Thanks to all, and it’s time to move forward

Had to say goodbye to the toughest person I've ever known: My mother.

Had to say goodbye to the toughest person I've ever known: My mother. This was in front of her old apartment in Paris.

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.”

A document confirming her parents, Joseph and Rachel Erdberg, were interned at Camp Drancy. a transit camp near Paris, before being transferred to Auschwitz.

A document confirming my mother's parents, Joseph and Rachel Erdberg, were interned at Camp Drancy. a transit camp near Paris, before being transferred to Auschwitz.

Sunday, 8/7/2005

Paris memories horrible, indelible
JEFF SCHULTZ / Staff

Email: jschultz@ajc.com
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.

193 comments Add your comment

Chris

April 1st, 2010
9:19 am

Not going to get into all that first stuff, but just to thank you for sharing the story of a wonderful woman from a generation that did so much for so many and never stood around looking for a bailout.

Southern football

April 1st, 2010
9:19 am

Touching story Jeff.

Trey

April 1st, 2010
9:19 am

Mox

April 1st, 2010
9:20 am

Nice story Jeff and sorry about your loss. But this does explain your left leanings! LOL

Terrell

April 1st, 2010
9:23 am

Chris,

Was the last part of the comment necessary really? JS, I’m sorry to hear of your loss, and I pray and hope the best fir you during this trying time for you.

Navigator

April 1st, 2010
9:23 am

Jeff, I wish you and your family the best, and hope your mother’s life will be an inspiration for generations to come. I know much has been written or dramatized for us to have a general understanding of what took place in those camps, but only families like yours truly understand the pain that so many people carried and still carry today.

Lowcountry Bulldawg

April 1st, 2010
9:24 am

Jeff,

Your article gave me cold chills. What an amazing woman and influence she must have been in your life. The courage and strength she had in her life is truly amazing. Thank you for sharing that with us.

DawginLex

April 1st, 2010
9:25 am

Sorry for your loss Jeff. It’s great you had a mom you can be proud of.

AlwaysAVol

April 1st, 2010
9:26 am

Jeff,

My sympathies to you on the loss of your Mother. She sounds like a wonderful woman.

BravesFan79

April 1st, 2010
9:27 am

From someone who’s grandfather flew bombing runs over Germany; she sounded like a brave/strong woman. God Bless.

Chris

April 1st, 2010
9:28 am

Terrell, I am on unemployment right now, and everytime I get that weekly check I am happy for the assistance, but when I think about my grandfather’s family growing up in dirt poor rural south Georgia where a nickel went a heckuva long way, they did just fine without government assistance. It was a compliment to the generation. Sorry if I offended your sensibilities.

Knuckle Sandwich

April 1st, 2010
9:28 am

Sorry for your loss Schultzie. My condolences.

Bill

April 1st, 2010
9:32 am

Welcome back Jeff. Sorry to hear about your Mother. Sounds like she was a very special Lady that had a very hard life. My sympathy and heart felt prays to your family. There is no greater love than the love of a Mother.

My Mother of 96 also died March 14, 2010.
Your Friend Bill

Tucker T

April 1st, 2010
9:35 am

Sorry for your loss Jeff. Sounds like your Mom was a great lady.

Jeff

April 1st, 2010
9:36 am

Condolences on your loss.

Barkin'Dog

April 1st, 2010
9:39 am

Jeff… sorry for your loss. I lost my mom in 2002. Having grown up in South Florida, my parents had many Jewish friends, one like a second father. Their stories of the war and camps were shocking, and vivid. It’s important to keep posting details about this history so no one forgets (Iran and Middle East nations esp. today), and history does not repeat. Thanks for sharing you story and pain. God bless.

mike28212

April 1st, 2010
9:40 am

Sorry for you loss Jeff.

Kevin

April 1st, 2010
9:40 am

Jeff, I read you most everyday. Have always enjoyed your stuff. What a courageous woman….I know she must be your true hero! This world needs more people like her. I wish you the best, and I look forward to reading your stuff for years to come.

Alphare

April 1st, 2010
9:41 am

Jeff, you almost brought me to tears. My family have a similiar story, and a lot of people don’t believe it either. Nazis and communists.

James Stephenson

April 1st, 2010
9:43 am

I always get sick to my stomach when I hear people say that the holocaust did not happen.

Jeff your mom sounds like a wonderful person, may she get to see her family again and rest in peace, finally.

worm

April 1st, 2010
9:46 am

God bless Jeff..Reminded me of my Mom..Thanks for sharing.

bali

April 1st, 2010
9:50 am

sorry to hear about the loss of your mother. Mothers are special. I want to thank you for sharing such important information on the life of your mom. I have tought History for over 20 years in the Lauren County School system. I hope to be able to preserve your story about your moms life during World War Two and use it to teach my students. Wow .. what a life and what memories you will have for the rest of your life.

William

April 1st, 2010
9:51 am

Very sorry for your loss. Next Tuesday will be 10 years since my Mother died from cancer. I understand what you’re going through. I will have a good thought for you and your family.

Dbalcer

April 1st, 2010
9:54 am

God Bless you in your grief, Jeff. Thank you for sharing the story of your mom and her family again. We need to keep those stories alive so we don’t repeat them.

