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A History of the Grandparents I Never Had

A newly translated excerpt unearths the lives—from the shtetl to Auschwitz—of ancestors who died before the author was born

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I have no grandparents on my father’s side. I have Constant and Annette, my father’s guardians, but that is not the same thing. I also have my maternal grandparents who, for their part, managed to survive the entire war with stars on their chests. In June 1981, the year of my eighth birthday, I wrote to them to tell them I loved them. My handwriting is large and faltering. There are spelling mistakes everywhere and I have drawn hearts at the end of every sentence. At the bottom of the writing paper, a baby elephant wearing a beret rides a scooter through a jungle of giant flowers. This is what I wrote: “You can be sure that when you are dead I will remember you sadly for the rest of my life. Even when my life is over too, my children will have known you. Even their children will know you when I am in my grave. For me, you will be my gods, the beloved gods who will watch over me, only over me. I will think to myself, ‘My gods are looking out for me, I can stay in hell or in heaven.’”

What had I been told—or not told—to make me write such a testament at the age of seven and a half? Was it my vocation to be a historian, or the resignation of a child overwhelmed by his duty to pass on the story, as a link in a chain of deceased people? With hindsight, it seems clear to me that those promises were not addressed to my maternal grandparents so much as to those who had always been absent. My father’s parents are dead and always have been. They are my guardian gods who watch over me and will protect me even when I have joined them. It can be reassuring to cling onto original scenes, to founding traumas, but in my case there was no revelation—nobody ever sat me down to tell me the “terrible truth”. I have always known about their murder.

I am now 38 years old and have my own family. Do I still have the strength to carry within me those people of whom I am the continuation? The only traces Matès and Idesa Jablonka left behind were two orphans, a few letters, and a passport. What madness to try to retrace the lives of strangers from nothing at all! Even when alive, they were already invisible; history has pulverized them. This dust from the last century is not resting in an urn at the family temple; it is suspended in the air, moving with the winds, dampened by the foam of the waves, sparkling on the roofs of the city, stinging our eyes and disappearing once again. And so, before they are finally erased forever, it is vital to uncover the traces and footprints they left behind, the accidental evidence of their time on earth.

And so my research began, intended as a family biography, a work of justice and an extension of my work as a historian. It was an act of begetting, the opposite of a criminal investigation, and I was led naturally to the place where they were born.

***

Anti-Semitism is pre-War Poland was fueled by the propaganda repeated by the government and the Catholic extreme right, combined with economic crisis: boycotts, looting of shops, violent disturbances in universities, and murders. During the second half of 1936, there were 197 attacks, 39 murders, more than 1200 people injured and 2607 cases of smashed windows. Pogroms broke out in Odrzywol (November 1935), Czyzew (December 1935), Przytyk (March 1936), Minsk Mazowiecki (June 1936), Brest-Litovsk (May 1937), and Czestochowa (June 1937). The press unleashed its hatred against the Jewish victims, and the murderers turned their trials into an opportunity to preach anti-Semitism.

The Polish government disassociated itself from these abuses in favor of a more “civilized” anti-Semitism: changing the electoral system to prevent Jews from being elected; limiting ritual slaughters; strengthening the numerus clauses in universities; dejudaization of the craft industry and trade through discriminatory taxes, and so on. In August 1936, Poland asked the League of Nations for colonies in order to resettle Jews; Colonel Beck urged France and Great Britain to relinquish their foreign holdings so that Poland could use them as a “dumping ground”. That autumn, French prime minister Leon Blum and his foreign affairs minister addressed the issue with Beck, which caused elation in Warsaw; France, however, only planned to settle a few dozen families out of all the refugees already on French soil. While the Endeks, led by the young pro-Nazi generation, demanded the expulsion of all Jews from Poland, the OZN party launched an advertising campaign in the country: “Don’t buy from Jews!” and “Poland free from Jews is a free Poland!”

