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Separation from the Family
The Way to the Convent
 Greta Herensztat
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
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. 
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.

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 

Greta Herenstat in 1939, age 6 

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.

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.

Greta Herensztat was born in Paris, France, in 1933 where her parents had emigrated from Poland. She is currently writing her memoirs. 

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