Get a cup of coffee or tea and settle in. I’ve got a great read for you today, courtesy of one of my talented relatives.
I introduced Manfred Wolf briefly last week when he added information about his uncle Paul to an earlier post about the far-flung Kornmehl family. Today the spotlight is entirely on him, with an excerpt from an unpublished memoir tentatively called Survival in Paradise.
I’ve adapted the title of this excerpt from the title of the memoir, which focuses on another paradise, Curaçao. And although this excerpt is set entirely in Nice, I used “Southern France” as the post’s name to avoid confusion between Nice the French city and “nice” the adjective.
A bit of background: To escape the Nazis, Manfred traveled with his maternal (Kornmehl) grandparents and his mother’s family from Holland to southern France. Although France was under the control of the Nazi-friendly Vichy government in 1942, when this story is set, the city of Nice was considered relatively safe. It was filled with nondescript, inexpensive tourist hotels, which in turn were filled with refugees waiting to secure papers to safer places.
One last note: When I was preparing to post this excerpt, I asked Manfred if he had any accompanying pictures — something like, I asked wistfully, the one alluded to in the first paragraph of story. Manfred thought that photograph had been lost forever, but through a (relatively brief) effort, he managed to recover the very one, reproduced below.
Survival in Paradise: Southern France
by Manfred Wolf
We arrived in Nice in April 1942. A glorious family photograph on the Promenade des Anglais shows an amazingly youthful extended family — dapper uncles, short-skirted aunts, prosperous blooming children. My brother and I were sent to the École de Notre Dame, where I, as a foreign child, was put in a slow class and the teacher, her uncombed hair and faded house dress still vivid in my memory, recited endlessly, “cho-se… po-se… ro-se…,” pronouncing the second syllable of each word as distinctly as the first. The boys wore shorts and sandals and had long hair. Meanwhile a ragged kid next to me clipped his toenails with oversized scissors. I couldn’t imagine why he would do this in the classroom.
A young girl named Lisette was hired to walk my brother and me along the sea, and my pre-pubescent reverie of her merged with the walks we took into the hills overlooking the gold and brown old city. I was happy.
Though food was scarce, my mother cooked potatoes in the hotel room night after night. They were filling, and we rarely complained. But when some refugees got wind of a restaurant where “chicken is served,” we immediately went. So did many other Jews. No other restaurant had meat. At long tables, the language of conversation was Yiddish, German or Dutch. The chicken was delicious but looked darker than chicken usually does. We went there many times.
My mother took a particular liking to a Dutch family from Utrecht with a seven-year old girl, who always wore a little bow in her hair. She had grown-up, ladylike manners. We kept seeing this family with the impeccable little girl until the restaurant experience came to an abrupt halt. Another rumor now went around: that we had been eating rats.
But Nice felt safe, a vacation place — beautiful, sunny, warm — not like Holland. I was astonished by its intense colors and rounding shoreline. The beach had white, round pebbles instead of sand. Several times the whole family went swimming, all of us wearing tennis shoes to protect against the stones. My father hired two Dutch university students, Jewish refugees, to teach my brother and me something of what we were missing in school. A young man with wireless glasses, blond hair and light down on his chin taught my brother algebra, while he furthered my own passion for geography.
His colleague, a Talmudic-looking fellow with curly hair, became excited when he noticed the sink and grimy little hot plate in a dark, closet-like space in our hotel room. I watched him bending over it, then leaping to some documents he spread out over the table. Quickly he lifted a gray egg out of a boiling pot, dried it on a towel, then rushed to the table and rolled the steaming shell over a signature in an open passport, only to roll it again over an empty page of another passport he was creating. Once he copied a whole page this way. Official-looking papers now covered the whole table. We started calling him The Consul, because he forged numerous documents.
My father often wrung his hands, impatient, wondering aloud whether these documents would work, inquiring whether the boys could also make a Sauf Conduit, the required Safe-Conduct out of France, a sort of exit visa. He inspected a white card they crafted for him, a French identity card attesting to the legality of our being in France, with a profiled passport picture at the top next to freshly printed “Recepisse” and a brand-new date and several stamps. Without it, any French official could immediately arrest us. My father looked at it, frowned, and stared as if he did not quite see it. “These papers,” he reiterated to my mother, “these papers will help, but we need a real passport, a real visa, and a real sauf-conduit.”
