“A house protects the dreamer,” writes Gaston Bachelard. Drawing on this idea, Sandell Morse recounts her travels to a house that protected Jews during the war, woven with her own memories of the yellow stucco house she grew up in.
“Toute le monde, everyone, knew it was a Jewish house,” Monsieur Le Hech said, leading me out of the plaza and around a corner. Clearly, this was a grand house, more expansive than I’d thought, belonging, once, to a nineteenth century nobleman, Louis de Veyièves, a man faithful to the Bourbons. What would this nobleman have thought of this refuge for Jewish children? Monsieur Le Hech pointed upward, then watching my face as if to gauge my perception, he asked, “You see?”
Red roof tiles, blue sky, a balcony. Ah, a courtyard. In the History of Beaulieu, I’d seen a photograph of girls scrubbing, then wringing clothes, all posing for the camera’s eye. Above their heads this balcony and blouses hanging on a line. This was ordinary life, the dailyness Germaine described the day we talked—girls washing clothes, peeling apples, and perhaps, later, walking with their chieftains to the Dordogne River where in another photograph, they sit or lie in the sun, walk or stoop at the river’s edge. What did they know of one another? What did they sense? Yvonne, nine years old, handed over to an aunt at the French/German border, her parents arrested and sent to Gurs, an internment camp in the south west, about fifty miles from the Spanish border. What did she do with her earlier life, box it up, store it high on shelf to open later? Or not at all? Now, more than ever, I wanted to enter la colonie. I’d climb stairs, touch banisters, feel Yvonne’s longings and her dreams. I’d imagine a flat in Germany where on Friday nights, Yvonne and her sister would greet their father at the door. It would be shabbat, and her father would be returning from the synagogue. At the table, Yvonne’s mother would bless the candles. Her father would bless the wine and the bread. He’d bless the children, asking God to keep them safe.
The Holocaust, the largest genocide in human history, began in 1933 with the first Nuremberg laws and ended in 1945 with the liberation of the camps. Yet, in la colonie, a director, four caretakers and seventy girls survived. Perhaps, two hundred Jews living in rented houses in the countryside, survived, too. Why? How? Monsieur Le Hech could not say. He was an historian, one who tried to learn facts. Historians were not preoccupied with morality. This was the difference between history and memory.
I am a person who looks for moral value. I’m fascinated with memory and with the way the brain tells our stories, selecting, discarding. As Bachelard says, “…we are never real historians, but always near poets and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.”
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image: Keith Sharp at F-Stop Magazine