by Paul Ben-Itzak
Translations by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak
A Sidney, pour les soins….et a Lewis, Jamie, Martin, et tout mes péres, qui rien n’avais obligé d’y etre mais qui se sont comporté comme tel. /To Sidney, for the care…. and to Lewis, Jamie, Martin, and all my fathers who nothing obligated to be but who comported themselves as such.
Prélude: Poète surréaliste chrétienne morte a Drancy, car née Juif
“Love thy neighbor”
Who noticed the toad cross the street? He was just a little man — a doll would not have been more miniscule. He dragged himself along on his knees — as if he were ashamed….? No! He has rheumatism, one leg remains behind, he drags it forward! Where is he going like that? He comes out of the sewer, the poor clown. No one has noticed this toad in the street. Before no one noticed me in the street, now children make fun of my yellow star. Happy toad! You don’t have a yellow star.” (Voir dessous pour le V.O. / See below for the original French version.)
— Max Jacob, Surrealist poet, comrade of Cocteau, Apollinaire, and Picasso, arrested by the Gestapo on February 24, 1944, in the Brittany village of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire. In a note hastily scribbled on the train to the Orleans prison, Jacob, who since converting to Christianity before the first World War liked to write personalized proselytizing homilies for his colleagues and whose poetry was suffused with devotional tributes to Christ, wrote: “Dear Monsieur le Cure, Excuse this letter from a drowning man written with the complaisance of the gendarmes. I wanted to tell you that I’ll soon be in Drancy. I have conversions in process. I have confidence in God and in my friends. I thank Him for the martyrdom which now begins.” On March 5, Jacob succumbed to pneumonia at the Drancy way station outside Paris before he could be deported — or confessed. At Drancy, there were no priests. (Poem collected in “Max Jacob,” edited by Andre Billy, published by and copyright Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946. Letter cited by Billy in “The death of Max Jacob,” Le Figaro, September 9, 1945.)
1932: The Semence
Paris, the Grands Boulevards, a winter evening in 1916. The young conscript, on furlough from the hospital where doctors are trying to determine if he’s crazy or just doesn’t want to return to the trenches of a crazy war, enters the Olympia nightclub and observes, as recounted by Louis-Ferdinand Céline in his 1932 “Voyage au bout de la nuit,” still considered by the French and American literary establishments to be the author’s safe, non-Anti-Semitic book (shortly after publication, it was translated into Russian by the French Communist super-star couple Louis Aragon and Elsa Triolet; New Directions still proudly hawks the English translation):
“Already in wartime our morose peace was sowing its seeds…. We could imagine what it would become, this hysteria, just from seeing it already agitating in the Olympia tavern. Below in the narrow, shady dancing cave with its 100 mirrors, it pawed the dust in the great desperation of the Négro-Judéo-Saxonne music. Brits and Blacks all mingling together. Levantines and Russians. They were everywhere, smoking, brawling, sad sacks and soldiers, crammed onto crimson sofas. These uniforms, which we barely remember anymore, would sow the seeds of today, this Thing which continues to germinate and would become a dung-hill a little later, with time.”
1940-45: The Harvest
Some 13 years after Louis-Ferdinand Céline thus fulminated (the parallels between his own trajectory and that of his first-person hero, “Ferdinand,” make the defense that an author doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the opinions of his personage dubious), the ‘semence’ he (and his publishers, including Gallimard) helped sow (in ‘Voyage’ and three pamphlets taxed as being anti-Semitic, although the Judeophobic grotesque Céline paints of himself and of the anti-Semitic rationale in general in the 1937 “Bagatelles for a massacre,” in which he also wrote: “In the leg of a dancer the world, its waves, all its rhythms, its follies, its views are inscribed…. The most nuanced poem in the world!,” the ‘bagatelles’ being ballets without music, makes that epithet problematic here) by furnishing civilized literary cover for his countrymen who would collaborate with the German occupiers in the Deportation of 76,000 of their Jewish neighbors, including 11,000 children, only 3,000 of whom would return from the death camps — Auschwitz was liberated 75 years ago this month — manifests its real-world toll on the sixth-floor balcony of a building on a corner of the rue Hauteville above the “Bonne Nouvelles” (Good News) Metro station, several blocks up the Grands-Boulevards from the Olympia, where a woman straddles the railing, distraught that the daughter arrested by a good French policeman after she was turned in by a good French neighbor has still not returned after the war, the room the woman has reserved for her child remaining vacant.
