The first thing I notice are her cheeks. She’s more than 80 years old, but her cheeks are round and smooth, their skin soft and slightly flushed. Perhaps it’s the pollution-free air, or maybe the perfectly fresh food. Or maybe it’s this tiny village’s detachment from the world that makes it possible for an old lady to have the cheeks of a child.
We’re in the south of France, the Dordogne district, on a historic visit to the regions of my father’s childhood, to the place where he was born at the height of World War II. I’ve known the tale of our family’s Hanukkah miracle by heart since I was a child, but now, as we stand under the softly curling leaves of the vine reaching out to us from one of the yards, with the sweet old lady who was then a young girl the babysitter of my infant father I want to hear the story again.
In the 1930s my father’s grandfather was a wealthy man. A leather trader with a successful business based in Warsaw, he sent trainloads of goods all over Europe. His daughter and her husband – a young, idealistic couple – were Zionists with dreams of life in Israel. Wanting to acquire professions that would be useful to Palestine, they decided to study medicine and agronomy. But Poland had numerus clausus sanctions, which limited the number of Jewish students allowed in universities.
Unable to get an education in Poland, the young couple moved to France. While they were busy with their studies, the great economic crisis of the early ’30s toppled my great-grandfather’s leather business. His life’s work was reduced to nothing. He had a suitcase-full of IOUs, he used to say, which people simply couldn’t pay. With the business gone, he decided to follow his daughter to France, and in 1932 moved the family from Warsaw to Paris. There, he decided to rebuild his leather business; he knew no other way to provide for his family.
And so, the man who owned homes in Warsaw, Vienna and Berlin began selling nails to shoemakers. And though he never regained the wealth he enjoyed in Poland, he slowly built himself up and opened a respected leather shop in Paris. “To this day,” my father says, smiling, “the smell of a leather coat reminds me of Grandpa.”
When the Germans invaded France in 1941, the majority of French Jews believed they would not be harmed. My father’s father was more farsighted than most, and hence less optimistic. And so he moved his family here: to this small farm, part of Mon Tirat, a village comprising merely 10 families, all farmers, isolated and remote.
Carrying forged documentation (which stated, among other things, that my father’s grandfather who spoke French with an unmistakable heavy Polish accent was deaf and dumb), the family settled into their new home. Here, the Parisian bourgeoisies rolled up their sleeves and began milking cows and plowing fields.
The family made friends with their few neighbors. My grandmother, a doctor, provided them with medical services; my grandfather, an agronomist, taught them useful new techniques for tending their crops. About a year into their stay, one of the farmers came galloping to the house to warn the family that the Nazis were about to raid the village, looking for Jews. The family hid in the woods until they were gone, realizing for the first time that the entire village knew full well that they were Jewish. They were, in fact, the first Jews these farmers had ever met.
A powerful bond grew between my father’s family and their neighbors. The trust was such that my relatives asked one of the farmers to guard the family’s grand collection of silverware; these dishes were the last treasures left. Should the Nazis take the family away, whomever survived would be able to claim the silver back from the kind neighbor and use it to start life anew. The farmer agreed and hid the silver treasures in his basement.
That crown jewel of the silver collection was a beautiful, solid-silver menorah. When Hanukkah arrived my father’s grandfather insisted they use it, despite the risk. And so the menorah was snuck back from the farmer’s to the family’s home.
During the week of Hanukkah, the Germans raided the village. The family was warned in time and managed to hide. But as it turned out, the Nazis weren’t looking for Jews. They were looking for people who were cooperating with the French Resistance. They stormed the farmhouses, killed whomever they found and burned the houses to the ground.
Among them was the family friend who had hidden the silver in the basement of his house, now reduced to rubble and ash. The only item that survived from the silver treasure was the menorah.
As I listen to the story again, I’m surprised to feel a sense of anger arise in me in response to this ever-so-familiar tale.
Where exactly is the “miracle”? So much was destroyed; the rare, small pocket of humaneness was murdered (many of the French passionately cooperated with the Nazis; these farmers were the exception, not the rule). Is it possible that “miracle” is merely a romanticized definition for “it could have been even worse”?
The old lady’s voice cuts off my train of thought. “And what did your father do in Israel?” she turns, smiling, to my father, and we realize she doesn’t know. After the war ended, my father’s father traveled to Russia to help with the transportation of Jews westward, and from there to Israel.
Among these Jews was his brother, my grandfather’s sole-surviving blood relative. But en route, the commercial flight crashed in Prague and my grandfather was killed. Just like that. An accident. As if suddenly all miracles had run dry.
When my 70-year-old father speaks of the accident that killed his father, his voice is strained; his blue eyes behind the glasses cloud with pain. His mouth says, “Such a shame, he could have done great things,” but his eyes say “My dad died.” And for a moment he stands silent and I can see him as he was then, a 4-year-old orphan, his knee-high socks pulled up tightly, his chin trembling in a courageous attempt not to cry.
The old lady expresses her heartfelt sorrow in response to the news of 66 years ago. Then she adds: “You know, we were standing on these very steps when your mother came to tell us that the war was over. And right away I asked her what you were going to do, and she said you’d all return to Paris. And I cried.” And tears roll down her unlined cheeks, as if not a day had passed. My father gently touches her hand as she wipes her tears.
And I think, this is the miracle: My father, who despite everything is without cynicism, a people-lover, a peace-seeker, an optimist he’s the miracle. The miracle lies in a person’s ability to choose his point of view in the face of disaster. To start over following bankruptcy, from the bottom, unashamed, because you do what needs to be done. Only in retrospect could my great-grandfather see that the horrible economic crash that buried a business he had spent a lifetime building, was exactly what saved him. Not one member of the extensive family who stayed in Warsaw survived the Holocaust.
In 1952, 20 years after the demise of his business, my great-grandfather placed the menorah in the dining room of their humble new apartment in Tel Aviv, and taught his grandchildren: You look for one speck of light in the vast darkness, and you set it as your point of reference. Not because you deny the horrible darkness out there, but because you are determined to vanquish it.