Tuesday, June 21, 2011

a little of this, little of that, all French

Celine's face stared at me from the bookshop window across from the Cluny museum. I love this store, go every time I'm in Paris. A whole window was devoted to Celine; his books, critical essays on him, anthologies. Reminded me of my post a while ago on the controversy over Celine being named to the pantheon of great writers. POST. For a man who stirred controversy in his life and even stirs the pot even now he's still a bestseller in France. I picked up a literary magazine with Celine on the cover and devoted to his life and how the world looks at him now.
Amazing. Celine had been a true contradiction - an amazing writer, doctor who treated the poor and vocal anti-Semite. His wife lived in the house they'd inhabited like gypsies, recluses outside Paris in Meudon. She died this year and had only given one interview in her life after his death. But that goes to the point of how can people revere a man's writing and ignore his life - in Celine's case a rabid anti-semitist who escaped France with the Vichy government when the Allies arrived. And settled for a while in Sigamarin, a German castle refuge of Nazi's until exile in Denmark.
During his life Celine, treated prostitiutes, the outcasts in Montmarte and the unfashionable suburbs then slums. Wouldn't he have made the corollary between the way the Jews were regarded? An enigma, a contradiction and he never apologized. Just kept treating the poor. I've met few writers whose work I admire and revere. And one of those - his elegant sweeping prose knocked me then and now for a loop - disappointed me as a person. I always wish I'd never met him - let the rose tinged view of his work remain not colored by his real persona

On a hot dry Saturday, during the longest drought to hit Paris in 133 years, I spent an afternoon baking in the sun at the Memorial service at Mont Valerian for the Resistants who were imprisoned and shot here. Mont Valerian was a former fortress then prison taken over by the Germans during the war.
An odd place just outside Paris and bordering the Rolland Garros tennis courts - which was in full swing at the time. Waiting for the bus up the hill, too hot to walk, two men with tennis rackets started talking to me in English. Americans here for the tennis tournament. They couldn't understand why I would go to a hot prison to a ceremony about the war. Visit the American cemetary, they suggested, you get a great view of Paris from there. I didn't know either except that Toli, my 84 year old Polish Resistant friend had given me his invitation before leaving on a trip. Somehow I felt I needed to go.
Reaching the double walled prison I found security gates. Now the Ministry of Defense ran the place and no one was allowed in. The solider informed me to take a long walk around the walls and find the ceremony. Birds chirped, the dry grass blew and Paris spread below me...did I mention this was on a hill?
Chairs were being spread out in a hot dry open parking lot. I was two hours early. I found a water tap put my neck under it and found a bench. Next to me was Marie-Claire, who it turned out had been ten years old when her Jewish parents took her to a village in the countryside to hide with other children like her and cared for by a Protestant priest. I ended up spending the afternoon with Marie-Claire and her friend
both active in children of the deportée's associations. She explained the ceremony to me, introduced me to other children of deportée's and even got me into the area at the wall where the men were shot. This all took several hours in the heat. An honor guard of twelve year old boys and girls stood to attention, one of them fainted and crumpled. Before she hit the ground one of the old Resistants, an eighty year old man bedecked with medals, ran to catch her before she hit the ground. Then another boy wavered in the heat and was caught before he passed out.
But in all those long hot hours not one of the old people - we're talking a crowd of octogenarians - batted an eye. Tough.
But then they'd been through a lot, a little weather didn't seem to phase them. But as one of them said, we want to do this, it's important and every year we lose a few.

Cara - Tuesday
PS Shaken - the short story anthology benifiting Japan's Tsunami Victims offered on Kindle - a work spearheaded and edited by our Tim Hallinan - which I and 20 authors were honored to contribute to - has GREAT news! Amazon is now NOT taking any percentage of the profits as of yesterday - a first - ALL the proceeds are going to the Tsunami victims. Please support this project - every penny,euro, pound goes directly to the people.


  1. The men and women of the resistance know that they must remember their comrades while they can because when they are gone there will be no one left to remember.

    Were the children of the deportees with whom you spoke reunited with their families? It is difficult to imagine how traumatizing it must have been for children to be separated from their parents and hidden within families who were also French but with whom they did not share the most important ties. It was a matter of honor on the part of the Christians who hid the children not to attempt to convert these children to Christianity. But in many cases it was necessary for Jewish children to learn Christian prayers so that they could be hidden among the other children. Jewish children hidden with a Protestant minister, and likely his family, would have had to fit in during religious services. The Gestapo were well aware that they were deporting adults but not children. They knew Jewish children were hiding in plain sight. I had a student whose great-grandparents had been hidden on a farm in France. Despite food shortages, the farm family did its best to ensure that the children were able to keep to Jewish dietary law.

    One of the most amazing of the stories to come out of this period was a story about three Jewish men who were hidden in the cellar of a farmhouse. The only family member there was the grandmother who was not literate. The men were desperate for news of the war but everyone in the village knew the woman could not read. If she bought a newspaper, everyone would be suspicious. She solved the problem by convincing the shopkeepers that it was easier for her to carry her purchases if they were wrapped in newsprint.

    I guess I will have to forgive Amazon for being the single greatest force in the failure of independent bookstores. They have redeemed themselves with their decision not to make any money from SHAKEN. I am delighted the book is doing so well.

  2. Beth,
    Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I love your story about the illiterate old farmwoman who used her brains to furnish newspapers to the jewish men hiding in the cellar.
    Some of the children of the deportees, who are now in their 70's and 80's, were re-united with family. Some weren't. Each has a different story. Marie-Claire, the lady on the left, was ten when her father found her back in the village hidden by the Protestant pastor after the war. They waited for her mother who never came. Turns out she'd been sent to Auschwitz soon after being rounded up. It took five years after her father discovered this and for the government to accept that she'd perished. Five years for a piece of paper. Their apartment had been taken over by a family who refused to return it. Yet, Marie-Claire is a warm, witty, smart and positive person without rancor who abounds with energy and has grandchildren. She speaks at schools too and shares her experience. I was honored to spend the afternoon with her.

  3. Cara,

    What a wonderful event you went to; it was well worth the heat. It's something you will never forget, nor will you forget the people you met and their stories.

    Fantastic people were/are those who were in the Resistance. It's good to hear that many survived, and some are still with us. They are the best of the best -- heroes.

    Glad you told us of this memorial event and of Marie-Clare's story, and so glad that she is such an upbeat person.

    And enjoyed the story of the smart grandmother who figured out how to get the news to those she hid. Stories like that abound about the good people during the war.

    With thanks (and now I'm in tears) and best wishes.

    Kathy D.