There is no better reflection of those dark years than in the photographs of Roman Vishniac. From 1936 to 1938, sensing that the shadow of Nazism was about to fall across the continent, this Russian Jew, taking refuge in Berlin, traveled across Eastern Europe to take pictures of distressed street peddlers, water carriers, beygel sellers, students hunched under their kerosene lamps, old beggars wandering the streets, children wide-eyed from hunger.

Warsaw, 1937. A bearded old man with sunken cheeks is placed in a type of wheelbarrow. Vishniac’s observation: “This man lost both his legs, thirty years before, in a Russian pogrom. […] Every day, before going out to look for work, [his son, a porter,] took his father out into the street and gave him some bread and water for the day.”

Oujgorod, Ukraine, 1937. A four-year-old girl looks at us from behind a misty window. She has to stay inside her house all winter because there is no money to buy her any shoes.

Warsaw, 1937. An elderly Jewish couple are engaged in conversation in the street; the man has his hand on his heart and the woman is holding her cheek. “For twenty-five years, the owner was satisfied with his services, but that morning three men had come into the offices to check that no Jews were employed there. He had been fired on the spot, with no redundancy pay and no hope of finding any work.”

These are the reasons why my grandfather Matèswent into exile: popular and official anti-Semitism, the economic crisis, the lack of opportunities and—the deciding factor—oppression.

Lastly, there is one other thing: Stalin’s destruction of the KPP [Polish communist party]. In 1937, the Polish communist leaders were invited to the USSR and liquidated. The founders and leaders of the Party, heroes of the October Revolution, friends of Rosa Luxembourg, members of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, leaders of the Polish detachment of the International Brigades and several thousand grassroots members all disappeared into the anonymity of the purges. In 1938, the Comintern announced that the KPP was in fact a hide-out for the Polish secret services, a den for nationalists corrupted by fascism. Historians still debate the reasons for this crime: Was it Stalin’s resentment against the leaders who had dared to contradict him in 1923, a settling of accounts with the old Leninist guard, outright anti-Semitism, hatred for the Luxemburgist international tradition, obsessive fear of the Trotskyist opposition, the ‘May error’ at the time of Pilsudski’s coup, preparation for an alliance with Hitler, to which the KPP would inevitably have obstructed? This outcome illustrates the “tragedy of Polish communism”, to borrow the phrase first used by Isaac Deutscher, who was expelled in 1932 as a Trotskyist opponent.

If he had not left for France, would Matès have experienced Stalin’s prisons after those of Poland? Like the Jewish Communist writer Aleksander Wat, arrested by the NKVD in 1940 and imprisoned in the Lubyanka, would he have eventually thought that “the Bolshevik conception of social relations” consisted in “killing a man’s inner life”? Would he have been drawn to Moscow, sentenced to six years in a labor camp, deported to a Kazakh concentration camp, sent away naked in the night at temperatures of -35 degrees, like Moshé Zalcman and, like him, would he have sobbed, “Yes, at the time I dreamt that Communism would make a man’s life one continuous party”? Probably not, because Matès and Idesa were low-ranking members.

Either these ‘technicians’ of the KZMP in Parczew knew nothing, or else they rejected the slander and lies spat out by reactionaries. However, if they had got wind of these purges and had the strength to accept that it was true, then I share their pain and humiliation at having been betrayed by the man for whom they had sacrificed their youth. It was an existential defeat, the dream of an entire lifetime that had crumbled, because the truth was that the most dangerous anti-communist dictatorship was the Soviet Union.

Poverty, anti-Semitism, oppression: Ten years apart, the same reasons brought about their support for communism, and then their exile. Their decision to leave was an admission of powerlessness and failure: the revolution was not going to happen, at least not in Poland. But where should they go? There is a joke about this. A Jewish man applying to emigrate goes to the community support office. The employee offers him a visa for Australia. “Australia?” exclaims the Jew. “But that’s so far!” The employee replies, “Far from what?”