The precarious mental state of the woman had recently prompted her brother and his wife to return from the United States to France, where the wife will later give birth to three sons, the semence of a new generation of French Jews who have not lost hope in France. Two of the sons will grow up to become, respectively, a general practitioner and a dentist — my doctor and my dentist starting when I lived on the rue de Paradis up the street in the early 2000s — converting the apartment on whose balcony rail their aunt once teetered into a medical bureau, their offices separated by a waiting room decorated by posters of Satchmo blowing, Gabriel, blowing, his cheeks puffed up; Marilyn Monroe’s white skirt billowing from the gusts of wind rising out of a subway grating on location for “The Seven-Year Itch” to reveal her underwear; and Jean-Paul Belmondo ‘draguing’ the American Jean Seberg on the Champs as she hawks the New York Herald Tribune with its logo emblazoned across her chest in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless,” this last poster a nod to what I’d always understood as the doctors’ mixed Franco-American heritage, their mother being an American citizen.
Warsaw 1938 / Paris 2019: Blood Memory or, How a lazy American doctor in Poland in 1938 helped restore my teeth in Paris in 2019
“What are you going to do with the poster?” I’d asked Dr. B at the first of what would turn out to be more than four months of excavating involving what seemed, between removing the debris of crumbling 50-year-old choppers and uninvited bone spurs, like 20 extractions, followed by several weeks of chiseling, adjusting, and refining the replacement troops, and a whole lot of blood-letting. After our rendez-vouses, I’d often test the adjustments by munching packaged chocolate-covered Belgian waffles, ‘arrosed’ by hot thermos Russian Earl Gray or Green Tea (when there hadn’t been any blood-letting), imbibed from my perch on the steps below the elevated sidewalk across from the doctors’ offices looking down the Boulevard, squinting my eyes and trying to see this quintessential Parisian vantage point like Pissarro, another imported French Jew, must have seen it when he painted “The Boulevard Montmartre on a Winter Morning” from a window of the Hotel Russe just down the street, 120 years earlier. The painting had been my favorite since I was a teenager growing up in San Francisco, as if this lieu was already implanted in my blood memory.
Dr. B being the only dentist who’s ever actually made my teeth better than they were before I submitted myself to his scalpel (sans parle de mon ame; no matter how brutal the dental work had been, I always felt sublime emerging on Hauteville and the Grands Boulevards afterwards as I sipped my tea, probably because of the care and assurance with which Dr. B treated me, patiently explaining the necessity for each step no matter how over-wrought my questions), I’d rushed to Paris after he’d announced that he would be retiring in July so that he could do for my lower mouth what he’d done for the upper in 2016, like Oscar re-building Six-Million Dollar Man Steve Austin to “make him better than he was.” (Dr. B charged me a lot less than that.) At my question about the poster (I’d hoped he’d offer it to me as a souvenir), he only shrugged his shoulders and smiled enigmatically. (Ironically, the first time I’d seen the film was in the Cinematheque Française’s dilapidated theater just below on the Boulevards. When Belmondo exhaled his final fumes after being mortally wounded, I was the only one in the theater who thought this was funny.)
Dr. B has been treating my teeth since 2003. Even my best Paris friend Marcel, an electrician who owns a lamp boutique up the street on the rue de la Fidelité, le Soleil de l’Est — his shop is down the hill from the Gare de l’Est, from which many of the French and foreign Jews were deported, probably including Marcel’s own grandparents — is incredulous when I declare that Dr. B is the only dentist I’ve ever actually looked forward to seeing, he’s so chic. No matter how many times I assure him — often stopping in at the boutique to talk politics on my way to Dr. B’s, knowing that after the appointment I won’t be able to open my mouth — Marcel inevitably shivers and explains, “Ever since I saw ‘Marathon Man’ I cringe at the very idea of going to the dentist’s.” I’ve known Marcel even longer than I’ve known Dr. B, since I began living on the rue de Paradis which Fidelité becomes (across the street from where Pissarro took his first Paris painting lessons in the atelier of Camille Corot, where Berthe Morisot was also a student), and asked him to re-attach a retro ’50s-style wall fixture my landlord had discarded. While I’d been aware for a while that Marcel was the child of a Holocaust survivor and the grandchild of Holocaust victims (the subject first came up when we discussed the anti-Semitic virages of the Right-wing National Front, whose founder Jean-Marie Le Pen was once fined for dismissing the gas chambers as “a detail of history”), I only recently learned the details: Like the late singer Serge Gainsbourg, Marcel’s father was hidden out during the war in the environs of Paris (unlike my dentist’s cousin, no one had ratted Marcel’s father out). This heritage probably explains why one of the rare subjects on which Marcel and I disagree is Israel. I had applauded the “End Zionist Racism” stickers that began popping up on Paris lamp-poles and bus shelters last Spring, excoriating Israel’s treatment (to use a euphemism) of Palestinians, and did not consider them anti-Semitic. (As in general I don’t consider anti-Zionism anti-Semitism, a ludicrous equivalence when Zionist soldiers are gunning down unarmed Semites in Gaza. Neither being Jewish in and of itself nor the Holocaust should get Israel a get out of International Criminal Court free card.) Until I realized that a big part of what alarmed Marcel was that the stickers were yellow. (Not withstanding what I just said in the previous parenthesis, coding should not be ignored.) As I don’t have a television, it took Marcel to alert me to the anti-Semitic remarks being issued by some of the more Right-wing members of the so-called “Yellow Vests,” the disparate protest movement which emerged last year, over-blown by the media. Marcel only learned of his father’s Holocaust history from his uncle, which is typical; Holocaust survivors often don’t like to talk about their experience.
