Sunday, July 28, 2013

Recollection: A Birthday Party

While looking at old pictures for some past posts, I found a couple that reminded me of a birthday party from long ago, when I was 11 years old.  My parents and I had been living in an apartment near the Sacre-Coeur de Montmartre but I had problems with my lungs.  I went regularly to the doctor for ultraviolet treatments (was never told why) but kept on coughing and our doctor advised that we move away from Paris - somewhere with fresh air.  My parents found a house in a suburb not far away near a large forest, but I was sad to leave Paris and my friends.  I knew I would also miss playing in the gardens of the Sacre-Coeur as shown in the postcard below.

My parents kept the apartment in Paris for years but our main home was now in Saint Leu la Foret, in the Val d'Oise.  It was close to the large Montmorency Forest with its 2200 hectares or 5,382 acres of land.  I could walk up to the forest and did, with my dog, every week or more.  Below is a map showing where St Leu is located - it is about 15 miles from the center of Paris, or 24 kms.  The letter A below is at Kilometer Zero, which is located near Notre Dame de Paris, and B, near the forest between St Leu and the next town called Taverny.

I have a few vintage postcards of St Leu la Foret and not many photos.  It is an old town, like most towns in France.  It was called St Leu-Taverny until 1915 then it became St Leu la Foret.  It was close to Paris but when we took the train from St Leu to Paris it took about 45 minutes or more, in a steam train.  The station had an Alsatian look and it still retains the same architecture now.  Below are postcards of the station - the left and top right pictures are modern, the middle one is from 1910 or earlier and the bottom one is from around 1914 or later, I think.  (Click on collage twice to embiggen.)

I did go back to St Leu la Foret about ten years ago but I did not have a digital camera and took film pictures.  I took my husband to the forest which had changed somewhat.  Now it has better paths and there are more houses closer to it.  When I lived there I would just go up the street and soon there were paths into the forest.  I would walk high up in the forest and there was a point where I could see all the way to Paris.  The forest was beautiful in all seasons - with wild hyacinths in spring, lovely green foliage in summer, mushrooms in the fall and chestnuts in winter.

My house was at about 9 o'clock in the aerial view of the forest above and about 20 minutes from the forest itself.  I also would ride my bicycle to the small lake.  Last time with my husband we walked to the "Pont du Diable" (Devil's Bridge) which looked innocent but was a bit scary when I was 10 to 13 years old and walked there alone with my dog.  Here are are some vintage postcards of the forest.

When we moved to St Leu la Foret I was about 10 years old and had to be admitted in primary school during the school year.  I knew no one and felt quite alone.  The school was not far from our house - there were no school buses and no subdivisions, everyone had to walk to school even if they lived a distance away.  Below is a postcard of the post office on the left then the elementary schools, the boy school and the girl school.  The bottom photo shows the girl school as it looks now.

After a while I did make a friend.  Rachel was an orphan who lived in an orphanage in Taverny.  In the school picture of that year, 1950, I am the 5th from the right on the top row (the tallest ones were placed on top) and Rachel is the 4th one from the right in the middle row.

I did not realize at the time why Rachel was there.  I knew she lived in the Chateau de la Tuyolle in nearby Taverny, that she was Jewish and that her parents had been killed during the war in a camp.  Below are vintage postcards of Taverny from the forest and the castle Chateau de la Tuyolle.

So I knew that Rachel's parents had died in the war in some camp but was not sure where or why.  At 10 years old I was not that current with world affairs.  I found the history of the castle on the French web.  The castle named Chateau de la Tuyolle was built by a rich family in 1853, the Guntzberger.  In 1869 it was purchased by Lady Ashburton, Duchess of Grafton, then after the First World War it was used by French Forces.  Later, with the help of two American women - Mrs Royall-Tyler and Wharton, it was made into a sanatorium treating women with tuberculosis and lung ailments.  In 1920 it was purchased by the state and kept as a hospital/sanatorium and called The Hospital of the Park (L'Hopital du Parc.)  From 1940 to 1944 it was one of the headquarters of the German Army and was used by them to train the "Milice" from the French Government in Vichy.  The Milice were additional corps to the German Gestapo.  They looked for agents of the Resistance to fight them.  After the Liberation in 1945 the castle became one of the four children centers of the OSE association (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants.)  This can be translated as "Organization to Save the Children," a French Jewish humanitarian organization saving and helping Jewish refugee children.  You can read about it here in Wikipedia.  Picture below of children coming back from the Buchenwald Concentration Camp is from Wikipedia.

