The Write Launch, Issue 20, December 2018
Early on February 9, 1943
The weather is cold and sleety when André Deutsch picks up his briefcase full of cash and heads for the UGIF office. Mondays are always a trial for him. On those days (allotment days) he has to lug up to 30,000 francs through Old Lyon with its medieval streets and narrow soot-stained buildings. André has never been especially brave (he was a yeshiva boy, an easy target for the roughnecks in his town of Borsec), but walking alone through this part of the city has never been safe. There are simply too many traboules. Walk along any street in the old quarter and you can’t help but think about those underground passageways and who might be hiding in them, waiting, just biding their time.
If the allotment money could be delivered in a normal way (by armored car, say) then things would be easier, but the Union Générale des Israelites de France, or UGIF, is hardly normal. How could it be when it was set up by the SS in collusion with Vichy’s puppet government? Still, it’s the only social service agency the Jews have in France. And André knows that he’s lucky to work there as an accountant. He just wishes the job didn’t entail hauling thousands of francs through a city teeming with refugees, some so desperate they’d probably kill for a ration card.
But André is moving to Savoy next week, so this, thank God, is the last delivery he’ll ever have to make. Savoy is his promised land. The Italians are in charge there, and they don’t really care who’s Jewish and who isn’t, or at least that’s what he’s been told.
But something could still happen, he reminds himself, bent almost double as he crosses the pont Morand. Below him, the Rhône River, stirred up by the wind, looks darkly threatening. This could be a warning if he chose to take it that way, but he doesn’t because all he can think about is reaching Number 12 rue Sainte-Catherine. Just cross the bridge, then a block or two more and he’ll be there. Someone could still accost him, of course. Residents of the neighborhood might be watching him right now. And anyone who’s ever stopped by the UGIF office looking for a handout would be able to recognize him—and guess what was in his briefcase.
If that happened, André doesn’t know what he would do. He is not a large man nor is he armed. But he’d have to do something because in 1943 a Romanian Jew in France is on his own. Call for the police and you’re likely to find yourself in the lap of the Gestapo.
Meanwhile, Maier Weissman is at home packing his rucksack with toys for the children. His staff tells him to focus on useful things—shoes, toothbrushes, flannel underwear, that sort of thing—and he agrees, it’s UGIF’s job to provide those things, but he also knows that games and dolls and comic books are just as important, perhaps, in a way, even more so.
He squeezes in one last teddy bear, then turns to say goodbye to his family: a quick kiss for Miriam, his wife, a hug for Sylvie, his married (or if her husband is dead, widowed) daughter, and finally a big sloppy smooch for Ezekiel, his five-month-old grandson. “Don’t worry if I’m a bit late tonight,” he says. “Monday, you know.” Then pausing just long enough to give his wife a mischievous look, he adds, “But I’ll be back to help you blow out the candles.”
Miriam’s look passes from him to Sylvie. “What’s this about candles?”
Maier laughs. “For your cake, Miriam. Your birthday cake. You are having a birthday, aren’t you?”
“Never you mind,” says Maier, winking at his daughter. “Sylvie has it well in hand.”
It’s how he tries to leave them, on a cheerful note, always with some small reference to the evening ahead. But no sooner is he in the hall, pulling the door shut behind him than a momentary fear washes over him: What if I don’t return? What if I never see them again? The feeling passes, but not before he’s put a hand to his heart (yes, that’s what it feels like, a heart attack) and never without a last wistful look at the door, behind which his family is already starting to do whatever it is they do when he’s not with them.
In a small apartment on rue Vendome, twenty-year-old Eva Gottlieb is sipping a mug of ersatz coffee when her mother appears in the kitchen bundled up like a kulak. Eva takes one look at her—from the Russian-style scarf on her head to the oversized galoshes on her feet—and bursts out laughing. “Oh, maman,” she says, “you look like a babushka.”
Her mother frowns. “Have you looked out the window, ma chère? Don’t you see that it’s snowing?” But then she glances at the ridiculous galoshes, which were once her son’s, and laughs herself. “I just hope I make it to work and back,” she adds.
Eva takes another sip of her coffee. “Lucky for me I get to stay in,” she says, grateful to have the day off after her eighty-mile trip back from the Swiss border yesterday.
But her mother only looks at her. “Eva, you’re not going to miss your piano lesson, are you?”
“My piano lesson?”
“Yes, your piano lesson. It’s at nine o’clock on Mondays, isn’t it?”
“Today is Monday?”
“Oui, c’est aujourd’hui lundi,” says her mother, who starts wrapping up a little bread and some cheese for her lunch. “And Mme Larcher needs every sou she can scrape together. Besides,” she adds, “you know how much you love to play. It’s your passion.”
Eva smiles. It’s ridiculous, but her mother still believes that she was born with an extravagant gift for music and that if it hadn’t been for the war she’d be a concert pianist by now. Eva knows better—she is competent at best—and, besides, the real reason for keeping up with her lessons is to maintain contact with Jacques, Mme Larcher’s twenty-two-year-old son. As a courier for Combat, he spends his days cycling from one rendezvous to the next, delivering mail and wireless crystals, sometimes even pistols or cash. Eva never knows where he will be, but he drops by his mother’s apartment from time to time to leave her notes. Sometimes it’s only a “Je t’adore” or a “Je t’embrasse,” but if his cousin’s flat is available (as it often is since he’s a traveling salesman) then Jacques will tell her what time to meet him there.
Eva’s life is so chaotic she tries never to think too far ahead, but the possibility of a night with Jacques—a whole night, just the two of them, in the same bed, like a married couple—is too delirium-inducing to resist. So even without her mother’s coaxing, she probably would have devised a way to get to Mme Larcher’s today. Still, it’s best if she goes at the time of her lesson since showing up at any other time might seem suspicious.
“All right, maman,” she says. “I’ll go, and on my way back I’ll stop at UGIF to see if I can give you a hand.” Eva’s mother is the secrétaire générale for one of the departments there, and Eva, who has the nominal title of assistant typist, feels compelled to drop by occasionally just to protect her cover. “Besides,” she adds, “I need to see M. Weissman about our next ‘shipment.’”
Not far off, in a luxury hotel requisitioned by the SD, Obersturmführer Klaus Barbie is briefing the half dozen men gathered in his office. In less than an hour, they’ll be setting up a sourcière on rue Sainte-Catherine—a mousetrap, that is, which will be unnoticeable to their victims until they actually walk into the UGIF office. It’s the strategy Klaus prefers for congested areas like Old Lyon, and he doesn’t foresee any problems. His men, with one exception, are all from Section IV, so they’ll know what to do. And Stengritt, who’s the exception, is in another category altogether since Klaus is bringing him along as an assistant and personal bodyguard. Klaus doubts he’ll need a bodyguard—an operation like this, it should be child’s play—but he knows he can trust Stengritt. He’s solid and steady, the exact opposite of somebody like Koth who gets his jollies from playing the heavy.
When Klaus comes to the end of his briefing, he looks at the men ranged in front of him, letting his gaze rest on each of them in turn. “Any questions?” he asks. There’s a brief pause while he waits, but no one says anything. “All right, then,” he says, consulting his watch, “get yourselves ready. We leave in thirty minutes.”
Klaus waits until his men have left before getting out his own weapon, a 9 mm American pistol. He drops it into the holster fastened on the right side of his belt and glances at himself in the mirror beside his desk. The hôtel Terminus de Perrache specializes in mirrors (fancy wallpaper and sculpted wood paneling, too), all of which Klaus considers rather decadent, effeminate actually, yet here he is, gazing at himself the same way a woman would. He frowns at his reflection, unhappy that the weight of the pistol makes his belt droop, which in turn spoils the lines of his new suit, a navy wool gabardine with the thinnest of pinstripes.
It had been made by a tailor he’d found in the back room of a dry goods store: a Pole and quite likely a Jew as well, but what does he care when the man is a genius with needle and thread? Klaus turns one way and then the other, admiring the fit of his new suit: the sleeves just the right length, the collar matching the curve of his neck exactly. He was lucky to have found someone so talented. Just putting on one of this man’s suits makes him look taller—or perhaps not taller exactly, since Klaus knows he’ll always look stunted next to a lanky good-looking guy like Stengritt—yet there is something about a suit with this kind of elegance that speaks for itself. Without any designation of rank, it announces to everyone that he is the chef.
9 o’clock in the morning
By the time Eva Gottlieb arrives at Mme Larcher’s, she’s a mess. Her hair is damp and stringy, and her shoes are so wet they squish when she walks. But Mme Larcher, as elegant and composed as ever, seems oblivious.
“Entrez,” she says, ushering her pupil into a drawing room that is disconcertingly empty. Two years ago when Eva first started her lessons, there were paintings in heavy gold frames (originals, she thought) and delicate pieces of Limoges. Now all of those things have been sold, as well as the rugs and most of the chairs, leaving nothing of value except Mme Larcher’s grand piano. It stands near the window, glossy and black, its top lifted in a one-winged salute.
