A waiter trots over and takes my order in English (double espresso first please, then a pot of Earl Grey tea and a Tarte Tartin).
“You from the States?” A woman sitting with her husband at a table behind me says, in her sixties maybe, long charcoal hair pulled back from her tanned face.
“Yes,” I say, wiping the sweat dripping from my forehead with the back of my hand. “I’m Australian, but I live in the U.S.” I should have told her I am a citizen of both countries.
The husband ask about my travels and I tell him I've been in Poland.
“Jewish?” he asks, smiling.
“Yes!” I laugh, wondering why on earth he would say such a thing. In Australia, my mother raised me Christian. As a child, I’d followed her lead, clapping my hands to upbeat hymns at a Baptist church. I'd grimaced when my mother yelled “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!” when the pastor recited a scripture or offered advice she liked. (If you’re new to this blog, you can read our story here on narrative.ly>>.) I’d never identified as Jewish until I moved to the U.S., when I was suddenly surrounded by Jews. My neighbors and work colleagues invited me to celebrate holidays I’d never heard of, like Hanukah and Yom Kippur.
On the restaurant terrace, the kind-faced woman nods, telling me she and her husband are Jewish too, from Paris, holidaying in the alpine town. “I guess I look like you,” I chuckle, pointing at my nearly jet-black cropped hair.
“Ah,” the husband says, raising his thick grey eyebrows, about seventy five I figure from his snow white hair, maybe older. (Eighty-one I will soon discover.) “I have family in Australia, in Sydney and in Melbourne,” he says.
Five minutes later, instead of talking across tables, I pull my chair up to Eddie and Anna’s, turning my back on the alpine views. I learn that Anna was born after The War. Her parents, escaped from Poland, left France when the Nazis invaded, paying smugglers to walk them over the Alps, to Switzerland, where they spent the rest of the war.
I listen transfixed for an hour or more as Eddie tells me his story––that when the Nazis marched into Paris in June 1940, he was six years old. His parents organized to have him hidden in an attic, while using various guises they moved around dodging the Gestapo. Later, a French policeman took Eddie on a train, to the villiage I now see below our restaurant terrace, that in November 1942 was in the Italian zone, where around eighty percent of France’s Jews had fled. But when the Germans invaded the Italian zone in September 1943 and the SS began rounding up Jews, Eddie’s family absconded, spending the rest of the war hiding in stranger’s homes, women kind-hearted enough to stash them in a basement or attic with blacked out windows, where Eddie nearly suffocated from asthma.
Annie tells me she attends a Yiddish conversation group in Paris on Thursdays, the oldest member a 91 year old Auschwitz survivor. She says learning Yiddish reminds her of her parents. Her eyes twinkle with tears and I wonder what she’s hiding, who in her family was lost to the Holocaust maybe, like my grandparents, traumas not spoken about, traumas pushed deep, to cope with raising children, when they’d seen children rounded up and shot, or clubbed with guns, or pushed into pits and sprayed with bullets, dirt piled on top.
I understand Eddie’s lit up face when he describes his mother cutting red, white and blue cloth in 1945 when the war ended, tying it to a mop, waving the French flag from a window. Given my mother passed away only three months ago, I feel connected to this ‘child survivor’. I met him only an hour or so ago, but I understand his optimism and his determination. It is the same brand as my mother’s.
Eddie returns with Annie every year for a month to this once-under-Italian-protection-mountain villiage. He celebrates life, like my mother did. He relishes every single day.