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Charlotte tells me she has had a dream about her mother: “I saw her from the back, with her navy blue coat and hat. She didn’t even say goodbye.” She tells me this in French. “It cannot be said in English,” she explains. She repeats this phrase in French several times. “I see myself bringing the suitcase. She didn’t even say goodbye.”
Among those in Jewish Resistance organizations in France during the war, some 40% were women — an astonishing figure, considering that women had few rights at this time, including the right to vote, which was not granted until 1944. A very small percentage of girls had matriculation degrees or any university education. Yet women played a major role in the Resistance in both decision-making positions and the carrying out of missions. Charlotte told me she believes that women have quite different instincts than men. “Perhaps not the same species!” she said.
What makes one person seek the hidden contours of safety and another put aside all risk? Perhaps it would have gone differently for Charlotte Sorkine or Charlotte de Nice or Anne Delpeuch, or any of her various identities, had she not opened the door of a synagogue where a Jewish resistance group was forming. And it might have gone differently had she not passed a test she had not known she was taking, given by Lariche, one of the Resistance leaders, at the start of the occupation. She had gone in search of false identity papers and made her first contact with him: “We met in a park. I am with a big, tall man, Lariche, on a bench. All of a sudden a man comes and tells him that such and such were arrested and tortured. I didn’t move. I waited and waited. Then Lariche talked with me and gave me the papers. I suppose when that man came to talk in front of me, it was to see my reaction.”
When I asked about the change in her own thinking, from child to Resistance fighter, she responded: “Risks and fear are two different things…. When you are young, you don’t think things can happen to you. But you don’t think of it; you have something you must do.”
“But,” I said to her, “some were hidden. OSE [Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, a humanitarian organization for the rescue of children] took care of and hid the children. Why didn’t you take that route? You could have gone into hiding.”
“I had no choice,” she told me. “You cannot go back. My grandparents were arrested; my mother taken; my brother sent to the free zone. It was my destiny.”
After the war, Jean Paul Sartre met with some of the young people who had served in the Resistance, in coffee houses, cellars and cafes. His thinking about existentialism seemed to be in accord with their lives at that time: Where do they go from this moment? They cannot reconstruct their former lives; parents, siblings and family structures are missing. What do they do with what they, as youngsters, have been required to learn in these war years: risk-taking, destruction, loss of life, loss of trust and, on the other hand, deep trust in their particular group?
At first, Charlotte began to study — at an atelier for life drawing classes, then on to the Sorbonne to study psychology, to the Louvre for the study of art history and to language school. She had a darkroom in her house, and at the time, Richard Wright was in Paris and arranged with her to work there. “Black Boy,” the first half of his memoir, had recently been published. It took another 32 years for the second half to be published posthumously.