In Provence, dark memories, but hope for the future
By Patricia Fieldsteel
NYONS, France September 1 holds a particular significance in Europe the Nazi invasion of Poland. France and Britain declared war two days later, officially signalling the beginning of World War II. Here in this small corner of Provence, September 1 has a more personal meaning.
My friends Klaus and Myriam, both Jews who live in a village just south of here, were children on that day. Myriams family was Viennese. They were able to escape over the Alps and make their way to England. Klaus, who lived in Berlin, was not so fortunate. His mother had died when he was a young child and his father, who was in the German resistance, realized it was only a question of time until he was shot or deported to Auschwitz. He placed Klaus and his 6-year-old sister in a Catholic orphanage where only the nuns knew the childrens origins. They in turn promised to arrange with the Quakers for the children to board a kindertransport to safety and survival in the U.K. An older brother, aged 16, was due to join them on the train. He was murdered on his way to the station. The train departed on September 1, 1939. The Nazis tried to block its route but ceded to the Quakers to let that last kindertransport complete its journey. By the time they arrived in London, Klaus and his sister were orphans.
His little sister was quickly taken in by a British family, who raised her. Today she wants no part of her past. She is British, period. Klaus was 14 and male; no one wanted him, even though he wasnt old enough (16) to be classified as an enemy alien and deported to a clearance camp in Australia. He begged and pleaded for permission to stay before countless committees and refugee boards. He promised to work, no matter how menial the jobs (which they were). He was permitted to remain in England; he lived in shelters, warehouses, whatever he could find. There was no chance to continue his schooling, though he spoke fluent English and had come from a highly cultured and educated family. His childhood was over, but he was alive. After the war, he got his university and graduate degrees. He met Myriam, they married and raised a family in Switzerland, where they live most of the year.
Although well into his 80s, Klaus continues to appear and record, telling his story, making sure everyone learns and no one forgets. When we sit in their lush garden overlooking Mount Ventoux, sipping apéritifs and munching nibblies, he often gets a sad, distant look. Then he begins to talk, of then, still choking on his words. Myriam gets up to fuss in the kitchen. It is too raw, that searing pain that fades but never leaves.
All summer we have been trying to get together, but in true New York style, no ones dates seem to coordinate. They have had an endless procession of visitors: from Israel, England, the U.S., Canada. Their daughters 12-year-old son spent two weeks here. He is a fanatical skateboarder; so in typical grandparent fashion, they traveled all over Provence in search of the best skateboarding spots. They also made numerous trips to Avignon, an hour away, to buy meat from the only kosher butcher in this part of France. Their grandson, who is kosher, wont eat fish.
In July, a new restaurant opened a block from my house. It is owned and run by a Moroccan couple with five young children. They are very devout. Houria, the mother, wears traditional Muslim dress, always in pastels. She is uncommonly beautiful and always has a serene, radiant look. My German neighbors have dubbed her the Muslim Madonna. It fits. She and Mohammed, her husband, have spent four years restoring and preparing the ground floor and basement of their house before they could open. They have received loans, grants and financial assistance, all mentioned on their menu. Daily, she does all the cooking from scratch, including breads and pastries. Their meat is halal and they dont serve alcohol, though they do serve the best mint tea Ive ever tasted. The food is delicious and inexpensive, available for takeout as well, ordered the night before. The children are magnificently bought up, happy and polite; they have the glow of children who are much loved. They have their after-school chores at the restaurant before homework. The older ones are proud of their impressive 98 percent averages.
Klaus, Myriam and I have been trying to find a date to order their takeout. Their neighbors Daisy and Christian want to join us. They too have had a constant stream of guests. Daisy is Jewish and was born in the Gurs concentration camp in France, where Hannah Arendt was held prisoner. Daisy was 3 at liberation. Her father was murdered in Auschwitz and the rest of the family vanished except for her mother and uncle. They came to Nyons. I have known Daisy for a long time and it was she who introduced me to Klaus and Myriam. The four of us make up the Jewish community here.
