This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
This article is part of a series based on oral-history interviews with students of Yiddish and other members of the community at the Medem Library ~ Paris Yiddish Center. The first article appeared in Yiddish on March 18.
Simone Virsube’s story begins in 1946, some months after the end of World War II. Virsube was born nine months after her father, a prisoner of war, was released from the POW camp and returned home. “Exactly nine months?” I asked. “Well, maybe 10,” laughed Virsube.
Her father did not have an easy past, even before he joined the French military in order to fight during World War II. As a young man in Poland, he was arrested for taking part in Communist activity. After his arrest, he was temporarily placed in the famous Pawiak prison in Warsaw to await his trial, and then was sent off to serve in the Polish army. When his trial date approached, the army sent him back to Warsaw. At first, he was prepared to stand trial, but his brother-in-law warned him that he was likely to be sentenced to as many as 20 years in prison, because he had been arrested on charges of having hosted a Communist meeting in his own home. His brother-in-law advised him to flee to Paris and provided him with the money and false papers necessary to do so.
Virsube’s mother was also a Communist, and her father, Virsube’s grandfather, had followed a similar trajectory; he also fled Poland to avoid a trial and a near-certain sentence. He arrived in France alone and worked until he managed to earn enough money to send for his wife, Virsube’s grandmother. The latter came to France along with their son, who was still young enough to travel on his mother’s passport. His older sister, Virsube’s mother, was required to carry her own passport, and thus had to wait in Poland until her father was able to come up with enough money to send for her separately. She fell ill right before her scheduled journey to France. She didn’t want to undergo an operation in Poland, so she boarded the train with a raging case of appendicitis. When the train arrived in Paris, she was taken straight to the hospital, where she remained for some nine months after her arrival.
During the war, Virsube’s mother, uncle and grandfather were all active in the French Resistance in the mountains near Lyon. Her mother was a bicycle messenger who made deliveries to the various groups of partisans in the region. Her uncle was a fighter in the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) and her grandfather was a leader of one of the groups of fighters, known as maquis, that carried out actions against the Nazis. (After the war, the latter continued to be active in the Communist Party in Paris, and among other things wrote for the leftwing newspapers Di naye prese and L’Humanité.)
Even before she left Paris to join the Resistance, Virsube’s mother had a difficult time during the war. Once, around 1942, when the Nazis and the French police rounded up Jews in Paris, she escaped arrest because it was known that her husband was a prisoner of war, and at the time the Nazis were careful not to arrest the families of POWs. But she knew that she would not get so lucky twice, and when another roundup took place a year later, she was certain it was the end.
“My mother had only one thought,” Virsube told me. “She thought about how her young son, my older brother Roger, was hidden in a village somewhere, and if she were to die during the roundup, no one would ever find him and tell him that he came from a Jewish family” – because the boy was too young at the time to remember his mother.
Luckily, a neighbor, also a young woman in her 20s, knocked on the apartment door. Saying “Come quickly!”, she took Virsube’s mother into her apartment. There the two women trembled and clung to each other under the blankets until the French police, who played the primary role in implementing the arrests, finally left the building.
At the end of the war, Virsube’s father was brought by the Nazis, along with other Jewish prisoners of war, to a camp in Northern Germany to be shot. But the Russian Army arrived in the nick of time. They released the prisoners and transported them to Odessa, and from there Virsube’s father made his way back to France, where he sought the family out near Lyon.
After the war, the couple collected young Roger from the village where he was hidden and returned to Paris. A stranger had taken over their apartment during the war, so they didn’t have anywhere to live. At first they stayed with Virsube’s grandfather, alongside other relatives, nine people to a room. But ultimately Virsube’s father went to the French police, and thanks to the “distinction” of having been a prisoner of war, the police agreed to evict the stranger from the family’s pre-war apartment. And she did leave, but not before destroying the house’s electrical system and vandalizing other parts of the property.
The family remained in Paris for only a short time, because Roger was sickly and his parents thought that he would fare better outside the city. So they moved to Soissons, a hundred kilometers northeast of Paris. Life outside of the city wasn’t easy for Simone, who was always the only Jewish student in her class. “In general, it wasn’t an anti-Semitic environment, but the other students constantly asked me, ‘Why don’t you ever take communion, why don’t you come with us to catechism, why don’t you celebrate Christmas,’ etc.” She attended a summer camp for the children of Jewish Communists, but that wasn’t enough to reduce her feelings of isolation.
When Simone enrolled in high school, her mother wanted her to learn Latin and English. But the school signed her up for German instead of English, because all students who were enrolled in Latin were automatically enrolled in German. Simone’s mother ran to the school to announce that no daughter of hers was about to learn German. But the headmistress, who was not kindly inclined toward Jews, refused to budge, replying that the young mother had every right to enroll her daughter in a different high school if she didn’t want her to learn German. Both the headmistress and Simone’s mother were well aware that all other high schools in the town were Catholic schools. So Simone’s mother was forced to capitulate, but she did so on the condition that no German-language textbook should ever pass the threshold of their home.
Later, Simone’s German teacher asked her why she didn’t want a German pen pal. Simone explained that her mother didn’t want any letters with a German postmark to arrive at their home, nor did she want a German girl to visit their family. The German teacher suggested to Simone that she exchange letters with a girl from East Germany, who would in any case be prohibited from visiting France, and she offered her own mailing address as a destination for the girl’s letters. Simone answered, “All right, but I still have to ask permission, because I’m not prepared to go behind my parents’ backs.” She went home and asked permission. “Do whatever you want,” replied her exhausted parents.
In that way, Simone began exchanging letters with a girl from East Germany. Although the latter was not allowed to visit Simone, Simone found out that she herself could visit her pen pal in East Germany. “I begged my parents a hundred times, and the hundred-and-first, they finally said yes. After my father had paid the money for the trip, he decided that he wanted to retract his permission. But at that point it was already too late, and I went.”