As I write these words, a summer thunderstorm breaks over Paris. I go out on to the balcony to admire the scene, and a draught rushes into the apartment, slamming shut a window which shatters from the force of the impact. It smashes into a thousand pieces of every size, mostly scattered in a thirty-meter radius around the foot of the building, the rest projected all over the living room, even under the sofa cushions, while irregular-shaped shards hang from the window frame. I hurry downstairs and spend half an hour picking up pieces of glass, coming close to cutting my fingers any number of times. There are no victims, fortunately, only a providential metaphor: Bent over the archives, as over the grass, I went in search of Parczew’s Jews, scattered in the four corners of the earth.

***

Some sociological studies report that women have a considerable ability to adapt, and are therefore better-adjusted than men, who are humiliated by periods of unemployment and their failure to meet their family’s needs. Matès was not the type to lie down in his coffin for anyone, but at the beginning of 1939 I imagine him demoralized, racked with doubt, and somewhat bitter. He was no luftmensch, a “man of the air”, half dreamer half tramp, living off his wits like Charlie Chaplin, but he was certainly no longer the charismatic leader from Parczew, mesmerizing young people on the corner of the street. After spending the morning hanging around at the police headquarters of Paris, Matès went to take orders from his boss, ate a fresh beygl and a piece of herring at the Warshawski café on the corner of the Belleville Boulevard and Orillon Street; or else he chatted for five minutes with Abram Fiszman, who worked as a men’s tailor at a cousin’s house; or he wandered along the boulevard, like Schlevin’s heroes, “miserably idle.” He offered his hand where before he had offered his fist; having been unable to win Poland over to the great Soviet Union he lived on handouts in a bourgeois country and pleaded at the feet of all-powerful bureaucrats.

I also believe I am justified in saying that Matès’ life was harder in France than in Poland. It was not so much that he missed his family and the warm, welcoming sociability of the old world—like Goldman, Wolf Wieviorka’s character in East and West (1936), who was suddenly “filled with love and nostalgia for his home village, which before had sickened him so much”—but rather that his suffering was no longer transcended by an ideal that gave him a reason to endure that pain. The police no longer persecuted him, because he was a builder of the new world, the salt of the earth, a hero of freedom pursued by fascists in a battle that covered the globe; he was rejected as a foreigner, an “undesirable”, so that France could be protected against a “permanent, massive invasion of badly selected elements that carried a definite risk”, in the words of a hack writer in Le Petit Parisien in 1939. The revolutionary, fearless and beyond reproach, withdrew into a Diaspora Jew. The Polish communist was stripped bare: he was now nothing more than a naked human being, unprotected, stateless and rejected by everyone, from Parczew to Paris, from Stockholm to Rome, from the extreme right to the French Communist Party (PCF). Illegal in Poland, illegal in France: two different ways of being absent from the world, but the first, fuelled by the hope of being useful to humanity, turned the dangers into missions and the torment into sacrifice, providing moments of fulfillment. “Only very rarely”, wrote Koestler, “in its darkest moments, has humanity been left without a specific faith to live and die for.”

Was Idesa, a matronly and self-confident woman, comfortable in her host country? Torn from the egalitarian world of activism in which men and women ran the same risks and paid the same price, she was plunged up to her neck in the worries of everyday life. Like Rosa Luxembourg in an apron, she now had to take care of her daughter Suzanne, feed her, change her, take her for walks, run errands, find the cheapest potatoes at the market, buy some meat at Szloma Niremberg’s, the butcher at 22 Maronites Street, right at the junction with Pressoir Street. Idesa probably did not want this soothing existence, but she may have welcomed this as a truce after years of activism in which one forgot how to be oneself, and after a month roaming across Europe. I tell myself that those days spent as a housewife were like a convalescence period after her “psychological illness acquired in prison”. And in spite of the queues at the police headquarters, the disillusion, the lack of income, the bad news from Poland, the dilapidated apartment building, the cramped room with the shabby furniture, there were still unexpected moments of hope and happiness: the French Human Rights League (LDH) granting her certificate, the baby’s development, the friends who stopped by to exchange news. […]