Not only have I never seen “Marathon Man,” I have no personal Holocaust history, my own ancestors having been ‘fortunate’ to have been chased out of Eastern Europe (save a British grandmother whose parents may have been Iranian; she was brought up as an orphan in Canada) by the Cossacks before Hitler occupied it. When I visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, in 1978 as part of a State Department delegation of American high school students, I had to conjure a conservatory experience playing Peter, the hero’s boyfriend, in “The Diary of Anne Frank” to move myself to tears. (We always cried offstage — during the last scene, when Otto Frank returns to the Secret Annex and learns of Anne’s diary — when we were supposed to be dead. Until a parent in the audience told us, “We can hear you!” Whenever we’d get too goofy in rehearsal, our director, Lewis Campbell, would remind us of our solemn task by shouting “BRAUSEBOT!,” the German word for shower. We loved to imitate this gruff-voiced declaration. Never mind that some of us were Jewish; we were just high school kids, and none of us had lived this experience.) One of the first Holocaust survivors I knew personally — my high school civics teacher, John Franklin, also the happiest man I ever knew, with a smile that radiated his entire face — once told us, with his slight European accent, that he thought there should be a statute of limitations for war crimes, including Nazi war crimes. (The first Holocaust survivor I knew was Hans Ingres, who with his wife Ingrid — her family hid him out in Holland during the War — hosted an annual ‘Herring Festival’ in the Northern California fishing community of Tamales Bay for their large tribe of adopted children and neighbors including my family. Pickled herring, creamed herring, fried herring, herring bread…..) When I finally got around to asking John to talk about his experience in the camps — during a 2012 visit to his home in Mill Valley, while sitting around a 1000-year-old redwood trunk projecting through a hole on his deck which constantly has to be widened to accommodate its swelling — it was too late; he was in the first stages of Alzheimer. The last time I reached him, by phone in 2014 from Paris, and asked John if he remembered who I was, he answered, “Vaguely.” When memory goes for a stroll it does not return.
In France, Jews (at least secular Jews) don’t even seem to like to reveal that they’re Jewish, as if they’re afraid of being rounded up again if they can be identified and localized. (In France, Vichy officials went farther than those in other occupied countries by registering Jews.) In this way Paris is not like San Francisco or New York, where finding out a new acquaintance is also Jewish is like discovering any other shared facet. (In conservatory, me and other Jewish kids never stopped good-naturedly ribbing my best friend — he played Otto Frank, and also Jesus in Godspell; for the latter, I’d famously insisted that the costume designer sew a Star of David on the butt of my pants; this was shortly after I returned from participating in the delegation to Israel — with jokes which played on his being ‘half-Jewish.’) Another reason for our ease with the Jewish part of our identities was that in the U.S. one can be Jewish without being religious — it’s considered a culture, even a race. (Ironically, if I have less Jewish pride in France than I had when I was younger in the U.S., it’s not because I have any fear of being rounded up but because the self-proclaimed Counsel of Representative Jewish Organizations’ reflexive defense of Israel no matter how many Palestinians it kills makes it harder to disassociate being Jewish with being a supporter of Israel. This for me is what makes statistics about supposedly rising anti-Semitism in France problematic; if a young Arab-French man calls me a “dirty Jew” — I’ve heard this phrase exactly once in 20 years, and it may not have been directed at me — is he really criticizing my ethnic appurtenance, or what he presumes, thanks to the Counsel, to be my lock-step support of a country which kills unarmed young Arabs?) The French in general reject this concept of cultural or racial Judaism because of what it has generated in the past (permitting, for example, even a well-known French Surrealist, Max Jacob, to be arrested for Deportation because Jewish more than 30 years after he’d converted to Catholicism, a conversion evident in many of his post-conversion poems). In my first months in Paris, I’d even (stupidly) cut off a French friend after she’d insisted that Judaism was not a race (thus, to my mind, telling me I could not be Jewish because I was not religious), abruptly walking away from her car after she stopped to pick up her clown costume.
