Lucien's Storyby Aleksandra Kroh, Lucien Duckstein
It may have been coincidental that on a walk in the 14th arrondissement would lead Lucien Duckstein to recall his Paris childhood and his removal at age eleven to Drancy and later to Bergen-Belsen. This powerful memoir rings with truth, and Lucien's technique of recounting the events of the past, while acknowledging their effect upon the present and future, makes
It may have been coincidental that on a walk in the 14th arrondissement would lead Lucien Duckstein to recall his Paris childhood and his removal at age eleven to Drancy and later to Bergen-Belsen. This powerful memoir rings with truth, and Lucien's technique of recounting the events of the past, while acknowledging their effect upon the present and future, makes this account a testament to the personal and psychological costs of the Holocaust.
- Northwestern University Press
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- 5.25(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.30(d)
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By Aleksandra Kroh
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 1996 Aleksandra Kroh
All right reserved.
I am eleven years old. Tonight, on this twenty-fifth of November, 1943, I am with my mother in our apartment in Paris, on the rue Francis-le-Pressense, in the 14th arrondissement, and night is falling. Soon it will be time to go to bed. My father is not with us. Years ago he went off to war with the glorious French Army. They dug trenches near the Maginot Line, they lay in them until the month of May in 1940, and when they heard a shot fired, a single shot, they picked up and marched off. They marched for three days and three nights. The fourth morning they halted because they were already encircled by the Germans.
Since then my father has been a prisoner of war. We write to him each month, and each month we receive word from him. Our letters are censored; all we can say to him is that we are all right, that we love him, that we are hoping to see him again soon. His letters say the same thing to us: that he is all right and hopes to see us again soon. From one letter to another the only thing that changes is the date, which is the only thing that matters: on that date he is alive, we are alive. It is better than nothing.
His way of waging this war is a disappointment to me. I would have preferred himto have halted the Germans, to have prevented them from occupying France. I won't find this out until a lot later, but I'll say it right now: my father doesn't mind it too much in his prisoner of war camp; he is making out all right. The Germans are taken up with getting themselves killed on the Russian front, and it's the women who are cultivating the fields and keeping the factories going. The women manage as best they can, but the machinery doesn't always respond as it should. That's where my father steps in: he repairs the tractors and the harvesters, repairs the radios, the bicycles, the sewing machines and typewriters; he plugs holes, fixes leaks, and replaces fuses. Along with his skills as a mechanic, he speaks fluent German, like every self-respecting Hungarian, and acts as an interpreter when necessary. He is at last declared a bona fide Aryan and receives a certificate to prove it. In this the Germans demonstrate enormous flexibility, for it is quite a feat to recognize the Aryan status of someone named Duckstein, someone who couldn't look less like an Aryan and who would fail the test they employ at the drop of a hat to see whether you are or aren't a Jew. Judge, thereby, the extent to which my father has shown himself useful.
But on the twenty-fifth of November, 1943, he isn't there, he isn't really a part of this story, and he will not be of any help to me in what is to follow, except in one regard, and it is significant: to him I am indebted for my status as the son of a prisoner of war. For among the privileged, none are more privileged than we, the immediate families of prisoners of war. Within our large Hungarian clan, we are the only ones to enjoy the twofold protection provided first of all by our French citizenship and secondly by the uniform my father has worn. If there is some menace hovering in the air, it applies to the others, not to us.
And so it is about the others that we are worried. There was the arrest, last year, of several of my relatives, among them two girl cousins my age, caught in the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup and taken away, without anyone knowing where or what has become of them. Now it is my Aunt Alice who seems to be in danger: she lives with us, but for some time she has been spending the night with friends on the rue Raymond-Losserand, for there has been talk lately of another roundup. This one, according to the rumors we are hearing, is imminent. They will be collecting foreigners only; they won't bother anyone who is French, and especially not anyone who has a prisoner of war in the family. That's what we hear; therefore, that's what we believe, confident that we ourselves are not being targeted.
