My visit to France - Part I
I’m writing this at the end of a long and emotional week. Last Saturday my youngest daughter Aimee celebrated her bat mitzvah. It was all very wonderful and I was delighted that my uncle, aged 87, and seven of my cousins were able to come from New York. After the bat mitzvah weekend my sister and I travelled to France with our American family to explore some of our history. As the only remaining member of his generation in our family it was especially important that my uncle was there to show us around and tell us what life had been like for our family members before and during World War II.
First we visited Metz, a city in the north-east of France in the region of Lorraine and the birthplace of my mother in 1938, her parents having immigrated from their native Poland to France after World War I to escape persecution against Jews.
Our first stop directly from the train station was the old Jewish cemetery where my great-grandfather was buried in 1936. After World War II a memorial plaque was added to the headstone with the names of the four family members who perished at Auschwitz: my grandfather Traitel, my grandmother Cecile, my mother’s brother Nathan and her twin sister Annette.
As we recited Kaddish, the Jewish mourners prayer, and placed pebbles on the grave as is the Jewish custom, most of our group of ten were shaking with cold as the morning was thick with freezing fog and few of us were dressed warmly enough having travelled from the relatively mild weather of London.
Behind the cemetery was some sort of kennel and the sound of vicious dogs barking was terrifying and reminded me of the Nazi guard dogs I’ve seen in films. Neither did the irony of the refugee camp which has been created directly opposite the old Jewish cemetery escape us, with a sign on the gate informing that that over 6,000 homeless refugees are currently living there.
We had requested that our taxis wait for us as the old Jewish cemetery is three kilometres outside the town centre. Our next stop was the synagogue where my uncle used to go to Hebrew classes (or Cheder) and where my great-grandfather died in 1936 while praying.
On the wall of the synagogue is a memorial plaque to all the Jewish families from Metz who perished during the Holocaust and we found ‘Madame Sklarz et enfants’ for my grandmother and her children who were taken to Auschwitz. My grandfather Traitel also met the same fate but his name was missing, similarly we found the name of my great-uncle Aron Rychner but not that of his wife Chaya or their children. One of my cousins said he would write to the synagogue to ask them to add the missing names – it’s so important that we remember every victim.
We found my great-grandfather’s death inscribed in the synagogue record book and also that of my mother’s cousin Rivka who my uncle remembered dying of septicaemia after ignoring a scratched lip caused by her young child during an embrace. When the scratch wouldn’t heal Rivka covered it with lipstick rather than go to the doctor and eventually it turned septic and killed her.
As we prepared to leave the synagogue we were surprised to see four armed soldiers enter the building and as we walked through the gates there were another four armed soldiers positioned outside. The synagogue still houses a Jewish school and I realised this is now normal security measures for Jewish buildings in France. This was one of the few times I have been grateful that my mother is not alive to see what is going on and how little things have changed in the past 70 years ....with the important difference that in 2016 the French army are protecting the Jews rather than rounding them up on behalf of the Nazis.
More to follow ....