Dawg Whisperer

April 1st, 2010
9:56 am

Jeff, an inspiring story of perseverance and loss from a past generation. Hopefully, a lesson learned for the future. Thanks for sharing your mother’s story.

I Run This State

April 1st, 2010
10:00 am

I’m very sorry for your loss Jeff.

some sense

April 1st, 2010
10:07 am

God bless you and yours, Jeff.

Old Mayfair

April 1st, 2010
10:07 am

Jeff, my thoughts are with you. Your Mom is a real hero. Like I suggested when you first printed the story… I want to read the book!

Take care, Don

Paul H

April 1st, 2010
10:08 am

Thanks for sharing Jeff. Very inspiring and reminds us we aren’t so far removed from such an astrocity in history. It sounds like your mother was an amazing and couragous woman.

Scoots

April 1st, 2010
10:10 am

Amazing story! Thanks for sharing. My condolences.

gdawginkalamazoo

April 1st, 2010
10:11 am

Jeff, God bless your mom. Sorry for your family’s loss.
What an amazing story of her life!

Don

April 1st, 2010
10:13 am

Jeff, I’m so sorry for your loss. I lost my Mom to cancer in January, 2009.

Thanks for sharing your Mother’s incredible story. I had not previously seen your 2005 story about her. What an incredibly brave and tough woman.

Freddie. G

April 1st, 2010
10:15 am

Jeff,
Please accept my sympathy regarding your loss, and thanks for sharing this story. It is good to hear these stories from these survivors, as many Nazi sympathizers still express doubt as to the holocaust. She must have been a very strong woman, may her soul rest in peace.

Georgian in exile

April 1st, 2010
10:15 am

Wonderful story, Jeff. Thanks for sharing. So sorry for your loss.

Your mother reminds me of my own mother — like yours, the toughest person I’ve ever known. Her childhood horrors weren’t genocidal like your mother’s, more rural-poor and generational. Like her own mother, she had kids entirely too young by an alcoholic who abandoned her in a small Georgia town with no means to earn more than a subsistence living. She raised my sister and me working for poverty wages, swallowing her pride sometimes to walk into the county office when there was no food in the trailer and her next paycheck was a ways off.

When my sister and I were old enough not to need a babysitter, my mother began dragging herself after an exhausting workday to night classes. She graduated magna cum laude and was able to leave the town she had been trapped in all her life.

She had 10 good years. And then cancer, which she fought off. And again, which left her drained. And a final time, when she had no fight left. She was 54.

Sorry to ramble. I suspect that, like you Jeff, I find strength in thinking about my own mother’s strength. Happy Passover and Easter.

Phar71

April 1st, 2010
10:17 am

Sorry for your loss.

Pace

April 1st, 2010
10:17 am

My condolences to you and your family. An amazing story of survival and resolve.

3DawgKnight

April 1st, 2010
10:18 am

Jeff, If you don’t mind I’d like to quote the great ‘Red Skelton’
wth a heartfelt,
“God Bless”

Brock

April 1st, 2010
10:23 am

Jeff, sorry for your loss. Thanks for sharing that story about your mom.

Irish-Heel

April 1st, 2010
10:25 am

Hey Jeff. I went through the same thing you did five years ago. The day after my mom’s funeral. I wrote a column for my sports section. It was a good outlet. take care
Todd

Clay

April 1st, 2010
10:29 am

Sorry for your loss Schultzie. They just don’t make em like that anymore …

And yes, Terrell, it was necessary.

Boone7

April 1st, 2010
10:32 am

Jeff, sorry for your loss. There is something about mothers and their sons. My mom has been in and out of the hospital as of late. The thought of losing her is not one I really want to think about let alone experience. Sports is a great outlet from the struggles of our daily life! Thanks for brightening our world with sports and for sharing some of the stories of your wonderful mother.

Efuzz

April 1st, 2010
10:33 am

Welcome back Jeff. My condolences to you and your family. Thanks for sharing her story.

PMC

April 1st, 2010
10:33 am

Thanks for sharing your story Jeff. My condolences. An amazing life lived for certain.

Thirty Points to your Twenty-Four Points

April 1st, 2010
10:35 am

sorry for your loss Schultzie.

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Johnny

April 1st, 2010
10:37 am

Jeff, years ago, after MaMa’s long fight was over, my brother and I found a note to us when sorting her things: “Remember me not with tears, but smiles, for that is how I remember you.”
Good to have you back.

F-105 Thunderchief

April 1st, 2010
10:39 am

Best to you and your family, Jeff. Thanks for sharing.

Chris Murphy, Atlanta, GA

April 1st, 2010
10:40 am

Glad you’re back, sorry for your loss- and that lady’s death is quite a loss. Hope she enjoyed your sense of humor as much as I do.

Native Dawg

April 1st, 2010
10:41 am

Jeff, my thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. May the good Lord bless and comfort you in your time of loss.

God bless.

Kevin

April 1st, 2010
10:44 am

Great story Jeff. The generation that fought against and survived the Axis Powers atrocities in WWII are truly the greatest generation.

Fat Alligator

April 1st, 2010
10:45 am

There is a special place in heaven for Moms like yours. God bless you.