My own theory on contemporary French Jews’ reluctance to identify themselves as such — even to friends and acquaintances who might be MOT (members of the Tribe, as John once explained the acronym to me) — is that this discretion protects them from being rounded up again when the day returns. How this has manifest itself practically for me is that except for a girl I dated whose name was Sophie Goldstein and another who proudly proclaimed herself a Jew for Jesus (Max would have been proud), in 20 years in France I haven’t had a single friend who I knew to be Jewish, except Marcel. And this only came out — that he was the child of a Holocaust survivor — in our concerned discussions of the National Front, which polled 34 percent in the last presidential elections and is in a good position to do better in the 2022 vote, given the (in my view largely unfair) railing against French president Emmanuel Macron, whose popularity had dipped to 30 percent in one recent poll. (My hope in the Green candidate, Yannick Jadot, was chastened recently when he chickened out from participating in a Paris demonstration against Islamophobia, a term which, unlike Anti-Semitism, which is bandied about too freely here, is typically only uttered by the French media in quotes, as if it doesn’t even exist. I am hammering on this point because if you are really concerned about a resurgence of anti-Semitism, the best way to agitate against it is to rail against intolerance in whatever guise and against whichever community it surfaces.)
…. Thus it was that until a late, overcast afternoon in February 2019 when I reclined in the dentist’s chair above the Grands Boulevards, my head lolling to the side, waiting for the Novocain to kick in so we could clear away more ivory rubble, except for a general idea that my neighborhood used to be a Jewish neighborhood, I had no idea that Dr. B and his brother were also MOT.
“I bet you’re going to miss that,” I’d observed, nodding at the zinc rooftops glistening under the light drizzle across Hauteville (outside the same window, I’d shortly learn, from which Dr. B’s aunt had been poised to jump more than 70 years ago) from my supine position in the chair. There was no need to elaborate; Dr. B and I have always shared an emerveillement for the quotidian joys Paris has to offer those with eyes to see. (As well as a frustration with certain elements of a changing French society, such as a national train company which seems determined to push everyone to the Internet. On another afternoon, after I’d huffed up the six flights of stairs — the elevator being out of order for a month — and explained how I was late because the train company had ‘sent me promenading’ to four different stations from the Left to the Right bank just to try to change one ticket, Dr. B. sympathized, recounting his experience trying to change a ticket at the company’s boutique on the Grands Boulevards, only to discover that it had been shuttered. We also both prefer the public radio chain “FIP” to “France Musique” as operating music. “Too much talk!” on the latter.)
On this particular afternoon, we were alone. “Amélie” (not her real name) — Dr. B’s assistant, who’s also been ‘with me’ since the debut — “had to go home early so she could pick up her kids. The snow is one-foot deep in the suburbs! I had to cancel all my morning appointments.”
I’d come to Dr. B to restore my teeth. On this wintry afternoon, prompted no doubt by the absence of his assistant which meant we were alone, he’d decided to give me something just as precious: memory.
A Winter Afternoon off the Boulevard Montmartre
Dr. B began his account anodynely enough, this story of his family, this history of a shared heritage I hadn’t been aware of and whose commonality he was about to enrich, this story which would reveal how a lazy American doctor in Warsaw in 1939 saved my teeth in Paris in 2019. He began it, this transmission, in a manner that made it seem at first like he was just killing time until the anesthetic kicked in and he could operate, like any dentist. But this was not just any kind of small talk, this was not just any dentist, and this would become a lot more than any drizzle-infused late winter afternoon in Paris. It would become a gift, and it would change the way I perceived those Grands Boulevards, the way I experienced them, the lives I lived and the ghosts, the phantoms who accompanied me walking down these boulevards I’d roamed for 20 years, often to the soundtrack of Montand rhapsodizing about the “so many things” they offered, and had known, via the prism of Pissarro, like Dr. B and me a Parisian Jew, for 40. It would even restore the rapport with the Holocaust I used to have, first instilled in me by John Franklin and Lewis Campbell (as well by a junior high school art teacher who showed us a film that must have been Alain Resnais’s “Night and Fog”) also 40 years ago, before it was evacuated by what has become Israel’s usurpation of the memory of this mass murder for base political ends. (As Emmanuel Macron indicated at Yad Vashem this week in warning against invoking the Holocaust to justify contemporary political ends, as Israel’s prime minister shamelessly did at the same ceremony in using the occasion to rail against Iran.) It would take this memory away from the politicians and give it back to me. It would make it personal. And make it mine.
