My mother wouldn’t have liked all of this down time. It’s time to get moving again.
Thanks to all of you who commented on the previous blog or sent e-mails or text messages. Honestly, I’ve been overwhelmed.
My mother passed the other day. She fought a long bout with cancer. I understand that this doesn’t make me any more special than those of you who’ve lost a parent, a spouse or a close friend or relative. I’m just fortunate enough to have an outlet to write about it.
I wouldn’t bring this up except that five years ago, I wrote about my mother, Madeleine Schultz, for the perspective section of this newspaper.
She was born in Paris. She lost her parents and four of her six brothers and sisters during the German occupation of France when she was only 13 years old. She was separated for four years from her two surviving siblings and hid from the Nazis. She lived on a farm. She lived in an orphanage. She moved to this country in 1947 when she was 17, coming through Ellis Island. She didn’t knowing the language or the culture and was forced to grow up quickly.
I had visited cousins in France in the past. But the summer of 2005 was the first and only opportunity I had to vacation with my mother in Paris. We returned to her old neighborhood. The stories she told were stunning and surreal. She kissed her parents goodbye one morning before she went to school, not knowing it would be the last time she would see them.
Writing that story five years ago was difficult but ultimately therapeutic. I was comforted by what followed. I received letters and e-mails from Holocaust survivors, their children and support groups. Some hoped the story would prompt their parents to tell their own stories of survival. A few wanted my mother to phone them. Even she was taken aback.
I’m re-posting the story below because her passing seems to have renewed interest in the subject.
That’s it. I’ve said my goodbyes to the toughest person I’ve ever known. It’s time to return to the world of fun and games. As my mother once said after rocking our infant son to sleep 20 years ago, “Time to have a belt and watch the Lakers game.”
Paris memories horrible, indelible
JEFF SCHULTZ / Staff
PARIS — It had been more than 60 years since my mother walked these streets, stood in the courtyard of her apartment building, wrestled with memories. You kiss your family goodbye at breakfast and then you never see them again. Some things you’re just not in a hurry to relive.
“See, that’s where we lived, the window above the flower box,” my mother says, pointing to a sixth-floor apartment. “I can’t believe this is still here.”
The building has been remodeled. There is white trim around the bricks now. There’s an elevator. But like other structures on Rue Alphonse Kerr in Paris’ 19th district, not much has changed. What was a tobacco store on the corner is now a street market. The place next door that sold eggs and milk is now a laundromat. The bakery across the street — still a bakery.
“That’s where my mother was when the Germans came,” she says. “She just went out to get bread. They came to our apartment and took my brothers and sisters. The neighbors ran across the street to tell my mother, ‘Don’t go home. Two Gestapo agents are there.’ But being a mother, she went back home. What else was she going to do?”
Some things you wouldn’t mind forgetting, but you never will.
Nazis marching in the street. Gold stars being sewn into your clothes to identify you as a Jew. Your best friend, Betty, jumping out of her apartment window to her death when she sees Germans approaching her building.
There are times you look back and think, like my mother, “Life seemed normal. We just lived day to day.”
Then you remember the postcard telling you that Nazis encircled your father and a group of men working on a road. (”It was a Friday.”) You remember your parents speaking Polish whenever they wanted to discuss something in private, because the kids understood French and Yiddish.
You remember the morning of Nov. 26, 1943. Joseph Erdberg had been taken a week earlier. My mother, Madeleine, was at school. It was 10 a.m. and she was studying grammar when the principal walked into the classroom and whispered something to the teacher.
“She called me out into the hallway, ” my mother recalls, standing in the same courtyard where she played and skipped rope as a youth. “She told me the story of what happened at home and said, ‘Don’t go home.’ But I didn’t cry. I just thought, ‘Maybe they took my mother and they’ll let her go.’ I was still hoping to go home at 4 o’clock and see my mother.”
Reality comes slowly sometimes. Maybe a 13-year-old’s fear was acting as a defense mechanism. But it’s not as if my mother woke up one morning and suddenly realized, “I’m an orphan. I lost four of my brothers and sisters.”
Some things don’t fully sink in until decades later, when you’re at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, examining previously secret records kept by the Germans, and you learn that family members were sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Your parents, Joseph and Rachel, natives of Poland who moved to give their children a better life; sisters Esther, 9, and Therese, 5; brothers Bernard, 11, and Victor, 3.
Sadness amid celebration
My mother seldom cries. When she does get emotional, it’s more like a sudden clap of thunder. But now, as she’s roaming her neighborhood for the first time since she left Paris, we’ve arrived at one of those moments.
“Who the hell wants to take a 3-year-old kid and kill him?” she says. “When I hear a lot of people still don’t believe in the Holocaust . . . I just want to shake them.”
It’s the summer of 2005 and this trip actually is a celebration. My daughter recently had her Bat Mitzvah. My niece in California graduated from high school. My mother, now 75, wanted to visit friends and family in Paris.
But I viewed this as more than a reunion. Sixty-one years after Paris was liberated (Aug. 25, 1944), this was my best opportunity for a family history lesson and to spend time with the greatest survivor I’ve ever known.