My cousin Madeleine's parents have carried prudence to the point of taking refuge in the Unoccupied Zone, in Murat, a little town in the Cantal below Clermont-Ferrand. As if this were not enough, they have become Catholics, go to church every Sunday, and Madeleine has made her first communion. I spent all of last August there during the vacation, the one time since the start of the war that I had been outside of Paris. I didn't have the right to do that, of course, but my mother put me on the train with a letter from my aunt in my pocket: "I hereby certify that Lucien Duckstein is my nephew and that I have invited him to spend the summer vacation with me at my home." The train traveled slowly, there was a thorough inspection when we entered the free zone, and I did not feel very comfortable; but, strange to say, thanks to the letter from my aunt, they didn't bother me. I spent the month of August with my cousin, with the local youngsters. I played with them, did all sorts of silly things; like them I went to church, I learned to recite Catholic prayers, to put tadpoles and frogs in the holy water. And once the summer vacation ended, I returned to Paris to enter the lycee.
The children of prisoners of war are entitled to special treatment: once a month they receive restaurant coupons. Ordinarily I go, by myself or with a schoolmate, to one of the little neighborhood restaurants, where I eat a questionable horsemeat steak and fried potatoes. But one time I had a coupon for the restaurant at the corner of the boulevard Montparnasse and the boulevard Raspail, a good restaurant. I went to it alone. Through the window I watched the number 91 buses, the only line that goes by there: buses with enormous roofs because they are powered by gas generators. I ate a salad of leeks, which I am very fond of, and as the leeks had gone bad, I got terrible indigestion.
In short, 1943 hasn't been a brilliant year, but it isn't worse, and there's no reason why it should be worse, than the one before. No, I am not living in fear, I have yet to become a hunted animal. At this point the fear is only latent; rather, it is constraint I feel. The pressures are added one by one, we barely have time to get used to the latest of them when we come under a new one, and we accustom ourselves to that one, too. You must do this, you mustn't do that. First you have to report the possession of any radio you own. Next we find out that Jews do not have the right to have a radio, and, Jewish or not Jewish, nobody has the right to listen to broadcasts from London. We hold on to our radio even so, and we listen to London, with the volume turned down to a whisper, with water running from a tap, knowing that we risk being turned in. So it is that we hear about the landing in North Africa and about Stalingrad.
One day we are apprised that sewing machines have to be handed in; but how are we to do that? My mother is a milliner; how will she be able to work? Consequently, she keeps her sewing machine, continues to make hats, and in exchange for them obtains all sorts of things. She's good at this, so we have enough to eat.
The curfew is instituted. Jews are not allowed to be in the metro after eight at night. We are also forbidden to leave Paris or the nearer suburbs.
And above all, the yellow star must be worn. Just like my mother, sometimes I wear it and sometimes I don't. I am always apprehensive when out in the street: if I wear my star, I am marked, I am exposed, and if I do not wear it, something may happen to me for that very reason. Therefore, I sometimes wear it hidden underneath my jacket, sometimes I display it openly, sometimes I prefer not to have it on me. My schoolteacher, a good guy, tells me not to wear it, saying there's no reason why I should. I don't wear it at school.
My mother takes risks also. To get flour she goes to Corbeil, where the big mills are. We are rationed; everyone is entitled to a certain amount of flour and that's all. I always sense my mother's anxiety before she makes this trip. I absorb her fear even if she tries to hide it. Before going to Corbeil she removes her star. She does not have the right to set foot outside Paris, she does not have the right to buy flour on the black market, she does not have the right to be out after the curfew. For five kilos of flour she defies all those prohibitions and risks her skin. In the event of a raid, she wouldn't stand a chance.
The feeling of oppression is permanent, for you see them everywhere: the German women in gray uniforms, those soldiers and officers belonging to the Wehrmacht, or worse still, the SS. But you learn to live in this atmosphere. You become used to it. It ceases to be a surprise that things worsen by the day, that there is this heavy atmosphere, these indiscriminate arrests in the metro, in the streets, everywhere.
At the same time, I am not wanting for attention. I have a loving family, I have uncles and aunts, beginning with Aunt Alice, my favorite. A few weeks ago a great event took place: I was accepted into the beginning year at the Lycee Buffon. Thanks to the competitive examination I took before the vacation (I hadn't put on my star the day of the examination), I was awarded a scholarship, a small scholarship, about a hundred francs a month. I am a good student. I am happy, and I am excited about learning Latin and English. That's it, my daily round: go to the lycee every morning, do my homework every evening. The life I am leading seems pretty normal to me; at any rate, it's the only one I know.
I have some white mice. I keep them in a cage. A bunch of little mice have just been born and there's a great to-do in the mouse family. I feed them, I clean the cage, I could spend the whole night just watching the tiny baby mice.
