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


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.

Click on the image to see a larger version.

Book Review

World War II is still present here. Every village has a memorial to those who died in combat, most built after WWI and updated with names from II, and in some cases, Indochina and Algeria. You still meet people who fought in the war. The village history published in the annual report focuses on the years of the war and talks about the occupation, collaborators and the resistance. It speaks of driving out the collaborationist town government to be replaced by one led by the resistance.

Maury: War Memorial © 2012 Ron Scherl

There’s a wonderful little novel by Vercors, the nom de guerre of the French writer Jean Bruller, called The Silence of the Sea that perfectly captures the horror of war without ever relating a battle.  A German officer is assigned to live with a French family in a small village in the south. The family consists of an uncle and his niece. The officer speaks French and is enamored of French culture. The family will not speak to him or acknowledge his presence. Every evening he comes to see them and talks of his love for France especially the literature and his hope that the two cultures will be married and Europe will be at peace. He speaks of this with total sincerity and it makes me queasy to read it.


The family never responds but they listen. The book consists almost entirely of physical descriptions of the three characters; how their bodies reflect their thoughts and the subtle changes they each endure.


When the officer returns from leave in Paris, everything changes. The uncle, sensing his niece’s unspoken attraction to the German, invites him in, “Entrez, monsieur” are his first and only words of dialogue in the entire book. The officer is changed. He has seen his friends and fellow officers in Paris and learned the plan is not marriage but annihilation. The German command does not share his love for French culture and intends to destroy it. We know this, of course, in hindsight, but it’s shocking to realize the officer was sincere. He genuinely believed in the potential marriage of German music and French literature and was hoping for the human counterpart, marriage to the French niece. As for the girl, there are silent signs along the way that she believed he was sincere or maybe just desperately needed to believe it.


Was he an outlier, the exception that proves the rule? Vercors makes no attempt to apply his story on a larger scale. We have just the three characters. The book ends with the officer explaining they would not see him again as he had volunteered for the eastern front.


I’m thinking about why this book touched me so much. The prose is very simple and I was able to read it in French, but more importantly, I think, is that I read it here, where it is set and where the war is still remembered. Literature of the time is still read, memorials are still seriously observed, memories are still alive. It’s different here.