The Chateau de la Tuyolle was an orphanage for children and teen refugees from the Buchenwald Nazi Concentration Camp in Germany.  One of the teens who stayed there was a Romanian/Hungarian Jewish boy who later immigrated to America named Eliezer Wiesel (born in 1928.)  At the age of 15 he had been moved from Auschwitz to Buchenwald and at 17 was admitted to the chateau.  In the US he became a professor at Boston University and wrote 57 books, fiction and non-fiction.  In 1986 Elie Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for speaking out against racism, repression and violence.  But he withdrew from the chair of the International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide when the conference refused to include the Armenian Genocide.  In 2008 he re-visited the Chateau de la Tuyolle and the castle was renamed "Maison d'Enfants Elie Wiesel" (Children House Elie Wiesel) in his honor.  (Photo of Elie Wiesel in Taverny in 2008 below courtesy Primo-info.)

When I was 10 years old I did not know all this history or where Rachel came from.  She was shy, friendly and nice.  I think the reason we became friends was because the other girls did not like us - her because she was a Jewish orphan and me because I had this weird and impossible to pronounce foreign last name.  But by the end of my first year there I had made several other friends.  So now I have to come to my 11th years old birthday party on Monday, March 26, 1951.  My mother told me I could chose a birthday cake from our local Patisserie - bakery. At the time I was very fond of a chocolate cake called "Patate au Chocolat" or chocolate potato cake.  On the outside it looked like a potato covered with cacao powder but inside was a creamy chocolate filling made of madeleines (not potato,) almond, butter cream and flavored with rum.  My mother ordered a cake for 8 servings.  Here is a small patate chocolate cake below, courtesy Marmiton.

I could not invite Rachel to my party because she had to get back to the Taverny castle with a group of other orphans right after school.  I had asked 5 girls to come after school and my mother had given me written invitations for their mothers earlier that week.  They all told me they would come.  My mother had sewed for me a special white dress in organza for the occasion so I quickly left school that day to go and get dressed before my guests arrived.  They never did.  By 8:00 pm my parents told me the girls would not come and we better eat dinner then we could eat the cake.  I was so dejected - why didn't they come?  Why didn't they call?  Mother, to make me feel better, told me that I looked so nice in my dress that she would take me to the photograph shop the next Saturday and have my portrait taken with my dog, a boxer named Woo-hoo.  He was a pedigreed dog and was born the year of the letter W.  I did find this old portrait last week in a box.  My mother always placed ribbon in my hair - I wish she had not...

When I went back to school I asked my friends why they had not shown up at my birthday party.  They all told me they wanted to come but their mothers refused because ... "we don't know these people, they must be foreigners, and who knows what they are going to feed you - you can only attend parties given by French families."  I told them I was French like them and that my father, even though he was an Armenian, had fought in the war and become a French citizen.  That did not help.  So, this is a bittersweet memory - a pretty dress and a birthday no-party.  That's when I understood that most people don't care for foreigners (they don't in the US usually, too - I know.)  I don't remember my 10th or 12th birthday but I remember this one.  I guess out of a lack of understanding of diversity comes fear of the unknown, of people unlike ourselves.  This happens in all countries and it is sad that children have to suffer adults' prejudices and bigotry.  I did not invite girls to my home after that.  In a way it gave me strength - the strength to be by myself and not count on others - that maybe the reason why I could leave France at 21 and travel to the USA, alone.

"There are victories of the soul and spirit.  Sometimes even if you lose, you win."

- Elie Wiesel (American activist and writer born in 1928.)

(Joyeux Anniversaire means Happy Birthday in French.)


Mae Travels said...