“I’m sorry I’m so wet, but it’s a nasty day,” says Eva, folding her umbrella and propping it in a corner.
Mme Larcher clucks sympathetically. “You are so right, my dear. But what can we do?” She helps Eva out of her coat and hangs it on a hook. “The important thing is that you’re here. So many of my students have . . . ” Her voice trails off, probably out of delicacy (a lady does not mention her poverty), but Eva knows how circumscribed her life has become. The bare room speaks for itself.
Hoping to change the subject, Eva pulls some sheet music out of her bag. “Look,” she says, “a friend from work let me borrow these Beethoven pieces. I thought maybe you could help me with them.”
Mme Larcher laughs good-naturedly. “You are ready for Beethoven?” she asks, but then adds in a more serious tone of voice, “Mais pourquois pas? In times like these, we need Beethoven more than ever.”
As Mme Larcher leads the way to her piano, Eva wonders about Jacques. Isn’t there a note from him? But Madame has said nothing, so she has to assume that there isn’t.
Eva arranges herself on the bench, then spreads out her music on the rack. As always, she’s a little intimidated by this piano of Mme Larcher’s, which is not just a piano but a Blüthner, a make so renowned that it was the choice (as Madame often points out) of Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Even the last tsar had one. Eva’s playing is in sad contrast to this magnificent instrument, but she can’t help feeling excited. This is Beethoven after all! She straightens her back and takes a deep breath, ready to let her fingers drop onto the keys when Mme Larcher interrupts her.
“Oh, before we start, I should give you this,” she says, reaching inside her sleeve and extracting a small piece of paper that’s been folded so many times it’s hardly larger than a ration stamp.
Eva snatches up the scrap of paper. “Merci,” she says and slides it into her pocket.
“Don’t you think you should open it?” asks Mme Larcher. “It’s from Jacques.”
Eva stares at her. How can she read a note from Jacques—a love note—with his mother sitting right there? Doesn’t she understand how impossible that would be?
But apparently Mme Larcher does understand because almost immediately she offers to make them some tea. “It’s such a frightful day, I think we need something hot,” she says and heads for the kitchen.
When she’s gone, Eva pulls the piece of paper out of her pocket, aware that her heart is pounding absurdly. She wishes she could be more dispassionate about Jacques, but it’s impossible. She loves him so much that everything having to do with him is somehow amplified. He laces up his boots and she cannot help but admire the brisk way he does it. He kisses the inside of her elbow and the sensation lasts all day. He tells her about the things he’s seen on his trips around the city—a car with a wood-burning engine, a pig being fattened in someone’s basement, a girl he knows walking arm in arm with a German—and she commits his stories to memory, just so she can have the pleasure of repeating them to herself later on.
She looks down at the note in her lap and tries to calm herself, but her hands are shaking so much she can barely undo the folds.
Meanwhile, thirteen-year-old Paul Guérin (it’s only a pseudonym, his real name is Benno Breslerman) has been at his workbench sewing pelts for the last couple of hours when M. Liwerant tells him to run over to UGIF. “They should be open by now,” he says, “so see if you can’t get yourself a bicycle registration card.”
Paul quickly gets his coat and cap. The idea of a bicycle is irresistible: he sees himself floating down alleys, rounding corners as gracefully as a greyhound, slipping in and out of traffic . . .
“Mind you, though,” says M. Liwerant as Paul opens the door, “it’s for work only. Deliveries and pick-ups, that’s all.”
“Of course,” replies Paul as he steps into the street, where the wind throws sleet in his face. His coat, which his mother bought him back in Leipzig, is too small now, leaving his wrists sadly exposed. Nonetheless, it’s good to get away. M. Liwerant is so unrelentingly gloomy that Paul feels half-dead in his presence. Still, if the old furrier hadn’t taken him on as an apprentice, who knows where he’d be? Most likely in Vénissieux or one of Vichy’s other internment camps. He knows they’re not run by the Germans, but from what he’s heard they might as well be.
Sitting at her desk, Gilberte Jacob, a UGIF social worker who turned thirty only a week ago, is updating a list of possible lodgings. Some she finds in newspaper ads, but those go to the bottom of her list. Next come apartment buildings where they’ve placed people before; perhaps a room can be found in one of those apartments for a refugee family with nowhere else to go. Then, finally, there are the addresses vacated by former clients who have gone to the Italian zone or managed to cross into Switzerland. It’s tedious work, so tedious that when she glances at the clock she can hardly believe that it’s only twenty minutes after nine. She leans back in her chair and stretches, her slender arms spread out in a wide “V.” She could do with some coffee, she decides, but just as she’s about to get some, the door bangs open and five or six men barge into the office. They are wearing long leather coats and broad-brimmed trilbies.
“Haut les mains,” yells one of them, lurching toward her with his gun drawn. Momentarily paralyzed, Gilberte stares at the barrel of the gun, trying to understand. The Gestapo? But why? UGIF is an authorized agency.
“I said, hands up,” he repeats, grabbing her under one arm and yanking her out of her seat.
Gilberte puts her hands up then, and he shoves her against a bank of filing cabinets where one of the drawer handles hits her in the small of her back. The pain is sudden and sharp, and she cries out, her voice just one among many as staff and clients alike are pushed against the walls.
Eva Gottlieb is still gazing at Jacques’s note when Mme Larcher returns with the tea. The message (just a few short words: Meet me tonight, seven o’clock, you know where) has revived her. She’s not thinking about her cold wet feet or M. Weissman’s sad little orphans now. That’s what the prospect of seeing Jacques does for her: all the day-to-day tensions fall away, leaving her on some other plane where she can forget and be young again—as young as any other girl her age.
“Bonnes nouvelles, I hope,” says Mme Larcher as she hands her pupil a cup of tea.
Eva nods, looking at the delicate blue-and-white cup. It’s from Madame’s prized set of Meissen—or, rather, what’s left of it, since, according to Jacques, she’s had to let most of it go (four place settings for a sack of potatoes, a soup tureen for a rabbit which wasn’t even skinned). It saddens Eva to think about everything Mme Larcher has lost, but she can’t help being gratified by the compliment she is paying her. A year ago Mme Larcher would never have brought out her blue onion china for Eva. In fact, she probably wouldn’t have served tea at all.
It makes Eva think that if she and Jacques ever decided to get married, Mme Larcher might not oppose it. A vast social gulf stretches between Jacques’s family and her own, but war is a great leveler. If nothing else, it’s brought them together: two Jewish résistants who wouldn’t have met if it hadn’t been for a madman in Berlin ranting about racial purity.
On the narrow street in front of Number 12, André Deutsch, who’s just arriving, encounters a scrawny boy whose face is red with cold. “Is this UGIF?” the boy asks, gesturing toward the building beside him.
“It is,” says André, who pulls open the heavily sculpted door of Number 12 and gestures for the boy to precede him. Once they’re both inside, however, André is almost knocked over by the boy’s pungent odor. He has no idea how a city kid could have picked up this barnyard smell, but he’s so relieved to be making his last-ever delivery that he doesn’t give it much thought.
“Follow me,” he tells the boy and starts up the stairs, taking them two at a time, repeating to himself, over and over: My last trip, it’s finished, now I can breathe again. But then at the top of the stairs, as he fumbles for his key, he sees something behind the frosted pane of glass: a shadow or some kind of movement. But before he can make out what it is, the door swings open to reveal a figure in a long leather coat with a pistol in one hand.
“German police,” the man says, stepping forward and dropping a hand onto André’s shoulder, while another man, also in leather, grabs hold of the boy. For a split second, André considers wresting himself away—he pictures himself plunging down the stairs and disappearing into a traboule—but just as quickly he realizes how pointless that would be.
“Hand it over,” says the German, pointing to André’s briefcase. André complies—what choice does he have?—then watches as the Boche struggles with the clasps. “It’s locked,” he finally announces, looking up at André as if he’s never encountered an impediment of this sort.
André nods. “Yes,” he murmurs, his mind so foggy it’s as if he is dreaming.
“Well, are you going to give me the key or not?” asks the Boche.
With an effort, André tries to focus. “It’s in . . . in my . . . in here,” he says, fumbling under his coat and suit jacket for the key that’s buried in his waistcoat pocket.
“Well, hurry up,” says the man, ramming his pistol into the side of André’s neck.
André, feeling the cold metal of the barrel against his skin, finally manages to produce the key with shaking fingers. He holds it out on the palm of his hand, and the German snatches it up.
Then, only moments later, he’s whistling for his boss. “Chef, you won’t believe this,” he yells, smiling broadly enough for André to see his long yellow teeth. “There must be at least twenty or thirty thousand francs in here!”
