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The Tray

By Susan Warsinger

Six yellow flowers, four rather aged pieces of vanilla cake, three cookies of different designs that had been around for quite a while, a few pieces of candy that had wrappers with French writing in large red and blue letters, five dates stuffed with coconut, and several doilies cut out of paper napkins daintily peeking out below the delicacies were all lavishly laid out on a tray that had been used many times. It came out of the old kitchen of the Chateau de Morelles. This brown tray, so caringly decorated, was placed on my bed before I woke up early on my tenth birthday.

My friends and my brother had been collecting their desserts from lunches and dinners for over a week and had been hiding the loot from me up in the attic of the old castle. It was the custom to surprise the celebrant with a gift on the morning of the person’s birthday. When I woke up I saw the gift that my friends had so lovingly prepared for me. I knew that this tray contained the favorite morsels they had denied themselves for me. All of this confirmed that I was remembered by the other children. It was something that I needed to feel and hear because I had been separated from my parents for such a long time.

The Chateau de Morelles was in a small village in Brout Vernet, France. This village is not too far from Vichy, where the French puppet government was located after the Nazis invaded the northern part of France. The chateau was just on the outskirts of the village and had a high wall around it with an iron gate that was usually locked. The chateau had fallen into disrepair, with paint peeling off the shutters of the many high windows that surrounded it. The turrets had also been painted white many years ago and now needed a fresh coat of paint. The large veranda, which was reached by a double staircase on each side, had some broken tiles. The rooms inside the chateau were tremendous and the ceiling in one of these rooms was especially high.

My brother and I were part of a group of Jewish children who inhabited the chateau. Most of us had come from Germany and were smuggled into France after the “Night of the Broken Glass.” Many of us were in homes in the surrounding area of Paris but then were sent to the southern part of France so that we would be safe from the Nazis. A great many of us had not heard from our parents and did not know where they were living.

My brother and I waited for a long time to get a letter from our beloved parents. When we finally did receive mail from them, they told us about ordinary happenings in their daily life. They did not say anything about the war, nor about how the Nazis treated them and the other Jewish people of our town. They did not mention whether they had received the affidavits to leave Germany to go to America. We knew that any correspondence referring to those issues was dangerous and that a letter containing such information would be confiscated. As a very young child, I wrote in a diary from May 1941 to September 1941. I only made two entries that dealt with the war and the Holocaust because I was afraid that the Nazis would find the diary and that I would be punished for writing about their atrocities.

In 1941 we attended the French public school. However, the Jewish children from the chateau were not allowed to go to the same school as the village children because their parents and the officials did not want their children to mingle with us. It was too bad because the children of the farmers could have learned so much from us who came from cosmopolitan areas and had parents of many different professions. We could have shared our cultures and traditions.

We had our classes in one large room, where the children were divided by age and placed into different parts of the room. All of us were taught by one teacher, who was French. He taught French grammar, geography, math, and creative writing in French. In France, there was no school on Thursday and Sunday but children were required to go to school on Saturday. Even though our school was separated from the village school, we too were required to attend class on Saturday, our Jewish holiday. Our chateau was run by Jewish orthodox counselors and teachers who taught us the Jewish orthodox customs and traditions and we knew that we were not allowed to write and do other schoolwork on Saturday. Our French teacher was kind enough not to make us write on Shabbat. Since all the lessons were presented orally on that day, we felt that we did not break any Jewish orthodox traditions.

All the children at the chateau were assigned jobs, such as helping out with the laundry, hanging up clothes, darning socks, and working in the garden. My favorite assignment was serving food in the dining rooms because it gave me the opportunity to look at the food for a longer period of time, which made me less hungry. Even though the food was adequate, I always wanted more. One day the kitchen staff surprised us with three strawberries per person. When I was serving these to the children, I found that I did not have any strawberries for the last two children. It was difficult for me to give each of these two children one of my strawberries, a phenomenal treat, but I thought it was the necessary thing to do. Later, on Wednesday July 30, 1941, I wrote in my diary, “How long is it since I ate chocolate? I have a terrible longing, and my mouth waters when I think of it.” But then I wrote how lucky I was because other Jews in Germany were being deprived of strawberries, chocolate, and other delicacies.

Waiting for the day to leave France and come to America was extremely difficult and we prayed each night in our beds that our turn to leave would arrive soon. Our beds in the dormitories were arranged in four long rows with at least ten beds in each row. We would whisper to each other, revealing our mutual dreams of living a wonderful life in America where we would be reunited with our families.

At least once a week some children’s names were called and they were asked to go to the director’s office of our chateau. Everyone knew what it was about. They were the lucky ones who had received a passport and a ticket to emigrate to the United States. It was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society or some other wonderful organization that had sponsored the children and brought about their deliverance to a new land where they wouldn’t have to live in fear of the Nazis. We were always happy for the ones who got to leave. But deep down in my heart I always wished that my brother and I were the chosen ones.

Finally, we heard our names called: Susi Hilsenrath and Josef Hilsenrath. The excitement was almost unbearable because we knew we were on our way to America. However, in all this exhilaration, a thought popped into my mind. I was so happy that I was able to save a dessert for the girl in the bed next to me because I knew her birthday was coming up, and I made plans to get that treat on her birthday tray while I was on my voyage to a new life.

©2011, 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.