Had we a crystal ball to see into the future, we would leave this apartment before night comes, we would follow in my Aunt Alice's footsteps, we would spend the night of November 25 with her, at the home of friends. We would leave right away. But since the crystal ball is not there, we spend a very quiet evening, an evening like so many others. My mother does perhaps fret about Alice, but, worrywart that she is, my mother frets about everybody and everything under the sun, always predicting the worst, and I have long since ceased to pay any attention to her forebodings. Radio London speaks of very faraway battles. It is hard to understand what is going on, but it is clear that something is, that something is afoot. My mother is straightening, tidying, she is busy. I bid my mice a very good night and I go to bed rather early, as is right and proper, because tomorrow morning I must go to the lycee; I know that if I am called on I'll do well.
In the middle of the night I am awakened by a racket. There's a banging on the door, someone telling us to open up. My mother does not move, we hold our breath--for if we keep still, won't they go away? But the concierge knows perfectly well that we are there, he says so: "Madame Duckstein," he says, "open the door right away, no foolishness, open up or the door will be broken down." And what with all that shouting and the pounding, my mother unlocks the door. She opens it, and the effect upon us is almost one of relief, for one more second of having to live with that menace on the other side of the door would not have been endurable.
There are two of them, the concierge and a French cop. "Gather a few of your things," the cop says to my mother. "You have fifteen minutes to get yourself ready, then you're coming with me. But you don't have anything to worry about, it's not going to take long."
Fifteen minutes, that's not much. My mother's movements become more deliberate, more efficient as she dresses and gets together the few odds and ends she will take with her. She is strangely calm; she has a firm hold upon that "it's not going to take long." With a fixed expression on her face, she avoids looking at me. She moves quickly, compliantly, so as not to irritate the cop, who is growing impatient. Then they all disappear, and I remain there alone.
It is the middle of the night, but no one in the building is asleep. They awakened everybody with their ruckus. Once they are gone, doors open, neighbors appear on the landings, exchange glances. The neighbor from upstairs comes down. "Lucien," he asks me, "you need anything? Anything I can do?"
"Yes," I tell him, "take my mice. Please take good care of my mice."
"Why sure," he says, "I'll do that."
He stands there looking at me for a moment, hesitates a little, then takes the mice and goes away. I, for my part, go back to bed. If he came down to console me, then he came down for nothing. I don't need consoling. If he is really trying to be of help to me, then it's also for nothing--to help me is something he cannot do, he isn't strong enough. My destiny and his are different destinies, our histories do not blend.
I am only eleven years old, but I am already habituated to petty meannesses, to prohibitions, to constraints, and to risks you take because not taking them could be even riskier. I have already known humiliation. On that fare you grow up fast.
All alone in this apartment, I am bewildered by what is befalling me. My mind is empty. I do not know how I ought to react to what is happening, how afraid I should be, so out of the ordinary the whole business is. And I have no idea what the next chapter will be, I do not know what to expect.
Should I do something? Not do anything? Is there anything to be done? It does not enter my head to put on my clothes, to go up to the neighbors on the floor above and ask them to let me sleep there tonight. Still less does it occur to me to run away, to run off into the darkness outside, into the rain, to seek refuge with my Aunt Alice. No, I do not even look for a way out of the situation. For I already know, I take it for granted, that they are picking up adults only, and consequently I have no cause for panic. I wait for morning to come, I wait for it to be time to go to school. I shall attend class in the usual way, and only afterward shall I go and join Aunt Alice. And then, who knows, perhaps my mother will be back that same evening. Or else her absence will last two or three days, surely not more than that.
I am anxious all the same. I am unable to fall asleep. Huddled under my blankets, having my eyes open is no better than having them shut. It is possible, after all, that they will come back to get me, anything is possible. In that case, they will detain us for several days, but sooner or later they will release us, for my father is a prisoner of war. Even if we have been turned in, we haven't done anything wrong, they'll release us. Anyhow, they themselves said it didn't amount to anything, it was just a verification of identity.