After I did my alto number — despite my explaining to Dr. B that crying out “Eeh eeh eeh!” when he sticks the needle into my gums is my way to evacuate the pain, he inevitably tries to calm me with “Uh uh uh!” — we had some time before my mouth went numb and he could begin to work, so Dr. B told me, “My son’s coming home! He’s been in New York for eight years and he’s had enough of it.” He’d once told me about a trip he and his wife had made to the States to make sure that his American citizenship would carry over to his son. The kid works for an Internet company that delivers recipes and the ingredients to realize them to eight million clients across the United States. Toujours donc dans la domaine des metiers de la bouche comme son pere; the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. “Americans don’t like to cook,” Dr. B explained. Because the son’s wife doesn’t have a lot of family — “her mother is from Finland and speaks a Hungarian patois” — she’s ready to return to France with him.
We compared Brooklyn notes – Dr. B went to visit his boy there once, and was particularly impressed by “a little park. Fort….” “Green! Not so little.” When I lived in Greenwich Village in the late ’90s, I’d commemorate July 4 by walking and eating my way across ethnic America, a promenade which took me across the Brooklyn Bridge and through Fort Green (mostly Black; White Castle burgers) and various sections of Williamsburg (Jewish; kischka and chocolate and cinnamon hamentoschen), Williamsburg further on (Puerto Rican; squares for making Mexican hot chocolate, on sale at the bodegas), and Bohemian (root curry at a vegetarian café that might have been called Oz) when they were real Bohemians, the pioneers that settled Brook-Land in 1995 when the rents were still cheaper than Manhattan and before Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and the rest of most of the borough became BoBo or Hipster. “My last time in New York,” I shared, “I lived in Greenpoint, the Polish section. Whenever I walked into a Polish deli the saleswomen would start talking to me in Polish. They just assumed I was one of them.” A MOT quoi.
What had impressed Dr. B the most on his first and only visit to New York was how the Haitian immigrants spoke better French than he did. “One time we walked into a restaurant, and I hadn’t gotten two (English) words out of my mouth before the waiter guessed I was French. Then he used this Old School French phrase that’s barely evoked anymore, it’s so formal: ‘Le usage veut’ (custom would have it) that one leaves a tip here.'” Because in France a 15% service charge is included in the check, French visitors to the U.S. apparently don’t always think to add a tip. “I can tell you the reverse isn’t true,” I quipped. “French waiters here never tell American customers that the custom veut that they don’t need to leave a tip.” Dr. B thought this was funny, as he did earlier when I told him how the previous week, right after he’d taken out three teeth, I’d gone straight to a vernissage near the Pere Lachaise cemetery (where Pissarro is buried… in the Jewish section) where I’d proceeded to drague — pick up — two Parisiennes at the same time. “Too bad you’re retiring,” I’d added. “I could write you a testimonial: ‘After Dr. B pulled three of my teeth, I picked up two women.’ And that was with half my teeth still missing. Just think, after you make the second denture, there won’t be any women left in Paris for the other guys.” He liked this too.
When the work was done and we were sitting at his desk, Dr. B paused after dawdling over his appointment book to fix our next rendez-vous, his pen still in the air as he looked down at the book and then, out of nowhere, with absolutely no pretense, began his story, which might have been mine had my ancestors not been chased out of Europe before the Holocaust. But only after he’d nonchalantly asked me where my parents came from, as if needing to confirm first, without directly posing ‘the Jewish question,’ that his story would have a special, essential resonance for me, an American Jew — a fellow American Jew — who by the accidents of history did not have any direct line to the Holocaust, had not lost anyone. After I answered that my parents had origins in Ukraine/Russia (depending on who had Kiev at the time), Georgia, Romania, and England by way of Canada — my ancestors all having had the luck to have been chased out of Europe in the pogroms before the Holocaust — he began the story of his.
“You know, not only were both my parents Polish, they came from the same small town.” (Parenthetically, he added that this is why he prefers a certain brand of Polish vodka whose name I can’t pronounce, but which has a blade of some kind of plant in the bottle; it’s from the same region as Dr. B’s parents.) The reason this was funny is that this village isn’t where they actually got together. They both left Poland before the war, but not for the same place. She went to America (we’ll get to that), and he (I’m not sure I followed all of this part), to avoid getting drafted by the Polish army, went to France and joined the Foreign Legion, then to America, where he was told he’d have to serve in that army. “’But I don’t speak English.’ ‘Doesn’t matter.’
“He drove a Sherman tank” for the Americans, Dr. B. went on. “During the Normandy invasion, he fought in Dieppe. He was such a good shot that instead of using the built-in gun in the turret he would use a machine gun and fire through the little hole in front. He could fix a target at long range, but the vulnerability of the Sherman tanks was that once someone got within 10 feet of you, you couldn’t see them. So the Germans would sneak up at the side and toss grenades in, or slip them under the tank.
