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Hiding in Plain Sight
Eluding the Nazis in Occupied France
By Sarah Lew Miller, Joyce B. Lazarus
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2012 Sarah Lew Miller and Joyce B. Lazarus
All rights reserved.
Dereczyn, Poland, 1932–1936
When I look back now on my childhood and adolescence, I have to marvel at how I survived it all. There were times when I wondered if I would be alive today, in this new century, or if I would still find happiness after seeing the dark side of human nature. I can say that, yes, I still am thrilled at the sight of trees on a lovely spring day, and a sunset reflected on a quiet pond. But there were many dreams I had to abandon along the way. I don't know if the child once inside of me has gone away for good — but if she has, then who did she become?
My childhood ended when I was fourteen, when my family and I began our daily struggle to survive. After Hitler's army conquered France and occupied this country from June 1940 until January 1945, we Jews, especially since we were immigrants, were targeted almost immediately for extermination. We faced the military and political might of Nazi Germany and their willing partner, Vichy France, and we fought against overwhelming odds. As I look back on this battle to survive, I often think about how it changed forever the person I would become and who I am today.
Although I live today in a country free of fear and cruelty, I sometimes find myself returning to a world where decisions and actions so often had life-or-death consequences. How did my family and I live through those long, terrifying years? Perhaps my own journey can help others to understand an era before it has been transformed by myth and legend.
* * *
When I was six years old, living in Poland, I sat in the last row of a large classroom. The one-room school had a blackboard up front, and just above it, a clock. From the back row, I stared hard at the clock and strained to read it. The large and small hands of the clock blurred together. Was it 2:05, or perhaps 1:10? I wanted very much to learn to tell time. Since Jews sat in the back and gentiles in the front at my school, I squinted to read letters and numbers and could not see the pictures or the words, all so far away. I didn't dare to ask the teacher a question. My shyness around teachers kept me from speaking up.
It was 1932. I was the fifth child in my family and I lived in a Polish shtetl (a village with a large Jewish population) called Dereczyn, a town that no longer exists. My grandpa had been a well-to-do businessman who lost much of his wealth during the Russian Revolution. He owned a general store in the center of town. When his daughter, my mama, came of age, he went to a yeshiva, the famous Yeshiva of Radin, to look for a husband for her. He picked out my papa, a well-educated man, to be his son-in-law. You might suggest that Mama should have had a say in the matter, to decide whom she would marry. She was a romantic at heart and dreamed a lot about her future. But that was the way matches were made, so she accepted her fate. Besides, her groom turned out to be a handsome young man. So in 1918, my parents, Scheina and Abram, were married.
Papa had been a student all his life and had just become a rabbi. Who would have predicted that he would have to earn his livelihood in business? When Grandpa installed Papa in a leather goods store in Dereczyn, Papa knew nothing about leather goods and even less about working in a business. He could tell you everything about the Torah and how to pray to God, but he was no match for the ruthless dealers who wanted to fleece him. He went on his first business trip to Warsaw and came home with no money and no merchandise. But since Dereczyn didn't need another rabbi, Papa continued to work in his store. Every night, he pored over his prayer books at home.
Our main street was a row of white wooden buildings standing close together: a general store along with a few other stores, a synagogue, several small homes, and, just outside town, two large churches, Russian and Polish. There was a central square where once a week we had market day and farmers brought their fresh produce into town. I can still smell the aromas of cabbage, sour dill pickles, sweet berries, and fresh bread. Wandering musicians played on the town square. A group of gypsies would sometimes camp in our village. These gypsy violinists played melodies that would begin like soft weeping and would suddenly become joyous and wildly exuberant. During summer nights I could hear the sounds of their haunting melodies drifting through my open window. That was when I began to dream that I would become a violinist when I grew up.
I still remember our small wooden house near the center of town. With no electricity, we depended on kerosene lamps and a wood stove, which made our indoor air suffocating. We drew water from a well in the middle of the village to fill our tubs and washed our clothes in a nearby river. Just before Sabbath men and women went to their separate bathhouses. Some Jews had their own land. My uncle's family had a pretty home surrounded by trees on a plot of land with a stream running through it. One day my brothers and sisters and I ran barefoot to his home to escape a big fire close-by. Fires sometimes spread quickly from one wooden house to the next, since they stood so close to each other. We raced down the main street and felt pebbles and rocks scraping our bare feet. We kicked up clouds of dust and didn't stop running until we reached the safety of Uncle's home. Even though my uncle was prosperous in Dereczyn, that didn't mean that he could escape hardship or sadness. His beautiful daughter, my cousin, lay on her couch when we arrived, contorted in a coughing fit. Her bright pink cheeks made her seem healthy, but people told me that rosy cheeks were a dreaded sign of tuberculosis.