Klaus is there to greet the next man who comes in. He claims to be one of the administrators, but Klaus thinks he looks more like a circus clown in his battered old hat and saggy pants. After examining his ID (Maier Weissman, Polish refugee) Klaus searches him and his ruck. He ignores the pocket change, the food coupons, the motley collection of toys, but pauses a moment to look at the photos inside his wallet. Klaus always does this: partly because it’s useful to know if there’s a family, which might make a prisoner more susceptible to threats, but also because he’s interested in photography.
There are only two photos in Weissman’s wallet: one of a baby (dimpled, bald, the usual) and another of a woman, his wife probably, whose melancholy gaze reminds him of someone. He stares at the photo trying to jog his memory before realizing with a shock that he’s looking into a face so like his mother’s that, side by side, they could be confused. Quickly, he slaps the wallet shut and casts it onto the floor. His mother is a fine woman, but he doesn’t like to think of her when he’s at work. The two of them just don’t go together.
10 o’clock in the morning
A vicious wind slams into Eva Gottlieb as she struggles toward rue Sainte-Catherine, but she’s too busy thinking about Jacques to feel the cold. It’s been almost two weeks since they’ve seen each other, and she worries, just as she always does, that something might have happened during that time to diminish his interest in her. She tries to talk sense to herself (has anything diminished her ardor? No, of course not), but these days she doesn’t trust the solidity of anyone or anything. She doesn’t trust UGIF to protect the names of their foster mothers. She doesn’t trust the Szulklaper brothers, or at least not Victor. And she certainly doesn’t trust the exemption cards handed out by the Boches. They’re supposed to protect UGIF staff and their families from “all internment measures,” but Eva is doubtful. Her mother has one, and though it probably gives her a bit of extra confidence, Eva wishes she had a false ID instead.
It was Esther Grinberg, one of the administrators, who got Eva hers, but neither Mlle Grinberg nor anyone else at UGIF would authorize a false ID for Eva’s mother. There were more pressing needs, Eva was told: her mother was always at her desk, never leaving the office, not even for lunch, while there were others (Eva herself, for instance) who were so exposed they wouldn’t last a week without a French ID.
Eva has thought about getting her mother a card on the black market, but when she asked Victor if he could use his connections to help her get one, he told her a fake ID, if it was good, would cost as much as a refrigerator. After that Eva gave up, but now, just as she’s crossing the pont Morand, it occurs to her that Victor might have been lying. Perhaps, if you knew the right person, the price could be negotiated.
She’ll ask Jacques about it tonight, she decides, thinking ahead to their rendezvous, imagining how she’ll knock on the door and he’ll answer with his arms outstretched, ready to banish all the things she’s afraid of: the German checkpoints, the babies that won’t stop crying, the Alsatians on leashes that rip open the night with their barking.
By now, Klaus has set himself up at a big desk toward the back of the UGIF’s main room where he’s busy checking everyone’s papers, starting with the staff. He pays particular attention to the women, curious to see how they’ll react when Stengritt frisks them. But since Stengritt belongs to Section VI, he doesn’t go at it with quite the same fervor as the rest of Klaus’s men. It doesn’t make much difference, though, since the women all seem to age as soon as their pocketbooks are taken away. Their faces sag, their posture droops, their eyes start to wander aimlessly. Klaus can’t explain this, but it’s something that happens ninety-nine percent of the time. And if you take away a woman’s wedding ring (they’re not bothering with that now), the effect is even more pronounced.
When all of the female staff has been “processed,” Klaus asks which of them is the switchboard operator. Silence follows, but a few furtive glances guide him to a gaunt, frizzy-haired woman who stands toward the back of the group. Klaus, after ascertaining that she is indeed the operator, has her step forward and tells her to behave just as she would on any other day.
“When people call, tell them to come in as usual,” he instructs her, and she nods, looking as if he’d just told her to put her head in a vise.
Paul Guérin, the furrier’s apprentice, looks around the room where the Germans have shoved him. He is still smarting from his encounter with the pockmarked guy at the door who started knocking him around the minute he walked in. “Dirty Jew,” the man had snarled, “ you smell like a cesspool.” The blows hadn’t bothered Paul much—M. Liwerant is quick with his fists as well—but being told that he stinks was like having a knife sunk into his gut. Because how can he help it working with all those unwashed sheepskins? Of course the odor is going to soak into his pores. There just isn’t much he can do about it.
The side of the room he’s been sent to is crowded, so crowded Paul doesn’t know if he’ll be able to find a place for himself. But then, glancing around, he sees a teenaged girl who reminds him of his sister. Cheered by the sight of someone who seems so familiar, he starts to sit down on the floor beside her only to have her hold her nose and turn away as if he were contagion itself.
Feeling more like a pariah than ever, Paul searches the room again, but there’s no one who will even look at him. The exclusion is so complete that he’s afraid he’ll start crying, but then he spots the small bearded man he came in with and works his way over to him. “Je peux?” he asks politely, gesturing toward a spot on the floor beside him. There’s a moment’s hesitation and Paul braces himself for another rejection, but then a look of resignation passes over the man’s face and he scoots over to make room beside him. His name, he says, is Deutsch, André Deutsch.
Several miles away, in the suburb of Caluire, nineteen-year-old Chana Grinzpan slips out of her room and knocks on Edzia Rozenfarb’s door which is just one over from hers. Edzia was the first friend Chana made after fleeing Poland two years ago. They’d met in Paris where each of them lived in a flat backing up to the Passage Alexandrine: Mme Rozenfarb and her teenaged daughter on one side, Chana and her husband and their new baby on the other. To carry on conversations, all the two women had to do was open their back windows and yell across the alleyway. But then Chana’s husband was rounded up during the Vel’ d’Hiv rafle, and the two friends, frightened of being arrested themselves, pooled their funds and came here, to Lyon, which (at that time anyway) had seemed like a refuge.
Chana waits, then knocks again. “Edzia,” she says, pressing her lips to the wood of the door. A moment later the door opens a crack and Chana pushes her way in. “Edzia, you have to help me,” she says.
Edzia turns off the hotplate on which she’s boiling some groats. “Of course, but, please, keep your voice down. Jacqueline’s still asleep.”
Chana looks over at the divan where Edzia’s fourteen-year-old daughter is sleeping and nods. She doesn’t much care whether she wakes Jacqueline or not (what kind of princess is she, still asleep at this time of the morning?), but all the same she lowers her voice. “It’s the baby,” she whispers. “He’s sick again.”
“Oh, no,” says Edzia, a worried look crossing her broad comfortable face. “It’s not serious, is it?”
Chana considers. “No, I don’t think so. An earache maybe. But he should see a doctor, and I don’t know . . . ” Her voice trails off and she shrugs her shoulders.
For a moment, Edzia looks at Chana, so small she could pass for a twelve-year-old, and tries to think of a solution. “But, wait, isn’t this assistance day?” she asks.
“At UGIF, you mean?”
“Yes, it’s Monday, isn’t it? The doctor will be there along with that nice nurse of his— Marcelle, isn’t that her name? She’ll help you, I’m sure.”
Chana thinks about this. Marcelle is nice and so is Dr Lanzenberg, though he has a way of scowling at you the whole time you’re talking to him. But she knows that he’s a good doctor. “All right,” she says finally, “but won’t you come with me?”
Edzia sighs. “Chana, you know I have to work. It’s not much but . . . ”
“I know,” says Chana, and she does. The small salary Edzia earns checking out customers in a garment shop allows them to buy a few extra vegetables each month along with some pabulum for René. “I just wish . . . I mean, it’s so far, and sometimes the Métro . . . well, there can be checkpoints.”
Edzia frowns and wipes her hands on her apron. “Chana, really—” she begins, then stops herself.
“I know,” says Chana, sinking onto a chair, “you think I’m useless, a coward when it comes to—”
“No, I do not think you’re a coward,” says Edzia, raising her voice to a normal pitch. “We’re all afraid to go out on the streets. You’d be a fool if you weren’t.” She pauses for a moment, then continues: “But, Chana, you’re the mother. You have to take responsibility. You do understand that, don’t you?”
Chana looks down at her lap. She knows Edzia is right. She has to do the best she can for René, but why does she have to risk her life just to get a little medicine?
She is about to say as much, but just then the figure on the couch stirs, and they both look over at Jacqueline, who sits up and blinks at them. “Chana, is that you?” she asks.
“Who else would it be, you sleepy head?” chides Chana, causing Edzia to smile. Chana may be five years older than Jacqueline, but the two girls are like sisters, teasing one another the way Edzia and her sisters had. Edzia had slipped out of the ghetto in Lodz just before it was sealed, but her two sisters and their families had stayed behind, too frightened to risk it, and since then she’s heard nothing.
