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Terror in Europe

From Shoah To Jihad, Some French Jews Still Choose To Hide

In a middle-class home in southern France live a survivor of World War II, her daughter and granddaughters. All three generations are Jewish, but both past and recent history dictate a certain reticence of their identity.

Watercolor sketch of Montpellier's Place de la Comédie
Watercolor sketch of Montpellier's Place de la Comédie
Marion Van Renterghem

MONTPELLIER — We aren't in a "sensitive urban area," nor in Ramallah, Cairo, Tehran, or even a ghetto in the Parisian suburbs. We are not living in the early 20th century. Instead, we are here with a quiet middle-class family living in the center of Montpellier, a dynamic and well-off city in southern France.

There's Rose, 82, the grandmother. Her daughter Valérie, 52. And Valérie's daughters Lila and Laura, respectively aged 17 and 10. Only Rose is willing to use her real name. "Since I'll soon be gone, it doesn't matter anymore," she says. The others prefer to use pseudonyms.

Rose and Valérie are sitting together on the couch. "I find you say too often that you're Jewish," Rose says. "It's like you're wearing it as a banner."

"What are you going on about?" Valérie replies. "Of course not, mom. I only say it when the occasion arises, that's all."

"If you see a lot of people, you should be careful," Rose warns.

On a different day, Valérie and her daughter Laura are in a cafe after school. Laura is very talkative.

"In class, the teacher asked who was a Muslim," she tells her mom. "About 10 people raised their hands. After that, he asked who was Catholic, and one raised her hand. You know, the girl from Guatemala. And after that, the Muslims explained their rituals."

"That's all? He didn't ask who was Jewish?" Valérie asks.

"Well, no. He's very respectful. He's not going to ask who's Jewish."

"What do you mean, respectful? And what if he'd asked if you were Jewish. Would you have raised you hand?"

"No way! Are you crazy? With everything that's been going on? I don't want to be blown up. I'll never say I'm Jewish!"

"Really? You don't tell anybody?"

"I never did and I never will! I don't want to lose my friends over that. They already think I'm spoiled because I have pocket money and I've never been spanked, and they have. If they know I'm Jewish on top of that, I'll never hear the end of it."

On another occasion, Valérie and her elder daughter Lila are speaking on the phone.

"Would you please speak to the journalist about what you told me?" Valérie asks.

"About what?"

"Well, you know, that you don't dare say you're Jewish."

"Mom, please stop with this thing, all right? I couldn't care less that I'm Jewish. I just have Arab friends and I don't want to have any problems, that's all."

"What sort of friends are they if you can't tell them who you are?"

"Oh, you're really getting on my nerves! All right, I'll talk to (the journalist), but I really don't have anything interesting to say. I've had enough of the "burden of the Holocaust" and all that. You always make such a fuss over everything."

Stuck in the middle

Valérie is a writer who teaches writing classes. There aren't many pictures on the walls of her bohemian house in the center of Montpellier, but there's this one photograph, a close-up of an inscription, a name lost among the 76,000 others on the stone of the Paris Holocaust Memorial. It reads "Jacob Slod, 1905." It's the name of her grandfather, a Polish Jew who emigrated to France and was later deported. Rose's father. He would have been 110 this year.

Watercolor of Montpellier city center — Author: Guy MOLL

Of the three generations of women in her family, Valérie is the only one who is open about being Jewish. Hers is a generation stuck between the memory of large-scale genocide and the current wave of jihadism. She's caught between two denials. Her mother, Rose, is deeply atheist and traumatized by the war, and never wanted to hear anything about her Jewishness. Then there are her daughters, who face a new sort of anti-Semitism felt by a segment of the Muslim community that galvanizes anonymous people on social networks, and, more recently, terrorists.

Lila and Laura are growing up in the terrifying aftermath of the murder of Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man tortured to death near Paris in 2006; of Jewish children slaughtered by Mohamed Merah in Toulouse in 2012; of the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket.

Until the attack on a Copenhagen synagogue, France was the only Western country where French people had killed Jews because they are Jews. Even after the 70th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation, young French Jews are still afraid to say who they are and where they come from.

When Rose sorted her father's boxes in the attic, she wrote "Jacques Slod" on them instead of his real name Jakob Slod. "In case it would start all over again and "they" found the boxes," she says. A shoemaker, he left Poland in 1935 saying emphatically that he would never set foot there again. Seven years later, he was returned as part of the first convoy that took Jews from an internment camp in Drancy, near Paris, to Auschwitz.