The evidence, however, begins to mount up: They were failing. They had no papers, no legal work, and France wanted nothing to do with them. In a CD-ROM containing the names of everyone who was naturalized in France between 1900 and 1960, there are all kinds of selection criteria; when one types “Parczew” into the “place of origin” category, the date is given on which the immigrants from Parczew—the Kaszemachers, the Sznajders, the Zlotagoras, and all the occupants of the Bagneux cemetery vault—became French.

But before reaching the holy grail of naturalization, there was a whole series of hurdles that Matès and Idesa never even managed to cross. Just out of prison, Abram Fiszman arrived in Paris in October 1936 with no visa or passport. In possession of 10,000 francs which he left with a cousin residing legally, he obtained a foreigner’s identity card in March 1937 on the condition that he would not undertake any paid work. Gitla Leszcz arrived in Paris via Germany and Belgium in February 1937. Like the others, she fell prey to circular no. 338 [tracking down illegal aliens], but was close to a French hardware dealer, Raymond Gardebled, and was granted a three-month respite “to allow her to complete her marriage plans”. The same situation arose with Idesa’s cousins, Annette and Jacha Korenbaum, the daughters of the forester from Maloryta—respectively, they married Constant Couanault in 1936 and Maximilien Charriaud in 1939, two French anarchist craftsmen. In September 1939, Rywka Szerman, a woman from Parczew aged twenty-five, illegally entered France via Italy with 25,000 francs in her pocket. Whilst staying with her sister and supported by her brother, both with their papers in order, she obtained a passport from the Polish general consulate. The police record notes that “it is no longer possible to send this foreigner back to her country.”

These examples show everything that Matès and Idesa were lacking: papers and money, but also references, well-integrated relatives, a French spouse, a clean criminal record. Being a political refugee was of no use, and was even a handicap. In 1938, the French consul in Warsaw wrote to the foreign affairs ministry about a man named Icek Sznajder, who was wanted by neither France nor Poland: “One might say that he brings together all the conditions required to be hit with an immediate expulsion order: entry without a consular visa and in violation of the rules; uncertain identity, since he is only provisionally accepted as Polish by the general consulate in Paris; extreme poverty—claims not to have a paid occupation but in fact must work to live; deplorable record, given that he admits to having been in prison. He claims not to be a prisoner under ordinary law but a political prisoner. This is a free allegation he has not proven.” This was the exact situation in which Matès and Idesa found themselves.

Above all, they arrived too late. In December 1936, the communists abstained from passing a vote of confidence for Blum on account of his non-intervention policy in Spain. In June 1937 they were not accepted by the Chautemps government, and Matès arrived in Paris just three months later, at the end of August, without benefiting from the Popular Front’s reprieve or the PCF’s influence over the majority. At the same time, the Jewish Popular Front disintegrated, having provided support for claims filed by Jewish immigrants. The repression of the Jewish subsection of the MOI [immigrant movement] shows that, for the communists, it was time to leave the anti-Nazi struggle to the French working class. Everywhere, hostility towards the refugees picked up again with renewed vigor.

On the morning of May 11, 1939, Matès and Idesa were walking along the boulevard with their little girl, Suzanne, when a policeman asked to see their papers. They were placed under immediate arrest and transferred to the police headquarters at 11 a.m. Idesa was released, in view of either her Polish passport or her maternal responsibilities, but Matès was taken to the police cells.

I have that committal paper in front of me, unearthed from the archives of the police headquarters and entitled “Public thoroughfares—Foreigners”, and I see “Feder Idesa, 11 Pressoir Street, refus de séjour [residency denied]” and “Jablonka Matès, idem” at the bottom of pages 390-391; the entries on either side are for an Armenian man domiciled in Alfortville, “récépissé de carte d’identité périmé” [receipt for identity card expired], and a woman from Montreuil, who also had her “residency denied” I see these and I feel their fear. The following day, Matès was issued a committal order and incarcerated in La Santé prison.

