“If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house, shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.” Gaston Bachelard
I was obsessed with a house in Beaulieu sur Dordogne, a village in southwest France. A house I’d never seen. Sitting in my study on the coast of Maine, I’d stare through the glass of a sliding door, the ocean flat and rippling with wind or roiling and dark. In the distance sea met sky. Beyond that illusionary line, I imagined myself driving country roads, the windows of my rental car opened wide as I passed forests and fields, my eyes darting right, then left searching for roof top tiles, a silo. I’d know the house, the place they called la colonie. It would whisper to me through trees, “I am the place. This is where they all dreamed.”
Nothing was farther from the truth. Visiting, Beaulieu in October of 2012, I passed the house, not in a car, but on foot over and over as I wandered the village before meeting with Monsieur Le Hech, history teacher, historian, former member of the Mayor’s Council inside the Tourist Bureau. Outside, he lit up. “So would you like to see?”
Of course, I wanted to see. Wasn’t that why I’d rented a car, driven unfamiliar roads, circling roundabouts, two, then three times, trying to read signs that named a village near my destination? So many circles, so many exits. I lost my way, doubled back, stopped to ask directions in my fumbling French, and finally in absolute frustration at an automatic toll on the auto route, I emptied my change into a collection box after a machine had spit back my credit card four times, drivers honking in frustration behind me. I drove away, eyes scanning the rear view mirror, searching for a cop.
I breathed in the smell of Monsieur Le Hech’s smoke. An ex-smoker, I told myself I hated that smell—but truthfully…. Well, I wanted a long deep drag.
The day was summer hot. I’d worn a black silk tank top, an easy jersey skirt. Sandals. I tied my short black cardigan around my waist. After days of rain and gloom, I loved the feel of the sun warming my skin. Like most Frenchmen, Monsieur Le Hech had dressed in dark colors, black trousers, gray wool sweater, short black leather jacket, unzipped. Still, he must have been hot as we strolled slowly, crossing a wide plaza, then entered a narrow cobbled alley that wound its way to the Dordogne River. Monsieur Le Hech paused in a small plaza. To my right the massive Abby of Saint Peter with its heavy dark wooden doors, it’s clock tower, to my left a bronze statue of the Virgin and Child, Mary wearing a crown, carrying a scepter, behind me a restaurant, closed at this early hour, all here then, during the Second World War when this part of France was unoccupied. A misnomer. All of France was under Nazi control, but, here, in the south the government was French, Petain at the head. This was Vichy France.
I read a street sign attached to a stone building, distinctive French blue background, stark white letters: Place de la Bridolle. What was I looking at? Where was la colonie?
“La, there,” Monsieur Le Hech said.
The building was tall, faced in brown stucco. Windows shuttered. Ivy climbed. Nearly hidden, a plaque between two doors. I stepped closer.
Here from 1939 to 1944 in Beaulieu sur Dordogne
refugee children and children from the Occupied Zone
were saved from deportation and murder in this
colony organized by the Jewish Scouts of France
and directed by Monsieur and Madame Gordin.
The Jewish Scouts of France, a normal scouting organization with a Zionist bent before the War, a resistance organization dedicated to saving Jews even before Hitler invaded France. The Scouts ran a number of colonies. They also forged documents, led Jewish refugees across borders. How could I have missed that plaque? Was it because la colonie hid in plain sight?
Germaine Rousso Poliakov, hidden name Maki, had been, a chieftain, caretaker inside la colonie. Nearly, ninety-four, she lived in a fifth floor walkup outside of Paris. Days earlier, I’d climbed those stairs, four flights, meeting with Germaine for the second time in as many years. Before fleeing south to escape the invading German army, Germaine and her family had lived in Paris. Her mother, her father and three of her sisters remained in the south only until it became clear to Nissim, her father, that the Germans would not bomb Paris. When her family returned home, Germaine stayed. She’d met Madame Gordin, her old Scout leader, on the street one day. “Come,” Madame Gordin had said, “I need you to help me manage these girls.”