My mother came to the United States when she was 17. In the 3 1/2 years that had passed since November of ‘43, she had been: hidden from Nazis in the home of neighbors for one night in Paris; sent the next morning with a surviving brother and sister on a train to the South of France to live on a farm; taken back to Paris at the end of the war to live in an orphanage.
The old neighborhood
She crossed the Atlantic in 1947, arrived on Ellis Island, settled briefly in Chicago. It was 27 years before she ever went back to Paris. But this was the first time she had explored her old neighborhood in Paris’ 19th Arrondissement since she was smuggled out of Paris in 1943.
Usually, her trips back here were spent enjoying time with aunts and uncles and cousins. “We just don’t really talk about what happened, ” she says.
She told the full story for the first time — on videotape in a project funded by Steven Spielberg for Holocaust survivors — only after repeated noodging from her three children. Documents in the Wiesenthal museum filled in several blanks.
She learned that there were 64 convoys of Jews from Drancy (a camp just outside of Paris) to Auschwitz. The 64th, on Dec. 7, 1943, numbered 997 adults and children. It included Joseph Erdberg, a hat designer; Rachel, mother of seven; Bernard, who was home that day in November because he didn’t have school; Esther, who was allowed to skip school because it was swimming day, which she disliked; Therese, who had a cold; and Victor, who was too young for school.
Things happened quickly
Everybody thought they were safe, my mother said — there was this belief that French citizens would not be touched as part of a surrender agreement between France and Germany.
“My mother thought, ‘Seven kids, there’s no way they’re going to take us, ‘ my mother recalls.
What my mother didn’t know was Henri Philippe Petain, ironically a former French war hero and now head of a puppet government in Vichy, bowed to every German wish and oversaw the transport of 120,000 Jews to concentration camps. By late 1943, Adolf Hitler saw the Germans were going to lose the war and stepped up his sweep of Jews, all Jews, regardless of nationality or gender or age.
Things moved so quickly after her family was taken, she didn’t have time to cry. “You’re just thinking about surviving, ” she said. From school, my mother and her surviving siblings, Bertha, 14, and Leon, 7, were taken to a neighbor’s house. Friends knew the Nazis would return, looking for the family’s remaining children. So a collection was taken up for three train tickets, and the next morning the three orphans were sent to the South to stay with acquaintances.
The children lived on separate farms for 18 months until the end of the war. My mother, who lived with a Christian family in the town of Bouloire, would rise at 5:30 a.m., work in the field for two hours, eat breakfast and then work again. She went to church every Sunday. German soldiers would come to the farm and take food. (”I remember their uniforms and polished boots, ” she said.) The host family told soldiers my mother was a cousin.
After the war, the three children returned to Paris. Two stayed with uncles. My mother went to an orphanage. “I saw 11- and 12-year-old girls with numbers [from concentration camps] on their arms. They saw their parents killed, ” my mother said. She considered herself lucky.
Across the Atlantic
A year and a half later, it was time to leave. A French agency that helped find homes for children located family members in the United States. My late Great-Aunt Anna (Rachel’s sister) and Uncle Max lived in Chicago. (My mother preferred to go to Israel, but lost that battle.)
It took 10 days to cross the Atlantic to New York. My mother was sick the whole trip. After two days there with an uncle, it was onto Chicago, where she would meet my father. A new life.
“I stopped believing in God for a long time, ” she said. “I guess you start believing again when good things start happening.”
We have a lot of family left in Paris, but my mother estimates losing at least a dozen relatives, including her grandparents (Joseph’s parents). Then there’s Betty, whose leap from a second-story window my mother didn’t see. “I guess I was inside, ” she says. “I just couldn’t believe when I heard she killed herself.”
Also lost was a neighbor, Roger Mercier, who lived across the hall from my mother’s family. Mercier was Christian but Nazis suspected him of aiding Jews, and he was sent to Auschwitz. A plaque in his honor hangs in the courtyard at 26 Rue Alphonse Kerr.
Dream of her father
I ask my mother about the people who didn’t help, the anti-Semitism, the government officials who seemingly sold their souls at Vichy. But she prefers to move on. “You can find enemies no matter what you do, ” she says.
Instead, she thinks of her family. To this day, she has a recurring dream that her father is alive and living in Russia (perhaps because Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviets).
“It’s the same dream every time, ” she says. “I get a phone call and they ask me what my name is. ‘What’s your maiden name?’ Then, ‘We have somebody here who claims to be your father.’ Somebody brings him to me and he’s 90-some years old. I ask him 64 questions to make sure he is who he says he is. Then I call sister in Chicago and she flies to L.A. He says he knew the three of us were alive. Then I wake up.”
There was a time when my mother wouldn’t talk about this. That’s not a problem anymore.
She is surrounded by family. Grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews. It has always been about family with her.
As a youth, seven kids and two adults squeezed into a two-bedroom flat. The parents took one room with Victor in a crib. Six kids took the other room, sleeping as many as four to a bed. Money was tight. There was food rationing: one egg per person per week. Joseph, my grandfather, would take food stamps given for wine and trade them for milk and bread.
But now, she can laugh about some things. “My aunt would get migraine headaches, and she would come to our house for a few days and take one of the beds, ” my mother said. “I’d always think, ‘Why does she have to come to our house?’”
It was about family then, and it’s still about family. The stories were meant to be shared.
Jeff Schultz is a sports columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.