I was a
little girl with braids to my waist, walking near my mother,
holding her hand. We were in Nice, in the south of France, on
our way to see a priest. "A priest?" "Yes"
my mother said, "and please do not talk unless
he asks a question, and
be careful how you answer it. This man, this priest, is going to
help us. Just remember that you are Jewish." Squeezing my
hand, she smiled a smile without cheer, a hopeless smile.
waited for my new life to commence. A new life? What had
happened to my previous life, the only life I knew?
Where was my family? I waited silently, without crying.
We walked through
the town, pretty with flowers. Was it day or night? I cannot
remember. I have only memories of walking through deserted
streets. We arrived in front of a black gate. We located the
entrance; my mother rang the bell. Two eyes looked at us through
an opening in the door. The door opened and a priest let us in.
We walked through a quiet and dark courtyard into a room whose
windows were covered with scarlet drapes. A desk lamp lit the
large table, casting ominous shadows on the walls.
in 1939, age 6
A man shrouded in a
long robe sat behind the desk. We stood in front of him,
silently, while the priest who had brought us in left without
saying a word. The man behind the desk looked at us. He was some
kind of priest. He had a cap on his head, a long crimson
vestment, and a large cross hanging from his neck. His right
hand rested on the desk, his fingers tapping. The enormous ring
on one of his fingers was mesmerizing me. I could not take my
eyes away from its glimmer. His face was blank. He was looking
at us, but without focusing, just looking around us, above us.
I am sure now that
his first look when we came in had been sufficient. I was
standing near my mother, looking at him. Why was I in such a
situation? Why had my mother told me again and again not to say
who I was? She said I would get a new name, a new place of
birth, the parents I knew no longer to be my parents.
The priest told my
mother to go. He would handle it from that point on. My mother
kissed me on both cheeks. She told me to be a good girl, not to
talk, but at the same time not to forget who I was, to keep
everything well hidden inside me. Then she opened the door and
disappeared. I was left alone.
It is very difficult
to look back and try to make some sense of that period in my
life. It is difficult to remember how it happened and how I
felt. I must have been bewildered, anguished and lonely. I saw
my father vanish; I had lost him in the mist of history, without
knowing it. My brother also was gone without leaving a trace.
Now my mother had disappeared.
Was it an illusion
or a magic trick? Where did they go? Why was I left alone with
strangers? I was only 9 years old, for crying out loud! Was it
my fault? What had I done?
I was standing
there, looking forlorn, I suppose. I did not cry. My mother had
told me: "Never cry; do not talk; answer if you must only
with a yes or no."
This priest, I
learned later was Monsignor Paul Remond, Archbishop of the town
of Nice. He allowed his bishopric to be used for underground
activities, and he helped hide Jewish children in convents until
they could be placed with Christian families.
The priest looked at
me and spoke in a muffled voice: "You are now Ginette
Henry. You were born in Orange and your parents are dead. You
are going to stay in a convent until we locate your godparents.
Then you will go to live with them as soon as possible. Do you
understand? You cannot tell where you were born, and you cannot
talk about your parents. Now repeat your name and your
birthplace to me."
I probably stood
there, speechless, throat constricted with fear. I shook my
head; I could not answer. The priest spoke up with urgency:
"Talk to me. You must repeat what I told you. I have to be
sure that you understand the gravity of the situation. Repeat,
please." Finally, with a trembling voice, I repeated the
unthinkable, my new name, my new place of birth. My parents were
dead, and I was going to stay with my godparents. Who were those
people? I never knew I had godparents. What was a godparent? I
was afraid to ask.
The priest told me
to sit down. Someone was coming to take me to a convent in Nice,
actually a cloister, a secluded order, "the Clarisses."
Again the nagging questions, "What was a convent? What was
a cloister?" I waited for my new life to commence. A new
life? What had happened to my previous life, the only life I
knew? Where was my family? I waited silently, without crying. My
mother had told me not to.
Herensztat was born in Paris, France, in 1933 where her parents
had emigrated from Poland. She is currently writing her memoirs.