Sitting forward in her chair, a lovely old chair, French provincial, covered in apricot velvet, Germaine lifted her hands from her knees. She was a solid woman with a large oval face, hair cut short and dyed auburn. Outside, rain fell, a steady downpour. We listened to its sound. Germaine pursed her lips in the way of the French, then spoke slowly. “I was young. Madame Gordin asked, so I went. I don’t know why.”
Now, of course, she understood the weight of her decision. And the danger. The Nazis hunted, arrested, tortured and deported Resistance workers. And that’s what she was: a Resistance worker.
In a photo from that time, Germaine sits on a single bed with Paulette, another chieftain and her friend, hidden name Sultan. Sultan leans forward, her smile engaging, happy, young. Germaine’s smile is closed mouthed. She seems older than Sultan, more sophisticated. Germaine looks into middle distance, as if her thoughts are elsewhere. She wears a coat. Sultan does not. Has Germaine returned from a rendezvous with Ralph, the young resistance fighter she will marry, a man with whom she will have three children, a man who will take lovers, then leave? Prominent in the room is a large radio sitting on a bedside table. Wires loop down. Other wires snake up a wall to the outside. This must be an antennae. Secretly, the girls listen to French Free Radio, Madame Gordin stage whispering, “Girls, turn the volume down.”
In memory, Germaine returned to la colonie and the room she shared with Sultan, and although life would distance them, they remained best friends, each keeping track of the other. Germaine looked toward the rain as if deciding whether she’d speak or remain silent. She spoke, her sentences short, nearly staccato. “But, Sultan had a terrible life. Her first husband was shot during the War; her second husband died of cancer; her third husband died because he was old. Her first child is retarded; her second is a gangster; her third won a Nobel prize, but he’s very naughty. He doesn’t visit his mother. Still, she managed. Now she does not manage. She is in a home for old people.”
That young girl, her face so alive, listening with Germaine to French Free Radio.
Yellow Stucco House
A console in the living room, the drone of an announcer’s voice. Blue stamps inside of ration books, silver foil from a Hershey’s wrapper pressed flat, thin wire that secured a milk bottle’s cap, straightened, then wound into a ball. We saved it all, silver paper, silver wire. The rough wool of a couch. The silky feel of long drapes, I wrapped around my slim body. War raged in a place my grandparents called the Old Country, a place my parents call “overseas.” Closed blinds. Street lamps turned off. A blackout. The year was 1942. Perhaps, 1943. Maybe, 1944. Peering out from inside my blue cocoon, I watched my grandmother part Venetian blinds making a slit with her fingers. Overhead, perhaps, the drone of a plane. Later, the shrill call of a siren—all clear. Still, my grandmother stood, her solid square body unmoving, her eyes fixed. She understood what we did not. A world was vanishing.
Afternoons, in the yard across the street from the yellow stucco house, boys played war. Standing on the front porch, I watched them fall down dead. I knew who the bad guys were, the Nazis, parading with stiff legs and giving the Nazi salute. Girls didn’t play war. They jumped rope. Desperately, I wanted to cross the street, to run and play. My grandmother said I was too young. She was in charge, caring for me while Mom helped Dad run his camera store. She needed to be there because Dad took pictures in a studio in the back. Or he developed negatives and printed portraits in his darkroom. He was busy. Making money. Everybody wanted pictures of soldiers going to war.
Mostly, I was my grandmother’s child, shopping with her in the chicken store, the vegetable store, then smoothing silver wrappers onto the kitchen table. My grandmother called me her shaynna maidel, Yiddish for pretty girl. I had blond hair and blue eyes. And that made me special. I was and wasn’t sure why. Something to do with the War, with hiding and dying or not dying. I was safe in America, but not in my dreams. In my dreams I was hunted.
“Toute le monde, everyone, knew it was a Jewish house,” Monsieur Le Hech said, leading me out of the plaza and around a corner. Clearly, this was a grand house, more expansive than I’d thought, belonging, once, to a nineteenth century nobleman, Louis de Veyièves, a man faithful to the Bourbons. What would this nobleman have thought of this refuge for Jewish children? Monsieur Le Hech pointed upward, then watching my face as if to gauge my perception, he asked, “You see?”