Looking first at her daughter and then at Chana, an idea suddenly comes to Edzia. “Chana, why don’t you wait until this afternoon to go to UGIF? Then Jacqueline could meet you there after her class and the two of you could come home together.” Edzia worries about Jacqueline coming home after dark, and she knows that both girls will be safer if they’re together.
“What a good idea,” says Chana, looking over at Jacqueline, who’s so French-ified she could pass for a jeune fille born and raised in Lyon. She speaks French without an accent. She wears her hair rolled back from her temples. She even takes apart her mother’s old dresses and remakes them in the latest styles. Short hemlines, broad shoulders, a felt corsage: she knows just what to do, thanks to her couture class. It’s really quite amazing.
“So it’s set then,” says Edzia, looking at the two girls who have settled side by side on the divan to work out the details.
“Mais oui,” answers Jacqueline, smiling back at her mother like the angel she is.
As soon as Eva Gottlieb opens the door to the office, a pockmarked man with heavy hands starts searching her. Eva, who’s more confused than frightened, looks around for her mother—where is she?—but the heavy-handed man redirects her attention with a vigorous slap. Automatically, Eva’s hand flies up to her cheek, but she drops it immediately, realizing that a reaction is probably what he’s after. Well, he won’t get one from her, she vows, forcing herself to watch dispassionately as he dumps the contents of her rucksack onto a nearby desk. He fishes out her ID and carte d’alimentation and hands them back to her, then starts poking through the rest of her things: two pencils and a pad of paper, her wallet containing a few francs, a tube of lipstick, a comb and some hair pins, a copy of the New Testament, a box of matches and a ball of string, a pair of child’s mittens—and the sheet music from her lesson, which the gestapiste now picks up and studies.
But this is too much for Eva. The rest of her things, yes, he can have them, but not the Beethoven. It’s not even hers, but Gilberte’s. “Please, I need that,” she says and holds out her hand.
“You mean this?” asks the man in clumsy French, dangling the music in front of her. Eva stares at him, taking in the grin on his face—a grin so ghoulish it reminds her of a skull—and snatches the music out of his hand. Then, not knowing what else to do, she rolls it up and slips it inside the sleeve of her coat. There, gone, out of sight.
The ghoul, having watched her little performance, shrugs his shoulders. “You want it so much, then go ahead, keep it,” he says and pushes her towards a desk at the back of the room where a man in a pinstriped suit is waiting.
11 o’clock in the morning
André Deutsch glances at his watch. It’s been two hours—just two hours!—since he was thrown into this holding pen. He thinks there’s a good chance that the Gestapo will let them go at the end of the day—that happens sometimes, after they’ve nabbed whoever it is they’re really after—but in the meantime it’s so crowded André can hardly breathe, much less move.
He looks over at Maier Weissman, his boss, who’s sitting on the floor wiping the sweat from his face and neck with a handkerchief. At his age and in his condition, he should have kept his chair, but that would have been impossible for Weissman. As soon as he saw a woman without one, he felt obligated to get up and give her his.
So what could André do? He had to give up his chair too, which would have been fine under ordinary circumstances, but not when everyone’s squeezed together like a bunch of Métro riders on their way to work. And then there’s the boy sitting beside him who stinks to high heaven. Really, it’s almost unbearable. André is certain that even rotting carcasses would smell better.
Meanwhile, Marcelle Loeb is struggling to keep up with Dr Lanzenberg as he strides across the place des Terreaux wearing the stoic expression of a warrior. Marcelle knows that some people consider him fractious, and in a way maybe he is, but he’s never angry at his patients, only at the conditions they have to put up with: malnutrition, overcrowding, poverty—and fear of course. Just this morning there was an emergency: a woman, in labor almost two days, with a husband too afraid to send for a doctor. It’s that sort of thing that enrages Dr Lanzenberg, because what could be worse—the poor woman’s in agony and the baby of course is dead. He ended up having to pull it out with forceps. Marcelle knows how distressing that was for him, but it was distressing for her too. She wishes he would talk to her about it. But she knows that he won’t because she’s only nineteen and not a real nurse, just a nursing assistant. He, on the other hand, had been the chef de clinique dermatologique in Strasbourg.
When they come abreast of the fountain with its galloping steeds, Dr Lanzenberg gestures toward a nearby pharmacie. Yelling to make himself heard over the wind, he asks her to buy some gauze pads and eyewash while he goes ahead to rue Sainte-Catherine.
Marcelle is dumbfounded. On a day like today when her feet are so numb they feel cut off from her body, he wants her to go shopping for incidentals? But she doesn’t argue with him. She’s tried it before and it only confuses him: he simply doesn’t understand why his orders would need to be revised.
Eva Gottlieb had hoped that the man in the pinstriped suit would let her go as soon as she handed over her documents and he saw that she had a French ID. But he only glances at her papers before confiscating them and ordering her into the back room where twenty or thirty people are bunched together on one side of the room. Eva is told to sit on the opposite side, however, which—except for a couple of people she doesn’t know—is unoccupied. Sitting down on the nearest chair, she frantically scans the room for her mother, but it’s a moment or two before she spots her standing in the corner next to Mme Freund, her Hungarian friend.
Eva, who is so relieved that she forgets where she is, smiles broadly and even waves. That’s how glad she is to see her mother. Actually, if she could, she’d like to sit down with her right now and tell her all about Mme Larcher and how she brought out her best china and doesn’t her mother think that’s encouraging . . . But Eva’s mother only frowns and gives a small shake of her head. At first Eva is puzzled but then she notices the guard standing just inside the door and decides that her mother is right. It’s probably better if he doesn’t know they’re related, because what would happen if he compared their IDs—one in the name of Aurélie Gottlieb, the other (Eva’s) in the name of Edmée Gardier? It wouldn’t make sense for two people with such different last names (and different addresses) to be mother and daughter. In fact, it would be a sure tip-off that one of their cards was fake.
Eva isn’t particularly worried, though. She imagines that some people will be hauled away to one of the internment camps, or perhaps even to Drancy, the transit camp just outside Paris, but she’s confident that she and her mother will both be released. Why wouldn’t they be? She has a French ID, and her mother’s exemption card, as far as Eva knows, is still good.
Not far away, in the working-class suburb of Villeurbanne, Victor Szulkapler and his older brother, Rachmil, are boarding the Métro on their way to see Weissman at UGIF. Rachmil is employed there, he even has an exemption card which says so. But his real work (not noted on the card) is helping Eva Gottlieb and her team smuggle Jews into Switzerland. But his smuggling interests go beyond Jewish children. Cognac, cigarettes, silk stockings and other luxury items: that’s what keeps the family in potatoes.
A few of the Métro passengers seem to be students, but for the most part they’re housewives with string bags who are on the hunt for a couple of eggs or a sliver of beef. All of them, though, whether young or old, have a gray, desiccated look.
Still, there’s one girl—a teenager with curly red hair—who gets Victor’s attention. She’s an audacious little thing, sitting there as cool as you please, applying lipstick as if no one was watching. And it’s not a virginal color either, like peach or pink, but a bright cannibalistic red.
He stares until Rach pokes him in the ribs. “You could take a picture, it would last longer,” he says under his breath in Polish.
Victor snaps out of his trance and looks at his brother. “Française,” he says automatically. “Parlez française.”
A deep sense of gloom descends on Maier Weissman as more and more people are shoved into the back room. People he knows, people who have been coming in month after month, anxious or sometimes belligerent, but almost always embarrassed to find themselves at a welfare agency like UGIF.
Huddled in the corner next to a bin of old clothes are the Taubmanns, refugees from Austria who would much prefer to work than rely on hand-outs. Beno, their thirty-two-year-old son, helps out by giving private lessons in German, but he doesn’t earn much. What he needs are some lycée professors willing to refer their students, but so far that hasn’t happened.
And there, under the window, with his worn overcoat wrapped around him, is Jacques Peskind, a Latvian in his sixties whose French doesn’t go much beyond “Merci beaucoup” and “Je ne comprends pas.” In Riga he’d been a machinist; now he peddles newspapers and mourns his family.
And over there, standing beside some of the secretaries, is Erna Freund, who’d been a professional singer in Hungary. It’s hardest for people like her, Maier reflects. They’d always had money so they never learned to negotiate (no, it was easier just to pay the price). But now, here in Lyon, negotiating is all they ever do: Can’t I stay a few more days in this hotel? Won’t this ring (look, that’s a real ruby) do for the rent?
Because she is sitting directly across from the room’s open doorway, Eva Gottlieb is able to see the arrival of her friend Marcelle Loeb. Earlier, when Dr Lanzenberg had come in by himself, Eva had hoped that Marcelle was taking the day off or busy elsewhere, but here she is, cheeks pink from the cold, her arms full of parcels. Eva can see that she’s startled by the sight of the Gestapo, but if she’s frightened she manages to hide it well, even when the ghoul comes forward to frisk her. But then nurses are almost always calm, thinks Eva, watching as Marcelle is pushed in the direction of the pinstriped chef.