“One day he told me that he would often wake up in the middle of the night because ‘I shot someone and sometimes I see him still running towards me with his hands in the air.’ He was in the tank, and saw a man driving a pony cart. Suddenly the man jumped off and came running towards the tank with his hands in the air. My father had five seconds to decide if the guy was trying to give himself up, or if it was a trick. And it didn’t involve just him — he was responsible for five lives.” So he shot and killed the man. “It turned out that a cabbage had fallen off his cart and the man was just trying to retrieve it….
“My mom and dad had actually met before the war, at a dance in their Polish village. He was friends with her older brother. When he told her, ‘We’ll meet again,’ she was doubtful, as she already knew she was probably going to America because of the growing discrimination towards the Jews. Well, when he got to America he looked up her brother” — they were living in Iowa — “found her, and within three weeks they were married and back in France.”
It was what happened to his father’s sister and my dentist’s cousin in Occupied Paris that made it urgent for his father and mother to return to France.
“Her child, her daughter, was able to obtain false papers, but within three months a neighbor turned her in and she was arrested — by the French police. My aunt kept a room in the apartment vacant for years, hoping her daughter would reappear after the war.” At this point Dr. B made a sweeping gesture around the office and I realized that its examination rooms and waiting room had been that apartment.
“He had to come back,” Dr. B explained about his father’s decision to bring Dr. B’s mother back to France, “because my aunt was ready to kill herself. He even found her once” — at this he gestured towards the wall-length windows looking out over the zinc rooftops across the street (during one appointment I’d nodded my head sideways at these roofs just before Dr. B took out the three teeth and said, “C’est ca, Paris” and he’d nodded) and mimicked someone scaling the barrier and jumping.
I’ve saved the most serendipitous element for last.
“You know how my mother was saved? Her parents had waited until the last moment before deciding to try to send her to America, as the sentiment towards the Jews deteriorated. You know, before the war it wasn’t like that. The Jewish kids and the Catholic kids went to school together. When it came time for church class, the Jewish kids would leave the room. When it came time for Jewish religious class, the Catholic kids would leave.” Her parents knew it was time to send their daughter – my dentist’s mother – to the U.S. when an older Jewish girl was stoned.
“By that time, it wasn’t Ellis Island any more” — the point of entry to the U.S. — “where immigrants had to pass a physical before being admitted to the U.S., but Warsaw.” (American authorities — this is my insertion — sometimes abetted by the American Jewish establishment weren’t letting refugees get so close to New York without screening them first in their home countries. One boat of 1500 refugees was even turned back to Europe at New York Harbor, half the passengers later perishing in the camps.) “She had to have a medical exam because if you were sick, you wouldn’t be accepted into the United States. She was 12 or 13 — actually, we don’t know her age,” because — like the girls being separated into you work, you go to the gas chamber lines on arrival at the death camps, she probably lied about it to increase her chances of getting into the U.S. . “The problem was that she had a bad left eye.” He pointed to his. “So when it was time for the eye test, after the first row she couldn’t see anything. But she didn’t hesitate. She called out every letter as if she knew it.” Fortunately — here’s where the lazy doctor in Warsaw in 1938 saving my teeth in Paris in 2019 part comes in — the doctor wasn’t looking at the chart, but at Dr. B’s mom. By the confidence with which she named the letters as if she actually could read them, he assumed her vision was perfect.
“Chance is a funny thing,” Dr. B observed, shaking his head.
After I left Dr. B’s office, strolling at this nocturnal hour towards the Place de la Republique up the Grands Boulevards, which I’d first encountered in that tableau by Pissarro, a French Jewish painter who’d died of old age 37 years before the Nazis aided by Vichy might have gotten to him, and feeling good to be surrounded by and at one with all these Parisians hurrying home from work in Paris on a brisk drizzly winter evening in 2019, I felt like I was in another place — or maybe haunted by the spirits of the same place in a more sinister time where I too might have been picked up any moment — whose memory had just been offered to me. By opening up his family history book — recounted in an easy manner, not with any airs of tragedy or bitterness — my dentist had made this experience concrete. He’d made it mine.
Afterward: Pour en finir avec le Celine-o-mania
In his 1990 historical novel “La Mémoire des vaincus,” which recounts the saga of European anarcho-syndicalism in the 20th century, Michel Ragon has his hero write a piece for an anarchist rag in the 1950s, when Céline was ostracized as a collaborator, in which he asks, “Does anyone reproach [Paul] Claudel for having called Proust a ‘Sodomite Jew’?” (I reproach Paul Claudel for having his sister Camille, Rodin’s model, lover, and artistic superior, interned for 26 years because she didn’t bathe herself or change her clothes enough for her neighbors on the Ile St.-Louis.) “All France, or just about, was anti-Jewish during the epoch in which Céline wrote his pamphlets. Céline was neither worse nor better than the other professional anti-Semites; he merely served as the fall guy. France vomited on him all the anti-Semitism on which it had fed. It turned Céline into an abject being to mask its own ignominy.” And expunging Céline didn’t cure France of this scourge; in his 1956 novel “Trompe-l-oeil,” Ragon treats post-War anti-Semitism in France.
