It has now been over a month since I have been back from the trip, and so many other things (like “real life”) have gotten in the way, that I haven’t had a chance to really sit and think about the impact of this trip on me. That is not to say that I don’t think about it, which I do A LOT, it is just that I really wanted to have my reflections do justice to what we experienced.
And even after a month, it is so hard to describe. Going back to Germany meant seeing where my family really came from, and where they had lived for centuries. Even though they had lived there so long, none of that mattered – their contributions to society, the ultimate sacrifice of the loss of a son at war – when the Nazis determined that the Jews of Germany were to be exterminated. The biggest irony is that Germany was considered the pinnacle of civilized society, and yet, they demonstrated the highest level of barbarism that had been seen in the world. And the highest crime of all was that so many people stood by and did nothing.
And then there is the Fedou (and Valat) family, as well as the others in the French resistance, who were unwilling to stand by and do nothing. They resisted the cruel occupation of the Germans, they did all they could to save others, and also knew that even saving one family would make a difference. It sure made a difference to me. It was a great honor to meet them, and it also helped raise my awareness of what my family experienced to revisit the places my mother and grandparents had been during the war, and how they were able to safely stay in France after the war was over.
As I write this, ISIS has struck several times this week – both in Lebanon (11/12/15) and in Paris (11/13/15), as well as the continuing terror attacks in Israel. It seems that the world is always fighting some form of evil, but even as the terrorist attacks in Paris are getting a lot of press, there are always the stories about all the people who helped – a Muslim waiter who helped people hide in one of the restaurants, the doctors who rushed to the hospitals to help with the influx of patients, and people who were willing to sacrifice their lives to save others. I feel that we need to remember THESE people, as they are the ones who demonstrate true humanity. I never tire of saying that I would not be here today if it were not for a group of people who were determined to overcome the evil that they had been confronted with during the Second World War.
Merci Lucette, et merci à toute la famille Fedou, Comary, Colombera et Bousquet. Je serai toujours reconnaissante de votre bonté et honneur.
P.S. My mom truly is a rock star. She was a great travel companion, worked very hard during the German part of our trip with great aplomb, was pretty unfazed by everything, and it was so special to get to share this experience with her. Je t’aime, Maman!
Today was my last full day in France, and my mother hosted a luncheon for the Fedou family, the mayors of Arthès and St Juéry, as well as a group of Bryn Mawr alumni visiting France, whose guide, Catherine Lafarge, is a French professor at Bryn Mawr and a good friend of my mother’s. Catherine was so excited to have her group hear about my mother’s story, and the group also had the opportunity to visit the cathedral in Albi before lunch as well.
Lucette brought the Yad Vashem honors from 2000, as well as the plaque that the Holocaust Education Center made for them in 2010, so we put them on prominent display.
We also placed people so that all the tables had someone who was bilingual, and an even distribution of French and Americans. The conversations at all the tables was very lively, and a lot of the Americans were happy to try out their french!
My mother read from the post-script of Your Name is Renee in English and in French to explain in her current voice her gratitude to the Fedous. Then Alain Fabre, a local journalist and adjoint to the mayor of Albi, provided additional information about how families were saved by many people. He talked about Michel Ashe, another hidden child that my mother had met in Virginia Beach, found out that, coincidentally, he had also been hidden in Arthès! Mr. Ashe returned this summer and visited with the family that had risked their lives to hide his family. Another story of bravery on behalf of people that they didn’t even know!
My mother then read a beautiful poem written by Alain’s father during the time he was jailed for being in the Resistance, called Hymne a la Liberté (A Hymn to Liberty). Alain then asked his wife to read a letter that his cousin wrote to her younger brother, two years after he was killed on August 22, 1944, the very day that Albi was liberated from the Germans. He was 15 when he died, and the youngest resistance fighter to die in Albi. There was not a dry eye in the room.
After lunch, the family stayed until the evening, and we had a blast chatting, discussing the trip and asking Lucette for additional stories. The best story she told was about when my parents went back to Arthes in 1969. My dad had rented a Mercedes (very out of character) and Francine saw the fancy car outside and ran inside to say that there were people outside and they must be lost. However, when my mother came to the door, Louise Fedou, Lucette’s mother, recognized her and they started to hug and cry. Francine was 15 at the time and she had no idea what was going on, as neither her grandparents nor her mother had told them anything about hiding a Jewish family during WWII. It was only when my mother showed up did Francine and Josette learn about what their mother, aunt and grandparents had done.
