Sandell Morse

Beautiful Hair

The wind moans and rattles the metal fasteners of my shutters. It is the autun, a sister wind to the Mistral, the Levant, the Marin, and in Switzerland, the Foehn, blowing relentlessly and insistently, night and day. I stand at my bedroom window, pulling strands of hair from my cheeks. Here, in Auvillar, a village in south west France, my windows do not have glass. They do not have screens. In a narrow park across the road, the tops of trees sway. Grass bends, and the Garonne River beyond runs dark, its gray-green surface curling with rooster tails. Fog has turned the blue metal suspension bridge, connecting Auvillar to the nearby village of Espalais gossamer. It is October 2012, and I have returned to this village to research and to write. But not today. Today, I cannot think. I cannot write. I am restless and out of sorts, moodiness unfurling from my brow to my toes. It is this wind, carrying with it positive ions that some scientists say make us restless. Others say the effect is illusory correlation. We perceive an association that does not exist like the ghostly whistle of a train. How facile our brain and its tricks.

Downstairs, I pull on my trench coat. This house and all houses on this street border the sidewalk. There is no lawn, no shield. I sense movement. A shutter opens, but not all the way. I see no one, but someone is there. I feel her eyes. My neighbor. Why does she watch me?

Suspicion comes naturally to these villagers. Most have lived here for generations. They stick close. They don’t travel, and they listen to each other’s stories, carefully, guarding their tales of the Second World War when German soldiers walked these streets. Those were terrible times of collaboration and betrayal, times when neighbors spied on neighbors, times when men disappeared, drafted into forced labor. Food was scarce. Even water became a luxury.

Leaving the river and the Old Port, I begin my ascent up the hill and into the village. The autun blows, and I drag my body into it, counting my steps. My chest heaves. I stop, and I breathe, rapid and shallow at first, then deeply and slowly. To my left a narrow stucco house with two glass windows flanking the door. The windows are new, but the house looks abandoned, as if someone has paused in the midst of renovation. Inside one window, a poster. Faint letters spell out Journée Histoire et Mémoire. Journey of History and Memory.

The poster is a collage with a red J, a postage stamp image of Marshal Pétain, an eagle holding a swastika with its talons, three overlapping photos of a man, a woman and a girl that are identity photos—like passport photos, but not like passport photos, for these are Second World War images, and rather than ease passage, these documents often restricted passage, especially if one was imprinted with a red J. Juif, Jew. The other images, too, belong to Vichy France and German Occupation, Marshal Pétain, the eagle holding a swastika with its talons. I have walked up and down this hill countless times, and not once, did I turn to look in that window. Deutches Reich. German Reich. Des rafles à la déportation. Roundups for deportation.

I’m drawn to the image of the young girl, her luminous skin, her pout. She is not classically beautiful or glamorous, but she has an allure. She is innocence on the cusp. I step closer to see her hair, long and dark, pulled back from her face and fastened above one ear. That is how I see that her long jaw line matches her father’s jaw line, for clearly, this is a family.  She glances at a slant, her eyes narrowed with contempt. Perhaps with fury. She is seething.

Because this year is the seventieth anniversary of the roundups of the summer of 1942, when French police and gendarmes, fulfilling German quotas, arrested and interned Jews in both the Occupied and Unoccupied zones, cities and towns throughout France were holding commemorations, honoring the lives of those who were deported and then, murdered in Auschwitz. But what does all of this have to do with Auvillar? In my research, I came across a single Jewish family that had sheltered here, la famille Hirsch, the mother and father arrested by Gestapo more than a year after events announced in this poster, their children sheltered by villagers before resistance workers moved them on. No roundups here—or so I believed.

For anyone interested in Auvillar’s Jewish history, Gerhard Schneider is the man to see. This may seem an anomaly. Gerhard is Catholic and German, a theologian and an academic, who retired here in the early nineties. He is also what we call in Yiddish, a mentch. During the years I have been coming to this village, Gerhard and I have become friends. I knock on his door. He is and he isn’t surprised to see me. Gerhard is a large man, with a wide open face and a warm smile. I follow him along a narrow corridor and into a room at the back of his house, a house that dates from the fifteenth century. A fire burns in a large cooking hearth. Gerhard pours coffee. He shuffles through stacks of papers that sit on the tops of two bureaus. “I know it is here, someplace,” he says. Another stack. “Ah.”

He sets a larger version of the poster I saw in the window at my place. Yes, he and Mary Jo, his wife, also a retired academic, French literature, her field, organized this commemoration. It happened this past August. It is too bad I was not here.

