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< Echoes of Memory

The Interpreter

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By Susan Warsinger

It looked like the Fourth of July from our attic window in a small village in France. Only it was not fireworks that were exploding in midair; it was bombs being dropped from German airplanes on our beloved city of Paris. We watched in awe at the spectacle that was being displayed in front of us. We were young children, and we could not imagine what was to come.

After the German army marched into Paris, it seemed to us that much of the population, including our caretakers, was extremely afraid and wanted to escape the environs. Since Versailles is just a little southwest of Paris, it must have seemed logical to flee to that town in order to postpone confrontation with the boches, the name that the French gave to the Germans.

I do not remember how we got to the Cháteau de Versailles. Some people went on the train but I think that we walked along with many French people because it is only about 15 miles from Paris. The palace that Louis XIV built there was unbelievably beautiful in our eyes. We had never seen such a grand building before. We knew that it was our destination and that we were going to be housed in it until we could find refuge somewhere else.

Since so many people had to have a place to sleep, it was decided to put us into the Hall of Mirrors, which is the largest room in the palace. Our beds were made of burlap and filled with straw and made such noise every time someone turned around. The straw was rough and it scratched our backs as we lay on our mattresses next to each other. It seemed so strange sleeping on the floor and looking at those elegant mirrors which reached all the way to the ceiling.

This well-designed sleeping arrangement did not last long. The next morning we saw the German army come marching into our sanctuary. There were many soldiers and they were led by a German official in a military car. This official demanded to talk to the highest representative in Versailles. The Nazi officer did not know how to speak French and our representative did not know how to speak German. Therefore, they needed an interpreter. Where were they going to find one? Someone pointed to me. They knew that I spoke German, that I was born in Bad Kreuznach, that I was Jewish, and that I had fled from Germany after Kristallnacht. However, no one was able to tell this to the Nazi officer. They pushed me in front of him and he began asking me questions that pertained to the town of Versailles, which I was supposed to translate into French for our representative. It was not too difficult for me because I had spent my entire life in Germany and my vocabulary was as extensive as any German nine-year-old’s. My French had also improved because I was diligently studying and speaking it.

I do not remember all the questions and answers that I interpreted for those gentlemen but I do remember that both seemed to be satisfied with their conversation. When it was all over, the German officer asked me how I knew German so well and I remembered, even as young as I was, that I must not tell him that I was Jewish and had fled from Germany illegally. I told him with great confidence, “Die Französisch Privatschulen sind sehr gut und ich habe da Deutsche gelernt”—the French public school system was very good and that I had learned my German there. He bowed down to me while shaking my hand and thanked me.

©2008, Susan Warsinger. 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:   susan warsingerechoes of memory, volume 5

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