A Sunny Sunday

Square Saint Lambert

6 May 2018

I sat next to a woman just as she sighed with satisfaction and closed her book: Avant que les Ombres s’Effacent. Louis-Philippe Dalembert. Before the Shadows Fade turns out to be the story of a Polish Jew who flees Nazism to Haiti, of all places. Turns out Haiti had passed a law in 1939 guaranteeing asylum for the persecuted, and citizenship to all who asked. I keep getting drawn back into this story, first with the surprise of discovering the similar policies of Mexico, and now Haiti, two countries who saved many thousands of Jews turned away by the United States.

My parents adored Franklin Roosevelt—so much so that as a kid I thought he must be Jewish—but FDR bowed to the isolationists and anti-Semites in clamping down on European immigration. US visa offices were closed and all applications had to be approved by the State Department in Washington. People like Hiram Bingham and Varian Fry did their best, but their efforts were severely hampered by their own government.

I don’t know how much the American public knew at the time. I can only assume my parents were misinformed.

Square Saint Lambert

But, hey. It’s a beautiful day in Paris and this piece was supposed to be just an impressionistic summer observation of an ex-pat with a camera.

Reading woman left and was replaced on the bench by a young boy wearing glasses and reading Harry Potter et la Coupe de Feu. That’s more like it.

There’s a man juggling on the green—not very well—and the green is crowded. Balls are landing all over but the sun worshipers are happy and cheer him along. There are lots of kids on wheels and lots more kids with balls and when the two intersect, a few tears flow, but dads are there to brush them off and get them back on the bikes. Seems like a lot of dads watching kids, which would make me wonder about the divorce rate if I weren’t so intent on a sunny day.

Beach towels, football jerseys, books, and selfies. Young women in bikinis, sunglasses, and straw hats, winter pallor slick with oil. The young are all on the green, the rest of us seek benches in the shade.

Let’s close this with an unusual war memorial. I just can’t help it. If anyone can tell me who the three gentlemen on the left are, and what the inscriptions “T.O.E.” and “A.F.N.” stand for, I’d appreciate it.

War Memorial at the Mairie of the 15th.

Merci beaucoup.

©2018 Ron Scherl

Riga to Hamburg; Capa and Blum

Writing historical fiction can lead you in several directions at once. This morning I was trying to figure out how one could get from Riga to Hamburg in 1905. A little later on, Robert Capa led me to Léon Blum.

Let’s start with the geography. At that time, Riga was in Russia, in the Pale Settlement to be exact, the region where Jews were permitted to live. This region was created by Catherine the Great at the end of the 18th century, but the use of the word “pale” as a fenced in area, and the phrase “Beyond the Pale” which we now take to mean “unacceptable” date back to 14th century Ireland. In Russia, the pale was most of the western part of the country, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. There were many Jews.

The first decade of the 20th century was not a great time to be a Jew in Russia: new restrictions were imposed daily and the pogroms spread throughout the Pale. A massive wave of emigration to the west beginning around 1880 and continuing up to the revolution of 1917 saw 2.5 million people leave Russia, the great majority of them Jews. Most went to the United States, the Lower East Side of New York City, to be precise.

The peculiar logic of prejudice dictated that while the Russians from peasants to Czars didn’t want the Jews, they had to make it difficult for them to leave, a last chance to punish. The result, as often happens, was an underground railroad of sorts from Warsaw (in Russia at the time) to the German border. And as happens just as frequently, there were good people of all religions who helped, and there were those who would help for a fee and betray if the other side offered a larger fee.

It would have been possible to travel from Riga to Warsaw by train – perhaps under the pretense of visiting relatives – and then by foot or cart to Germany with the help of friends, or to prison if you were not so lucky. Many young Jewish men who did not make it soon found themselves in the Czar’s army, an honor most did not survive. Those who did make it to Germany had to prove they had tickets on a German shipping line for passage to England or America. Tickets on the lines of French or English companies were often declared invalid since they did nothing for the German economy. The German government was willing to let the Jews pass through their territory, as long as they could profit from it. They also picked up a few marks by housing ticketed passengers waiting for a ship in some hastily built, fenced-in barracks near the docks. When the refugees finally boarded, they were faced with 7-10 days in steerage dormitories, followed by the Ellis Island entrance exams and, if all went well, a Lower East Side tenement.