Red roof tiles, blue sky, a balcony. Ah, a courtyard. In the History of Beaulieu, I’d seen a photograph of girls scrubbing, then wringing clothes, all posing for the camera’s eye. Above their heads this balcony and blouses hanging on a line. This was ordinary life, the dailyness Germaine described the day we talked—girls washing clothes, peeling apples, and perhaps, later, walking with their chieftains to the Dordogne River where in another photograph, they sit or lie in the sun, walk or stoop at the river’s edge. What did they know of one another? What did they sense? Yvonne, nine years old, handed over to an aunt at the French/German border, her parents arrested and sent to Gurs, an internment camp in the south west, about fifty miles from the Spanish border. What did she do with her earlier life, box it up, store it high on shelf to open later? Or not at all? Now, more than ever, I wanted to enter la colonie. I’d climb stairs, touch banisters, feel Yvonne’s longings and her dreams. I’d imagine a flat in Germany where on Friday nights, Yvonne and her sister would greet their father at the door. It would be shabbat, and her father would be returning from the synagogue. At the table, Yvonne’s mother would bless the candles. Her father would bless the wine and the bread. He’d bless the children, asking God to keep them safe.
The Holocaust, the largest genocide in human history, began in 1933 with the first Nuremberg laws and ended in 1945 with the liberation of the camps. Yet, in la colonie, a director, four caretakers and seventy girls survived. Perhaps, two hundred Jews living in rented houses in the countryside, survived, too. Why? How? Monsieur Le Hech could not say. He was an historian, one who tried to learn facts. Historians were not preoccupied with morality. This was the difference between history and memory.
I am a person who looks for moral value. I’m fascinated with memory and with the way the brain tells our stories, selecting, discarding. As Bachelard says, “…we are never real historians, but always near poets and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.”
Monsieur Le Hech dropped his cigarette butt into a pocket, then lifting his gaze, he looked again to the balcony. “For sixty years no one knew this history. It was a forgotten history. When we announced this day”—the commemoration on October 28, 2006—“everyone remembered. They brought photographs.”
Perhaps, someone had brought the picture of girls washing clothes or the photo of Germaine posing with Madame Gordin and two chieftains, all four linking arms. Or the photo of Jewish children standing in front of the statue of the Virgin and Child, holding hands and forming a six pointed Star of David.
In our daydreams, Bachelard says, the house is a large cradle, that place that holds us in birth and in death. Now, standing beside Monsieur Le Hech, the soles of my sandals uneven on cobbles, I thought of la colonie as that cradle, cherishing the story of each child’s life.
Yellow Stucco House
Jewish Eastern European immigrants from a place they called Russ-Poland, my grandparents bought the yellow stucco house when my mother was sixteen. Probably, Mom did not love the yellow stucco house as I loved that house. She’d lived there as an adolescent, then, as a college drop out and, finally, a married woman. When she met my father, a college drop out, too, he was working in the office of the Overseer of the Poor in Newark, New Jersey, taking a course in photography and living at home with his mother. His father had died when he was a boy: thirteen. He was lost. And angry. At sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, he ran with a fast crowd, played pool, borrowed money, paid it back. Later, he went to the track or placed his bets with a bookie. He was a charmer. A man about town. Was that what appealed to my good girl mother, my father’s bad boy edge?
Born nearly ten years after the youngest of her three brothers, my mother was my grandparents’ last child, their last hope. None of the boys had gone to college. All were disappointments. My mother played the piano; she played tennis; she rode horses. She was my grandparents’ American girl, going off to college with her raccoon coat, the same coat she wore when I was a child, the coat I took to college with me. I finished, went on to earn two masters’ degrees. Who was the good girl then? Was that what fascinated me about Germaine, her independence, her defiance in a time when women who defied were “bad.”
My mother’s good girl claim was a lie. She defied my grandparents, eloped with my father and kept her marriage a secret, pretending a year later when she “officially” married, she was a virgin, wearing white. Without money for a place of their own, my parents moved into the yellow stucco house. I was born three years later.
A colicky baby, I seemed to know from infancy or maybe in utero that my father was an angry man. Some of my earliest memories of my father are his twisted face and his voice, narrow and spitting. He kicked people out of the house, aunts and uncles, his brother, his mother. You never knew what would set him off. He called me names. “Hey, Stupid,” he’d say “come over here.” That was my nickname, Stupid. Sometimes, Stupes. He thought he was funny. Not me. I butt him in the stomach. He didn’t care. He thought that was funny, too.