There has been an attempt high up in the mairie (town government) to block the outdoor cafe attached to Houria and Mohammeds tiny indoor cafe on a street where every single other restaurant and cafe, of which there are many, has outdoor seating. The reasons are obvious and blatant. The man in the mairie who grants cafe permits has made it known he hates Arabs. There is a petition, which I and hundreds of others have signed. Meanwhile, Houria and Mohammed have had to hire a lawyer for a case that promises to drag. Yesterday it was the Jews; today its the Arabs; tomorrow it will be someone else. The old truisms hold. The human need to hate and blame is endless and runs deep.
This is the second week of Ramadan. In two weeks, the Jewish Days of Awe begin, starting with Rosh HaShanah and leading up to Yom Kippor. Outside of the week of Passover, this was always my favorite time of year, followed as it is by Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and the most joyous of all, Simchat Torah, when we take the Torah scrolls out of the ark and dance all night with them in the street. Here there is nothing. Klaus and Myriam return to Switzerland and their children and grandchildren; Daisy and Christian go north to do the same. I will read the siddur and fast on Yom Kippor as I always do. I will search the Internet to hear the shofar blow. It is not the same.
Nights I look across the street through the open windows of the young Moroccan couple who own the house across from mine. Hannan has decorated their living room in Moroccan style with reclining cushions lining the walls, low tables and wall hangings. Her family came up from Casablanca for several weeks, including the first of Ramadan. After sunset, they gather, eating and talking and watching the flat-screen TV long into the night sports events when Jawed, her husband, isnt at the restaurant where he works, and Arab movies, music and dance when he is. The feeling is always warm and close, the family gathered together with their first child, 22-month-old Aamin, playing with his toys and running from one adoring family member to another.
Aamin loves Emily, my Westie, and Jane, my Jane Street cat. I had always thought Hannan was afraid of them. This week as we were sitting in front of my house, she explained. By touching a dog, her prayers would be annulled. Like Njiwa, the 19-year-old daughter of the Tunisian/Moroccan couple who own the epicerie (deli) at the foot of our street, she says how she loves Ramadan for the feeling of family and purity. Njiwa, her mother, Minna, and Hannan and I often discuss among many other things the similarities between our two religions. My Magrebin neighbors always tell me, Come to us, Come to us, if you have problems.
Last week I was telling Njiwa how sad I feel at this time of year, missing going to synagogue, celebrating Rosh HaShanah and breaking fast always with my friends Ross and Deanna and their family. I miss the intensity of the High Holy Days, the sense of mishpocah accompanied by renewed purification, faith and forgiveness of oneself and others, as well as all the traditional foods.
Njiwa leaves the shop in her younger brothers charge for a minute and tells me to wait. She runs home and returns with a sack of chebakia she has made fried, honey-soaked, sesame cookies shaped into flowers, traditional among Moroccans for Ramadan. I promise to give her homemade Ashkenazi pastries for the New Year. She will return to university soon, where she is getting a degree in foreign relations and economics. She is the first in her family to go to college.
For younger children, this week was the culmination of La Rentrée, the return to school from the August vacation. From a commercial point of view, La Rentrée starts in late July, with stores packed with school supplies, a week before vacations begin. I think of the murdered Jews, including the Jews of Nyons, who never lived to have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to go to school, adding so many more millions to the 10 million already gone.
Yesterday, I saw Mohammed, the girls dashing happily ahead toward their mother, his arms holding four bright-pink, new, glitter and sequinned knapsacks. He had a big smile and a lilt to his walk.
In Provence, no one is sad to see summer end. The temperatures have been between 96 degrees and 106 degrees Fahrenheit with no rain during August, or as the French say, five minutes of pipi de rat (rat pee). Soon the grape harvest begins for our famous Côtes du Rhône. Next Friday, brings with it a particularly agonizing reminder of what happens when peoples of the world cant get along. French TV will be filled with films and discussions in commemoration of September 11. Lets not add any more tragic dates to the list.