I shall one day be a grown man and free of anxieties, I shall be protected by the law, I shall have nothing to fear, from anyone. The world about me shall be benevolent, I shall rove it from one end to the other, I shall cross borders without even noticing it. I shall change hemispheres, climates, and seasons without any particular emotion. I shall dare to take all sorts of gambles, embark upon all sorts of adventures. I shall be looked up to, waited upon, greeted with kindness. I shall have a fine place in a brightly shining sun. I shall have children, two boys and a girl, who will grow up and become adults without knowing anything--without having the faintest idea--of what I am going through at this moment. They will live in a sunny, luminous land. Their sky will always be blue. Rain for them will be a rare and pleasant distraction. Their animals will be free to run about, their plants will be great powerful cactuses with arms flung toward heaven. Their bodies will be enveloped in warmth. Their house will be spacious. They will enjoy every right and will have no cause to envy anyone. They will suffer from no injustice, they will undergo neither privations nor dangers. Their horizon will be infinite; their view will extend to distant mountains.
I shall discover then, and for me this discovery shall be like a slap in the face, that they know the taste of my ancient fear, that within them there lives the eleven-year-old child who dares not stir in his bed, that they feel themselves neither protected nor supported, and that, no more than I do on the night of the twenty-fifth to twenty-sixth of November, 1943, they do not know what to do about the plight they are in. For without ever having spoken to them about it, I have transmitted to them the confusion and weakness that grip me today. That this something I have wanted to keep to myself, like a mask of infamy, will make of me a father unlike other fathers, different from the one they would have wished to have. And inasmuch as they will not know what it is, they will not be able either to combat it or to accept it. They will only undergo it.
The silence in this apartment has become truly dreadful. But when you come down to it, I am already beginning to say to myself that the silence is just one thing more--and that's enough for it to become a new dispensation, a new norm. Little by little I settle down within it, and I get myself ready for, I await whatever is to follow. Just a little longer and I shall learn how to live with it, to sleep with it. I do not, however, have time to fall asleep, for they return very soon.
"You're to come with your mother, that's how it's going to be, so you too, get some of your stuff together," they say.
I shall find out several days later that for every adult Jew he brings in the inspector receives one hundred francs and fifty francs for every Jewish child. The anger that fills me upon learning that my price is fifty francs will be my first great anger, and the hatred my first great hatred.
He hardly so much as looks at me during the fifteen minutes he allows me to collect my things, and I don't look at him much either; nor do I look at the concierge whom I have known for years and years, to whom I have said hello every morning, who has always replied "Hello, Lucien." But what I learn about that pair will never be forgotten. What I read upon their faces will pursue me for the rest of my life. Looking at some particular person, a thought will cross my mind: you over there, you'd collaborate the first chance you got. There will be no knowing whether I'm right or wrong; but in France and in the United States and in Germany, while dining at the home of friends, during gatherings of all sorts, sometimes very official ones, on vacations, in airplanes and on trains, the idea will come to me: you have a collaborator's mentality, you have the baseness, you have the qualities of a collaborator, you have the look of a collaborator. I'll clink glasses with those people, I'll laugh at their jokes, I'll shake their hand if they extend it to me, all the while thinking: you would write anonymous letters, you would sell your neighbor for fifty francs. You would send me to my death for fifty francs, and even for a lot less, and you'd do it without giving a shit.
The neighborhood police station is a stone's throw from our building. There I find my mother and many others besides, all only half-awake, all with fear in their weary eyes. We wait, uncertain what we are waiting for. What does that actually mean, a roundup? People get arrested, and after that certain among them are taken somewhere--but where? Off to a labor camp, probably in Germany, to do forced labor--while others, we perhaps, are released.
We ask a policeman what is going to happen to us. "I don't know," he says. "There'll be a bus coming to get you." Around dawn he hands out hot chocolate to the kids, coffee to the grown-ups.
Climbing aboard the bus, I still do not know what is happening to me. I continue to think that real misfortune only happens to others, not to me. The bus makes the rounds of the police stations. Our apartment remains silent and empty; our building wakes up, trying to efface the nighttime commotion from its memory; my schoolmates head off to the Lycee Buffon; people are walking in the streets, but we are no longer part of the crowd. The bus concludes its tour, drives out of Paris without leaving any traces behind, and proceeds toward--we eventually find out--Drancy. We disappear as if we had never existed. We already know that this is something other than a simple verification of identity.
And so, after the next bend in the road, it shall be Drancy, But of what Drancy will be like, and of what we are going to discover around the ensuing bends, we have not the faintest idea.
Excerpted from Lucien's Story by Aleksandra Kroh Copyright © 1996 by Aleksandra Kroh. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Aleksandra Kroh is a writer and physicist. She was born in Lodz, Poland and has lived in France since 1978.
Autryn Wainhouse has translated several works from French, including several titles by Marquis de Sade.
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