Paris in July
“My older brother watches over me, telling me what to write in Yiddish. I can’t very well ask him not to speak in the language of exile. Blessed with the gifts of a prodigy, he knows what I’m thinking. Yiddish is not a language of exile, he answers my unspoken words —it is mame-loshn, our mother tongue. I have tremendous respect for my brother. He believed in the goodness of man, the goodness of all. He met with a double disaster —disappointed first in his faith, then in himself. Now he watches over me, directing my stories from beyond the grave with a sure touch. This is how it was. This is what happened. So must it be recorded. Each according to his ability must convey what he saw, what he lived through, what he thought, what he felt. You did not survive simply to eat blintzes with sour cream. You survived to bring back those who were annihilated.”. From The Yiddish Writer by Blume Lempel
Paris in July hosted by Thyme for Tea is a great event. I Focus on literary works and nonfiction but you are invited to share your thoughts and experience on anything Paris related, from a great recipe, a favourite movie set in Paris, mine is Ninotchka, an account of your stay in Paris. I hope lots of people join in. Just be sure and link you post on The event home page. There are already lots of fascinating posts.
I was gratified when my post on a story by Blume Lempel “A Yiddish Poet in Paris” drew attention from event participants. Many thousands of Eastern European Jews immigrated to France in the 1930s, hoping they would be safer from the Nazis.
Born 1907 in The Ukraine
Moved to Paris in 1929, to be near her brother who lived there.
While in Paris she worked as a furrier and attended night school.
1939- having married and had two children, her Family moved to New York State, out of concern over rising anti-Semiticism. (Many in her extended Family died in The Holocaust as would she and her Family had they not left. In 1942 French authorities in a compromise with the Germans, agree to arrest and turn over to the Germans all foreign born Jews.
I am currently reading a fascinating work focused partially on Jewish culture in Paris in the 1930s, THE ARCHIVE THIEF The Man Who Salvaged French Jewish History in the Wake of the Holocaust by LISA MOSES LEFF. This quote from her book will help us understand Yiddish Paris:
“The highly politicized, culturally dynamic milieu that Szajkowski found in Paris was an important hub in the vast global diaspora of Yiddish-speaking Jews that formed in the turbulent 1920s and ’30s. This meant that many of the same political and cultural ideas that Szajkowski had encountered as a boy in Zaromb—Communism, Jewish socialism, Zionism, and diaspora nationalism—also shaped life among the 90,000 immigrants who formed the majority of Paris’s interwar Jewish population of about 150,000. In those years, antisemitism and economic hardship pushed many Eastern European Jews to migrate across the globe, as they sought new situations in which they could support themselves and live their lives in peace.”
(It should be noted that not all French Jews self identified as Yiddish, many had been in France for centuries but this is complex matter.)
Lempel came to love Paris and became fluent in French. Shortly after she and her family left France her brother was killed by the Germans as a resistance fighter.
1943- begins to publish, starting with a Short Story
All her writings were in Yiddish. In part this was her way of defying those who wanted the magnifcient Yiddish Cultural tradition destroyed.
In 1950 the Family locates permanently in Long Island. I was happy to learn she lived 92 years and continued to publish well into her eighties.
1999 passes away.
I could not find much sbout the details of her life in Long Island, there is a great bio or novel in this for someone.
“Her Last Dance” was published in English translation in a collection of her work, Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, named for one of the stories, translated and introduced by Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Taub, assembled from two Yiddish language collections published by Lempel. In my prior posts on Lempel there are links to two very good lectures by the translators. I thank them for bringing Lempel to the Yiddish lacking literary world.
This story is set in Paris, the allies have just landed in Normandy. Our chief character Simone is the mistress of the Nazi selected French chief of police for Paris. She has a dangerous secret. Her lover has no
Idea her parents are Yiddish speaking immigrants from Lithuania. She has died her hair blond and has learned to get by on her looks and a willingness to trade sexual accomodation for comfort and luxury. Simone begins to wonder if she is trapped, how can she survive when the now obviously worried Germans leave Paris? Lempel takes us to a café gathering of Nazis.
“Among the full and empty glasses on the table were scattered newspapers in various languages. It was the summer of 1944. The Allies had landed on the golden beaches of Normandy. This new situation placed the bleached blond mademoiselle in a dilemma. The worm of doubt that lurked within every turning point had crawled into her pampered soul. Simone did not believe in principles; she led her life by caprice alone. In fact, one could say that principles played no part in her life at all. She relied on her intuition to take her from one stage to the next, even into the bedroom. Now her intuition was whispering that it was time to turn over a new leaf.”
Now the Gestapo bosses of the mayor begin to think, very incorrectly, that she may be a spy for the resistance. Simone begins to wonder how can she escape being labeled a collaborator once the war is over? All she ever wanted was to get by on her looks and help her parents, who dont really approve of her life style but these are dark times.
Simone begins to help downed fighter pilots get out of France:
“This very morning she had carried out a daring mission. She had smuggled out an R.A.F. flier who had escaped from custody and delivered him to the Resistance. She had hidden the flier in her maid’s attic quarters, dressed his wounds, provided him with civilian clothes and a false passport, and driven him in her car to his destination. Simone Bonmarchais worked only for prominent men, wanting nothing to do with ordinary people. She was the ideal mistress for her lover, as she asked no favors of him. Underlings did the preparatory work, providing her with the passports and warning her of danger. She rewarded them with higher positions and better pay. With an aesthetic outlook, she dismissed the rumors of mass murder. In her bleached blond head, such outrageous stories could not take up residence. The scope of the atrocity was so far beyond human comprehension that lies were more believable than truth.”
She likes to help pilots as they are exciting figures.
I will give Lempel the last word on the fate of Simone, now in the custody of the SS
““My dear fraulein, you’re too charming to argue with. But an order is an order.” He took her by the arm and led her outside. Two S.S. men were waiting. They settled the fraulein into the car and drove from the Champs-Élysées to the Place de Concorde, passing the elegant restaurants where she and M. Legrand had once been so happy. From there the car turned deeper into the woods, where a single bullet dyed her blond hair a hideous shade of red.”
“Her Last Dance” is a very deeply perceptive story. It feels like a plot for an exciting movie.
Yesterday I was given a Review copy of A German Officer in Occupied Paris 1941 to 1945 - The Journal of Ernst J Ünger. Únger was a famous German writer, his primary job in Paris was to read French publications looking for anti-German Ideas. I hope to post on this soon.