Lucette continues to insist that they were ordinary people, “just doing the right thing.” However, Alain said it best when he said that they were extraordinary heroes who were totally willing to risk their lives for complete strangers. Even Michel Ashe, when he was in France, said that he isn’t sure that he would have been able to do what the French family did for him. It doesn’t get more powerful than that.
I cannot begin to describe the amount of love I feel with Lucette and her family. She told me I should consider her as my grandmother, and it really felt that way—finding my third long-lost grandma. There was a familiarity and connection that just doesn’t happen with people you have met for the first time ever. And I have to believe that it is because without these people, I literally would not be here today, and for that I am eternally grateful.
My mother summed it up best this morning in a text message that she sent me when I got to the airport to leave Toulouse. I told her she was a real rock star during this trip, and her response was this: « En fait, tout à marché à la perfection… Quand au côté émotionnel, ce sera plus difficile à communiquer…Ce qui est important c’est que j’apprécie toutes les bonnes choses qui me sont arrivés dans ma vie. J’ai de la chance dans beaucoup de domaines. »
“In the end, everything worked out perfectly…From an emotional standpoint, it will be very difficult to explain…What is important is that I appreciate all the good things that have happened in my life. I have been lucky in many, many ways.”
Today we went to Sorèze, which was where my mother was placed in a convent, in 1943, when it was too dangerous to stay in Arthès. If this is starting to get too complicated, click here to purchase a copy of her book (shameless plug).
We arrived late morning, and our first stop was an appointment with the mayor. In addition to the mayor, we met with a local historian and a journalist who was going to write a story about my mother for the local paper.
Mayor Albert Mamy has been mayor for nearly 50 years (no term limits here!), and he was extremely charming. He told us that he was about 4 years old around the time when my mother was there, and there were always a lot of boys, but he remembered the girls more during that time. I thought this was really funny, but it ends up that the school in Sorèze was actually a very prestigious Catholic military academy, started in the late 18th century. Therefore, all the students were generally boys. However, we found out that during the War there was also a small convent that housed orphans; however, the girls were generally kept out of the public eye. The Mayor mentioned several times that the Jewish children were “un secret bien-gardé – a well-kept secret. He also mentioned that there were Germans everywhere, and the Gestapo would march through town on a daily basis to intimidate the locals.
After our discussion, the Mayor invited us for sangria and snacks. It was fun to toast to our history, the assistance of others to save my mother, and to life!
After lunch at a local restaurant, we walked over to the convent/school at Sorèze. The first thing my mother indicated is the corner where she and the Kahn children were dropped off. They were actually dropped off across the street from the gates, and the Mother Superior came out to bring the children into the school.
THE CONVENT (Sorèze Military Academy):
The actual school and grounds were massive — several huge buildings with a large park behind. My mother didn’t remember the park, as she said that they rarely, if ever, went outside the building. Knowing what we found out today, that made perfect sense. She had no idea where the Gestapo was housed, but they easily could have been in any part of the complex.
The school is now a hotel and a museum, and we were able to get a tour of the building and grounds, although we could not see the dormitories, as they are now hotel rooms.
The museum has two parts – the history of the military academy and a section for 20th century tapestries made by Dom Robert. In the historical part of the museum is the chapel where the Mother Superior hid the Jewish children when the Gestapo performed searches. We found the exact spot where the trap door existed. I have to say that seeing the site where my mother had to hide from the Nazis really got to me. Imagine – my mother had to quickly get down these stairs, and while down there, they heard the Mother Superior lie to the Gestapo about their very existence. Interestingly, everyone else was chatting away, but this time, I had to move away and sit alone to take it all in.
Once we finished with the school, we went to the museum of 20th Century tapestries. A local man who became a monk as a wonderful artist who designed magnificent tapestries, all with nature themes. It was a wonderful diversion after the visit to the convent/school and the tapestries were truly exquisite.
We then returned to Albi and had dinner at Francine’s house in the country. We had a lot of fun, and again laughed a lot. The “Fedou” family is so fun and warm – they truly feel like our own family. It only seems right to end with some of the more fun observations from the day:
Jean-Claude, Jo’s partner, couldn’t stop talking about his trip to the US five years ago. He went to California, Nevada and took part of Rte. 66. He LOVED Las Vegas at night!
When the Fedous went to Philadelphia in 2002, André, Lucette’s husband, had never been on a plane. It took them three months to convince him to take the trip! Once he flew, he LOVED it, and traveled many times again before he died, including a trip to Senegal!