At those times, my grandmother would take my hand. “Come, Sandella, I’ll make for you a cup with milk and honey.”
Was it the warm milk that soothed? My grandmother’s touch? The familiar, fragrant smells of her kitchen, bupka and mandelbrot, the Yiddish version of Biscotti, a taste that over the years will bring me to the yellow stucco house and into my grandmother’s kitchen. I am three, then four, climbing onto a wooden chair painted the color of thick cream. The back door is behind me and to my left. There is a windowsill over the sink where my grandmother grows plants. She cuts the eyes from sweet potatoes and grows vines. She plants a grapefruit seed and grows a small tree. A young married woman, I will stick tooth picks into an avocado seed, suspend it over a glass filled with water and watch roots grow down.
On the white enamel stove, a pot of chicken soup simmers, ayelach, unhatched eggs, floating at the top along with bright yellow chicken legs. Smells of the kitchen are deep and lush, earth, soup, and yeasty dough that my grandmother rolls out on the kitchen table where I kneel, my hand a fist, hiding raisins, waiting, waiting until she says in her Yiddish accent, “Drop, Sandella, the dough is ready.”
My grandmother was my ballast, the one person my father didn’t cow. She fended him off with a wooden spoon, told him to Gey Avek. That’s Yiddish for go away. And he went. This was her kitchen, her house, my kitchen, my house. Years and years later, when I married and had children of my own, I would recreate the smells of my grandmother’s kitchen, her myth and her magic. I would both succeed and fail.
That evening stepping into Le Velouté, the restaurant across from la colonie on the Place de la Bridolle, a quick glance told me I was alone. I didn’t like being the only diner, but this was where I wanted to be, sitting at a table in Le Velouté, looking out a window at the bronze statue of the Virgin and child and at the white door of la colonie. During the War, both buildings, la colonie and this restaurant with rooms above, had belonged to Monsieur and Madame Laquieze, Catholics who had knowingly and willingly rented la colonie to the Jewish Scouts. In rooms above this restaurant, the Laquieze family hid the youngest of the Jewish children. Adrienne Laquieze, then a young woman in her twenties, had cared for the young children.
One day back in 1943, when Adrienne was holding a Jewish child in her arms, an officer of the Milice, the dreaded Vichy paramilitary organization that tortured, murdered and hunted resistance workers and Jews, entered the restaurant. He told Adrienne to give him the child. Sitting now inside these walls, I imagined patrons, holding their forks midway to their mouths. I saw the officer, dressed in plain clothes motioning with his fingers. In a photograph from that time, Adrienne is pictured in profile, her dark hair swept back from her face, her long slim nose her dominant feature. Smiling, she looks approachable, kind. Adrienne whispered in the child’s ear. “Cry, loudly. Say you have a stomach ache.”
Telling me this story on that rainy fall afternoon we’d spent together in her flat, Germaine gazed off into middle space, and watching her, I felt time folding backwards, bringing me here to a place I had not yet visited, a place where I sat, now, in the Laquieze restaurant, hearing Adrienne plead, “The child is ill. She needs a hospital. I must leave.”
The Milice officer stepped aside. Adrienne left with the child. Strange as that may seem, considering the cruelty of the Milice, certain officers, Germaine said, treated the sick with respect. Perhaps, this was the reason, perhaps not. Times were odd and complex. We are odd and complex. Perhaps, the officer harbored a certain feeling for Adrienne. Or he recognized in that Jewish child his own child’s face. He could have been tired, worn out, worn down, wanting only a drink at the bar or a glass of beer, duty be damned.
On the other side of the window, the dark of night, but the plaza was lighted and the white door of la colonie shone, brightly. Was that the one? Or was it the door around the corner, where earlier that day, Monsieur Le Hech had pointed up to a balcony? Did he come in the day or in the night, this single gendarme? No German soldiers bivouacked in this village. They were in Brive, thirty kilometers north and west. This made his task easier. Why did he take it on, this man called Amédée Duhaut? He was not from this village. He was stationed here for the duration of the War. Afterwards, he would leave. I imagined him walking, slowly, knocking, then whispering. “You must go away. The Germans will come.”
