Sunday, May 23, 2021

Recollection: My mother during WW2, part 1

My younger daughter asked me to return to writing blog posts about my early recollections of Paris and my family. My mother's birthday was in May, French Mother's Day is the last Sunday in May or May 30,2021, so I'll write a very old memory about my mother during the war years. In 2009 I wrote a post about my mother's childhood "Mother's Birthday" you can read it here. It was followed in 2010 with a post about her youth and work in Paris and on the French Riviera "Mother's Youth and the House of Worth" you can read it here. For many years I gave my mother a hydrangea plant for Mother's Day; this is why I show some here.
As time passes, our memories fade and the visual information on them becomes vague. But some memories seem etched in the mind for ever. There are different types of memory: short term memory, sensory memory, long term memory that includes explicit memory, semantic memory and episodic memory. Episodic memories are generally about specific moments in one's life, with sensations and emotions associated with the event. Subsets of these are autobiographical memories including "flashbulb" memories which are highy detailed vivid "snapshot" of an exceptional and often emotional circumstance. The story I'm going to relate belongs to this type of memory as I was just past 4 years old but I still remember it. I don't have many photos of that period, of course, but I have photos showing me at the time.
One thing I remember about that time is the sound of the sirens urging us to go down to underground shelters as bombers were in the area. Some afternoons we would also go to public garden squares where my mom would sew and I would play. Once in a great while we would take a bus around Paris - I liked to stand in the very back of the bus in the open air.
From the bus I could see the rare cars (as gasoline was unavailable to private people,) bicycles, bike-taxis or tandem taxis as well as horse carriages. (Click on collage to enlarge.)
Mother must have left me with a neighbor when she went food shopping as I don't remember going with her then. Queues were long.
The Germans occupied Paris from June 1940 through August 1944 and seized about 80 percent of the French food production. There were acute food shortage and malnutrition amongst children, the elderly and in large cities where people could not maintain a vegetable garden. (Only 3/4 pound of meat with bones a week per family, if you could find it.) French food rationing was more stringent than that of any other occupied country in Western Europe. Ration books were issued for everything: food, clothes, coal, etc. until 1949. I don't remember eating much as food access was not normalized until the early 1950s.
Farmers raised rabbits to sell to city folks as they reproduced quickly. Some city people even raised rabbits on their balconies or cellars. My mother had been a "première d’atelier" or head seamstress in high fashion houses in Paris. She presided over the "atelier" (workshop) overseeing up to 30 seamstress and apprentices. She was the right-hand of the designer and had to be able to translate the designs into the right fabric, cut, etc. She could work with furs as well. She had a friend, Sarah, who worked in a fur shop, not far from our apartment. We would stop there often and my mother would make rabbit vests or other small garments that she would barter with farmers for one egg a week for me. I remember the little shop well; it was about 1/2 mile down the street Rue de Rochechouard. Several years ago while in Paris I tried to find where the fur shop used to be, but it was no longer there. I think it was located in Rue Lamartine. Below are maps of Paris arrondissements or quarters. We lived at the top of the 9th, below the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, that is located at the top of Butte Montmartre, the highest point in Paris. Below, on the top right is shown in blue the 1/2 mile walking trip from our apartment to where my mother's friend worked, a 10 minute walk.
My mother's friend wore a yellow star on her coat. At the time, I did not know why. Later, of course, I read about it. In May 1942, on the advice of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler ordered all Jews in occupied Paris to wear this yellow ID badge on the left side of their coats. Two months later, on July 16-17 1942, the Nazis had the French Police make mass arrest of 13,000 foreign Jewish families in Paris and suburbs. This was called "La Rafle du Vel d'Hiv" an abbreviation of the Rafle du Vélodrome d'Hiver. The victims were sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. (In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron apologized and admitted the responsibility of the French State in this raid.) (Photos courtesy French Wikipedia.)
I don't have photos of the various capes, hats, jackets, vests and manchons (hand warmer) my mother made with the rabbit fur, but years later she made a white rabbit cape for my eldest daughter, shown below. I also found examples of rabbit vests as she used to sew (she made one for my late husband to wear outdoors.)
My memories of that time are rather vague, but I was 4 years old at the time. However, the following event I remember well. We had walked to Sarah's shop and my mother was upset. I remember she was arguing with Sarah - I don't remember the words, but Sarah kept saying no and my mother yes. Then Sarah took her coat (with the yellow star) and my mother threw it away. Then I remember trying to keep up with them as they walked up the street toward our apartment. My legs were not very long as seen in the photo below, in a dress my mother had made for me.