Also, Francine mentioned again how her grandfather (M. Fedou) had always told them that he didn’t care about the differences among people, they were all the same to him. He had always said that he would do whatever was right, and saving my mother and her parents was the right thing to do, so he did it. He also was active in the Resistance, because although they didn’t know about the camps, he knew BAD things were happening, and he had to act.
Today my mother was back at work, this time for an interview for a regional news-magazine, along with Lucette and her daughter, Josette. The interviewer, Pierre-Roland Saint-Dizier, is originally from Alsace, and his mother lives in Wittenheim. Wittenheim was the town that was used as the birthplace of my grandparents’ false papers during the war. Since it is in Alsace, it would have made sense that my grandparents spoke French with a German accent. It doesn’t cease to amaze me that continuation of coincidences that we have found during the trip!
There is one new story Lucette told during the interview. She was about 15 years old, and she would walk from Arthes, across the bridge on the Tarn River and through St. Juery to go to a farm to get milk. There were German soldiers on the bridge, and they originally threatened to shoot her if she crossed the bridge. Luckily, once the soldiers saw her more closely, they flirted with her instead, and let her go. She was extraordinarily lucky that day, and the soldiers didn’t bother her again.
My mother and Lucette also talked about their first reunion after the war, when my parents visited in 1969. It was when they discussed the reunion that they got totally emotional, and they made a point of saying that they have been in close contact since then.
Afterwards, when my mom were sitting in the hotel lobby/bar, the waitress from breakfast came up to us and said, “my grandparents hid a family of Jews as well.” She was from a nearby town, Cagnac les Mines, and her grandfather saved this Jewish family, who still lives in France. WOW!
In the afternoon, Francine & Lucette came to pick us up to take us to Arthès and St. Juéry. We first stopped at the Town Hall for our first photo opportunity (this post will be mostly photo opportunities):
We then visited the school my mother would attend when she could. All the lower grades met in the same room:
This is the church that my family would attend with the Fedous to avoid detection (unfortunately, it was closed for renovations, so we could not go in):
And, finally, we came to where the Fedous and my grandparents/mother lived in Arthès:
It is significant to note that the Fedous lived right above my family, and this was THE apartment where the the French Police came to interrogate my mother the day in 1943 they were hoping to arrest my grandfather. It looks like a normal apartment building now.
The Vallat home, where my grandparents hid in the cellar (mostly while my mother was at the convent) was right across the square, but their home has since been torn down and replaced by a small industrial building.
And, across the Tarn River, in St. Juéry, was the knife and implement factory where my grandfather worked during the war until it was too dangerous. The factory is called Les Sauts du Tarn, and the factory is now a museum. The factory took advantage of the river and used hydro-power to work the equipment. My mother still has a knife that my grandfather had made during this time.
We then went to visit St. Juéry, and I needed to use the restroom. There were public bathrooms, that looked like this (Note: this photo is provided for entertainment value, and is here to show that these bathrooms still exist in France; however, there are not many of them. In French they are called Turkish Bathrooms. I cannot make this stuff up.):
Luckily, the Town Hall also had a rest room, which was much more to my liking.
We then came back to Albi and took a snack break, which means we sat in a cafe and had delicious things like crepes and sorbet.
I then had more time to wander around the old city, which is quite beautiful. I walked down to the quay by the river and took a ton of photos.
After a delicious dinner at the hotel, Laurent picked us up for a visit. He is Lucette’s grandson and is fiercely proud of what his family did. He also spares no love for the Germans. He told me that he does not like what Germany is forcing France to do because of the EU, and he feels that his country is losing some of its character as a result. He served as a paratrooper in the French military, served in Iraq during the Gulf War and LOVES Americans. He feels that the work that he did in the military was important, and a continuation of what his family did for our family. I really, really like Laurent. Plus, his family has a French Bulldog named Shrek. It doesn’t get better than that.
Today was the most relaxed day so far on this trip, so this post is more like a travelogue.
After a late start (we were making arrangements for the other days on the trip), my mother and I set out to visit Vieux Albi and the cathedral. From across the river, it is already very impressive.
We walked up to the plaza, and found a brasserie for brunch (they actually had brunch on the menu!). While we were sitting at the table, a woman came up to us and gave us a small drawing of the entrance of the cathedral, and said, “it is a gift,” and then disappeared.
It is a lovely drawing.