Always the gendarmerie received notice of roundups. They were the ones who made the arrests and took them away, men, women, children.
Scouts, the children were prepared, knapsacks packed with food, water, clothing and tents. Often, they camped in the woods, children and chieftains. Sometimes, farmers took them in. Who were these farmers? What made them take this chance? And the villagers, what of them?
“For them,” Germaine said the day we met, “we were refugees from the north. They knew nothing about Jews.”
How could that be with so much anti-Semitic propaganda, on the radio, in newspapers, with exhibitions throughout France that caricatured Jews with claw-like fingers, droopy ears, thick lips, with French priests calling Jews Christ killers? And they weren’t the only ones spewing anti-Semitic rhetoric. There was Father Coughlin on his radio show from Detroit, promoting dictatorship and authoritarian government as the only cure to the ills of democracy and capitalism. He lambasted Jewish financiers and what he called their control over world politics, recounting his own version of the notorious forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to be a meeting of Jewish leaders as they plotted to take over the world.
And after the War, when I am a child on the playground, kids will taunt me and call me Christ killer. And still later, when I am a sophomore in college, maybe a junior, going to Mass with my Catholic boyfriend, one Sunday morning, I will listen to a priest intone the same accusation of deicide until finally, I rise, push past knees, up the aisle and out of the church where I stand on a knoll breathing fresh air into my lungs. At the time of Vichy France, the bell in the tower of the massive Abby of Saint Peter, summoned villagers to Mass. Had priests preached tolerance? Was Catholicism here similar to Catholicism in Toulouse where Archbishop Jules Gerard Saliege read aloud his pastoral letter, proclaiming: “The Jews are men; the Jewesses are women. The foreigners are men and women. One may not do any thing one wishes to these men, to these women, to these fathers and mothers. They are part of the human race; they are our brothers, like so many others. A Christian cannot forget this.”
“Some people,” Monsieur Le Hech had said earlier that day, “were very sympathetic. Some not very much. Most people in France during the War were aware only of finding food. They didn’t resist; they didn’t cooperate. They waited for the War to stop.”
Sipping from a glass of the house Merlot, I pressed the soles of my sandals onto blond wooden floor boards, newly finished, newly shellacked. Monsieur Duhaut, Monsieur and Madame Gordin, the chieftains, all had come here—I assumed. Probably, the room had looked different then. No freshly oiled dark beams, setting off a stark white ceiling. No lime green walls or a single wall painted red-violet. What ever possessed the owners to choose those garish colors? Probably, when Germaine had sipped from a glass of the house red, the walls were white, the floor boards dark, dusty and marked with foot prints. Setting the soles of my shoes onto this floor, I made an imprint over imprints, sensing that under these blond boards, the old boards remained. If Adrienne’s and Germaine’s imprints were here, so, too, were those of the village doctor who would treat the children when they were ill, and of Zozo (not his real name), who owned a hardware store and visited la colonie to fix what needed fixing. Perhaps, they all met after a day’s work. If their imprints were here, so too, were those of the Milice officer who chose to let a child live. Ordinary life. Daily life.
My dinner arrived, haddock served on a mix of braised cabbage and leeks that I would duplicate, when I returned home. These days, food in France was not so inventive as in the States, but dishes were cooked, perfectly, seasoned well and served hot with both garnish and grace. My waiter spoke English with a Scottish accent. He was an owner, the owner who served; the other cooked. As he refilled my water glass, I asked if he knew the history of this building. He knew of another restaurant before this one.
“And before that?”
He stepped back. “A hotel.”
I lifted my wine glass to toast the ghosts who lived here, still.