“I didn’t know.”

“I did not tell you? I thought I told you.”

“So the ceremony. You were honoring whose memory?”

“These people.”

“The people in the poster?”

“Yes, and more.”

“More? Here in Auvillar?”

“When you came to talk with me, always, you wanted only to hear about Hirsch. I think I mentioned this.”

“But you said this village was free of Jews.”

“Living openly, yes. These people were hiding.”

“How many?”

“Four families.”

Memory, like glass under my skin, pokes through. He did talk about four families, but I had no context, then. And with his broken English and my broken French—well…. “Gerhard, who was this girl?”

“Ah, this was a wonderful girl.”

She was Adèle Kurzweil, seventeen, daughter of Bruno and Gièsle Kurzweil. Before the War, the family lived in Graz, Austria where Bruno was both a lawyer and an activist. After the Anschluss, Hitler’s annexation of Austria, local functionaries were anxious to make Graz the first Austrian town to be Judenrein, rid of Jews. The Kurzweil family fled to Paris where Bruno studied French at the Sorbonne and where Gisèle became an esthetician. Adèle, thirteen, attended a school run by the OSE, Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, Organization to Save the Children, in Montmorency. Bruno Kurzweil worked with Jewish organizations, helping Jews obtain false documents and secure visas. In 1940, when the victorious German Army marched into Paris, the Kurzweils fled to Montauban, a city about an hour’s train ride from Auvillar. In June of 1942, a Jewish organization in Montauban sent the family to Auvillar. Three other Jewish families were also sent to Auvillar, the Roths, Winewiezs and Weisselbergs. Auvillar, their safe haven. My safe haven, its country roads where I walk, mornings, the Sunday market where the cheese man knows my taste and offers slivers from his wide bladed knife.

It didn’t turn out that way, not for the four families. All were deported and murdered.

“I learned all this by accident,” Gerhard says.

One day, after he had retired and moved to Auvillar full time, he was randomly searching German sites on the internet. He found mention of Auvillar. Auvillar is such a small place and to find mention of this village on a German site—well, he was surprised. And what he learned was even more astonishing. An article spoke of four suitcases that had been locked inside an attic room in the mairie, town hall and of their discovery by a workman when the mairie was undergoing renovations. The workman knew immediately what he found. He saw the official seals of the gendarmes. He could not touch them, not the seals, not the locks.  Officials came, two representatives from the Jewish community in Montauban, Pascal Caïla, an historian from Montauban, too, and Roger Téchiné, a representative from the mayor’s office. Later, Caïla would spend a month inventorying every item.

The suitcases belonged to the Kurzweil family, and each had been packed for a long journey, for the Kurzweils, Bruno, Gièsle and Adèle were waiting for their visas from the Mexican consulate to begin their journey to a new life. Always, there was a delay. It’s hard to believe their belongings remained as they left them, stored in an attic room from the summer of 1942 until a fall day in the early nineties when a workman turned a key and a time capsule opened. Here, inside each suitcase were their lives, Bruno, Gièsle and Adèle, photographs of Adèle as a child in her native Austria, posing jauntily with a friend, now, standing behind a seated woman and resting her hands on the woman’s shoulders, Adèle’s dresses, her books, her bottle of eau de cologne, her phonograph and her watercolors, her mother’s blouses and black suede shoes stuffed with newspaper to keep their shape, her father’s umbrella, his books, his two pair of spare glasses, one gray, the other tortoise shell. The family’s cutlery, an entire set.

Word of the found suitcases traveled to Graz, Austria, the Kurzweil’s home city, for on the German internet site that Gerhard found, he read of a symposium detailing the family’s life in Graz and then in France. This was nearly twenty years ago. Gerhard lifts a hand to the back of his neck. “Until that moment, I knew nothing of Jews in Auvillar. I started asking old people. ‘Do you know something? Do you remember?’

I imagine Gerhard striking up a conversation at the Sunday market. He is friendly and people are drawn to him. They speak with him. But not about Jews or Vichy France.

“Nobody knows. Not one of them. Then, one day, an old woman takes me aside. This old woman says to me, ‘She used to come to my mother’s shop. She used to buy postcards. She had beautiful hair.’”

Adèle.

I want to give Adèle the breath of life. In Hebrew the word is ruach—not only breath but wind, spirit and mind. Breath of the body, breath of the mind, breath of the spirit, in and out, over and over. God is Ruach Elohim. We breathe God with our nostrils. I cannot give Adèle the breath of life, but I can imagine. As a kid, I conjured different lives for myself. I lived in woods, foraged for berries and bedded down to sleep with deer. When my Mama, my grandmother, died, I carried her with me as an elephant carries the bones of its dead. Today, I carry her wedding announcement in my wallet. I hear her voice, that Yiddish lilt. Come, Sandella, you’ll drink with me a cup of tea.