He had left Poland for Paris alone, leaving behind his wife and two daughters, Dora and Rodja, aged 3 and 2. Life in Paris was wonderful. With a single resoling gig, he had enough money to rent his workshop and buy himself a restaurant dinner. In 1938, his wife brought Rodja to Paris to try and get her man back. She ended up abandoning her daughter. In August 1941, Jakob was among the first to be taken to Drancy and was in the first convoy deported in March 1942. Thanks to the intercession of the Rothschild Foundation, Rodja was hidden by a farming family.

Rodja was 9 years old and didn't even know she was Jewish. She was overwhelmed by family tragedies, her father gone without understanding why, and abandoned by her mother. Her host family raised her with nuns. Mrs. Bourdan, the wife, decided to change her name to Rose, and that was it. Rose went to Catholic school and embraced the religion as "beautiful, good and just." When she asked the priest if she could participate in communion, his answer wasn't any clearer to her than anything else that had happened in her young life. "You shouldn't," he told her. "If you father returns, he won't be happy about that."

Hiding their heritage

And indeed he returned, surviving four years in different concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Rose went to see him at a recovery center in Paris. He was indifferent, distant, didn't have anything to say. After a little schnapps, however, he would now and then offer two of three fragments of information, not more. Rose remembers one sentence he used to repeat in a loop, in his broken French. "They gave soap to them, they entered the shower cabins — and it was over. They sent gas." He had a number tattooed on his arm: 28126. Not once did he mention the name Auschwitz.

It was only later, thanks to her husband, that she understood. She met the handsome 27-year-old accordionist in a Belleville bar when she was 17. He was a pied-noir from Algeria, French with Spanish origins, an atheist from a Catholic and anti-Semitic environment. He enlisted in the Allied forces against the Nazis. Her father disapproved of their union. "He's old and he's not Jewish," he told her. But Rose and her accordionist got married anyway, had three children and moved to Montpellier.

[rebelmouse-image 27088653 alt="""" original_size="300x300" expand=1]
Watercolor of a street in Montpellier — Author: Guy MOLL

The children were given non-Jewish names because Rose thought it was best. But finally she told her eldest son, who at the time was a far-left Maoist militant and was beginning to make anti-Semitic remarks. "I'm Jewish, you're Jewish," she told him.

"What do I have to do with any of that?" he replied.

That's when his little sister Valérie learned she was Jewish. She was 9. She's now non-religious and disapproves of Israel's colonialist policy, but she feels the need to celebrate Yom Kippur, at least. Neither of the girls' fathers are Jewish, and she has taken Lila and Laura inside a synagogue only once or twice.

Fear of history repeating itself

Valérie is anxious. "If my daughters keep quiet about their origins, if all Jews keep quiet about their origins, my grandchildren won't even know they're Jewish," she says. "Then the extermination of European Jews will have succeeded."

On the couch, Valérie turns to her mother and repeats her point loud enough to make sure she hears her well. "You see, mom, not talking about it is as if the extermination of the Jews had succeeded."

Rose always has the same sad and weary tone. "You haven't been through what I've been through. What does it bring you, being Jewish?"

Valérie replies, "Nothing but trouble, I know. So you think it's normal to forget?"

"We forget if we must," Rose says. "We won't change human nature. Little populations will always be sacrificed. That the girls don't dare say "it" pains me a little, but they're right. It's best not to talk about it since it bothers so many people. Especially when you're not a believer. There's no point in suffering for that."

In a nearby cafe, Lila speaks quietly. She's afraid the man behind the counter, who is clearly Arab because he's wearing a keffiyeh headdress, will overhear. "It's horrible," she says. "I feel guilty for hiding like that. I'm not ashamed to be Jewish. Well, I am a little bit. It's a fear that turns into shame."

She talks of these moments when "we speak about Israel, the Palestinians, Charlie Hebdo, the terrorists" with people at school, of when her "Arab friends" incidentally say that "Jews are rich" and that they "kill Arabs."

Once, just to try, Lila told them, "Eh, I'm Jewish!" They turned towards her and said, "Really? No, you're kidding, aren't you?"

"Of course I'm kidding," she said. They found the joke hilarious.

She has only told two girlfriends, one of whom is Arab. They don't understand her problem. "You're Jewish? Well, good for you! Nobody cares!"

"Sure, they don't," Lila explains. "But I know that some people care. And I'm scared. I'm not going to say I'm Jewish when my friends say that what's happening to the Jews is normal. I feel bad. When I think of everything Jews have been through and me, hiding."

Her little sister Laura speaks of Auschwitz, or "Auswitch," as she says. "God doesn't exist because if he did there would be no terrorists," she says. "That's for sure."

When asked what she has in common with a religious Jew, she says it's a "difficult question." She thinks about it between two sips of hot chocolate and says, "The religious Jew and me, even if we're not the same age, even if we don't know one another, we've been through the same things."

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