“Vos papiers, s’il vous plait,” the man says, sounding more like a bureaucrat than a Gestapo agent.
But Marcelle isn’t paying attention. Instead, her eyes are fixed on Dr Lanzenberg’s bag which is lying on its side amidst a pile of discarded pocketbooks and rucksacks. Seeing it there, looking so forlorn and useless, she feels a sudden weakness wash over her. How will Dr Lanzenberg ever function without it? It’s as much a part of him as his arm or his leg.
“Vos papiers,” repeats the chef, this time more brusquely, and Marcelle, with an effort, turns her attention to him.
“Oui, m’sieur,” she says and hands over her things: first her papers, then her pocketbook, and then, last of all, the parcels containing the gauze pads and eyewash.
When the Szulkaplers come in a little later, dressed in their berets and jackboots, André Deutsch feels almost giddy. Just look at them, he thinks. Any fool can see they’re up to no good. They’ll be arrested, he’s sure, and then the rest of them of will be able to go home.
André holds his breath, watching as the man at the door, the one with the pockmarked face and wolfish teeth, takes his time examining their IDs. He even calls over the pinstriped man for a consultation, but in the end nothing comes of it. The brothers are searched, relieved of their knives and brass knuckles, then waved into the back room along with everybody else.
André is devastated. They’re black market operators, aren’t they, so why weren’t they handcuffed and dragged off immediately? It just doesn’t make sense.
A little after that, Eva Gottlieb hears one of the gestapistes yelling out in German: “Look, here’s another Jewish kitten, and this one’s a redhead.” It’s her ghoul of course, busy harassing a pretty jeune fille, who, in spite of the dark red lipstick she wears, can’t be more than sixteen.
Eva isn’t sure if the girl understands German, but judging from the horrified look on her face, Eva guesses she does. Still, when asked for her name, she’s cagey enough to answer in French. “Je m’appelle Lea Katz,” she replies, backing out of the door as she babbles something about having come to the wrong office.
“You see, my mother is very sick, and I’m looking for a doctor,” she tells the Boche, sounding distressed but not panicky. “I have no idea what’s wrong with her, but she has these horrible pains. I think it might be an appendicitis.”
Lea herself is amazed at how easily these words came to her, but it doesn’t matter, the German isn’t interested in her sob story. He grabs her by the arm and yanks her back into the office where his big hands go under her coat, aggressively patting her breasts, her hips, whatever else he can reach. She holds her breath while this is happening, but she knows she has no one to blame but herself.
What was she thinking anyway, running after those two flashy gangsters? Even now she isn’t quite certain what her plan had been, but she’d seen one of them (the one with the mustache) looking at her and she’d known that it wouldn’t be hard to chat them up, to flirt with them just enough to enjoy a bit of their largesse. And, besides, she hadn’t wanted that much, just a pair of silk stockings or a nice meal at Mere Brazier’s, that’s all.
Panting a little after her run from the Métro station, Chana Grinzspan pauses for a moment in front of the UGIF office to collect herself. She pushes at her hair, which is wet from the snow, then unpeels some of the sweaters and scarves that she’s wrapped around René. Looking into his red little face—You’re feverish, aren’t you?—she feels something come loose inside her. If her baby should die after all she’s been through with him—the Vel’ d’Hive roundup, the hazardous trip across the ligne de demarcation—then why bother going on? She presses her baby’s hot cheek against her own and he whimpers weakly. Then, turning toward the door, she reaches for the handle, but no sooner has she touched it than the door opens by itself. And then a man—she knows he’s Gestapo—takes her by the shoulder and tells her she’s under arrest.
2 o’clock in the afternoon
Maier Weissman is feeling faint and there’s a constant ache in the small of his back, though perhaps that’s good since it keeps him from thinking too much about the reality of his situation. But there’s no pain in the world that can keep him from thinking about his family. About Miriam, for instance, whose birthday it is. She is sixty-two, not so old really, but he knows that she feels old (as does he, older and older every day). And then there’s Sylvie, their daughter: pretty, yes, but smart, too, good at languages especially, picking them up without any effort at all. It’s a shame she couldn’t have gone to university, but in times like these, well . . . yet marriage wasn’t the answer either. Because even if her husband is alive somewhere, he’s not with his family where he’s needed. It makes Maier sad to think about little Ezekiel growing up without a father, or possibly any male presence at all, if he, the grandfather, is also deported. But Maier pushes that thought away, returning instead to his wife’s birthday and the cake that Sylvie is probably icing right now.
Maier had worked hard to make that cake possible, begging a bit of sugar from four different friends in return for an invitation to the “party,” trading his gold cufflinks for the eggs and the cream, and, then, because he had no other choice, turning to the Szulkaplers for the chocolate, a commodity so rare it might as well be manna. But the important thing is that Miriam will have her cake, and even if he’s not there to see it, there’s nothing the Germans or Vichy can do now to interfere with that.
Climbing the stairs at Number 12, Michel Kroskof Thomas, who goes by the name of Sberro, has a premonition, of what he’s not sure, but for a moment it stops him. Squeezing his portfolio of drawings under his arm (it’s more of a prop than anything else), he reminds himself that all of his papers are excellent forgeries. Besides, he’s been ordered by the Armée secrete to do some recruiting at UGIF so he can’t leave without at least making contact. Michel listens a moment longer, debating with himself, then decides that there’s nothing to be alarmed about. He’s just on edge, that’s all.
But his premonition turns out to be right. No sooner is he on the landing, his hand on the handle, than the door is pulled open sharply by a man with a e t face. “Kommen Sie herein!” he says, smiling grimly at Michel with long yellow teeth. Michel is surprised but not really frightened. When you’ve been detained in an internment camp like Les Milles, you learn that being afraid is a waste of energy. Better to be reckless instead. If he hadn’t been, he’d still be there, instead of with the Armée secrète in Grenoble.
Quickly, he pulls out his portfolio and begins his spiel: He’s a poor artist, here to sell a few drawings, might you be interested, monsieur? He even takes out two or three of his sketches—he’s not a bad draftsman—and shows them to the man.
Eva, who’s watching from her perch in the back room, is impressed by this performance. She’s run into Michel from time to time, but she doesn’t know much about him. Still, she remembers something Jacques said once: that he’s a chameleon par excellence. It wasn’t exactly a compliment, but she understands now what Jacques meant when she sees the German leaning over one of Michel’s drawings as if he might actually be thinking of buying it.
Michel, who’s just as surprised as Eva by this show of interest, even starts to calculate a price in his head (who knows, maybe the man likes cathedrals), but then, before he can say another word, the Boche shoves him toward a big desk at the back of the room. “We must introduce you to the top man,” he says, pointing to a guy in a pinstriped suit.
Looking at him, Michel knows immediately that this is Klaus Barbie, the so-called butcher of Lyon. He knows this because once, when he and Jacques were walking along rue Merciere, Jacques pointed him out and said, “Notice how everybody jumps out of his way? That’s how you can tell it’s Barbie.”
Seen at close range, however, le boucher is less impressive than expected. The girlish complexion is bad enough (honestly, he’s as pink as a pig), but the silly blond quiff is even worse. Still, Michel has heard enough about the man’s methods to be worried. But Barbie isn’t interested in Michel. He takes only a cursory glance at his papers, then waves him into the next room, where he’s directed to sit on the left-hand side with a handful of others. One of them, he’s surprised to see, is Jacques’s girlfriend. Having met her only a couple of times, he can’t remember her name, but he gives her a small nod just for the sake of solidarity.
Eva Gottlieb returns Michel Krostof’s nod, but can’t help cringing inwardly. She doesn’t like being linked with him, or with Victor Szulklaper either. They’re too active, too visible, too flamboyant. But then it occurs to her that she is linked with them because here they all are, lined up together on the same side of the room with only a handful of others. If the one thing they all have in common is a French ID (which is what she assumes), then separating them makes sense. But what if that’s not the reason? What if the Germans have somehow found out about their illicit activities and are holding them as suspects?
The thought throws her into a panic. She doesn’t know first-hand what goes on at the hôtel Terminus, but she’s heard plenty of stories from Jacques’s friends. How they inject acid into people’s bladders. How they use the hotel’s fancy bathtubs to hold people’s heads under water until they’re on the verge of drowning. How they have dogs that are trained to do unspeakable things to female prisoners . . .
But then she stops herself. No! she can’t think about this, it’s too appalling. She takes a few deep breaths, then forces herself to think about something else: the ingredients for bouillabaisse, the kings of France going back to Philip II, the names of all her cousins in alphabetical order. But nothing helps. Her mind keeps sliding back to the hôtel Terminus.