Léon Blum and Robert Capa


As far as I know, Capa and Blum never met but why not? In 1936, Capa was in France and his photojournalism career was gaining momentum. Blum was creating the leftist coalition dubbed the Popular Front and campaigning as its leader. He would go on to become the first Socialist and first Jewish Prime Minister of France.

Capa did photograph Blum at a campaign rally and that’s the starting point for a fictional scene that allows me to weave them into the plot of a novel that spans the years from 1905 to 1972. Stay tuned, this is going to take a while.


Springtime, maybe. At least the last few days have been much warmer; the almond trees have started to blossom and Friday nights have returned to the café.  We were a small group and several conversations in English and French were going on at once. I was talking to a local winemaker about his upcoming trip to New York when I heard someone else at the table use the phrase “you’ve got to Jew down the middleman.” He wasn’t talking to me and the person he was talking to didn’t react and neither did I.

Now I wonder why.

I thought for a while that I’ve lived too long in a politically correct society and this was no big deal but I haven’t been able to dismiss it.

I also thought this is a small town and the last thing I want is to make enemies. I was afraid that making an issue of this would cause a split and I would be the one left out.

This was what stopped me, in part anyway.

I began to think I was being overly sensitive, probably because I’ve been reading a lot about World War II lately. It’s very hard to find information about the situation of Jews here during the occupation. I’m not even sure there were any Jews in Maury at the time. But there was a concentration camp not 15 miles away in Rivesaltes and though it was first built in 1938 to house refugees from the war in Spain, it remained in use throughout the German occupation of France and beyond. Today there are monuments to the Spanish, Jewish, Tsigane (Gypsy) and Harki people who spent time there. (Harkis are Algerian Muslims who fought for France in the Algerian War and were interned in the camp because no provision had been made for them when the French withdrew). In 1942, about 6500 Jews were sent to this and other camps in unoccupied France, 1800 died there, the rest were sent to extermination camps. Very few survived. A museum of remembrance and education is planned but has not yet received final approval.

Now what.

Is this kind of remark indicative of anything more than thoughtlessness in a casual conversation and is that in itself a dangerous attitude? Is it possible that this person has no idea the remark is offensive? Of course, but that doesn’t mean it should go unchallenged; it is the casual acceptance of stereotypes that leads to bigotry. Prejudice thrives on ignorance and silent complicity; hate crimes, ethnic cleansing, terrorism and other nightmares can be traced to racial and religious bigotry and the dehumanizing effect of stereotypes.

It’s a long way from a casual remark to ethnic warfare and I don’t mean to suggest that we’ve started down that road in our little village, but I can’t seem to put this aside. I went to the camp today looking for what: confirmation, perspective, photos for the blog? The place is huge and appears to have been left untouched for 70 years except for evidence of campers, taggers and garbage disposal. It’s falling down but many walls remain standing. When you see this today – here, not in Poland or Germany – surrounded by modern civilization, the impact is much greater than old newsreel footage. It brings to life the injunction to never forget.

So why publish this? What do I hope to gain?

Apologies are fine but I’m not sure they’d make a whole lot of difference to either one of us. I’d like to believe that you can change the world one person at a time but I doubt it. But I do want this one person to learn that Jew is not a verb and that phrase is offensive and not to use it again.

This blog is a personal journey so I’ll tell you about the first time I can remember an experience like this.

About 50 years ago, the very first real date I had was with a young blond girl from the suburbs. I don’t remember how I met her. Sometime in the course of our lavish Italian dinner at Mamma Leone’s in Times Square – the height of dining for me at the time – she made a similar remark, it may even have been the same phrase. I didn’t say a word, probably not for the rest of the meal and went home feeling ashamed, not of being a Jew, but of not saying anything to her.

Now I’ve done it again but I’ve come to understand that if his casual thoughtlessness is dangerous, so too was my silence.

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