With that information one can guess that he would have been brought before the courts a few days later. One morning I ask my father to meet me at the Paris city archives, near the Porte des Lilas. A subconscious slip, he has forgotten to bring a form of identity as I asked him to. He cannot be registered. We negotiate and try to stir the receptionist’s sympathy. In the end, my father is given permission to go up to the reading room with me as a guarantor, so to speak. The committal order at La Santé confirms that Matès Jablonka, an “upholsterer” by trade and curiously marked as “s.d.f.” (sans domicile fixe—no fixed abode), was imprisoned from May 12 to 19, 1939, the date on which he was transferred to Fresnes. We then move on to the records of the 16th chamber of the criminal court of La Seine [Paris region]. We nervously turn the pages. A wave of emotion—he is there.

The distinction between our family histories and what we call History, with its pompous capital letter, makes no sense.

I think I became a historian so I would one day make this discovery. The distinction between our family histories and what we call History, with its pompous capital letter, makes no sense. It is strictly the same thing. We do not have, on one side, world leaders with their authority and their televised speeches, and on the other side the backwash of daily life, short-lived hope and anger, the anonymous tears, unknown people whose names rust at the bottom of a memorial to the deceased or in some countryside cemetery. There is only one freedom, one finitude, one tragedy that makes the past our greatest resource and the basin of poison in which our heart bathes. Making history means listening to the silence. That is my job, and as I hold that court archive in my hands and let my eyes follow the lines made by the clerk’s pen, I feel an indescribable sense of relief.

***

In France, nobody could fail to notice that Jews were made to wear the star, excluded from public life, rounded up and driven out of their apartments, or that whole families were being deported to the east. However, this did not reveal their extermination as such, because it was not publicly known that “evacuation” was a Nazi code word for “immediate killing.” It was only during his detention in Berlin in the spring of 1942 that Sadosky, head of the 3rd section of the intelligence services, heard the truth directly from a non-commissioned SS officer. Georges Wellers, a medical researcher detained in Drancy internment camp [near Paris], described the scenes of distress and hysteria that followed the separation of families, but he explained that not a single prisoner in 1942 imagined that children, the elderly or the sick could be harmed; it was “an absolutely widespread conviction that was never discussed.” Optimism, trust in the French authorities, a defense mechanism against a truth too terrible, a normal attitude given that nobody could conceive such a crime? The fact remains that the summer of 1942 saw a “suicide epidemic” in Drancy: Women threw themselves out of the windows.

As time went by, Jews were increasingly aware that they were being threatened with death, even if the truth that reached them was often twisted by rumors. In her diary, in November 1943, Hélène Berr mentions “asphyxiating gas filling the train convoys across the Polish border” and confides that she was terrified of being murdered in Upper Silesia (the Auschwitz region). Three months later, commenting on the arrest of a lady who had thrown herself at the feet of some police officers to beg them not to take her child, she wrote, “You must have quite a clear idea of what awaits you to reach the point where you beg to be allowed to abandon your child.” Hélène Berr, daughter of the vice-president of the Kuhlmann chemical company, probably had different sources of information from Polish immigrant Jews such as my grandparents. But look what was written in Unzer Wort [an underground Jewish paper] on February 1, 1943, three weeks before the police raid on the Passage d’Eupatoria [where Matès and Idesa hid]: “Hitler would like to complete the extermination of the Jews in 1943. […] From Holland, from Belgium, almost all the Jews have been deported to the east and mostly exterminated.”