Suddenly, though, she remembers the Beethoven scores. Why not study those? They’re certainly intricate enough. She picks up her coat from the floor and pulls the sheet music out of the sleeve. Looking down at “Für Elise,” which happens to be on top, Eva can hardly believe that she’d been playing (or trying to play) it for Mme Larcher only that morning. Madame had winced at every wrong note, but she hadn’t interrupted once—quite unusual for her since she generally has plenty to say. But the only things Mme Larcher said today were: “More emotion if you will” and “Eva, please, try to let yourself go.”
4 o’clock in the afternoon
Deciding it’s time to take matters into his own hands, Victor Szulkapler, the smuggler and occasional passeur, walks over to one of the Germans to tell him that he needs to go the lavatory. “A bad case of diarrhea,” he warns, and that’s enough, the Boche lets him go. Once inside the lavatory, Victor takes a deep breath and reminds himself that now is not the time to be sentimental. Sure, he’d like to save his brother, but how is he supposed to do that? Rachmil can’t speak French worth a shit and he carries around an ID bearing his real name. Victor’s ID, on the other hand, is in the name of Francois-Victor Sordier—a good French name that’s common, but not too common.
Using a bit of soap, Victor struggles to remove his pinky ring, but he can’t get it to budge. It’s almost as if the ring has become a part of his flesh. But finally, by holding his finger under cold running water and applying still more soap, he’s able to ease it past his knuckle and slide it off his finger. It’s too bad, he thinks, as he hides the ring behind a loose baseboard, because the diamond is real, but Rach has a ring just like it so he doesn’t dare keep it.
Chana Grinzspan’s baby is starting to fuss. She lets him suck on her finger, but she knows he’s hungry. Not only that, but she can feel her milk letting down, wetting the blouse she wears under her sweater. She looks over at Marcelle Loeb who is standing nearby—Marcelle, the doctor’s assistant who always knows the right thing to do—but she can tell by the look on her face that Marcelle is frightened too. Hugging René close to her, Chana feels a fist closing around her heart. If even Marcelle is scared, then they all must be doomed.
When he returns from the lavatory, Victor Szulkapler catches Rach’s eye just long enough to make it clear that, from here on out, they’re no longer brothers. In fact, they don’t even know each other. Then, with as casual an air as possible, he approaches the German who seems to be called Stengritt, choosing him because he seems at least moderately intelligent and not quite as much of a Schweinhund as the others.
“S’il vous plait, monsieur,” he says to him in a nonchalant tone with just a hint of pugnacity in it, “but how much longer am I going to have to sit here?” He looks at his watch in mock frustration and continues: “I mean, it’s been three hours already, and I don’t know about you, but I have work to do.” He pauses. “Besides, I’m French, not Jewish. The only reason I came here today was to meet a friend—a friend who never even showed up.”
Eva Gottlieb, who is watching this, looks over at Michel Kroskof, her fellow-résistant, knowing that he must be thinking the same thing she is: that if the Gestapo lets Victor go, then there’s reason to hope, but if they don’t . . . well, who knows.
Together, they watch intently as the yellow-haired German retrieves the stack of confiscated documents from the chef and starts going through them. Victor, standing on the sidelines, seems impressively blasé while this is going on, but what Eva and Michel don’t know is that it’s only a pose. In reality, every cell in Victor’s body is quaking. He’s reasonably certain his carte d’identité is good—it should be since he paid dearly for it, but you never know— sometimes there’s a small inconsistency or a stamp that’s missing—it’s ridiculous how much Germans love their stamps, everything always has to be so official with them—it makes it hard for the counterfeiters to keep up . . . But at last Stengritt locates Victor’s papers and declares them to be in order.
“What a country,” he says as he hands them to Victor. “You can’t even tell a Jew from a Gentile.” Victor has no idea what this means—Do they know his card is a fake? Is that the message?—but he keeps his face as mask-like as possible, waiting until he’s on the sidewalk in front of Number 12 before permitting himself to breathe again.
In spite of the slushy streets, only half-cleared of snow, Jacqueline Rozenfarb is buoyant as she walks along rue Sainte-Catherine to meet Chana Grinzspan. When Jacqueline started her couture course, she hadn’t expected to be the star of the class (she’d never even thought she had much aptitude for sewing), yet somehow her fingers seem made for this work and no one gets as much attention from Mme Doucet as she does. Today, for instance, they had to set sleeves into armholes. For most of the girls, it was tedious work, pinning, basting, clipping, then ripping the whole thing out and doing it all over again because Madame was so hard to please. But Jacqueline had no trouble: she was able to ease her wool crepe sleeve into place after only one try and without so much as a single pucker. Mme Doucet actually stopped the class so she could show them Jacqueline’s work. The other girls stared at her, some of them resentfully, but Jacqueline hung her head and did her best to look embarrassed. The praise was as welcome as sunshine, but she couldn’t afford to be arrogant, not with a name like Rozenfarb.
Almost all of the light has gone out of the sky by the time Jacqueline arrives at Number 12, a building which always strikes her as dismal, even a little ominous. Inside the foyer, she pauses a moment to blow on her poor frozen fingers, then starts up the stairs which are so dimly lit she practically has to feel her way up them. The building seems quiet, much quieter than on past visits, but it’s a soothing kind of quiet, permitting her thoughts to slide back to Mme Doucet. In the beginning, Jacqueline had been terrified of her. She was so tall and austere and pulled her hair back into such a tight little chignon it was hard to believe that anything would ever please her. And of course she’s still this way, except now she’s the artiste Jaqueline wants to become. Someday the war will end—it has to—and then she and her mother, and maybe Chana too, will go back to Paris and Jacqueline will be able to get a job in one of the ateliers, Chanel’s perhaps, because she’s sure to reopen, or if she doesn’t then one of the others, Scaparelli’s, for instance, or Balenciaga’s or . . .
But she is wrenched out of her reverie as soon as she opens the door to the office and sees a man with a gun in his hand. She is so startled that for several moments she’s unable to move or speak or even take in what is happening.
“Juif?” asks the man, smirking as he looks her over. His teeth, she notices, are long and yellow, like a dog’s.
“Française,” she replies, and it’s not a lie, she really has become French. Poland is so long ago, she can’t even remember it.
He looks her over once more, then asks again, “Mais, Juif?”
There’s a hint of confusion in his question, however, and once again she answers, this time even more confidently, “Non, Française.”
Unfortunately, though, her ID says otherwise, and she is pointed in the direction of the back room where she is told to wait. Confused, she looks from one side of the room to the other, unable to understand. Who are all these people—sixty or seventy of them at least—and what are they doing here? Then she hears a baby crying and, turning toward the sound, sees Chana Grinzspan standing next to the window with little René. She tries to guess from Chana’s face what’s going on, but all she sees there is terror.
A cold sick feeling goes through her then as a voice from within tells her that this is the end: she will never finish her class now, never see her mother again, never even live to be fifteen. But then, just as the room around her is starting to spin, a petite young woman comes forward and takes her by the hand.
“Why don’t you come sit by me?” she says, but Jacqueline is too frightened to respond. “It’s all right,” adds the woman, squeezing her hand. “My name is Gilberte Jacob and I’m a social worker.”
5 o’clock in the evening
Redheaded Lea Katz is sitting on the floor next to M. Weissman, and she knows he is doing his best to calm her: a pat on the knee, a less-than-convincing smile whenever he thinks to look her way. But it doesn’t help. It’s nearing the end of the day and everyone is restless. Some are praying, others weeping. People come up to M. Weissman and murmur into his ear—What will they do? Send us to a camp? Let us go? Take the men, leave the women?— but M. Weissman only shrugs his shoulders. He doesn’t know any more than they do.
Chana Grinzspan is beside herself. She’s tried everything she can think of to calm René—rocking him in her arms, hoisting him over her shoulder, massaging his belly—but nothing helps, he just won’t stop crying.
And the Boches are losing patience, especially that yellow-haired man. Catching one of his sour looks, Chana starts jostling René desperately (Please, little baby, be good), then presses his furious face to her bosom in an effort to muffle his screams. But it’s too late, the man is already elbowing his way toward her.
“What’s wrong with the kid?” he asks in French.
But Chana is too petrified to answer. She backs away, afraid that he’ll take René, or even pull out a pistol and shoot him.
But he only repeats the question, and this time Chana manages an answer. “He’s hungry, that’s all,” she says, her voice quivering.
The German shakes his head and says, “Puis allez lui donnez du chaud.”
Chana stands there dazed. Is he telling her to go and get her baby some hot food? Is that really what he means? But then he gestures toward the door and gives her a little shove, so it’s clear, even to her, that she’s being released. She quickly wraps up René while he finds her ID, then heads for the door, plunging through the crowd like a woman running from a fire.
At the last moment, though, she turns and looks back at Jacqueline Rozenfarb, wondering how she’ll ever explain this to Jacqueline’s mother (I escaped, but, sorry, I had to leave your daughter behind). It’s only a fleeting thought, though, because Chana knows that there’s no time to lose. She’s got to get out of here—right now, this very instant—before the Boches change their minds and drag her back.