The words almost became a refrain, and I knew its importance — that we needed better papers. But I found Nice so irresistible, its golden hills inspiring my desire to walk along their paths, the dark-haired girl taking care of my brother and me so enchanting, that I forgot those words from time to time. Lisette had lovely black bangs and a mild, gentle manner. Where would she take us today? Would we be able to climb up the undulating hills in back of the Old City and look out over the whole town? Her voice was soft, and I understood most of the French she spoke. And when I didn’t, I hypnotized myself with the sound of her voice. Returning to our room instantly set off a whole wave of anticipation for the next day.
My maternal grandparents were in Nice, as well as their children, my mother’s brothers Itscho and Paul, with their wives Rita and Melitta. My mother’s sister Anna was there, with her husband Isaac and four-year old daughter Paulette, my cousin. She had been in a convent school in Villard de Lans, a town in the French Alps, and occasionally still said, to everyone’s merriment, “Je suis Ca-co-lique.” Then my father’s cousin Jacob joined us. Except for my father and Jacob, everyone spoke good French, my mother best of all.
“You know,” smiled Uncle Paul, “with all these dark Frenchmen around, it’s easier here to pass for Gentile. But we cannot stay in Nice. We must go. What happened in Lyon will happen here.”
Half running to the closet, my father picked up a pair of my shoes. He then, laboriously, cut one of the soles away from the shoe and extracted three dark-green U.S. hundred-dollar bills from between the soles. They looked black around the edges. “Try Liberia, Paul,” he said urgently. “Tell the Liberian Consul I lost my Dutch passport, but he can put the visa on this document.” And he unfolded our gray-white naturalization forms. Uncle Paul had visited the Liberian Consulate several times, since Liberia was rumored to be giving out visas. No other country was so inclined.
My father resumed his pacing, his face gray, his eyes expressionless. He looked so old, I thought, but then he is thirty-seven. He got carried away with an idea or plan and repeated it endlessly. Already then I knew that he did not really know where Liberia was. “There are ships in Marseille; they can take us there. Liberia,” he half-chanted in a monotone. “Liberia, we must have Liberia . . . Why can’t we live in Liberia? Of course, we can.”
“Monrovia,” I said, showing off. I had learned the capitals of most countries.
“Monrovia?” asked my father. “Yes, of course, it’s far, far from here, so it’s good.”
But Uncle Paul was back that same morning without a visa to Liberia. That conversation has been told and retold in our family.
“The Consul will take the money,” he reported, “but he wants something else.”
“Other than money?”
“He wants me to get his novel published.”
“How does he think you can get his novel published?” asked my father.
Uncle Paul smiled slyly. “Well, I played the role of a journalist.”
“Why, for God’s sake?”
“Max, you’re not following me. At first he didn’t even want to talk to me, but I could tell he was an intellectual, so I pretended to be a Dutch journalist, like Cousin Herman.”
“Okay, but can you get his book published?”
“Of course not,” answered Paul, irritated at my father’s slowness. “Of course not, Max. But now he’ll talk to me.”
“And what will you talk about? We need a visa, right away.”
“I know that. So I told him I could get his book published. But he said if he gave me a visa, I would just leave, and he’d never hear from me again.”
“So what did you say?”
“I said since his book was in English anyway, it couldn’t be published in France or Holland. I would send it from Liberia to my English uncle, a famous publisher in London. He answered that he would consider it. Then I gave him a hundred dollars. More when I get the visas.”
Liberia remained out of reach. Before he could return to the literary consul, Uncle Paul was arrested on the street by French police, who, holding one of his documents to the light, seized him. They beat him on the head and called him a forger, interrogated him all night and occasionally hit him with a chair. Then suddenly they offered him cigarettes.
Paul remained polite and even jovial throughout. He swore in his best French that his identity papers were genuine, and suddenly the officers let him go. In parting, Paul gave them five packs of Gauloises he bought on the black market and promised to come back with more.
