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.

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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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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