“And so you found her.”

“The house is not far from here.”

“Where they lived?”

“Where they lived. Where they were arrested.”

At the door, he points.

A short walk brings me to number three place de l’horloge, a soap shop, one wall a honeycomb of shelving with scented soaps inside, lavender, lime, lemon, vanilla, peach, bergamot and on and on. There are fragrant oils. There are dangling earrings and necklaces with large beads. A woman sits behind a cash register, nearly hidden by a high counter. Her eyes follow me. I am the American renting from that other American, and as I browse, I wonder what she knows of this building where she sits every day, Adèle’s last home.

Gerhard would like to see a marker outside this door. There is precedent for marking the houses of deported and murdered Jews. In the Marais, the old Jewish Quarter in Paris, where I stay whenever I visit the city, I pass plaques attached to schools and to houses. In German cities, such as Cologne and Hamburg, the sculptor, Gunter Demnig, has embedded stolperstein, stumbling blocks, shiny copper squares into sidewalks, each square engraved with the name of a Jew who was dragged away and murdered. Each stone is raised above the pavement. You must stumble. You must notice. You must read. Here lived. Here worked. Memory is eternal life.

The first step in the process of marking these houses of the deported is identifying each one, but when Gerhard went to the mairie, asking to see the official papers, naming the other houses, nobody could find the papers. He wasn’t surprised. Often, records of the deportations of August 1942 disappeared. Pascal Calïa sent Gerhard copies of the missing papers. Gerhard has the addresses, but the mayor and his council do not want to affix plaques.

Outside, I try to figure out where I’d hang a plaque. Space seems either too narrow, too high or too low. I remember the stolperstein. Why not here in Auvillar? A stumbling block. And it is as if she is here, Adèle closing the door of number three place de l’horloge, place of the clock. She brushes past me like a breath of air. She walks under the arch of the clock tower and crosses the street. She wears her thick dark hair, pulled back and pinned as it is pinned in the photograph on the poster. Outside the tabac, she spins a rack with postcards. Everyday, the cards are the same. Still, she spins and she looks, as if seeing this village as if for the first time—the Church of Saint Peter with its stained glass, the bell tower, the nineteenth century round market with stone pillars, the ancient chapel of Saint Catherine she passes when she descends the steep hill into the Old Port. In every photograph, sun shines and lights medieval stone, turning it golden. This is a village at peace, not at war.

Adèle looks, and she touches. How much time does she have? Three weeks? Two weeks? She speaks perfect unaccented French. She writes in French. She can pass. But really, can anyone pass? She is both visible and invisible. Villagers understand she is a refugee. Do they understand she is a Jew? I suspect they do.

Inside the tabac, Adèle hands her postcards to a woman. She is the proprietor. Her daughter, a very young child, sits in a chair behind the counter, staring at Adèle in that uncompromising way of children, and that is why, years and years later, when that child is an old, old woman, she will say to Gerhard, “She had beautiful hair.”

Adèle.

Adèle has left us her books, her essays, her drawings, her diary, and I think of Anne Frank, fifteen when she died at Bergen-Belsen, her diary expressing her hopes, her dreams, her fears, her passions, all juxtaposed against a world gone mad. Yet, there was the dailyness of ordinary life in the Annex where she, her parents and friends were hiding, meals to prepare, books to read. I think of Adèle’s walks to the Garonne River, the hours she spent dreaming and drawing, reading and writing postcards to friends.

I think of my window where I stood that morning, looking out at the dark Garonne and at the narrow park, wind lifting the branches of trees. On sunny days, Adèle sat there on the grass. Often at the end of a day, I carry my journal and a glass of the local red to a picnic table on the river’s bank. Sometimes, my journal stays closed. Sometimes, I just sit. Light fades and time circles, a blue note wailing. This is the thing about being in Europe; I feel time. I feel history, and that morning, sitting inside Gerhard’s fifteenth century brick house, I felt the presence of women who lived in this village in earlier times, invisible shadows floating from hearth to bedroom, hands feeling a child’s feverish forehead and then, applying a cool compress. Perhaps, Adèle walked past the house, that is now Gerhard’s. Perhaps, she passed those front windows on the day she was taken, Adèle descending the steep hill to the Old Port. Someone, a man, a woman, a child must have seen her. Watched her. Adèle, sitting and sketching at the river.