We proceeded to walk up to our apartment, which was on the 6th floor (without an elevator.) Then I played while Sarah and my mother went up the 7th floor where my father had his jewelry workshop (he was an artisan jeweler, diamond dealer.) I am not sure how long Sarah stayed there - days? weeks? Later I remember going up when Sarah had left. There was a small bed on the side and heavy navy blue blankets on the window to keep the lights out. In old Paris buildings the seventh floor used to have single rooms for the maids, with one or two toilets in the hall. Mother would be careful to make sure no one was around when she took food up to Sarah. In the collage below you see the entrance to the Cité on top left, next to our building, below on the left with window ajar is where my father's workshop was, then the main courtyard. We kept this apartment until the mid 1970s.
Several days later, or a couple of weeks, I am not sure, there was a loud knock on our front door. My mother opened the door and was pushed forcefully out of the way by two or three scary looking tall men. I remember they were loud with mean voices. Then my father arrived and they pushed him against the wall. They were looking for gold they said (I was told later) because my father was a jeweler. My father, an Armenian, had his business name changed at the time - he had the 3 last letters taken off, ian, that showed his Armenian name; he was stateless then. The Nazis sent many "stateless" people to concentration camps, too - they wore blue ID badges. Anyway, I remember that I wanted those men to stay away from my mum and dad and kept telling the men "I know something... Where someone is hiding..." Later my mother told me she had been petrified that they would listen to me and find Sarah upstairs. But I was annoying them and one of them walked on my feet with his heavy boots and I howled and kept howling. The men shouted at my mum to keep me quiet then they took my father away. It turns out that they were the Gestapo. My father returned a couple days later and went to bed for a while to recoup.
For those who may not know, the Gestapo, abbreviation for Geheime Staatspolizei (German: "Secret State Police",) in partnership with the Sicherheitsdienst(SD "Security Service") were responsible for rounding up the Jews throughout Europe for deportation to the extermination camps. I don't remember what they looked like but I do remember the boots that were so loud on our hardwood floor, and so painful on my feet. I think that for several days afterwards my mother had to carry me down the six flights of stairs and then down to the cellar during air raids. This is my "snapshot" memory - I'll never forget these loathsome men. Then I don't know what happened to Sarah. I think my mother's cousin worked with or had a friend in the French Resistance who had told him about the roundup of Jews in our Paris quarter. He also was able to get Sarah out of Paris and to a safe location or overseas. Both my parents never talked about it. But my father had our front door secured after that. The outside view looked the same but the inside was in metal. It was an armored door with a bar (in case the Gestapo would come back.) I found a couple of pictures that give example of the outside and inside door - our door was a double door.
All this happened a long time ago. The Nazis are gone (well, maybe not everywhere, as seen in the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, by supporters of Donald Trump.) Germany has given reparation to the Jews and the Jews have moved to Israel. Although, there again, the citizens of Israel of nowadays are not the old citizens of after the war. I have been reading articles by the late Maurice Rajsfus (1928-2020.) He was a writer, journalist and militant. He wrote numerous essays on the Jewish genocide in France, the police and politics. His parents were Jews from Poland who had moved to Paris in the 1920s. His parents were rounded up in the Vel d'Hiv rafle of 1942 and sent to Auschwitz. His elder sister and he survived as they were born in France. 75% of French Jews survived to the end of the war (many were hidden like Sarah) in contrast with countries like Poland and the Netherlands where a lot more perished. It is said that the French Police collaborated with the enemy and denounced foreign Jews to save French Jews, but I don't absolve the French Police anyway - they were not innocent. (Below, Paris under German occupation - 1939-1944.)
Maurice Rajsfus wrote several books and I'll look for them when I go to Paris, in particular the book he wrote when he returned from a trip to Israel. I'd like to read what his feelings, as a Holocaust survivor, are about current Israel. I did read a remark he made, in French, and I'll translate: "...Israel is not my problem. It was a country like any other, to visit perhaps, if the opportunity arose. Once there, I modified this assessment ... I have always distanced myself from this state - since 1948... The world looks at Israel, judges its actions, admires or condemns them. As far as I am concerned, I refuse to bear part of the burden of this Jewish country which subjects the Palestinians to conditions of oppression that some of its citizens experienced in the past, elsewhere. I don't want anyone to think I am an accomplice - to any degree - of those who consider it normal to make the Palestinians pay for the crimes commited by the Nazis."
After my mother died in 2002 I found out that she had saved more Jewish people, when I was a baby. This will be for the part 2 of this post... more to come...
"Peace has no borders." - Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel (1922-1995)
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