When we were finally dressed up fit for a Sunday, Elsi would drive us to the Auberge du Cheval Blanc, up to the French doors that mysteriously reflected the hill overlooking the hairpin bends of the road. I saw the bus appear over the horizon, the one which Maman had certainly taken. It slowly made its way up and became almost tangible before it disappeared into the next bend. We then heard the driver change speed, and the bus pulled up in front of us. It had round yellow headlights, a dusty grill, and front windows like an insect’s eyes, behind which you could see the silhouette of the driver. I moved in front of the folding door, which opened with a grating screech, not taking my eyes off the first embarking passenger; who dragged their suitcase and stepped onto the ramp, then onto the ground. Breathless, I shifted my focus to the next passenger, dreading the thought that Maman was not in the queue waiting behind them. Would she really get off the bus and, by her miraculous presence alone, repair the time shattered by the seven days since last Sunday? Finally, she appeared in front of us. In an instant I forgot everything. She was there, and I wanted to possess her, to melt myself into her forever. But she immediately started to examine me, judging my performance. I was not worthy of her. Was I not dedicated to my one sole mission, to fatten myself up like a goose for slaughter, to become a child to be proud of, even though everything that I ate turned my stomach, except for saucisson and strawberries? Yet some obtuse, ignorant doctor had prescribed the treatment of feeding me precisely neither of these two foods, which, according to his expert scientific knowledge, were well-known for bringing on hives. The sight of my skeletal silhouette and my defeated expression, like that of a beaten dog, dismayed Maman. I had not benefitted from being sent away. I had not put on an ounce.
After the war, did Jewish children not have a duty to radiate good health? To prove to the survivors that a new, vibrant, joyous generation had suddenly arrived, to proclaim: “We are here!”, to ensure a future for the lineage of those who had been murdered? Lola, my sister, wholly embodied the dream of every mother and father who had ever known such hunger. Not the everyday sort of hunger, the sort that would make you salivate with the certainty of a coming meal, that would make you enter a patisserie and point at the cake that you saw in the window. It is the sort of hunger that permeates every second; that destroys all other thoughts; that becomes your sole focus and drives the starving to search for the slightest morsel that can be digested to quieten the body, to dull its suffering. Lola was deliciously round, chubby, smiling, and docile. She was what they call a ‘beautiful child,’ force-fed day after day with baby food and banana purée with orange juice, to the resounding chorus of “Look how cute she is!”
‘Beautiful,’ for the Jews who had the audacity to carry on living, for the Jews who had the chutzpah – the nerve – to come back from a place where they should have been reduced to ashes. For those who had known that unfathomable hunger before becoming fuel for the flames that stunk out the Polish fields – ‘beautiful’ meant fat, or rather, satisfied. But there was no food capable of satisfying the hunger of mouths that were crying out to eat.
On the Grande Rue de la Croix-Rousse, my mother often met with her friend Madame Kahn, a sturdy brunette who had escaped from Auschwitz and had a blue number tattooed on her forearm. Having a number tattooed on one’s forearm was a manifestation of the horror of being Jewish. Since Uncle Israel and Aunt Fraye had been staying at our house, it seemed to me that the mere fact of being Jewish was a source of abominable evil. But there was also cause to be proud – not of the horror, of the abomination, but simply of being born Jewish and still being alive, like any passer-by in the street who found it completely normal to still be alive and who would never even question it, for that matter.
For the whole time she talked to my mother, Madame Kahn threw glances at me that were as penetrating as they were disapproving. Yet her face suddenly lit up when her gaze fell on my sister, Lola, who was being admired by passers-by in her pushchair.
There was no doubt that Lola was well-fed. No one talked about me; they abstained from commenting. And when a comment did escape Madame Kahn’s mouth, it seemed to pierce my mother’s heart. She would look at me, disgusted, and let the fateful phrases fall from her lips: “How scrawny she is! My word, you’d think she’d just stepped out of Auschwitz.” Hearing this from a large, sturdy Jewish woman who had done precisely that was an affront to my mother, who would stop at nothing to try to persuade me to eat: hugs; promises of rewards; threats; sometimes a spanking; and, when the situation escalated, terrifying periods locked in the cupboard under the stairs, in complete darkness. There, I discovered fear, and a sense of disgust at myself.
There was doubt in my mind since the day that Uncle Israel and his wife Fraye had turned up in our little apartment on the Rue Richan. I had heard them say that they came from Paris, but before Paris they had been living at Bergen-Belsen – supposedly as free human beings, but the soldiers who had freed them soon became their jailers. Before Bergen-Belsen, they had been at two other camps, Skarzysko-Kamienna and Czestochowa, where the Germans thought it reasonable to either kill the Jews or to make them work. The doubt in my mind persisted because Israel and Fraye seemed like normal people to me. Not starving. Bloated, in fact. No one cared to explain to me that they had been free for three years and were now incapable of controlling their appetite.
Israel and Fraye inspired a sort of fear in me. This shapeless fear, without any apparent purpose, I felt as a three-and-a-half-year-old child seeing her aunt and uncle arrive, brought in from Skarzysko-Kamienna, Czestochowa, Bergen-Belsen. I listened to them speak in this familiar language without really realising that I was hearing the testimony of a rare breed of people, who, by chance, had come back from among the dead. I learnt new meanings of ordinary words: when assembled with others that I had never heard before, they began to connote a monstrous undertaking carried out by ordinary, conscientious men – as Germans tend to be when they undertake something. These are the words that came up most frequently when Israel and Fraye told my parents of the last seven years: ‘ghetto,’ Judenrat, Judenälteste, ‘elimination,’ Aktion, ‘trains,’ K.Z., Lager, Lagerälteste, Stubendienst, ‘selection,’ ‘hunger,’ ‘thirst,’ ‘typhus,’ ‘gallows,’ Muselman, Einsatzgruppen, ‘evacuation,’ ‘death march.’ Fraye had concluded: “Ober der mensch is stark wie eisen” – “But man is as strong as steel.” So, despite everything she had seen and endured, she had maintained the certainty that she belonged to the human race.
When I started school, I had already begun to build my own specialised vocabulary, but it was incredibly insufficient when it came to anything unfamiliar. At six years old, I was oblivious to the concept of catechism, or who the ‘baby Jesus’ was. I quickly understood that I had to suffer for a crime that was mine, but which I had not committed. When a snotty little girl revealed this crime to me, I was too shy to explain to her that she had definitely got the wrong person. I did not remember killing whoever this was. She had said to me, “Dirty Jew, you killed the baby Jesus!” I thought I understood then that this little boy, the poor baby Jesus, had been killed when he was still a child. “What is a Jesus? What is a baby Jesus?” I asked myself, without going as far as asking anyone else this question. One baffling point left me even further perplexed: how could they identify me as the murderer of someone whose existence or appearance was unknown to me? In any case, there was a link between his death and the fact that people treated me as a ‘dirty Jew’ from the moment I stepped onto the school grounds. During break time, I was alone; they all pushed me away. I wanted to die, but I know how to. I was ‘the girl who doesn’t go to catechism and who killed baby Jesus.’ I would ask myself an answerless question: how had they identified me? Did I look Jewish? Was there a ‘Jewish look’ that distinguished me from the rest of the human species, something that marked me out as clearly as the sun and the moon, day and night? My confused answers shaped how I saw the world. Was this why I feared, more than anything, seeing the ‘baby Jesus’ appear at the window of what we pompously called the ‘water closet,’ like Petit Poucet? Did we all have a Jewish air about us? An air that condemned me to solitude and cruelty, which would stay with me forever? ∎
Words by Millie Jacoby. Artwork by Nat Cheung.