“But no one...rien personne... acknowledges what the Jewish Resistance did.” Naftali Skrobek, 84 years old - the same age as my mother - gestures from his desk in his apartment in the Marais. Balding and short and with kind red-rimmed eyes that water frequently he offers me coffee. “The documents, I have the documents. The accounts written after the war are here, if you look for them.”
Toli, as he tells me to call him, has sat me down by a bookcase filled ceiling high with books. A veritable history collection in Yiddish and French of World War II. I’m to learn, he says, the structure of the Francs-tireurs et partisans – main-d'œuvre immigrée (FTP-MOI) who were a sub-group of the Francs-tireurs et partisans (FTP) organization, a component of the French Resistance. A wing composed mostly of foreigners and Jews, the MOI maintained an armed force to oppose the German occupation of France during World War II. The Main-d'œuvre immigrée was the "Immigrant Movement" of the FTP.
We spend a long afternoon that goes into the evening. Toli insists I understand the political and organizational structure of the Workers Communist party before he tells me his story of being in the Resistance here in the Marais, the same quarter where he lives now, from April 1944 until Liberation in August. After awhile he shows me a picture of him and his father.
Emotion clouds his face when he shows me the last picture of his father taken by the Germans in Strufhof-Natweiler concentration camp near Strausbourg before he was gassed in 1943.
I’ve found Toli through an Armenian association who promotes the activist story of the Armenian Resistance part of MOI which were recently profiled in the film The Army of Crime - a story of Isak Manouchian, an Armenian poet who ‘led’ sabotage acts against the Germans and immortalized in the famous poster l’affiche rouge...a poster that became the emblem of resistance before the group were executed in 1943.
But Toli has agreed to meet me, spend time with me, only if I get the real story. Manouchian did lead the FTP MOI group - but for three months - until a traitor revealed the group to the Gestapo. Patience, he said, and I would hear the story of his father's work in the Resistance.
Toli was born in Poland of activist Communist Jewish parents - his father was a journalist, magazine editor and militant in the Warsaw trade unions, who fled Poland in the 30’s when the government targeted him. Toli’s family found sanctuary in Paris when he was eight years old.
But given my less than perfect French and Toli’s sidetracking when I ask specifc details, we’re still in the 1930’s when it gets dark. Toli's son comes to visit and agrees to translate the intricacies of trade union organizations that I can’t ferret. ‘My father, he’s obsessed, with this.’ His son rolls his eyes. And I’m still no further in my goal of hearing Toli’s role as a 16 year old here in the Marais in the Resistance before Liberation. My real goal.
When I ask specific questions, his son translates and they argue. ‘He insists you understand the framework, the context of the time, these men who formed the organization,’ his son says throwing up his arms. Toli accuses his son of not caring or being interested. It gets uncomfortable. Finally, his son smiles and says, it takes time with my father. Bear with him. And leaves at least they’re on speaking terms.
I’ve taken notes, recorded several hours of Toli’s account and feeling still at sea, when Toli says. “Want to go for a ride? See where I lived, the bordello across the street, my school?’
Sensing this would be a way into his story, his way, I jump at the chance. Off we go. Toli, drives slow, which in Paris is more dangerous than driving at the usual breakneck speed. I close my eyes several times as taxi’s zip past almost shaving his headlights, missing a bus by centimeters but then living dangerously becomes my motto that night. If Toli fought in the Resistance against the Germans Paris traffic was nothing, right?
Over several weeks Toli and I had several more adventures, meals together, more hours at his desk and the crowing highlight was to be his guest at the November 11th armistice commemoration at the Arc de Triomphe and sitting with him and ancien combattants in the rain as Sarkozy strode past to honor the unknown WWI soldier at the eternal flame. More to come.
Cara - Tuesday