You did not mention whether your friendship with Rachel, the Jewish orphan, continued after this sad story. Do you know what happened to her afterwards?

Thank you for posting this. Like many memories from just after the war, it suggests how much attitudes and awareness emerged and changed in the last 50 years or more.

Friko said...

Dear Vagabonde, this is a bittersweet memory indeed.

You are quite right, people fear the differences in others and would rather not get to know and understand ‘foreigners’ of any kind. It is good that the experience brought you strength.

I think among bloggers we find a lot to connect us and we are no longer afraid to embrace each other and our differences, looking instead to the similarities and how we are all the same under the skin.

I have been away from my computer for two weeks and have only just started to catch up again.

Magic Love Crow said...

I am so sorry about your birthday! (I love the picture of you!) Unfortunately, it still happens these days. But, I do believe that this experience made you a strong and loving person! A person who is caring and wouldn't judge others like that!

DJan said...

Everything Friko said resonates with me. I felt the pain of your no-birthday, but I love the picture of you and your dog. It's so sad that differences between people causes others to fear them. Is this changing because of the internet? I hope so, I really do. Thank you for this thoughtful post, VB.

David said...

Hi Vagabonde... This was definitely a bittersweet story. It is sad that many people don't welcome or try to get to know people from other countries. Over the years I/we have been friends with people from India, England, Germany, Denmark, Iceland, Bosnia, Morocco, Italy and Greece. America needs immigrants if our economy is going to continue to prosper. We should fear the eventuality that people wouldn't want to come here...that would be truly sad. It's great that you had the will to move here from France! Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Amanda said...

That is a very sad story. I gasped when you wrote that nobody came to your birthday party. Shame on those parents! Rachel would have been so happy to be there if she had been able to.
One of the reasons why I love living in California (ok the weather is really amazing) is because the people are friendly and come from all over the world. It is such a melting pot that we all accept each others, at least I hope so.

Ann said...

such a sad memory,yet it is one that shaped you.
sadly,in beautiful places,ugly things happen.
i wonder what happened to your friend would be nice to know that your friendship made a difference..i'm sure it did.
those were difficult times,where people had much different thoughts...brought about by circumstances and experiences.
thank you for sharing this special story.

Cloudia said...

Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories, you lovely soul!

ALOHA from Honolulu
Comfort Spiral
~ > < } } ( ° > <3

Pondside said...

This is one of those pieces that makes me think of the next generation, and how important it is that you have written this down for your children and grandchildren.
The picture of your in your birthday dress is a treasure - what a pretty child you were - so solemn, with a quiet that comes through in the photo.
I have always felt that being 'different' was the best thing that could happen to a child. The 'popular' children, and those that are wrapped in the cotton batting of total familiarity and exclusivity never get to stretch in character, develop empathy, find out who they really might be.
I like this post very, very much.

Vicki Lane said...

Bittersweet, indeed. Human nature is so mean sometimes. It seems we always have to define some as 'Other' and then fear/hate/belittle them. I'm so sorry for your sad birthday party. And I too wonder what became of Rachel.

Starting Over, Accepting Changes - Maybe said...

I read Elie Wiesel's book, Night, years ago and the story of man's inhumanity to man will always stay with me. Unfortunately, cruelty is a part of humanity, even amongst children. We are all victims at one time or another, but I consider them lessons in strength and compassion.

Have you ever tried to contact Rachael thru the Internet?

Kay L. Davies said...

I have tears in my eyes for you, not because of your friends but because of their mothers. Your mother was truly wonderful to have a photo taken of you and your real friend, your dog. I agree, Rachel would have been there if she could, and I also wonder what became of her.
I am so grateful my parents raised us to believe all people are equal, no matter where they came from... and it seems your parents were equally wise.

Arti said...

This is a very moving post. You speak for numerous immigrants and diaspora everywhere. In the past months I've read a few books and bios on WWII Germany and the Holocaust, just poignant to read from your first person experience about the ripple effects of the war. The fear of the unknown and whatever that's 'foreign' could be manipulated to restrict privileges and maintain power. Wiesel is an excellent spokesman against such abuse, and your blog is wonderful in linking us all. Once again, thanks for sharing something so personal and poignant.