We entered the cathedral, and it is just breathtaking. It was built in the 13th century, and is the only Gothic cathedral in the world that is made almost entirely of brick. Inside, the paintings, frescoes, and even the ceiling are beautiful. It is most famous for the tryptich by the altar which shows Judgement Day, including the fate of those who are sent to hell. It reminded me Heironymous Bosch.
The choir section is also beautiful, with “lacework” stone with some great statuary. On the inside of the choir loft are the apostles (considered to be “closer to Jesus”), and on the outside are all the Old Testament prophets and personages – including Solomon, David, Esther and Judith.
We walked around more of Vieux Albi, which has beautiful old homes, small side streets, and various levels. We saw the house where Toulouse-Lautrec was born as well.
I then went to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, which is housed in the Palais de la Berbie – the ancient home of the Archbishop of Albi. The building was impressive enough, and the museum exhibits were fantastic. However, the highlight were the gardens outside as well as the view across the river. Just gorgeous!
Barry arrived and we went out to dinner with Lucette, Francine & Josette (Lucette’s daughters) and Jean-Claude, Jo’s partner. We went to a local restaurant and the proprietor was hilarious.
We made jokes the entire evening (it didn’t hurt that Barry got cold and wore Francine’s orange coat on his shoulders), and at the end, the proprietor joined us for dessert and made “calling cards” out of photos of Albi. It is so wonderful to see how my mother and Lucette (and her family) treat each other like the close family they are. Jo told me that I am to consider her as my aunt (she yelled at me for using the formal “you” when speaking to her). And I AM greatful, for if it weren’t for them, I would not be here today. I am so glad we have finally met!
Our last day in Germany again started early, as my mother was speaking today at the Gymnasium Sebastian Muenster. It is a highly academic school, and the largest in Ingelheim. The campus was impressive, and the number of kids who ride bikes to school created a bike parking lot that is huge!
(Note to self – I need to find an eco-bike when I get home. They have small motors to help with hills, which sounds like the perfect commuter bike for Utah!)
This group of students was by far the most engaged we met. First, their teacher provided an introduction that included a significant amount about the horrors of the Shoah, including the fact that all the Jews that had not left Ingelheim were deported on September 20, 1942. The outstanding reader of the book selections, Isabell, was the same one as last night, and she is the main librarian in Ingelheim. All the kids spoke excellent English, which cut down on translation time, and they asked some great questions – especially about how my mother felt during her experiences.
After we were done, the thank you gift from the gymnasium was a bottle of their own wine! I could not believe that a school gave us wine as a parting gift, I could not imagine that happening in the U.S.!
Sebastian Muenster was originally from Ingelheim, and he was a very famous scholar and Hebraist in the early 16th century. It seems significant to me that the town where my family lived, probably from around the same time, had a famous Hebrew scholar!
We then went to City Hall to meet the Uberburgermeister (mayor), Ralf Claus.
He is extremely charming and received us in his office. He asked about our trip, and gave us a fun Ingelheim swag bag. More importantly, we discussed some of the innovations in Ingelheim – they are working hard to improve the environment, and there is a strong tax base because of Boeringher, a large pharma company. In addition, he told us that Ingelheim has taken in about 1,200 refugees over the past two years, including people from Syrian, the Balkan region and Eritrea. There is a camp in the outskirts of town (which we saw, more like smaller apartment buildings), and they are trying to integrate the refugees into society. Mr. Claus told us that Germany feels an obligation to take in these people, especially because of WWII. We heard this many times from various people during our time here.
Charlemagne (Karl der Grosse) plays a significant role in the town, as Ingelheim was where he built a regional palace in the 8th century. He had a modern statuette of Charlemagne on his desk, which is reproduced and offered as an award for community service every year:
After lunch, we went to the train station to fly down to Toulouse. After an uneventful flight (although why the Frankfurt airport requires people to use stairs and take buses to get on a plane is beyond me!), we landed in Toulouse.
We were met by Lucette, and her grandson, Laurent. Seeing my mom and Lucette together is amazing! They spent the entire car ride catching up and chatting away. It is remarkable to think that not only did this woman and her family hide my family from the Nazis, but also Lucette personally took care of my mother when needed. It is interesting to note that the entire family calls my mother Renee.
The ride to Albi went fairly quickly, and Laurent gave us a quick tour of the town. We were also treated to a beautiful sunset over the cathedral in the city.
What a perfect welcome!