I watched my father as he tore our own forged papers into tiny little pieces and flushed the toilet repeatedly. He was mumbling to himself, “These are not good enough.” That same morning the crew in the hotel set to work on improved identity cards. When we finally left Nice for “safer” Monte Carlo, we displayed some of these forgeries. They were not detected.
From his American exile, the Prince of Monaco announced that no Jews would be harmed in his tiny principality, and great numbers of them traveled there from southern France. We took a toy-like train to Monte Carlo and found an idyllic little hotel outside of town, grapevines around the trellises, distant music along the hillsides. The owner was friendly and patted me on the head. I wondered how far it was to walk into town and swim in the sea. I wanted to stay here forever.
One night I woke up to loud, insistent voices coming from my parents’ room. At first I thought I was having a bad dream, but the voices did not stop and grew louder; several men were talking commandingly to my mother, and I could hear her replying patiently, but she sounded different, a frightened edge in her voice. My brother and I got out of bed and looked out the window: policemen and men with guns stood in the garden. Military-looking vehicles were parked on the street. In the distance, the lights of Monte Carlo flickered less reassuringly than earlier in the evening.
We walked into my parents’ room, and one policeman said, almost softly, “Voici les enfants,” ‘Here are the children.’ My mother turned to him and told him I had been ill and needed further treatment, but her protestations did not help: the two policemen insisted we come along with them. My father looked hurriedly through a briefcase, found a document. He put a hand on the sleeve of one officer. He tried to show the document. But without looking, the officer brushed his hand away.
Unbeknownst to us, the Vichy French had overrun Monaco and were now doing the Nazis’ work. “Vite, vite,” — “Quick, quick”— said one of the policemen. We were driven back to Nice in a closed truck which we entered from the back, my father lifting me up the two steps. My mother tried to talk to the plain-clothes driver but he did not respond. The winding road of the Grand Corniche looked windswept and forlorn in the dark. We stopped before a large building. Along with groups of people from other trucks, we were hurried into a huge assembly hall where we sat on long, straight benches. In that room of the doomed, I asked one of the policemen for a glass of water. He handed it to me wordlessly.
Policemen and other officials bustled around. My mother called out to a young officer with important-looking braids on his shoulders that we were Dutch and that his orders were to round up Eastern European Jews only. She showed him our tattered papers, including one homemade document, and spoke gently but vivaciously to him. He bent over the forged identity cards and the naturalization papers, which my mother called “a Dutch passport.” He looked at her and told her to come with him into one of the rooms off the hall; I could see them disappearing behind a huge door. My father sat motionless and silent.
The three of us now waited on that bench; a low, agitated hum of hundreds of whispers fills the air. As in a dream, the sound undulated from silence to ear-shattering to murmuring quiet. Families, old people, young people, children, all were either mute or very noisy. Every once in a while a stifled sob came from somewhere, but I did not want to look. Next to me, my brother sat straight and said something to my father. The door from which my mother could emerge opened constantly but always with policemen walking importantly in and out. My brother asked my father if we should inquire, but he whispered, “Better not.”
Suddenly there was my mother, looking drawn but somehow relieved, accompanied by a smiling policeman. He spoke to her in French that sounded almost Italian, and I could make out something like, “Correct. This is technically correct.” She smiled at him and said to my father in Dutch but making sure the man would understand, “We can go. Thanks to this gentleman.” We all got up to leave, but my mother now spotted the family with the little girl whom we had met in the restaurant. She said rapidly to the parents, “We’ll take her with us.” I looked at the little bow in her hair. Her parents wordlessly talked to each other and the man replied, “Thank you. We don’t want to be separated from each other.” This exchange took less than a minute.
I cannot forget that they and all the others in that room, shipped back to the Nazis, are now dead. That thought was with me in Curaçao, and is with me still. It is not survivors’ guilt I feel — merely an unspeakable horror at the slenderness of that thread which has unaccountably held for me and not for others, like that little girl with the impeccable manners and the bow in her hair.
Bio: Manfred Wolf has taught at San Francisco State, University of California, Berkeley, the University of Helsinki, and the Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco. His most recent book is Almost a Foreign Country: A Personal Geography in Columns and Aphorisms. Other selections from Survival in Paradise have appeared in both European and American magazines; one excerpt, “The Dance School,” was featured in the collection Beacon Best of 1999.