For the past eight summers, I’ve taught creative writing at the Paris American Academy, a small school in a neighborhood dotted with plaques celebrating French heroism during World War II. The plaques are placed high on the walls: this one marks where one Resister was shot, that one reminds us of a reassuring speech of DeGaulle’s. But when I leave this neighborhood and cross a few bridges to the Marais, a traditionally Jewish neighborhood, I lift my eyes to other sorts of plaques: this one marks where Jewish children were taken from their school and shipped to Auschwitz, that one remembers the complicity of the French.
The complicity of the French. My family is of Polish and Russian descent; during the early part of the 1900s, they fled their Eastern European shtetls and headed west. Those who had the money kept going to New York. Those who couldn’t stayed in France. Many of those who stayed were sent to Auschwitz during the war. The few who survived, my cousins, live in Paris.
Every summer, while I’m in France, I have dinner with these cousins, and we talk about all sorts of things: travel and books and movies, nothing too serious. They’re wonderful cooks and serve very French meals, h’ors d’oeuvres to start, cheese to finish. We sit out in their garden after and sometimes I steal one of their cigarettes.
This summer, I mentioned that I’m working on a new novel, and that one of the characters has a grandmother who survived the war in France. My cousin Francois was curious. “How did she survive?”
I was embarrassed that I hadn’t hashed out the details yet – maybe she’d been hidden by a dairy farmer? Maybe her father had been a butter dealer before the war and used his connections to save her?
“Absolutely not,” Francois said. “The Jews weren’t in the butter business, and anyway the dairy farmers were in Normandy, which was occupied by the Germans. Your character would have gone south, as close to Spain as she could. She would have stayed with subsistence farmers.”
We went back and forth on the logistics of this character’s story for a while, with Francois describing the way the police kept records of its French citizens, the way they rounded up all the Jews one night, the way they stuffed them into a stadium and then onto the cattle trains. This all happened when his mother was seven years old; she’d spent the night of the round up away from home, with her mother. When they returned they found their apartment ransacked, her beloved aunts and uncles all gone. Within weeks her mother found her refuge with peasants in the south, where she lived out the bulk of the war. Many of the people she knew died in the camps.
As the details grew more gruesome, I found myself feeling off-balance. How could I spend summers here so blithely, in a country that hunted down my own family? And how could Francois be so proud to be French, to have married a French woman, to be raising French kids? To serve me these entirely French meals? “And you’re sure this wasn’t the Germans, doing these things?” I was used to thinking of Germans as the enemy.
“No no,” he said. “It was the French.”
I paused, then said something rather impolite, especially considering Francois’s eternal hospitality. “I just don’t understand how you can live here.”
“Well,” he said, calmly topping off our glasses, like we were discussing the weather. “How is it that you can live where you live? In the USA?”
“Francois, the USA never hunted down its own people!”
“Didn’t it?” he said. When I didn’t answer, he gave me that French shrug meant to convey the unsayable. I looked away.
“Listen, all countries have their own horror stories,” he said. “And you know, it was French farmers who saved my mother, a French policeman who told my grandmother to stay away the night of the round up. French resistance members who found my grandmother her false papers. And years before that, it was France that welcomed them when they escaped the Cossacks.”
“Yes, but – but then they -” He was right, of course – but I was also right, a little.
“Then they what? Some French people were good, some were not so good. History is complicated,” he said. “It’s complicated for me, and for you, too, non?”
What to say to that? I picked up one of his cigarettes, compelled by the force of an old bad habit. France is complicated, and being Jewish anywhere is complicated, I know that. My own country is complicated, and so is the story of how I came to live there. But that night, lulled by the wine and the smoke and the cool French air, I gave in to not knowing how to feel. It wasn’t an argument I could win, nor was it one I wanted to win. What did I want to prove? France was bad? Its people were? Then why was I so happy there, with my French friends, French cousins, French summers? Why were people so gracious to me? Why had I eaten, on its sidewalks, some of the best Jewish food of my life?
I lit my cigarette, defeated by the complications and my heavy belly. So instead of solving anything, I decided to be grateful to be where I was, with the family that survived.
Recently, one of my writing students turned in a story featuring an adorable, vulnerable child whose blue eyes were “wide with wisdom” or something similarly icky. Although I otherwise liked the story, I warned my student – my entire class, in fact – against this particular cliché, the urchin who spouts soul-ennobling maxims while either bringing the adults together or putting them in their place. This child is usually between the ages of four and eight, preternaturally mature, humorless, and almost always blond. I call him the Golden Child, and he annoys the crap out of me.
After I finished teaching that day, I met my four-year-old son for lunch in the campus garden. My son is blond. My son is blue-eyed. My son has a good sense of humor, but still: my creative writing students saw us in the garden and said, kindly, that it looked like I had a Golden Child of my own. I smiled through my cringe. They were right: Nathaniel is golden, as all-American as a fourth of July firework. I, on the other hand, look like I was just crowned Miss Shtetl 2013. In other words, my son doesn’t look like me at all, and he doesn’t look particularly “Jewish.”
I have a strange relationship with my son’s all-American looks. Of course I think he’s beautiful, but I’m always surprised at how frequently people comment on his appearance, and especially how people admire him for his blondness. I’ve never been blond in my life, so before Nathaniel was born I’d never witnessed, really, the power of blond hair, even when it’s on the head of a little boy. People like to touch it, pat it, remark on its lemony highlights. People have even praised me for it, as though it was something I gave him on purpose. And more than once, people have asked me if his father is Jewish, if his father is the source of the kid’s lucky looks.
These sorts of comments bring up all kinds of funny feelings in me . On the one hand, I want to shake the person: Jews look like all sorts of things, dummy, including like Captain America over here. On the other hand, I want to acknowledge my own pride in this beautiful blond boy – blond like the Vikings, blond like the sun. And on the other other hand, I sometimes wonder if my son’s connection to Judaism will be affected by what he looks like. Already the threads feel looser in him than they are in me: no, his father was not born Jewish, and yes, the blond hair comes from his father’s side of the family.
Is it easy for me to be Jewish because I look so classically Semitic? Will it be harder for him because he doesn’t? And what does it mean that I even think about these things?
On Friday night we light candles; on Jewish holidays we celebrate with family. Last fall we ate in a sukkah together, and we look forward to doing that again. This fall he’ll start Hebrew School at our wonderful synagogue. Still, like many Jewish kids – like me when I was his age – he’d rather celebrate Christmas than Hannukah and has no real interest in being different from his friends. And unlike me, with my stereotypically Jewish face, my Jewish name, he’d have an easy time passing one day for someone he isn’t.
For the moment, however, my Golden Child is a font of dubious knowledge. “I’m not blond!” he says. “I’m brown like you!” This is patently untrue, but strangely, it provides some solace. He wants to be brown-haired because he wants to look like me, he says – because he’s my son and we’re family. How wonderful to hear him say this! Even if it’s ridiculous. My son is not brown-haired like me, but he is Jewish, like me. He loves his family, like I do. “See!” he says. “I’m just like you!”
Just like all children and their parents, he is and he isn’t. But occasionally, despite the cliché of it, he is wise beyond his years.