Thérèse said...

"Fear of the unknown"
You are right.
Bitter sweet but we are today because all we experienced in our life till now.
A post full of energy. said...

Dear Vagabone.
I read your post twice. A very sad ,yet again some happy times in it.
What a shame you never saw Rachel again.. maybe you could try.. always ways and means.!
What was it that you had, that you had to move to the country. It must have been the city smog in those days.!
We must all be proud of our heritage. Small minded people Have now experience of the wold around them.
The old post cards and your memories are wonderful to read.. I so enjoyed this post
Thank you Vagabonde. Merci..
wishing you a very happy week.. by the look so pretty in your party dress..

just a note. I have lived in Portugal over 30 years. In this village more than 20.. and i am still considered a foreigner. People who know me..still stare at me as though i was from outer space. Ignorance is dangerous...
xxxx val

Mary said...

Although bittersweet, another very thought provoking, right to the heart of matters, post - you really write so well dear. Yes, writing all your history down (your memory for details is amazing) is important and your children/grandchildren are blessed, and will be thrilled when older to have such a history to read.

Like you, I had pretty party dresses always, mother was a dressmaker, but only went to others' parties as we couldn't afford to have them after the war. Some wealthier friends had their birthday parties at local hotels I do recall those.

Great memories of a time gone by - hope Rachel had a happy life eventually.

Hugs - Mary

Patricia said...

I agree, we should all write some of our childhood memories so that they can be handed down to future generations, even though some of them are bittersweet. Thanks for sharing with us.
Patricia x

French Girl in Seattle said...

Bonjour Vagabonde. I have not visited your blog for a while, but I am glad I did today, since jet lag is keeping me awake in the early morning hours. What a beautiful story. It resonates on so many levels. Things may have changed (at least i hope so,) over the last 50 or 60 years, but I know other little girls still have to face intolerance and bigotry, even today. Like other readers, I hope you can get in touch with your friend Rachel one day. There are many positive things about the Internet: One is to make people more aware of the rest of the world. Another is to facilitate tracking old friends and relatives online. Bonne chance if you ever decide to reconnect with your friend. Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

Elaine said...

A sad lesson to learn when you're young, but as you say it made you stronger and more reliant upon yourself. Unfortunately people feel threatened by those who are different than themselves or perceived to be different, and I'm sure in France so soon after the war that was especially true. I hope your mother's idea did make you feel better. The photo with your dog is very sweet, but I'm sure it's always associated with your non-birthday party.

OldLady Of The Hills said...

Such a sad sad story...! To be on the receiving end of this kind of dismissive racism on your 11th Birthday...This is awful, beyond words. Was Rachel invited to your Birthday Party? Living in the Orphanage, she probably wasn't allowed to come....! A hard hard life. Her story is very haunting.

That Forest is Beautiful,my dear Vagabonde....A wonderful place to go and play 'let's pretend'....!
Great pictures of your youth and wonderful postcards of that wonderful wonderful Forest. You have led such an interesting life, my dear....And you area very strong person....!

Kay said...

Your parents were truly beautiful, loving people. You were so lucky to have parents who put you first, no matter what.

Your childhood story absolutely breaks my heart. Things have gotten better... at least it was in Illinois. As a teacher and parent I saw people embrace all children no matter what their background or socioeconomic status. Granted, when I first arrived as a teacher, they assumed I had to be the ESL teacher because I was Asian and they assumed I spoke all Asian languages which was crazy. However, in a couple of years that perception changed. Thank goodness! Things are getting better. I have to believe that.

I think your pain as a child did in a way shape the beautiful, empathetic, kind, understanding person you are now.

Kay said...

And you did look beautiful in that gorgeous dress!

By the way, your picture of Sacre-Coeur really brought back memories. I even have a painting of it on our bedroom wall.

Pat said...

Poor little Rachel and poor little Vagabonde - how heartbreaking that the one little girl who would have loved to attend couldn't.
When I was junior nurse of 16 I worked with a young Jewish refugee and she was such a good friend and saved my bacon a couple of times.
I salute you for providing maps - it is so helpful.
Fascinating post.

