One of the hardest things to get used to in writing a novel is cutting material to speed up the pacing and tightening the plot. It’s like casting out a beloved child into the street. You hate to see it go, but it in the end, it’s probably for the best.
In my novel, The Paris Architect, I had to do some chopping—but one scene was particularly hard to edit. The book is about a gentile architect who designs hiding places for Jews in occupied Paris; many of the people the protagonist helps have been hiding in the most horrendous places, based on the historical realities of the time. Their friends have turned their backs on them, and the Parisian Jews must find any refuge no matter how squalid.
One of these places, I reluctantly cut out. Some Jews during World War II hid in false graves in cemeteries. For an exorbitant fee, cemetery caretakers would hide people: The grave would be dug out a little deeper and larger then boards would be placed over the opening and dirt mounded over so it looked like a real grave. A gravestone would be put in place and flowers set in front for a realistic touch. A pipe extending a couple of inches above the ground was placed at the rear to provide air for the occupants. One of the boards could be removed to drop food and water into the grave.
One would think that a grave could hold but one person, but the times were so desperate that three or four people could make do down there. Living in Stygian darkness, the people just sat there day after agonizing day with only a candle for light. Some were family members and some were complete strangers to each other. It would be just endless excruciating boredom mixed with the fear of being discovered at any minute.
Your existence depended solely on the honesty and integrity of the caretaker. Some were kind and others abandoned their charges. Because the dirt was mounded on top of the boards, it was no easy task to escape.
My character was a bachelor chemist in his forties. When he fled, he couldn’t bear to part with his pet rabbit so he took it down into the grave. It was the only comfort he had down there. But the other famished inhabitants of the grave began imagining his rabbit as a very delicious meal. The chemist swore he’d kill anyone who touched his pet as though it were his child. I hated to see him go.
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.
In my Paris neighborhood, I am discovering France’s historic fear of outsiders. Indifference to the fate of those not inside their circle is the underside of the French passion for privacy, for la discretion. A country that has experienced multiple invasions and a catastrophic loss of life in World War I has low expectations of humanity – and an understandable fear of les etrangers – strangers. “C’est normale,” accompanied by a gallic shrug, is an expression I hear often. Even death in mid-life is deemed “normale,” something to accept and live with. In New York, death is not “normale.” It is a shocking intrusion into life – a failure. No one in hyperactive Manhattan wants to be reminded of mortality.
Here in Paris, every block tells a tale, and cautions the visitor against undo optimism. The past – and death – is so present in Paris because every neighborhood has some sort of a monument to the two million men – two out of every nine – lost in World War I. Every step forward is followed by one backward – the ancient stones of my neighborhood seem to say. I am reminded of that as I sit in Le Café Metro, on the place Maubert. Léon Blum, elected Prime Minister in 1936 was the first Jew to hold that office. He was driving through place Maubert, where I am sipping my café au lait, when a group of right wing thugs tried to overturn his car. Did anyone sitting on this terrace move to intercede? Blum was arrested by the Gestapo. He survived Auschwitz, but his brother René did not.
What would have happened to Paris had its citizens resisted the Germans more forcefully? Would it have shared Budapest’s fate – with every major building and monument bombed? It’s a devastating thought: Notre Dame pulverized like Coventry’s cathedral? Still, Vichy is a name uttered with shame and as rarely as possible by the French.
My reverie is interrupted by a young man with a shaved head who leans over from the next table at the Café Metro to ask, “Can you recommend a good sushi place nearby?” He has an unmistakable Hungarian accent, so I answer in Hungarian. Again, I circle back to the scene a Parc Monceau. Will this exposure to the Other—a Hungarian skinhead looking for sushi in Paris—be enough to douse the next eruption of hate?
Now that I live part-time in Paris, I explore the city’s complex and sometimes disturbing relationship to toward its Jewish citizens—which given my own Jewish heritage, feels personal to me. In Paris: A Love Story, I probe this aspect of the city which most tourists miss.
In Paris, life and death, beauty and violence are forever colliding. I take the rue de Poissy, a picturesque, cobblestoned street with stunning windowboxes that spill over with geraniums, toward my home. At number 5, I pass the Ecole Maternelle. Like all French schools, it flies the French flag. But this nursery school also features a gold lettered, black marble tablet, which stops me in my tracks. “To the memory of the children – students of this school,” it states, “deported from 1942 – 1944 because they were born Jewish. Victims of the Nazi barbarity with the active complicity of the Vichy government. They were exterminated in the death camps. Let us never forget them. October 5, 2002.”
Facing the Ecole Maternelle is a recently renovated Benedictine monastery, which occupies most of the block. It is spacious, airy and well scrubbed. I wonder now, did the monks inside the beautiful monastery hear the bleat of the siren that signaled the approach of the Gestapo to collect the children from the school across the street? Did they see the black uniformed SS and their Vichy agents lead the children from the nursery school to the waiting van? Why didn’t the monks hide the children in that cavernous Abbey? I hesitate to knock on the school’s massive front door, though I’d like to know more about the children.
I return in the late afternoon. A teacher is leading a group of students into the monastery on a school field trip. Across the street, mothers are picking up their children from the nursery school. The front door is ajar. I walk in. Inside the vestibule, there is another black marble tablet. “Eight boys,” it says, “from this school were exterminated in the Nazi death camps. Albert Aronowicz, age 7, was the youngest, and Baruch Tuchbard, age 16, the eldest.” Did the school call the parents’ of Albert and Baruch and the others, to inform them they weren’t coming home that evening? Or had the parents already made the same journey themselves?
As I continue my deeper exploration of Paris, I am suddenly aware of these black marble plaques, and their sad message. There are over three hundred of them in the city, most of them erected since 2000.
For a long time, the French blamed the Nazis for what happened to French Jews. And yet, as early as 1940, the French Vichy government defined Jewish status, barring Jews from all state jobs, including teaching. Vichy France published 168 laws governing Jewish life.
During the 1998 World Cup finals, I learned what a tender subject race is in France. France’s victory set off an explosion of celebrations in Paris, with wildly exuberant crowds pouring into the streets , kissing strangers, and honking their horns until the early morning. It was unlike anything I have ever witnessed in New York. “How wonderful,” I enthused to my French brother-in-law, “to see this multicultural team.” For, indeed, the French soccer team, led by the legendary ethnic Algerian center field player, Zinedine Zidane, was the very portrait of a rainbow coalition., “We do not remark on such things,” my brother-in-law chided me. “They are all French.” This is national policy and you will not find official French statistics on race or immigration. It would run counter to the founding principle of la Republique: the doctrine of assimilation. From the time of the Revolution, Protestants were given equal status in Catholic France, as were Jews and the children of immigrants. Of course, the black marble plaques tell a different narrative.