Why didn’t Auvillar save her?

At the table when we meet again, Gerhard lifts his white porcelain coffee mug. He sets it down without drinking. “This period is very difficult to understand. The Vichy regime was based on anti-Communism, and Europe was afraid of becoming Communist. Already, Spain had nearly become Communist. Catholic people had been on the side of Vichy. Now, French people are criticizing Vichy. I am more clement. I think we don’t have to judge these people.

The villagers.

“The German force was very strong. Maybe it was better to cooperate in this way.

Silently and going along.

“Nobody knows exactly these things, and much refoulement…”

I don’t understand refoulement.  He switches to German, his native tongue.  “Verdrabgen.”

I take a breath. Refoulement? Verdrabgen.

“Freud invented this name. Refoule. This is an expression of Freudian psychology. It is an unconscious act.”

Ah, repressed.

“Memory doesn’t accept the things which are negative. Many things about the Jewish accident…

Accident? Did he say accident?

“Many things about the Shoah in Europe are verdrabgen,” he says, speaking quickly to cover his slip, but the word has touched nerve fibers. I try to give him an out, a glitch in translation, a misfortunate word choice. Perhaps, he meant something akin to catastrophe, which in modern Hebrew is the translation of Shoah. Holocaust is a burning. Burning seems too quick. Catastrophe spreads. But the word lingers. Accident. A child’s skinned knee, a car crashing, a person drowning. An accident is unplanned and unexpected—not a massive, meticulously planned and meticulously executed killing machine.

German is Gerhard’s first language, and language is the home country—the place we learn without knowing we are learning. These are the lullabies in our bones. When Gerhard speaks with me in English, he is far away from those early lullabies. I like Gerhard. He is a compassionate man, a mentch. He speaks with me, an American Jew about a sensitive subject. He says to me, ruefully, “Anti-Semitism in Europe is an old story, eh?”

On the Kurzweil family’s last night in Auvillar, Bruno Kurzweil sat at a table in the front parlor of his flat above the soap shop, composing a letter to a friend. This letter was the last thing packed into one of the suitcases. He wrote: Dear Friend, I am anxious about my family. I feel problems coming….

Did Adèle hear the scratch of her father’s pen? Did she leave her bed and pad into the parlor? Did she glance over her father’s shoulder and read his words before he slid a blotter and covered them over? Did they hear it at the same time, the sound of a motor, a car or a truck making its way under the arch of the clock tower, then stopping at number three place de l’horloge, the name itself meaning clock. Did Bruno walk to a front window and peer through a crack in the closed shutters? Did he turn to Adèle and tell her to dress, quickly? Was Gièsle awake?

On the cobblestones, a truck with an open back used to transport farm animals, idled. Were the other families already inside? Were the Kurzweils the first family, the second? They climbed up without their suitcases, for they were allowed only small bundles. Here, are the names four families arrested that early morning: the family Kurzweil, Bruno, Gisèle and Adèle; the family Roth, Moriz, Regina Manfred, Liselotte and Bernard; the family Winewiez, Sigsmond, Anna; the family Weisselberg, Ernst, his son—there was no further information about this child.

The truck moved, slowly, passing the tabac. Did the proprietor live in rooms above? Did she hear sounds? And what of her daughter, the child who, when she became an old, old woman would say to Gerhard, ‘She had beautiful hair.’?

I imagine dawn drawing its colors across the sky. I imagine the crowing of roosters. I imagine the truck motoring country roads and passing farmers as they made their way to barns and field. Did anyone turn? Did anyone see? Perhaps, Adèle unfastened her barrette.

What none of them knew, what the world did not know was that six months earlier at the Wansee Conference, the Third Reich ordered implementation of the Final Solution—murder. Bruno, Gisèle and Adèle were interned, first, at Septfonds, a camp outside of Montauban and then at Drancy, a camp outside of Paris. They joined convoy number 30 and were gassed on arrival at Auschwitz.

On a Sunday morning, the place des halles brims with villagers, all shopping at the open market. The weather has turned. The wind, no longer the warm autun, blows cold, and although the sun shines, the temperature of the air has dropped. Villagers have dressed in down jackets and wool hats, and I have wound a wool scarf around my neck. A vendor rolls newspaper into a cone. He scoops roasting chestnuts from a brazier. He is a slight man with a narrow face, a narrow nose—a face I’ve come to recognize as French. He wears dark trousers, layers of shirts, a wool cap and fingerless gloves. Slowly, I move to the front of the line where the vendor’s brazier warms my face. I take my cone of chestnuts from his hand and drop coins into a jar. I’ve been watching and deciding. How many Euros will I give? There is no set price. People give what they wish. I have chosen a two Euro coin, about three dollars. Is this enough? Too much? Too much will mark me as a stranger. What am I thinking? I am a stranger.

