mother, my two sisters, and I had been hiding for the past six months while my father was in captivity, threatened to denounce us. The neighbor asked our protectors, “When are you going to get rid of that scum?” But, it was not the end of our life with dangerous neighbors.

Adjacent to our own apartment, sharing a wall with us, was a couple of middle-aged people whom we first found to be rather friendly. Of course, they didn’t know that we were Jewish. We also shared a balcony with them, with our section of the balcony separated from theirs by a small railing, and I remember that one day the lady, whose name I have forgotten, invited me over to her apartment. I was a cute little five-year-old boy and she helped my mother to lift me over the railing, and then she offered me something I had never seen before, a yellow tomato. I was immediately seduced by that friendly woman.

Once the war was over, we learned that that lovely lady’s husband had been a big shot in the collaborationist militia, rounding up Jews to be sent to their death in the concentration camps. In 1945, a few days after the war ended, that man was found dead in a movie theater, gunned down by some resistance fighter in retribution for his actions during the war! Some neighbor!

However, if I talked only of our bad neighbors, I wouldn’t be telling the whole story. We also had good neighbors, who definitely deserve to be mentioned here. First were our next-door neighbors, Robert and Suzanne Ménétrier, who lived on the same floor, one door up the corridor from our apartment. The Ménétriers were Communists. Robert had been summoned to Germany for mandatory labor service, but had not reported for duty and was therefore under the constant threat of being deported. They had a little girl, three months my junior. One morning in early June 1944, two police inspectors came knocking at our door, telling my mother that they had come to take us away. It was in the early morning, and I was still asleep, but I was awakened by the commotion. My mother started shaking, realizing that what she had dreaded all along had finally happened.

However, these inspectors, for whatever reason—maybe they realized that the war was being lost, or maybe they were just decent human beings—added that they would report that they had not found us, but that we could not stay in our apartment. As soon as they left, my mother dressed me up and took me and my sisters to a social worker who knew of our situation. She asked her to find hiding places for all of us. The social worker needed a few days to find places, but in the meantime, we had to hide the best we could. The Ménétriers had a small apartment, but they immediately offered to host my mother and me until we could find a more permanent place to stay. Both Robert and Suzanne worked night shifts, so at night, my mother and I would sleep in their bed, and when they returned from work in the morning, we would get up to let them sleep.

There was also Madame Papillon, our lodgekeeper, a mother of three whose husband was among the French soldiers taken prisoner when France was invaded. Madame Papillon hosted my sisters while my mother and I were staying with the Ménétriers. Finally, after a few days, the social worker found a hiding place for each one of us. My mother was placed as a governess with a family of many children near the Eiffel Tower, while my sisters and I were placed in Catholic boarding schools in Montfermeil, a suburb east of Paris where we stayed until we were liberated, at the end of August.

In other words, our apartment was sandwiched between an apartment housing a militia collaborator and one housing workers discreetly, but surely, fighting back against the German occupation of France. In 1992, I had the Ménétriers recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

©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.

Tags:   albert garihechoes of memory, volume 8

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