On my way to meet with Ragon in the home he shares with his wife off the Grands Boulevards last Spring — somewhere between Dr. B’s offices and the Olympia — I noticed a poster advertising a new one-man show at the Pocket Theater in Montparnasse about Céline’s last years, 1960-61. On a twilight promenade along the Right Bank of the Seine earlier that winter, when most of the green zinc bookstands were shuttered, I came upon a bouquiniste carefully wrapping cellophane around his Léo Malet pulp novels, from whose covers beckoned busty babes, the man insulated from the winds whipping up from the river only by the rusted green-iron lids of his stand and a cape and cloak that made him look like Aristide Bruant, the one-time proprietor of the Chat Noir. Noticing that I was lingering in front of a shrine he’d set up for the author, he perked up and asked, “Interested in Céline?” Trying to show off, I cited the episode from Ragon’s book — pointing out that the author “was a comrade,” Ragon having also been a bouquiniste. At this the man pointed to an article laminated to the underside of the rusty lid above the Céline shrine. After I’d craned my neck impossibly to try to read the piece, he explained the gist: “Céline’s problem wasn’t with Jews per se, but a certain type of behavior associated with a certain segment of Jews, whatever quarter it came from.” When I asked him if he had “Voyage to the end of night,” he showed me three difference editions at three different escalating prices according to the vintage, all beyond my budget. I finally found a price I could afford — 2 Euros bundled with Zola’s “L’oeuvre,” the story of a painter who combines elements of Cezanne, Manet, and Monet, and Jean Genet’s “The Maids.” Given the stereotypical descriptions of lazy Africans in which “Voyage to the end of night” traffics, the endroit where I bought the book was ironic: A rummage sale to benefit and in the courtyard of a non-profit, Grands Voisins (Big Neighbors), up the street from the Luxembourg which serves recent immigrants — most of them from African countries.
When I asked Ragon during our talk about this resurgent Céline-o-Mania (a term the author himself employs in the ‘Bagatelles’) — besides the play and the bouquiniste’s shrine, Radio France’s pseudo-intellectual chain France Culture had recently devoted a week-long special summer series to him, even interviewing a supposedly Jewish book-seller who was a big defender and managing to elicit a grudging appreciation from the famed Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld — and reminded him of his hero’s defense of Céline, he said “Yes, but authors have a special responsibility” to pay attention to the impact of their words.
At another rummage sale, this one on the outskirts of the Marco Polo or Explorers’ Garden which abuts the Luxembourg (the Paris Meridian — the predecessor to Greenwich Mean Time — on which Notre Dame, the Luxembourg, the Marco Polo with Carpeaux’s sculpture-fountain of four naked goddesses and their horses representing “the Four Corners of the World” being doused with water spouted up at them by a ring of turtles, and the toilet where I once rescued 2000 years of Western, Eastern, and Oriental philosophy are all anchored is my personal Mulberry Street, I see everything on it, often through Dr. Seuss’s eyes), I scored a copy of the April 1969 issue of the cultural magazine Planete which reproduces Céline’s last and only filmed interview. Realized by the magazine’s editor, Louis Pauwels, in 1959 in collaboration with André Brissaud, the interview was banned for eight years by the O.R.T.F., the French public radio and television chain. Banished to a millstone villa overgrown with weeds in Meudon (where Rodin also lived for years) where the only indications of the residents’ identities are plaques for “Lucette Almanzor, Dance Lessons” — the author’s wife, Lucette, died last year at the age of 107, 58 years after the husband whose oeuvre she’d fiercely defended for more than half a century — and another, partly covered by pine needles, for “Doctor Destouches,” the author himself being a physician who provided medical advice to the poor (like the hero of ‘Voyage’), Céline’s defiant attitude towards his interlopers and their often idiotic questions is admittedly seductive for anyone who’s had their fill of the general superficiality of the French mainstream media and its tendency towards ‘divertissement’ or info-tainment (I’m not saying it’s not the same in the United States, but this is what I know). Particularly when Pauwels asks him, “If you had to die right now, which would not please God, what would be your last thought?” and the author abruptly terminates the interview: “Ah! So it’s come to that has it?! Au revoir et merci! Ah! I think that just about does it. I don’t have anything against you, but, my God, you should mind your own business….” and conducts him to the door. But not before he lets go with one last bit of all-encompassing invective, stopping at the fence and pointing an angular finger at the Seine:
“The other day I walked down there to have a drink. I sat down on a café terrace…. I watched the crowd pass by. The bandy-legged, the crooked [the term Céline employs here, ‘crochus,’ which can also mean ‘hook-nosed,’ is also a derogatory term for Jews which Maupassant among others has employed], the poorly-wiped; and the females…. The worse, in fact, were the females. Bundles of fat waddling their asses. So content with themselves. The well-fed, quoi, good for little more than receiving kicks in the ass without complaining. There was one, one only, in the group, he was good-looking and solid, but with an idiotic air, no one home inside. Alors, quoi, there’s nothing left for the Chinese to do but to come on over, all the way to the Dordogne if they want, by foot, no rush, from Peking. Not the Russians. No, the Russians, they’re no more than the atomic scientists for China. And the Chinese, we’ll tell them: Meow, Meow, Head over there [presumably the Dordogne, where this 21st-century American Jew descended from European Jews now lives], to the land of the Sun and of those who couldn’t give a fig. And they’ll arrive, Monsieur, they’ll arrive, their toothpicks ahead of them, until they croak from the wine and the foie gras, to take their turn at easy living, at foie…; they’ll die from it but you’ll already have been dead for a long time, all of you, and so will I.”
