Monday, November 14, 2005

Now Toulouse? This is Personal


So now Toulouse is burning. I was born there; yes I was, and it happened a month after Hitler invaded. Toulouse, far off in the south of France, was spared the Roundup, at least for a while, until the noose tightened. The Roundup of Paris is a whole other story that needs separate attention. There's no time to go into that now. But wait, we do have to talk about this, if only for a paragraph or two.Back in Paris, on July 16-17, 1942, the French police seized 12,884 Jewish men, women and children and sent them off to the Velodrome d'Hiver stadium; no food, no water, no nothing. From there, these citizens of France were loaded onto cattle cars for shipment to Drancy en route to Auschwitz.The clincher here is that the Gestapo asked for only about half that number - but here the French police, never known for their efficiency, were quick and offered up a bonus for the ovens. To his everlasting credit, French film heartthrob Alain Delon did a movie about something like this Mr. Klein. Get this movie if you can.Altogether, though, this is personal, what's going on in Toulouse, and it's being served up with mixed emotions. Nothing is that simple.My parents prospered there, in Toulouse, before the Nazi invasion. My mother ran a salon and one of my father's best friends was a cleric very high in the Catholic Church. They studied Talmud together. This wonderful priest - whom we called the Archbishop, though I'm not sure he was exactly that - would toss me in the air, play dominoes with my sister, Sarah, and there was much laughter when he came to visit.It was good to be Jewish in those days. Jews were tops in the arts and sciences and, yes, served honorably and gallantly in the French military.My sister's best friend, a Catholic playmate named Incarnation, refused to start her day until she knocked on our door to ask if Sarah can come out to play. They were the best of friends. Later, by the way - actually, the day the Nazis marched in - Incarnation declined Sarah. She called Sarah a "dirty Jew". For more on this, there's Andre Schwartz Bart's superb historical novel The Last of the Just. Here, he reminds us that back in the middle ages, Toulouse was famous for a special Good Friday celebration, when, year after year, all the citizens gathered at the steps of the cathedral. The occasion was this: the Grand Rabbi of Toulouse had to present himself to the Archbishop (whomever that was at that time) to receive a slap across the face.Okay, but there was nothing like that this time around, before the invasion. Like I said, it was good to be a Jew in Toulouse. Another good friend of my father's was the chief of police - and this becomes important, because soon enough, it was not good to be a Jew. The Vichy administration moved along and now it wanted, well, us. Nothing personal, except that we were Jews. But let's get this straight, now that we are on the outs with France. (We have not liked France for some time, and for good reason.)So, let's get this straight. Many of our Christian neighbors came to our aid. These offered to shelter us at the risk of their own lives. Our archbishop friend turned Toulouse upside down to get us off The List. Nothing doing. But we were somewhere in the middle of The List; and how did we know this? From my father, or rather from my father's connection with the chief of police.That was how it worked. Each day or so, the Gestapo would hand the chief of police a list of which Jews were to be rounded up. My father got those names ahead of time. That's how he saved hundreds of lives, my dad, by alerting these people that they were goners if they didn't pack up and escape right away. Those who didn't have enough money to pay or bribe the French Underground escorts, my father gave them the money; and that is how we arrived broke in Montreal (before moving to the United States). When our turn came to escape... Well, Sarah is writing this story, and I do wish she'd hurry up. As for me, I was too young to remember. I only know what I'm told.

But I had a plan. I'd return to Toulouse and find the records and maybe even find some people (very old, to be sure) who knew our family.I wonder if this is still possible, now that Toulouse is burning? Toulouse, like the rest of France, is now occupied by a different menace.

Now that we are at odds with France, we relish France its troubles. They asked for these people, and they got them. They got them all right.But something tells me that if Toulouse goes, so goes France, so goes Europe - and who knows where this stops. Like I said, it's not that simple.

[Jack Engelhard's latest full-length novel, The Bathsheba Deadline, is now running as a featured serial on for digital download. The novel will appear in monthly installments exclusively on until completion. Part 1 is up now, with Part 2 due shortly.]


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