Today is the first day of Passover (Pesach) and the tenth anniversary of the day my mum Paulette died. I always think of 9 April as 'Paulette's Day' because it was also her birthday. Here is something I wrote previously about what Pesach means to me.
Paulette and her twin sister Annette, were born in the week before Seder on 9 April, 1938 in Metz, France. The family was already suffering the consequences of being Jewish and living near to the German border. Mum's older siblings had long been subjected to antisemitic attacks from their classmates at primary school. As my uncle explained, “I never walked home from school, I always ran back, being chased by the Jew-hating bullies.”
By Pesach 1940 the family had been relocated to a small village near Poitiers called Virolet along with other Jewish families from Metz. Being two years old Mum and Annette were oblivious to the war and the Germans had not yet invaded so the family were able to celebrate the Seder at home. Food was bought from local farmers and my grandfather arranged for a shochet to come to the village to slaughter chickens in the kosher way. Rabbi Eli Bloch, who had also been relocated to Poitiers from Metz with his young family, advised on how to observe Pesach with the limited resources available.
By Pesach 1943 the family had been torn apart. My grandfather had been deported to Auschwitz in July 1942. Mum and Annette were arrested with their mother a couple of months later but their eldest brother managed to get the girls released from the internment camp at Poitiers. The guards were not so lenient with my grandmother and she was deported to Auschwitz in November 1942. A kind Catholic neighbour agreed to look after the twin girls and that year they celebrated Easter rather than Pesach.
The twins turned five during Pesach 1944, although there was little celebration at the Paris orphanage where they were now forced to live along with their youngest brother Nathan. Their older brothers, who were surviving the war in the French countryside, had tried unsuccessfully to get the younger siblings released but had been assured that they would be well looked after by the Jewish Agency. This Agency however was powerless to protect the children against the command of the SS in July 1944 when they ordered the extermination of these ‘future terrorists’. Of the 41 children arrested from the orphanage on 22 July, 34 were sent to Auschwitz on convoy no. 77 and straight to the gas chambers, including six year old Annette and 12 year old Nathan. My mother Paulette was in the hospital with measles and was not taken. The Allies were at the gates of Paris.
The Nazis went to the hospital to arrest my mother but the doctors and nurses had since hidden her in a convent and denied any knowledge of her whereabouts. The nuns looked after Mum until the following year so she spent Pesach 1945 with them, where she remembered eating the Holy Communion wafer rather than Pesach matzah.
By 1946 Mum had been found by the Red Cross and reunited with her surviving older brothers in a home for displaced Jewish youth in Moissac, near Toulouse. This was the first Pesach celebrated since 1942. Mum had just turned eight and had the comfort of being with her brother although the pain of having lost her parents, brother Nathan and twin sister must have been unbearable.
This was the first Seder Mum celebrated in England with her new family in Battersea. The Jewish Agency had managed to unite her with a cousin who was married but childless and who instantly offered to adopt her. Mum arrived in London without speaking a word of English and went to live with family she had never met. Her brothers decided to go to America, and spent their first Pesach in the Bronx.
Mum’s last Pesach was spent in the hospice. She passed four days after Pesach, on her 72nd birthday.