The author's family in Nice,
January, 1943 when Jews were still
under the protectction of the Italian
Army. His mother, second from left
and his brother, at the far right, were
deported later that year. Both
The first is dated June 2, 1945, and was written on the occasion of Mother's Day.
It is about a little boy who writes to his mother to "tell her his regrets for his
misbehavior, and how he intends to behave well in the future." On June 2, 1945, my
mother had been by my side only three weeks since returning, frail, ill and emotionally
devastated, from the death camps. She had been taken away from me for 18 months, and
finding each other again had not been easy. Yet, in response to the teacher's
instructions, I put on paper words that were completely divorced from my reality. I write
to my fictional mother, "If you knew how much I suffer now, to have caused you so
much pain, and how much I regret my failings."
Why did I write this? I had not caused my mother any suffering. We had been separated
by the barbarity of the Nazis and the deviousness of the local informers. The answer is
clear: I did not want my teacher, and I didn't want my inner self, to view my own
mother/child relationship as different from that of any "normal" 11-year-old
boy. I wanted to suppress the remembrance of my own condition of never having had a proper
home because of the war and the deportation of my mother. I relegated to the back of my
mind the remembrance of the brave French family which saved my life and those of my sister
and grandfather at the risk of their own. It took me close to 50 years to properly honor
The second essay is dated June 16, 1945, and deals with the Nazi atrocity at
Oradour-sur-Glane, where the Waffen SS Reich division massacred an entire village in 1944.
It is surprising in what it doesn't say. It is a paragon of the 1945 "politically
correct." It blames the Nazis the brutes, the "Gerries" and praises
patriotism and the Catholic Church. There is only a pale reference at the end to
"other atrocities," including Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Birkenau no
indication about how personal my involvement actually was; not a word about the fact that,
had my family not been turned over to Klaus Barbie's henchmen by a French neighbor, they
might have escaped death and suffering in the camps.
There is no question that those we accuse today of being accomplices in the looting of
Jewish properties the agents of Zurich, the State Department, the French state, the
world's greatest national museums and private galleries took advantage of the
self-inflicted amnesia that afflicted us in the 1945 environment. There is a double aspect
to this matter: one, we didn't know all the facts, and two, we had no wish to pursue them.
My own desire to understate my past had also been prompted by a remark a few months
before the writing of these essays. To stop the smirking of my classmates at his
disclosure that I had attended school under an assumed identity and a borrowed name, my
teacher uttered these patronizing words: "Leave him alone, he can't help being
Jewish." To be sure, this chance remark profoundly influenced me, as it has remained
ingrained in my mind to this day.
There are survivors today, and children and grandchildren of survivors, who still want
to forget the past, or who prefer to hide it or to obliterate it from their memory.
I met one recently, and it is our chance meeting that prompted me to write these notes.
After we became acquainted, he told me he didn't know when and where he was born; he never
knew his parents; and even today, he's not sure who they were. He does not know his birth
name, nor his original nationality. He came to the U.S. shortly after the war, a
"displaced person" from a French orphanage, speaking a language which is
associated with a Jewish minority in southeast Europe. He has assumed a new identity and a
new date of birth. He grew up here, married, prospered, and became the father of three
children. When I asked him "Don't you want to know where your roots are, and where
your grandparents lived and died?" he replied, "I don't want to know about the
past, because I can't change it. My children fantasize I am an abandoned Gypsy prince, and
that suits me."
The moral of these stories is that some hidden children prefer to keep a hidden life
and hidden thoughts. Memory can be painful and destructive. No one is required to justify
his or her attitude toward the past. If some of us want to leave the inner part of our
soul in the shadows, that is a sacred right a right which deserves respect and honor
equal to that of the right, indeed duty, to seek truth and justice, which inspires
many survivors, their children, and their grandchildren, "the fighters for
remembrance," as Serge Klarsfeld has dubbed them.
The author is an International