November 01, 2016
BY HARRY MARKOWICZ
As a result of World War II, my few surviving relatives and their descendants ended up living in different parts of the world—some in Sweden; some in Venezuela; and others in Israel, England, Australia, and Canada. My parents, sister, brother, and I settled in the United States after the war. An exception to this pattern of leaving Europe to start a new life elsewhere was my cousin Charlotte, who spent part of the war in hiding, but returned afterward to her parents’ home in Noisy-le-Grand—a distant eastern suburb of Paris—and lived there nearly to the present day.
In the summer of 2004, after flying from Washington to Paris to attend a conference in honor of a French sociologist with whom I had worked for many years, I contacted Charlotte by telephone. She invited me to lunch at her house the following Sunday. Charlotte was retired. She had been a Parisian taxi driver for many years, just like her husband until he passed away. She lived by herself in a big house on Avenue Emile Cossonneau. The front of the house where her dining room was located had once been a grocery store. It had been converted into a dining room, but the large store windows on either side of the glass door had been left as they were.
In France, lunch is generally the main meal of the day, and especially on Sundays it is consumed at a leisurely pace. At some point during the meal, I mentioned to Charlotte that I had gone to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York where I had seen a photograph of her sister Mina.
Charlotte asked, “Why is Mina’s picture in this museum?” I explained that it is part of the exhibit on the Holocaust and that the picture was an enlargement from Serge and Beata Klarsfeld’s memorial book for the more than 11,000 Jewish children who had been deported from France during World War II, never to return.
Charlotte said, “I have that book. It’s in the garage. Would you like to see it?”
“Of course,” I replied, wondering at the same time why she kept this precious book in the garage. Charlotte stepped through a door into the garage located alongside the dining room. I was reminded that at one time the dining room had been a grocery store. The merchandise had probably been stored in the garage and brought into the store as needed.
Charlotte reappeared with the book and opened it to the page with Mina’s picture. It was the same photo I had seen at the museum. The black-and-white picture of a teenager shows just her upper body. She is looking over her left shoulder in the direction of the camera belonging most likely to a street photographer. Looking more closely at the photo and imagining its own historical context, I think possibly Mina turned her body away from the camera to prevent it from capturing the yellow star on her coat.
Slowly, and without apparent emotion, Charlotte began to tell me a story I had never heard before about her family. Her parents had left Poland in the 1920s and settled first in Belgium where Charlotte and Mina were born. Some years later the family moved to Paris. Her father, Leon, was a chemist who owned a prosperous business manufacturing and selling liqueurs from his store there. They lived in a large and comfortable apartment above the store. Paula, her mother, stayed home to look after their two girls. At some point, they bought two houses in Noisy-le-Grand as investments. A sleepy village along the Marne River in the early 20th century, Noisy-le-Grand had started to develop into a small town.
Later, after Germany invaded France and the systematic roundup of Jews began, Leon and Paula had moved to one of the houses they owned in Noisy-le-Grand—a safer location than Paris, because German soldiers were not stationed there. To further improve their chances of avoiding being caught, Charlotte, 13, and Mina, 16, were hidden with non-Jewish families in the area.
One day, Leon and Paula asked their two daughters to join them for Sunday lunch at their house. According to Charlotte, her father was confident that nothing would happen to them. Mina had pointed out that another Jewish family, residents of Noisy-le-Grand, had just recently been arrested by the French police and transported to Drancy. Leon, however, counted on the local police chief to keep them safe because on several occasions he had played chess with him.
Suddenly, while they were having lunch, there was loud knocking at the front door of the dining room. Through the lace curtain that hung on the glass front door, they could clearly see the silhouettes of two French policemen. Leon opened the door. The policemen entered the room and asked for their identification papers. In France, everyone over the age of 16 was required to carry an identity card. Although Charlotte was too young for an ID card, she knew that her parents’ cards and also Mina’s were stamped with a large letter J for Juif (Jew). Leon said that his ID card was in his suit jacket upstairs in their bedroom. The policeman who appeared to be in charge told him to get it and followed him up the stairs. Obviously, they had come to arrest the family.
Charlotte was aware that her father had a revolver in the bedroom. Frightened and still in shock from the arrival of the policemen, she wondered what her father might do. About this time, her mother, who had gotten up from the dinner table when the policemen banged on the door, slowly took a step, then a second, toward the open front door.
As Charlotte described this scene to me, she pointed to the door less than two meters from where she and I were sitting at the table. “Then, unexpectedly,” Charlotte continued, “Mother shouted at Mina and me in Yiddish, ‘Lauf aweg!’ (Run away!) At the same time, she bolted out the door and started running down the sidewalk.”
Charlotte added softly, “I can still hear the clip-clop of her heels on the sidewalk.” The second policeman chased after her. Unbeknown to the family, a third policeman had been posted near the gate leading to the back yard from where he could monitor the rear of the house. He, too, took off after Paula. They quickly caught up to her and tussled with her to prevent her from fleeing. Paula must have known that she could not outrun the policeman standing near her in the dining room, let alone the one standing outside the house. Her intention was probably to create a diversion to give Charlotte and Mina the opportunity to escape.
Charlotte and Mina hesitated. Some neighbors who had been watching what was going on from across the street, yelled at the girls, “Par ici!” (This way!) The girls ran across the street and escaped through the neighbors’ gardens. This was the last time they saw their parents.
When they were sure they had not been followed, they returned to their hiding places. One of them was staying with a Polish priest, the other with a Catholic Polish family.
Six months later, Mina was arrested on the street and deported as her parents had been. Of the 76,000 Jews deported from France, only around 2,000 came back from the camps. Paula, Leon, and Mina were not among the returnees. They existed for me only as three more phantom relatives whom I barely knew through a few old black-and-white photographs. Six decades later, I learned about their tragic fate while sharing Sunday lunch with my cousin Charlotte in the very same room where she and her family had eaten their final meal together.
Charlotte remained quiet for a time, apparently lost in her thoughts about that fateful day. Then, as if an afterthought, she added, “Our neighbors denounced us.”
Surprised, I asked, “What happened to them?”
“Nothing,” she said. “The family still lives next door.”
The irony did not escape me and I’m assuming it was also the case with Charlotte. We didn’t talk for a while, and then she suggested we get into her former cab and take a sightseeing tour of Noisy-le-Grand, an offer that I gladly accepted.
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