Matès and Idesa were politically aware: They read the newspapers, they had been to prison, and they had been fighting fascism for years. Thet had also left their parents in Poland. In his letter from October 1939, Matès complains that the postal services had been stopped, but they were later restored. Liliane Jagodowicz, the daughter of the neighbors living at 3 Désirée Street, told me that her mother received letters from her own mother, sent from the Warsaw ghetto, in which the latter implored her never to believe the Germans, never to obey their summons, and so on. In February 1943, at least six months had passed since there had been any news from Ruchla Korenbaum, Idesa’s mother, Shloymè and Tauba Jablonka, Matès’ parents, or his half-brothers and half-sister Gitla. Their silence could only be a bad sign.

***

Shortly before being transferred to Drancy in the afternoon of February 25, 1943, Idesa underwent a brief interrogation. Her file, like that of Matès, was stored in the National Archives and contained the usual information—surname and first name, date and place of birth, address, and a detail that brings tears to one’s eyes: The police officer has written ‘M.0.E.’ [Mariée, 0 enfant] Married, no children. This statement is the definitive proof that Suzanne and Marcel, who were being looked after for the night by a Polish neighbor, had been left voluntarily in the apartment building when the arrest took place. Just a few hours after leaving them, their mother stated that she was “married, with no children.” M.0.E. Those three letters have secretly controlled my father’s entire life, both the miracle of his survival and the wound that will bleed until he dies: His mother abandoned him so that he could live, her love culminating in rejection and denial.

I ask myself, and I ask you this, like Hélène Berr: What does it take for you to desert your young children in a foreign country, just as you are leaving it to be turned over to the hatred of a state that has sworn to destroy you? What level of danger would you have to be facing before deciding not to take your children with you to an unknown place?

Two postcards: On the left-hand side, in light-blue ink, the round stamp of the police headquarters in which the words “Drancy internment camp” and “Censorship Bureau” are printed in a circle. On the right-hand side there is a burgundy postage stamp for 1.20 francs, showing an image of Marshal Pétain. Postmarked. The postmark reads “Drancy, 2-3-43”. One hour before each deportation, the Jewish workers at the camp would go around the sleeping quarters and hand out a letter to everyone due to leave. They wrote them in haste, leaning on a neighbor’s back or a wall. They had to be written quickly, the others needed the pencil, the workers would be back any moment. 5 a.m., March 2, 1943: “My dearest children, we are writing this letter to say farewell…” Matès and Idesa were unable to write well in French. The handwriting of their bilingual friend who recorded their last wishes takes up all the space, right to the edges. He makes a few spelling mistakes, which I correct when re-transcribing it, just as one smoothes the face of the deceased when laying out the corpse.

The last letters from Drancy are often breathless with fear and urgency, nonsensical, and their despair is mixed up with the certainty that “spirits are high” and that “we’ll see each other again soon”. Kisses and last-minute advice merge with the everyday concerns that need to be sorted out before leaving: paying off a debt, getting back some keys, sending or receiving some clothes, food, money. These disorientated lines and rambling words reflect the anguish of people who were being torn from life, but were still alive. Not those of Matès and Idesa.

I never read the letters written by those condemned innocent people. They are a block of raw humanity, and when you have enough strength to look at them, time stops, and you are plunged into a timeless, bottomless sadness, as though you were suffering from an incurable disease. Matès and Idesa took leave of life. They did not have the knowledge we have today, but they knew. On the threshold of another world—not necessarily death, but a place where there is no more hope, no future, no joy, where you no longer exist as a human being—they called out to their children once more, to kiss them, console them, ask them for forgiveness, breathe enough love into them to last a lifetime. In spite of the deprivation and exhaustion, in spite of their departure “without belongings or provisions”, their only concern was their children, and arranging things for afterwards. This self-sacrifice by people who were already destroyed fills me with awe.

***

Translated by Susannah Dale. Excerpted from Histoire des grands-parents que je n’ai pas eus [History of the Grandparents I Never Had] Paris: Seuil, 2012.

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A History of the Grandparents I Never Had

A newly translated excerpt unearths the lives—from the shtetl to Auschwitz—of ancestors who died before the author was born