As Klaus is making a last tour of the back room, he notices a mousy young girl whose head is bent over something in her lap. He can’t tell what it is, but she’s so completely engrossed in it that she seems to float inside a peaceful bubble belonging to her alone. Curious, he moves closer, then sees that it’s sheet music.
“This is yours?” he asks, picking up the music from Eva Gottlieb’s lap without bothering to ask her permission.
“No, not exactly, I borrowed it from a friend,” the girl stammers as he looks down at what is the score for “Für Elise,” a piece his mother taught him to play. Not that he was ever much of a piano player—he wasn’t, he simply didn’t have her touch—but it was one of her favorites and so he’d kept at it. It’s the only serious piece of music he ever committed to memory. Strange that he’d run into it here, he thinks, turning the pages and following the melody until, at some point, he starts to hum it.
Eva, who is watching from the corner of her eye, is amazed. If she’s ever going to plead her case then the time is now.
“That’s what I’ve been working on,” she ventures, making an awkward stab at conversation. He doesn’t reply, though, so she tries again: “At my lesson, I mean. It was just this morning, before I came here.”
He glances at her briefly. “Compris,” he says and returns to the music.
Frustrated, Eva decides on a more direct tack. “But, monsieur, don’t you recall that I am French? If only you’d take another look at my ID, you’d see . . . ”
Her voice trails off and Klaus looks down at her, noticing that her skin is so pale he can see the web of blue veins at her temple. “But if you’re French, what are you doing here?” he asks. “This is a Jewish agency.”
“I know, but I had to return the sheet music I’d borrowed.”
Klaus regards this as an unlikely excuse. “Who’d you borrow it from? Is that person here?”
The girl looks uncomfortable and for several long moments says nothing. Eventually, though, she points to a young sparrow-like woman on the opposite side of the room whose name, she says, is Gilberte.
Klaus crosses the room and stands in front of her. “So tell me, Gilberte, is this music yours?”
“Oui, monsieur,” she says, looking directly at him. “We both study with Mme Larcher.” Then, after a pause, she adds, “Perhaps you’ve heard of her. She is a remarkable teacher.”
The conversational way she says this—as if they were at a party, as if she were advising him to take lessons too—startles Klaus and he stands back to take a better look at this puny, insolent woman. He’s on the verge of slapping her (the Jews, they always think they’re so clever), but she quickly bows her head and he makes do with a grunt instead. He thrusts the music at her. “Here, take it,” he says and walks back to the Beethoven girl.
“So you’re French, are you?” he asks, surveying her carefully. It is possible that she’s here just by chance, just as she claims, but he still thinks she’s as Jewish as anyone else in this room.
“If only you’d check my ID, then you’d see—”
“Yes, yes,” he replies impatiently. “But what do you say?”
“My name is Edmée Gardier, monsieur, and I was born in Saint-Pierreville, just two hours south of here. That makes me French.” It is a stout response, but beneath the starchiness of her voice Klaus thinks he hears a slight tremor.
“So how long have you been taking lessons?”
“The piano. If you’ve worked your way up to Beethoven, you must be serious.” Eva is about to say that she’s mediocre, not much of a student at all, but then she catches on and says, “Oui, monsieur. Music is my passion.”
“Ach,” is all he says, but she can tell he’s debating her case. Elation bubbles up inside her and she thinks fleetingly about Jacques, who is probably waiting for her right now at his cousin’s flat. It’s late, almost six o’clock, and the flat is on avenue Berthelot, way over on the other side of the Rhône, but if she leaves right away she won’t be terribly late, and Jacques will wait for her, she’s sure of that . . .
“Yes, all right,” the Gestapo chef says finally, scowling at her. “Just pick up your papers from Stengritt”—he points to the tall blond-headed man—“and then you can go.”
But suddenly Eva isn’t sure. She wants to leave, of course she does, but what about her mother? She can’t just walk out and leave her behind, can she? Eva is still reasonably certain that even if they arrest everybody else they’ll still let the staff go, but what if she’s wrong? Then she might never see her mother again. Eva steals a quick peek at her mother, but her mother’s face is insistent: Don’t throw away this chance, Eva. Go now before you lose your nerve. Still Eva hesitates. Her father is gone, her brother too, and she doesn’t want to be alone, she can’t be! It would be unbearable. She looks down at the floor and back again at her mother, who this time goes so far as to shake her head. It’s a very minimal shake, but the chef still sees it.
“What’s the problem?” he asks. “Do you know this woman? Is she related to you?”
“Non, bien sûr que non,” Eva insists, but something inside her stops. Staying would be so easy. It would require nothing of her, just a quiet submission, that’s all. And then everything would be over: no more hiding babies in rucksacks, no more waiting in ditches for patrols to pass, no more barking dogs straining on leashes. She glances at the door and thinks how far away it is, impossibly far. And her feet are so heavy, too heavy even to lift. No, better to stay and be here with her mother. Family is the only thing that matters now.
But then an image of Jacques floats into her mind. She sees him quite clearly—the thick dark hair (such lovely hair), the impudent grin, the eyetooth that projects just a little—and she suddenly realizes that everyone here, even her mother, belongs to the past. Only Jacques can offer her a future: a home, a family, a place for herself on this earth when the fighting finally comes to an end . . .
“Well, are you going or not?” asks the chef. His tone is menacing.
Eva looks at him blankly. “Oui, monsieur,” she says, so detached from this moment that she seems to be watching the scene from above. She sees the Nazi in his pinstriped suit and herself, an insignificant girl wearing black woolen stockings and a shapeless jumper. For a moment this lifeless girl stands there, but then, slowly, she turns and in a way that is almost robotic starts moving away. Someone (Mme Freund perhaps?) picks up her coat and hands it to her—Here, Eva, you’ll need this—and then, somehow, she’s standing in front of the blond-haired man being handed her documents.
“Merci,” she says automatically and drifts closer to the door, aching to look back at her mother—just one last glimpse, is that too much to ask?—but knowing that it’s far too risky. Yet she can’t bear to part this way. It’s so heartless, so cold. But what choice does she have? Maman, I love you, I do! she whispers, willing her mother to somehow hear this secret farewell as she, Eva, steps through the door and enters a stairwell so narrow and dark it feels like a tunnel.
6 o’clock in the evening
Convinced that no one else will be coming in, Klaus walks over to the switchboard operator and tells her to join the people in the back room. After that, anyone who calls will be greeted by one of his men saying, “Es ist fertig mit diesen Leuten (It’s all over with those people).”
Then the men are called. The Boches are polite—Form groups of twelve, but hurry, please, your transport is waiting—and the men get up. With a collective sigh of relief, they stretch themselves, exchange looks, hope for the best.
Rach Szulkapler, brother-less now, finds himself in the first group along with Dr Lanzenberg and Paul Guérin, the furrier’s apprentice who smells of death. The Taubmanns, father and son, go into the third group along with Jacques Peskind, the Latvian news peddler, while Maier Weissman and André Deutsch are put in the next-to-the-last group.
Counting them a final time, the Germans discover they’re one short. But then an old man, the kind who’s almost never seen anymore, with side locks and a long fuzzy beard, is found praying in a corner of the back room. One of Klaus’s men goes to pry him away, and he doesn’t resist, only looks around and blinks his rheumy eyes in wonderment.
Victor Szulkapler is watching from a darkened doorway when the first group of men emerges. Catching sight of Rachmil, he thinks his brother looks stronger and healthier than the others. At least he has a little meat on his bones. And he’s better prepared, too, the only one with a decent pair of boots.
But why in God’s name hadn’t he been a little more adept—worked on his French and seen to it that he had a proper ID—but, no, Rach was the older brother, he always had to know better. It was maddening . . . But, still, what will Victor do without him? Just look at him, will you, the way he leaps into the back of the truck: it’s magnificent, almost beyond belief, an unforgettable feat that leaves Victor so shaken he can hardly breathe.
There are still two groups of men waiting to be led down the steps when sixteen-year-old Lea Katz finally comprehends that she’s going to be taken away. Somehow she’d talked herself into believing that they’d release the women, or at least anyone like herself who is under eighteen, but she sees now that there are no distinctions. Already, the Boches are nudging the women into line, telling them to gather up their things so they’ll be ready. Lea, dizzy with fear, looks around for the guy who called her “kitten”—he thought she was pretty, didn’t he?—but the man is nowhere to be seen. She spots his boss, though, the one in the pinstriped suit, and quickly goes over to him.