Germany was a very special and positive experience, and the people with whom we visited were incredible – they were so nice, and they could not do enough for us. However, in looking back, it is harrowing to think that these places that now receive us so well were so inhumane to members of my family just over 70 years ago. Even though I know that at the time France was not much better, I have to admit that I am much happier to be here now. It doesn’t hurt that I now understand everything around me, which is much less tiring.
Interestingly, today was the most emotional day so far, as my mother spent today sharing her story with the people of Ingelheim. We started early in the day at a high school, where my mother spoke to two groups of 15-16 year olds. Each group had about 45 kids in the room.
The sessions lasted 90 minutes each, and even with that length of time, the kids wee quite well behaved, although quiet. My mom started with a prepared speech – in German – that lasted about 10 minutes.
Then Elisabeth Verhoeven, a local radio personality, read from four sections of Your Name is Renee, and my mother provided additional color to each episode. The one episode that I never tire of is when the two Milice policemen come to where they are staying to take my grandfather, find my mother alone, and my she lies and says she doesn’t know where he is. When they ask her where he went, Renee crosses her arms to show two directions. Then, one of the policemen convinces the other to not take her as a hostage. We later found out that the police officer who doesn’t want to take my mother had a little girl the same age with similar dark curly hair, and he didn’t have the heart to take her. My mother also explained that it was only through many of these coincidences that her family survived.
Here are some of the “new” things that I learned while my mom spoke:
The Fedous were descended from serfs and had been persecuted many times in their family history; therefore, they felt that no one should be ill treated, regardless of the reason. They didn’t even know what a Jew was…
There were nearly 250 deportation camps in France. Although they were not death camps, the conditions were very grim, and these camps were used as transit camps to the death camps. It is also significant to note that all the camps in France were operated by the French (very sobering).
Arthes/Albi was liberated on August 25, 1944, the same day as Paris. So, they were free nearly a year before the war truly ended. That allowed my family to come out of hiding, but times were still very difficult for much longer.
My great-grandfather actually lived until 1950, and my mother had to speak German with both her grandparents, as they never learned French.
Some of my mother’s best quotes:
“I was born in 1937, but you cannot calculate my age.”
“Remember that you are the last generation that will be able to hear about the Shoah directly from a survivor.”
“I consider every day as a gift. My six grandchildren are my victory song, as they proved Hitler wrong.”
When asked about how she feels about being in Germany and speaking, “I do not believe in forgetting, but I do believe in reconciliation. That is very important.”
After lunch (again with Klaus at his home) we went to see the location of the store that my grandparents had before they left Germany. It was a small shop, similar to the shop the Nussbaums had, and it was very close to the Marketplatz:
We then went to the community center so that my mom could be interviewed for a video for other schools. It was a professional production, and Klaus asked her a lot of excellent and insightful questions. My mother made a point of saying the following: 1) that there were a lot of significant coincidences that allowed her family to survive (e.g. getting on the last train in Toulouse, my mother asking the Vallats for food – and they could hide them, the Fedous not wanting another Jewish family to be deported…), and 2) my mother’s emphasis not only on the fact that many survivors/hidden children are in caring professions, but that she feels that her experience has impacted her children in that both Eric and I are very charitable and consider helping others a significant part of our lives, and she is very proud of us for that.
Klaus then asked ME to speak on the video, which I had not expected. The hardest question for me was how do I feel that my mother’s experience impacted me. I cannot say directly what the impact has been on my life, but I did say that once Jordan was four years old, that is when I realized what my mother really went through. I couldn’t imagine having to tell Jordan to lie about his name, about being Jewish and having to tell him to be quiet and not trust anyone. At that point in my life, and as mother, I realized the actual sacrifices that my grandparents made to save their lives, and how brave my mother had to be in order to survive.
The evening event was held at the local community center, and there were about 20 people there to hear my mother speak. Although it was a smaller group, the people there were very interested and asked excellent questions.
I personally felt that the best question that someone asked was about how my mother identifies herself. Her response was classic: “I do not identify as German at all. I am a naturalized American citizen, and proud to be so. However, I find that I will defend France when I am in the U.S., and I defend the U.S. when I am in France. Does that help at all?”
We didn’t finish until after 9:00, had a late dinner, and then we both collapsed. I am still amazed at how well my mother spoke, how she was able to keep up her energy through what must have been a very trying day, and still maintain her grace and composure. It continues to be very clear to me that this is her life’s work, and all the more important for me to continue this legacy. I think that this trip will definitely provide me with the tools to allow me to continue this important work, and for that I am thankful.
And to end this post on a lighter note, the Germans appear to LOVE pumpkins!