During the trip, her father sent her a telegram saying, “Call me immediately – I need to hear your voice.”
She called him and said, “You know, Dad, I’m the only girl in the group who got a telegram like that.”
“Well, that’s because you’re the only Jewish girl,” he answered.
“No, Dad, there are twelve of us,” she informed him. Indeed, twelve of the twenty-five trip participants were Jewish – probably because other Jewish families had made the same calculation about why a penpal from East Germany was preferable to one from West Germany.
Simone traveled to East Germany again later and stayed with a host family in Magdeburg for a weekend. “Today it’s hard to believe that this happened to me as a 16-year-old girl, but the father of the family took us around on his motorcycle for an entire night, after curfew. He showed us the Soviet army drilling in the darkness, because by that point the East Germans already hated them so much that they would not have tolerated such a sight during daylight hours. He asked us to tell people back home in France about everything we had seen.”
Another day, the girls were taken to the Buchenwald camp. “My friend and I fell behind, because she wanted to take some pictures. The East German police came and locked us in a room, accusing us of being spies. Luckily, the teacher who was leading the trip realized that two of his students were missing, and he backtracked in order to look for us. The police released us, but they took away the film from my friend’s camera. Were we really spies? All we wanted was to take a few pictures of a strange-looking train. The train traveled in both directions on one set of tracks, and when trains were coming in both directions at the same time, one of the trains had to deviate from the main tracks in order to make way for the oncoming train. That was because the Soviets had taken all possible infrastructural materials and shipped them to Russia, including trains and railway tracks, and the infrastructure that remained in East Germany was sparse and rickety.”
When she was 20, Simone married another Communist. To her secular parents’ chagrin, she insisted on getting married under a chuppah. “My mother asked me, ‘Why, why?!’ And I said, ‘Because enough is enough! You never taught me anything about Judaism, and I want to be a Jew.’ My husband didn’t want a chuppah either, but I said to him, ‘We don’t always get our own way in life. Sometimes you have to do something for someone else. Do this for me and for your mother.’ And he agreed to do it. But today I think that the main reason I wanted a chuppah was in order to spite my parents.”
With her husband and other young Communists, Virsube traveled several times to the Soviet Union in the 1960s in order to get a firsthand impression of Communism in action. After one of the trips, she and her husband understood that the Soviet reality was quite ugly, and they decided to relinquish their Communist affiliation. “And after that, we had children, and we didn’t have any more time for politics anyway.”
At the end of our conversation, Virsube told me about one more chapter of her father’s history, a chapter which she herself found out only recently, many years after his death.
When her father first arrived in France after fleeing Poland, he had the option of presenting himself to the French authorities as a political refugee, and receiving a French passport under his real name rather than the false name used on the papers that his brother-in-law had provided for his escape. But he was afraid that he would be mistreated or sent back to Poland if the French authorities knew his history. As a result, he did not register, and in fact he didn’t officially marry his wife right away because he didn’t have the necessary French identity papers. But when he enlisted in the French army at the beginning of the war, he did receive official papers under his false name. He used those in order to register his marriage, because he wanted to make sure that his wife would have rights to a pension if he didn’t come back from the war.
When he returned from the war, he thought that the danger was past and he surely could register under his real name, because at that point the French government was certainly not going to be interested in the fact that he had fled from a trial in pre-war Poland. But a lawyer warned him not to do it, because he could be sent to prison for fraud for marrying, serving in the military and living in France for many years, all under the false name. He understood at that point that it was too late, and lived out the rest of his life under the false name (Simone bore the same surname until her marriage).
The young parents registered Simone and her brother Roger with the French authorities after the war, under the status “declared.” (Even today, there is not one, but three, sorts of citizenship in France: “born” to French parents, “naturalized,” and “declared,” or born in France to non-French parents.) Because Virsube bears the status of a “declared” rather than a “born” citizen, she regularly had to show not only her own passport but also additional proof of citizenship, such as proof that she was born in France, or even the passports of her parents, even long after they were dead. Today, after former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, whose father was Hungarian, endured similar unpleasant experiences, the bureaucratic procedures have been somewhat improved. Government officials are theoretically no longer supposed to ask for additional proofs, but, Virsube said, “they still do sometimes, if they’re in a bad mood that day.”
Virsube’s father never told his children the story of his name, and he also never spoke of the relatives he left behind in Poland, probably because he was afraid that the children would try to locate them and thereby discover his secret. “I still feel so sorry for him,” said Virsube. “But after I found this out,” about a decade ago, from an elderly cousin, “I told my nephew, who’s a writer” – Roger’s son; Roger was no longer alive at that point – “and now he, as well as his own son, a film director, both use my father’s real surname as their artistic name. And that’s at least a small gesture toward repairing the past.”
Hear Simone Virsube talk about having been a reluctant reader as a child:
Translation: When I was five years old, I went to what’s called a Maternelle here, you know, a preschool, for young children. And we started reading there, but I didn’t want to. My father always said to me, “But Simone, this is terrible, everyone needs to read.” But I said, “No, Roger [my brother], he can read, he wants to read for me.” [He said] “No, you need to —” [But I was] not interested. And one time, he had, you know, a card from the library, he had a library card. It wasn’t much to look at, it was green… But he said to me, “You know, Simone, you’ll never [be able to] have a card like this.” Aha! And when I started [primary] school, I learned to read very quickly, because my mother, every day she taught me to read, read, read until I could read like a… And [my father] said to me, “You know, Simone, now you can get a library card.” And we went to the library. And for me, it was like a piece of gold, such a gift! I had [my very own] library card.