Earlier in the interview, Pauwels asks Céline to name the authors to whom he feels the closest, as well as those who seem the most removed from him.
“Writers? I’m only interested in those who have as a style; if they don’t have a style, they don’t interest me. And it’s a rare thing, a style, Monsieur, it’s rare. But stories, the streets are full of them; I see them everywhere, stories, the police stations are full of them, the prisons are full of them, our lives are full of them. Everyone has a story, a million stories.”
“But isn’t there a writer…?”
“A writer? Ah!, indeed, Monsieur. There’s one, two, three for each generation. There are thousands of writers, but they’re just meager muddled unreliables…. They purr in their phrases, they repeat what someone else has said. They pick a story, a good story, and then they recount it. This doesn’t interest me. I’ve stopped being a writer to become a chronicler, n’est-ce pas? Thus I’ve put my skin on the table, because, you must not forget one thing: The grand inspirer is death. If you don’t lay your own skin on the line, if you don’t put your own skin on the table, you don’t have anything. You have to pay the price! If it doesn’t cost anything, you’ve missed the mark, and even more than missed the mark. And so we only have writers for whom their work hasn’t cost them anything, which is free, which is gratuitous. And that which is gratuitous, which doesn’t cost anything, stinks of being gratuitous.”
If I agree, even applaud Céline on the general principle — writing that doesn’t cost anything, in which the writer doesn’t in some manner risk his own skin, isn’t worthwhile — the problem in this case is that with “Voyage au bout de la nuit” and even, in the context of 1937 and the Occupation which saw it re-issued with gusto by collaborationist publishers, “Bagatelles pour un massacre” and the other pamphlets is that beyond his post-war ostracism, beyond being an outcast relegated to a not-so-uncomfortable suburb on the outskirts of Paris far from his dear Montmartre, it wasn’t Céline who paid the price for his venomous prose. It wasn’t his own skin he was putting on the table.
Epilogue: “Amour du Prochaine” (Originale version of Max Jacob poem above)
Qui a vu le crapaud traverser une rue ? c’est un tout petit homme : une poupée n’est pas plus miniscule. Il se traîne sur les genoux : Il a honte, on dirait…? Non ! il est rhumatisant, une jambe reste en arrière, il la ramène ! où va-t-il ainsi ? il sort de l’égout, pauvre clown. Personne n’a remarqué ce crapaud dans la rue. Jadis personne ne me remarquait dans la rue, maintenant les enfants se moquent de mon étoile jaune. Heureux crapaud ! tu n’as pas d’étoile jaune.
— Max Jacob, cited in Billy, André, “Max Jacob,” Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946.
Billy, André, “Max Jacob,” Editions Pierre Seghers, Lyon, February 15, 1946.
Billy, André, “The death of Max Jacob,” Le Figaro, September 9, 1945.
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand, “Voyage au bout de la nuit,” Gallimard, Paris, 1932.
Céline, Louis-Ferdinand, “Bagatelles pour un massacre,” Paris, 1937.
Frank, Anne, “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
Pauwels, Louis, “Et Céline s’expliqua,” published in “La nouveau Planete,” Paris, April 1969.
Ragon, Michel, “La Mémoire des vaincus,” Albin Michel, Paris, 1990.
Ragon, Michel, “Trompe-l-oeil,” Albin Michel, Paris, 1956