The Journey to Pitchipoï

by Jean-Claude Moscovici

Translated by Diane Cousineau

 

On July 20, 1992, at the request of a former deportee, the departure of a train for the extermination camp of Auschwitz was commemorated in a French city of one hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants.  This train (Convoy # 8, July 20, 1942), the only one to leave from the provinces, was made up of eight hundred and twenty-four Jews, 430 of whom were women.  Before their departure, the deportees had been confined in a large seminary that had been requisitioned as a detention center for the camps.  Only fourteen survivors of this group were still alive in 1945.

Fifty years later, the leaders of the community-- the bishop of the city, the prefect and the mayor—all confessed their shame at not having known about these events until then . . .

 

***

 

            At the beginning of this story, I was barely six years old, and my sister was not yet two. In Germany, Hitler, having assumed power several years earlier, created  a single, authoritarian political party composed of fanatical Nazis.   Its elite corps, the SS, with their black uniforms adorned with the sinister death’s head badge, were defined by their motto, “blood, selection, strength.”  Elevating themselves to the rank of supermen, they blindly obeyed the orders of their leaders, theoreticians of the worst, whose goal was the conquest of Europe to be exploited from then on for their purposes alone, and from which they would eliminate the races they considered inferior, despicable, and harmful.

            The extermination of the Jews as well as the gypsies and the incurably ill, their first designated victims, and the enslavement of the Slavs was the principle objective of their ideology, which did not, however, spare people of other origins whose ideas were different from theirs.

            The shadow of the eagle and the swastika spread over Europe as the German army began its invasion, spilling blood and sowing despair and death beneath their boots.  It was the summer of 1942. 

Our entire family all lived together at that time:  my father, my mother, my maternal grandparents and my three uncles (my father's two brothers and my mother's brother).  They had come from another country many years before to live in France, the proverbial land of asylum and liberty.

For many months now, the government of occupied France had been enacting racist measures, each day bringing new restrictions. The anxiety created by these measures weighed heavily on my family.  As children, however, my sister and I were hardly aware of these tragic events; the waves of alarming news broke without touching us thanks to the protection provided by our family.  They each had a yellow six-pointed star sewn on their clothes, on the left side of their chests. As large as the palm of a hand, it bore the inscription "Jew" in black letters. 

Stigmatized in this way, they could be pointed at or avoided. 

The obligation to wear the star was among the government measures that would gradually deprive Jews of all their rights before depriving them even of the right to exist.

Neither my sister nor I wore this star because we were too little.

 

***

 

For as long as I could remember, we had lived in the country, in a beautiful white, freestone house.  There was a large garden in front with two immense fir trees and a pond with goldfish in the middle. Along the driveway grew currant bushes, lilacs, and fruit trees; in the summer there were roses.  In back, there was a small one-story building with a dovecote at either end; the holes beneath its roof looked like eyes under a pointed hat.  There was also a swing that my grandfather had given me, and as I was pushed higher and higher, I would laugh with both pleasure and fright.

My father was the doctor in the village where I went to school.  He brought children into the world and took care of almost everyone, and I believe that almost everyone loved him.

Whenever it was possible, he took me with him on his visits to farms.  We crossed through fields and forests.  From time to time, squirrels and hares leaped in front of us, zigzagging across the road.

When we arrived at a farm, a dog often ran toward us barking, and I was afraid.  I would wait for my father in the car and pretend that I was the driver as I turned the wheel and imitated the sound of the motor.  Frequently, when he came back, his heavy bag in his hand, we would go to see the animals together.

I liked to linger in the stable and watch the cows being milked.  The farmer's wife  sat on a small three-legged wooden stool, and sometimes a tail hit her, which made me laugh.

I would look for eggs in the chicken coops just as I did at home. Each one that I found was a treasure, and I never tired of this game.

 Sometimes in the farmyard, a peacock would fan its tail, looking like a giant flower. I always hoped that I would have the chance to admire it. Patients gave us eggs, potatoes, fruit, and cottage cheese, and I was very proud to give these to my mother when we got home.

My father also took me to a chateau that seemed like a castle out of a fairy tale.  When we went through the doorway, we saw a large picture window that looked out on a lake where swans were swimming.  Beyond, the woods extended as far as I could see.  In this house lived a woman who wrote children's books, and sometimes an artist-friend of hers would also be there. One day she did a painting of me.

From time to time I also went to the chateau with my mother, drank hot chocolate and ate cookies and watched the birds skim along the surface of the water.

On winter evenings, my father came home after it was dark, and I was happy when I saw the shadow of the gate that his headlights threw on the house next door.

At the entrance to our garage stood a red gas pump. It had a glass gauge whose level rose and fell as the handle went up and down.  The lower part was immersed in a tin barrel filled with gas.  Sometimes when it was empty, I was allowed to help refill it, making me feel like a grown-up.

Some mornings the car wouldn't start.  One after the other, my father and my uncles exhausted themselves trying to crank the engine.  At these times, they would swear, and that seemed funny to me.  Then one of them would go for the mechanic who came on foot, calm, smiling, and efficient.

Life was sweet and pleasant without my being in the least aware of it.

I slept close to my parents, in a blue-lacquered bed.  The metal-plated ducks hanging above it seemed to float on water.  My mother sang to me as she put me to sleep, and each evening my father slipped under my pillow the appointment book in which he wrote the names of his patients.  This magical gesture assured me that he would not leave again until morning.

But one day in September of 1939 this ritual ceased as though someone had cast an evil spell.  France and Germany had just gone to war.