I wander the market peeling and eating, tasting over and over, the dense sweet flavor of my childhood. Dad loved roasted chestnuts and whenever our family visited New York City, Dad stopped the car, hopped out, leaving the door open and the motor running, to buy a bag of chestnuts from a vendor. Driving, Dad peeled and he ate. Mom and I peeled and ate, as I am eating, now, tasting time.

Suddenly, Gerhard rounds a table. I thought I’d meet him here. He is effusive, waving his arms, speaking rapidly. He must speak with me about Marlis Glaser, a German artist. Do I know of her? He and Mary Jo brought her work to Auvillar. I must look her up. It is a pity I was not here for the exhibit. Another event I missed. Marlis Glaser draws Jewish faces. I would love her portraits.

Glaser is the daughter of a Nazi soldier, and she grew up knowing nothing of Jews or of Judaism. When she was in her twenties, Glaser met a Jewish woman, and discovered hidden worlds. She was horrified to learn of her father’s past and fascinated with this woman. Glaser studied Jews and Judaism. Eventually, she converted and became a Jew. The exhibit Gerhard references is: “And Abraham Planted a Tamarisk Tree.” In this particular body of work, Glaser painted portraits of Jews who emigrated from her home town in Germany to what was then Palestine, most of them, just months before Kristallnacht. And so they lived.

The tamarisk is a biblical tree. In Genesis, Abraham makes a deal with Ablimelech, a local king. Abraham will dig a well in the dry river bed and pay a tribute of sheep and oxen for using the water. He offers seven ewe lambs to seal the deal. Now, Abraham can water his flocks whenever he wishes. The Hebrew word be’er means well. Sheva means promise. Beersheva. Abraham plants a tamarisk tree marking the well in Beersheva. The bones of Saul and his sons are laid to rest under a tamarisk. The tamarisk is a desert tree, and because its roots penetrate deeply into soil, the tree withstands intense heat and long periods of dry weather. A tamarisk has needles, not leaves. Before I knew of these biblical references, I planted three tamarisk trees at the edge of the sea on the coast of Maine where I live. The soil is rocky, and the wind is punishing. The trees live.

Jews, we plant trees to harvest their fruit and to sit under in their shade. We dig into the earth and place trees as memorials to those we love. We recite the names of our dead on the anniversaries of their deaths and we light candles to remember. We name our children after loved ones who are no longer living, carrying their names through generations.

Again, Gerhard speaks of the plaques that would name each deported family. He sticks his hands down into the pockets of his jacket. His shoulders round. “It is still too soon. The time is not yet right.”

Seventy years have passed. Why is the time not yet right? Why can’t Auvillar honor these lives? What is wrong with my beloved village?

Gerhard repeats what he told me earlier about the Journée Histoire et Mémoire. Pascal Caïla lectured about the Kurzweil family. The mayor spoke. At the end of the program, all in attendance walked to the blue metal bridge that spans the Garonne. They leaned and tossed roses.

“It was very good,” Gerhard says. “Very good for young people.”

Later, sitting at my favorite picnic table beside the Garonne, wrapped in wool against the cold, I think of Adèle. She sat here. Not on this bench, but in this place. To my left, the blue bridge that connects Auvillar to the village of Espalais. Probably, Adèle crossed that bridge. Probably, she walked to Espalais as I often walk to Espalais to wander a village even smaller than Auvillar. I imagine Adèle on the bridge. I imagine the villagers. They do not see her. They are standing on a narrow walkway, leaning and tossing roses, fragrant, vulnerable, fragile roses into the Garonne’s current as wind lifts Adèle’s hair.

Comments
  1. maxine weintraub on

    i am always so moved by sandell’s stories. She twists my heart with tales of people i have never met and my eyes fill thinking of them – knowing them now. maxine weintraub

  2. Victoria Siimon on

    This is a stunning and tragic piece. The descriptions are vivid and rich. Adele with her beautiful hair is living, breathing, walking, shopping and in the ordinary activity of her day, she is real. Auvillar, beloved village of the author, is both a treasure and a disappointment. Why is it not time for plaques commemorating it’s Jewish villagers murdered in the Holocaust? The author must hold both realities; love and horror, as must all of us but it is painful. Sandell’s writing is lyrical and descriptive and honest. Thank you for this marvelous essay.

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