Optimistic Existentialist said...

Very sad story but it was written very beautifully and I could feel the pain while reading it my friend.

Sally Wessely said...

My heart breaks for all the indifference of adults that caused you pain as a child. My heart breaks for little Rachel and all the children who were victims of the war. I do think what you said about such things making one strong is true. Certainly, in your case it did. Also, think of all that Elie Wiesel went through and how he used that to fight injustice in the world.

This post was not only interesting, it also is a great reminder of all that those post-war attitudes that did not go away easily.

The area where you lived was beautiful.

Marja said...

oh what a sad sweet story. Here people are a bit afraid and rejecting of outsiders as well.
The good thing is foreigners start to take the overhand so that helps.
In Holland there were many Jewish people. You know the story of Anne Frank. Most didn't survive.
Love the forest and the town and only 24 km of Paris. Great. I love the sacre Coeur. I went for a weekend to Paris with a boy friend, went to the sacre Coeur and by the carousel I bumped brother and his girlfriend. I didn't even know he was in Paris.
Anyway thanks for sharing your memories with us

Perpetua said...

Bittersweet indeed, Vagabonde, especially in light of your postscript about Rachel leaving the school soon after. So sad that you lost the friend who would have come to your party and were left with those whose parents were so narrow and suspicious.

As you say, such experiences can make us stronger and more understanding, but always at a real cost to ourselves. I feel your childhood bewilderment and disappointment.

Frances said...

Yes, so sad to think of a little girl's joy and anticipation fading into bewildered disappointment, Vagabonde. How lucky that you had such a thoughtful mother.
In 1971 in England I met an older Armenian woman who remembered as a five year old seeing out of their upstairs windows, Turkish horsemen galloping down the street slicing off limbs and heads with their brandished swords.
Fate. It's very random.

Jeanie said...

Oh, dear Vagabonde, my heart is breaking for you and for this memory. How sad to be confronted with the prejudice of your friends' parents at so young and tender an age. I know that experience had to be so hurtful -- and yet I suspect it was a lesson that you have taken to heart in your own very big and caring soul.

As always I love the photos -- you were such an adorable child. (I know, the ribbon -- still, it is very sweet!) -- and the pictures of the town and that stunning Sacre Coeur card at the beginning. You always "take me there," no matter where the spot. Thank you.

(And I've been catching up on other posts, too -- wasn't Paris In July wonderful?)

claude said...

Hello Vagabonde
Que de souvenirs émouvants dans ce post.
Riches en mots et en illustrations.
J'aime beaucoup la photo d'école.
C'est malheureux l'histoire des parents de Rachel. La France a une grande part de responsabilités dans ces arrestations. Mon Chéri qui a des origines juives de Roumanie a perdu un oncle dans les camps. La famille n'a jamais su où il avait été déporté.
C'est beau du côté de Saint Leu la Forêt.

Jenny Woolf said...

What a touching and upsetting and poignant story. And what revolting bigotry from the locals. I would have gone and lived abroad too.

I suppose you often wonder what became of Rachel.

possum said...

It seems bittersweet is the word many of us chose...
Like the others, I wonder what ever happened to Rachael. It made me wonder about all the friends I had when I lived in Turkey. Unlike you, I was always invited into their homes and they came to mine. We struggled with the language barrier, but I think we also enjoyed the challenge of communication.
Thanks for sharing!

Dee said...

Dear Vagabonde, thank you for sharing this bittersweet story that shines a light on how our distrust of others, especially those who seem different from us, leads to misunderstanding and sorrow.

The gift of that 11th birthday was for you, or so it seems to me, the gift of looking deeper into relationships and not taking the easy way out of situations that might be confusing, that might seem tangled, that might seem alien, and finding within those situations the fruit of compassion and kindness. Your breadth of vision is a gift to all of us who follow your blog. Thank you. Peace.

Margaret said...

Wiesel is a very special man and I love the ending quote. I'm sure your mother's heart ached for you - but honestly, your dog was by far a much better friend - what a lovely place to walk you had ... (and I like the bow in your hair :)

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