In the fall of 1942, following the British and American landings in Morocco and Algeria, the Wehrmacht entered the southern zone. Soon after, the Germans stepped up their raids. No place was safe, especially not la colonie. The Scouts made plans to move the children. I imagined darkness. The dead of night. Time arced back. A black sedan with its rounded fenders and long hood idles in front of la colonie. Adrienne Laquieze sits at the wheel. She taps ash from a cigarette. She tucks a strand of hair into her upswept twist. She checks her rear view mirror, then glances toward la colonie. A door opens. Girls hurry out, then crowd into the backseat. Some sit on the floor. Germaine kisses. She wishes them all a safe journey. It is as if I am in that car, Adrienne motoring, slowly, but not too slowly. She must not call attention to the car. If arrested, she will face the same fate as the children—deportation, maybe torture, certain death. Someone has to pee. Always, someone has to pee. Adrienne stops. A child squats at the side of the road. The girls whisper, “Hurry up.”
Resistance workers wait at the Swiss border. If they are lucky, all will cross. They are lucky.
Sipping from a second glass of the house Merlot, I wondered what the world would look like today if every European village had had a population like Beaulieu’s, a gendarme like Monsieur Duhaut, a family like the Laquieze family? Monsieur Le Hech’s words played like an ear bug. “Toute le monde knew it was a Jewish house.” Was I impossibly naïve to think we could learn to put humanity first and stand together, even silently? For that, it seemed to me, was what saved the Jews in Beaulieu, a certain quiet collective understanding. And a desire, not particularly to do good, but to do no harm. In addition to the seventy children, two hundred Jews taking refuge in the vicinity, survived, too.
The Second World War tore the fabric of French society. Gaullists, those loyal to General Charles DeGaulle, fought against the regular army. Resistance groups fought each other. Fear of Communism turned many French toward the Fascists. After the War, truth went underground, buried by what became known as the French silence. De Gaulle’s goal was unity. All French claimed to have been resistant. In the States, myths persisted, as well—government officials and the common wisdom teaching us to believe we’d done all we could. We hadn’t.
Adrienne died in 1998, and a year later, the Israeli government honored her, posthumously, as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, Germaine nominating her for the Medal. At a ceremony in Paris, Germaine spoke, “Very dear …. Adrienne, …. Who more than you deserves the Medal of the Righteous? …. Arbiter, protector, one who hides and conveys Jewish children to Switzerland, especially dangerous, exposing yourself to death by shooting or to arrest and a concentration camp. You did this and you wanted nothing in return for what you thought was your duty.”
Adrienne’s son, Claude Guichard, received the medal for his mother.
On my last evening in Beaulieu, after eating dinner at le flots blu, I strolled though the village, stopping in the Place de la Bridolle to run my fingers over the plaque, Germaine’s story, the girls’ hidden stories circling through me like smoke. In the lobby of my hotel, a single man with shiny black hair, sat, shoulders hunched, at the bar. Over his head, a French drama played on a flat screened television. He eyed me in that way of men. Too old for an appraising stare, I ignored his curiosity, took my key from a clerk’s hand. As always, the stairway was dark. In the upstairs corridor, I waved my arms, tripping a motion sensor, then walked quickly to my door. I had barely enough time to insert my key into the lock before the corridor went black. My room was small, glowing with crisp white linens. Outside, darkness floated. I stood at my window, listening to the bells from the Abbey ringing the hour. I fantasized those same bells ringing the hour all those years ago, their sound reverberating through la colonie. Sleepless in my bed, I fell back into time, Germaine’s time here in this village, my time when I was child lying awake in my bed inside the yellow stucco house. Our time was the same, my early childhood, Germaine’s early adulthood. “Mommy,” I’d call, “are your there?”
“I’m here,” my mother would say from her perch at the top of the stairs.
From my bed, I could almost hear the sounds of my father’s newspaper, slapping air as he folded it back. Every night, he sat on the living room couch reading the news. Then, he’d turn on the console. Maybe, there would be breaking news. Maybe, soon the War would end. My grandparents listened, too.
“Mommy,” I yelled, “I need you to kiss me goodnight.”
“Again?” my mother would say.
Then, she was here, kissing my cheek, stroking my curls. And far away in that place my mother called overseas, refugee girls would call to Germaine, Yvonne among them, asking for kisses, and Germaine kissed, first one cheek, then the other. Life lay ahead, places where shelter would elude them, places where shelter would elude me. We’d lose our way, then find it again, returning always to the rooms that protected, rooms inside la colonie, rooms inside the yellow stucco house where we dreamed shelter and peace.