“My mother is very sick, so I’ve got to go home tonight because there’s no one else to take care of her,” she tells him in a torrent of French. He doesn’t respond, though, and so she adds, “Tomorrow morning, I’ll go wherever you want me to, I promise, but tonight—”
He interrupts her then, saying in German that he hasn’t understood a word she’s said. It’s a lie, though, and Lea knows it because she’s heard him speaking French, but of course she can’t say this. Instead, she grabs him by the elbow and repeats everything she’d said before, except this time in German.
For a moment he seems dumbfounded. But then he looks down at her hand on his elbow and his face darkens. “Das Freche dings vas du bist (You insolent little thing),” he says, barking it out so loudly that the room falls silent. “When you came in here, you pretended you didn’t know German.” She shakes her head at this, but he continues: “No, I saw you. Koth was speaking German to you, but you spoke French back to him.” He gives her a venomous look. “But you speak it well enough when you want to beg, don’t you?” And then without warning, he raises his hand and slaps her hard, once on each cheek, so that she’s spun one way and then the other. She staggers backward, expecting to be hit again, but then, just like that, his manner changes.
“You may go,” he tells her calmly. “Just find your pocketbook and bring it to me.” Lea doesn’t understand, but she digs through the mound of discarded bags until she comes to the little red purse that her mother gave her on her last birthday. She hands it to him, then watches as he extracts a couple of stamps. “Use these for the streetcar,” he tells her. “Then come to the hôtel Terminus tomorrow and I’ll give you back your bag and ID.” He pauses, then adds, as if she didn’t already know, “The SD is located there.”
She nods dumbly, ready to promise anything, when he says, apropos of nothing, “We’re going to let all of you go anyway.”
It is an extraordinary statement, but she doesn’t contradict it. She’s ready to believe anything, anything at all, if only it will help get her out of here. But if he thinks she’s going to present herself at the hôtel Terminus tomorrow, he’s deluded. Because the only place she’ll be tomorrow is at the salon de coiffeur’s having her red hair dyed black.
Jacqueline Rozenfarb, who has watched all of this, studies the pinstriped man from the corner of her eye. She’s afraid of him, very afraid, but he let the redheaded girl go, didn’t he? So maybe he’d let her go too. But how can she approach him? And even if she did, what would she say to him? She pictures herself standing in front of him like a ninny, just waiting to be slapped.
But then the Boche—the hideous one, the one with the long yellow teeth—smacks her hard on the rump. “Get into line, will you?” he growls, and she looks around, realizing that there are only a couple of dozen people left, all of them women. In other words, just two groups. That’s how close the end is. And she knows that if she does nothing, she’ll be swept up along with the rest of them and taken to one of those horrible camps where her mother will never be able to find her. She peeks at the chef again, and determining that there’s no other way, she braces herself to go up to him. But then she spots Gilberte Jacob, the social worker who’d helped her before, and runs over to her instead.
“Please, Gilberte, help me,” she pleads. “I’m only fourteen and my mother’s at home, waiting for me. I can’t let them . . . I mean, the only reason I came here was to meet Chana . . . you know, the one with the baby. Otherwise, I wouldn’t even be here.”
Gilberte takes a deep breath. She cannot petition the chef, not after their previous exchange, but perhaps she could try that tall blond-headed man, the one who seems more or less reasonable. “All right,” she says, “I’ll see what I can do.”
Quickly, she walks over to where he is standing, clipboard in hand. “S’il vous plait, monsieur,” she says, trying to get his attention as he checks names off a list, “but I need your assistance.”
He barely looks up. “Geh fort,” he barks.“Kannst du nicht sehen, das ich beschattigt bin?” Gilberte understands only enough German to know that he’s dismissing her, but the shove that follows is unambiguous. Though it’s not hard enough to knock her over, it still makes her stagger. “Go on, get into line with the others,” he adds in French, gesturing toward the more obedient women who are waiting quietly by the door.
Gilberte starts to back away—the cause is probably hopeless anyway—but then a surge of anger goes through her, galvanizing her. “No, you don’t understand. This isn’t for me, it’s for her,” she says, turning to wave Jacqueline over. But the girl, half-hidden behind a bank of file cabinets, appears petrified. “C’mon, Jacqueline, don’t waste this man’s time,” she says sharply, so sharply that Jacqueline scurries over. Gilberte takes a quick look at the Boche (amazingly, there’s an expression of detached amusement on his face) and pushes Jacqueline forward. “You see,” she says, “cette petite isn’t even fifteen, and besides she is French. It’s only by chance that she ended up here. She just dropped by to meet a friend.”
The German looks closely at Gilberte and then at Jacqueline, who, though small to begin with, seems to shrink even more under his gaze. “Wait, I’ll talk to the chef,” he says, then crosses the room to intercept him.
Gilberte, who watches as the two men converse, thinks they look rather comical standing side by side: one tall, a natural soldat, a warrior, if you will; the other, in spite of his fancy suit, short and faintly absurd—a natural tyranneau. But as soon as she thinks this, she looks down at the floor for fear they’ll see her face and know what she’s thinking.
Jacqueline says nothing as they wait, but Gilberte, who is holding the little girl’s hand, can feel her quivering. Then their intermediary returns: “Libre,” he says simply and hands over Jacqueline’s ID.
Jacqueline is overcome. She can go home, she’ll see her mother again, she’ll even be able to finish her class. The other women gather around her, caressing and kissing her as they beg her to tell their families what’s happened. She promises them that, yes, she’ll do her best, but it isn’t easy escaping from them. Finally, though, she extracts herself and pushes her way to the door, where she stops to look back at Gilberte.
Gilberte, who’s a professional, a trained social worker, forces herself to smile: it’s her job. But beneath the smile, a dark shard of resentment cuts through her: Why is she always the one who saves others? Why can’t someone come along and save her?
At the end of the day
As soon as the women are loaded, the two canvas-topped lorries pull away from the curb in front of Number 12 rue Sainte-Catherine and head south toward the tip of the Presqu’il, that long peninsular finger which divides the Saône River from the Rhône River.
Maier Weissman, who sits near the back of the lead truck, watches as the familiar streets pass by, his thirsty eyes soaking up whatever they chance upon: news vendors hawking their papers, last-minute shoppers rushing to get home, storekeepers rolling up their awnings for the night. Then suddenly the Gare de Perrache lurches into view and Maier realizes that they’re on his street, actually passing in front of his building. Eagerly, he looks up at his third-floor apartment, hoping for a last glimpse—Mariam holding up her birthday cake, Sylvie blowing him a kiss, little Ezekiel waving and grinning—but the window is dark. It’s the blackout blinds, of course. How could he have forgotten about them? It’s a small comfort to know his family is there on the other side of them, like players on a stage who are hidden from the audience, but realizing, as he does now, that he’ll never see them again, not even from a distance, is devastating—a crushing pain that he feels right in the center of chest, which is heartbreak, yes, but also a very real attack of angina.
Soon, however, the Perrache is left behind and the Rhône comes into view. It is here that the drivers gun their engines, barreling across pont Gallieni and onto avenue Bertholet, a broad thoroughfare where people huddle at bus stops, stamping their feet and watching for a bus that may or may not arrive.
Eva Gottlieb is there, too, in a flat facing the street, so close in fact that if only she’d known, she could have leaned out a window and yelled to her mother as she passed. But Eva, who’s as far away from the window as she can get, is curled up in a fetal position on a bed that doesn’t belong to her, or to Jacques either. He hovers over her, rubbing her back, whispering into her ear, telling her, over and over, that he’ll be her mother, her father, her brother, whatever she needs him to be, but the words, though she hears them, aren’t really words, just sounds strung together. She stares at the wall in front of her and then at the bedside table, empty except for a blue-and-white tin of Pastilles Vichy. Idly, she pries off the lid with her fingernail and examines the little white mints inside which seem so pointless and sad. Because who can eat candy now?
In the meantime, only a little east of her, the lorries turn into Fort Lamothe, a military compound that’s been taken over by the Wehrmacht. The trucks make their way through the heavy iron gates, then pull up in front of the barracks where an officer is waiting to take delivery. The driver of the lead truck jumps down and confers with him briefly before handing over the manifest.
It tells him there are eighty-six prisoners in all, sixty-two of them men and twenty-four of them women, including:
five between the ages of thirteen and twenty,
eight between twenty and thirty,
twenty-one between thirty and forty,
thirty between forty and fifty,
thirteen between fifty and sixty,
eight between sixty and seventy, and
one between seventy and eighty.
Among them, there are:
fourteen persons who consider themselves French but are disavowed by Vichy,
six stateless persons and one indéterminé.
After a careful study of this paperwork and a final bit of discussion (the SD does not really trust the Wehrmacht), the prisoners are ordered out of the trucks. Shivering in the icy air, they shake off their stiffness, then look around, first at the stony walls before them and then at the blank sky overhead. No one says anything, but each of them is searching for the same thing: a single star, just one, which can offer them some small measure of hope. But there is nothing to see because clouds have covered over everything.
– The End –