Grandpa turned over the management of his store to his daughter and son-in-law, my aunt and uncle, who lived in the same house. He had become sick and depressed ever since the old Russian rubles he had tucked under his mattress had become worthless. My uncle never said a friendly word to us when my brothers and sisters and I would stop by his store. He stood behind the counter, a tall silhouette glancing down at us, a scrawny gang of kids. Was he worried about our asking for candies, or even taking something behind his back? On the wall of his store hung a large poster of a black child holding a shoe in one hand and a shoe brush in another. The child's white teeth sparkled and his twinkling eyes seemed to stare straight at me as I entered the store. An advertisement for shoe polish from a faraway place called America.
I had a boy friend, Chaim, who lived across the street from our house in a large home that had white curtains on the windows and polished furniture. His family kept a goat in his shed and they had a piece of land behind his home. He let me pet his goat and play with him in his garden, looking for pretty stones. We would talk on and on about games, our school and the future. When he asked me what I was going to be when I grew up, I would say with confidence, "I'll be a teacher first and then a violinist." Chaim was going to move to Warsaw to attend college. On Saturdays I watched Chaim enviously as he and his grandpa walked together in their dressy outfits to synagogue. His grandpa wore traditional black clothes with a shiny wide-brimmed black hat.
Grandpa, Uncle, and Papa, along with all the other Jewish men in our town, worked every day except for the Sabbath. They learned the ropes of doing business with gentiles in order to survive. As for us kids, we soon found out that we had to keep to ourselves, to be among Jews. We learned this the hard way when my brother Bernard and his friends decided on one hot summer day to go swimming in a river just outside the town. Many hours later he had not returned. The sun was getting low in the sky. Mama paced back and forth and stopped by our neighbors' homes, asking if they had seen him. Where could he have gone? we wondered. Just as the sun was setting, Bernard staggered into our house, out of breath, bruised and bleeding, his pants torn, his yarmulke (skullcap) gone. He collapsed onto his bed. A gang of young hoodlums had come upon them by the river, beaten them with rocks and sticks and chased them through the woods, taunting them with their screams of "Jews! Jews!" They ran for their lives. Mama listened in silence for a few moments. Then she screamed, "And your yarmulke? You've lost it! How can I buy you another one?" Mama explained later that a poor child without shoes or with torn pants was not as bad as a Jewish boy without a yarmulke.
* * *
The police in our town were nasty and corrupt. They came by our house to collect taxes. There were times when business was poor and we had no money to pay them. They then helped themselves to bedcovers, pillows, pots, and pans — anything that they could grab. We were cleaned out of our meager possessions. Sometimes when we knew they were coming, we would hide our blankets and pillows at a neighbor's home for safekeeping.
I don't remember ever seeing any toys in our home. We made up games outside instead. My days revolved around the games my sisters and brothers and I played with our neighbors. My little sister Claire and I played in the dirt with a group of kids, digging for buried treasures. Buttons and stones that were smooth and perfectly round were among our favorite finds but shiny pieces of metal or chips of pottery were even better. One day as we were playing in front of my house, I could not contain my excitement. I told my friends that I had a brand-new baby sister at home. The circle of kids stopped to stare at me in silence, enviously. Then I found a broken spoon in the dirt and let everyone inspect it. "I'm going to hide this spoon so that when my little sister grows up, she'll have a toy to play with." Again the gang looked at me with quiet respect and envy. While Mama was resting in bed with her newborn daughter, a neighbor was baking rolls in our kitchen, and the scent wafted across the road as we continued to play in the dirt.
On my walk home from school each day I would begin to smell warm bread, latkes (potato pancakes), and steaming soup, realizing then how hungry I was. While most kids ate lunches in school prepared by their family, I sometimes had no lunch. On those days, I would race home in the middle of the day to grab a latke to take back with me to school. I rushed as fast as my legs could carry me. I could smell the hot pancakes even before I reached my front door.
One day I found Mama at home feeding my baby sister Madeleine. The house was strangely quiet. The kitchen had no inviting aromas. Where was Papa? I wondered. Mama tried to explain, sounding tired. "He went away, Sarah, to look for work in France." Since Madeleine had been born, we were now seven children, an ever-growing family. I missed Papa very much and wanted him to return home. I pictured him poring over his prayer book in the evenings, hardly saying a word to my brothers and sisters and me. His quiet presence made me feel safe and secure.
A few weeks later, Mama held up a letter from Papa to show us. "Papa has a job now in Paris, children. He'll soon be sending us some money home. He is working in a Jewish neighborhood store as a shohet, a ritual slaughterer of chickens." In a later letter, Papa would write about how he fainted the first time he had slaughtered a chicken and how he had fallen in the chicken's blood.
Since we rarely had milk and our meals had become much smaller, we depended on our neighbors to put a meal on our table. My brother Jacques, only one year older than me and so much more like a twin than an older brother, developed the same strange condition that I had, probably caused by poor nutrition. We felt sudden weakness whenever we exerted ourselves. Some days we felt pain all over and had difficulty walking, but we tried to hide this from our friends.
Seasons followed one another in an orderly rhythm. In the spring we smelled the aroma of baking matzos coming from our neighbor's house, as they prepared them for all of us in the village. Bernard, Jacques, Claire and I would stand just outside their doorway to catch the delicious scent drifting on the breeze and to watch villagers bustling about. Our neighbors would help one another when one family had no food. Poor as we were, we would somehow all manage to have a good Passover Seder. I would walk with Mama, carrying a basket, to buy eggs at a farm just out of town. The heavy rains turned our dirt road into mud, and walking to school without getting our legs soaked became a challenge. Summer meant that there were longer days to play outdoors. Fall began for us with the sound of the shofar (ram's horn) from our synagogue, ushering in the New Year and shorter, cooler days.
Winters were long and cold and dark, illuminated only by the festival of lights at Hanukkah in December. By the light of kerosene lamps, a group of women would sit in a circle in our house during long winter nights, cleaning and drying goose feathers to make pillows and blankets. We kids were supposed to be in bed, but instead we hid behind curtains to listen to the laughter, gossip and jokes, the tall tales about everyone in our town. At any moment, the grown-ups might discover us spying on them. The danger made it even more exciting, as we huddled together whispering and giggling in the dark room.
Poor as we were, life had its magical moments in Dereczyn. Once we stood in a dark tent. I was tightly holding onto Mama's skirt, listening to voices emanating from a brightly lit stage some distance away. The Yiddish Theater was in town that week. A young couple wearing gaudy makeup and colorful clothes stood in the spotlight on a stage, accompanied by a few musicians. "In a small house, we will live a loving life," they crooned in Yiddish to the audience. "We will have two children. Tell me once more, Oy! Tell me once more!"
It was 1936, and my peaceful world was about to be turned upside down. Who could have imagined that I would soon be leaving Dereczyn forever, heading into unknown dangers?CHAPTER 2
A Train Journey, December 1936
Life changed suddenly when, in late December 1936, Mama announced that we would be moving to France to be with Papa. With the flurry of activity that week — packing our belongings, finding a home for our dog, helping Mama to fill a bucket with homemade jam, loading a bag with bread and salami — there was hardly enough time to say goodbye to all our friends and relatives. There were cards and letters from my friends that brought tears to my eyes. We gave our small brown dog to the mailman after one last hug. I embraced my girlfriends and Chaim and tried not to cry as Mama put us each in charge of carrying a package, a pillow, a knapsack, or a bucket.
On the train, we marveled at the crisp brown leather seats in our compartment, the electric lights and shiny chrome overhead storage bin for our bags. I was ten years old and this was my first trip outside Dereczyn. I had never before traveled by train and had never seen electric lights before that day. In the excitement of riding a train, I felt the weight of the morning's sadness fall away. Everything around me glowed as in a dream that might soon dissolve.
Mama told us that after five years of struggling in Paris as a ritual slaughterer, Papa had earned enough to support us in his Paris apartment. He had worked hard to make ends meet during those past years, though he would have preferred to study or to find a position as a rabbi. As she spoke, I tried but could not remember Papa's face. All I could think about and wonder about was Paris. What would it be like? I tried to picture Papa standing on the train platform waiting for us but could only see a stranger.
Excerpted from Hiding in Plain Sight by Sarah Lew Miller, Joyce B. Lazarus. Copyright © 2012 Sarah Lew Miller and Joyce B. Lazarus. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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