When Memory Comes
On June 11, 1942, Heinrich Himmler demanded 100,000 Jews of France, for Auschwitz. Pierre Laval agreed in July to turn over 10,000. This would “cleanse France of its foreign Jewry”: the deportations, Laval insisted, would take only Jews from Germany and Central Europe who had sought refuge in the Unoccupied Zone. The roundups began at once. Switzerland sealed its frontiers. “We cannot turn our country into a sponge for Europe,” the Swiss Minister of Justice announced. Jews who stole across were promptly returned to their fate. Among these were Jan and Elli Friedländer of Prague. They later perished, as planned, at Auschwitz. In Britain Herbert Morrison, the Home Secretary, entertained a proposal to admit at least the children of Vichy’s doomed Jews. The Foreign Office, however, balked. Sir Alexander Cadogan, Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, observed that “it seems to me wrong to support bringing children to this country at present.” Among these children was Jan and Elli’s ten-year-old son, Pavel.*
Pavel Friedländer survived the war. He had been baptized, becoming Paul-Henri Marie Ferland, and was harbored in the doctrinal gloom of a Catholic seminary in the Indre, where he gladly quit the storm outside for the church, and for its calming certainties. Paul-Henri Ferland was no longer a victim:
The simple unquestioning faith drummed into us was…the one I needed…. I had passed over to Catholicism, body and soul…. I felt at ease within a community of those who had nothing but scorn for Jews…. I had the feeling…of having passed over to the compact, invincible majority, of no longer belonging to the camp of the persecuted, but, potentially at least, to that of the persecutors.
The boy who had been fascinated by the tales of the Maccabees his father told on Hanukkah now adored the Virgin and Pétain, the Savior of France. In time France was delivered from its savior. The war ended, but no family returned for Paul-Henri. The seminarist was preparing for his novitiate when a charitable priest, pausing beside the church altar, told him about Auschwitz.
And so, in front of this obscure Christ, I listened: Auschwitz, the trains, the gas chambers, the crematory ovens, the millions of dead…. For the first time I felt myself to be Jewish—no longer despite myself or secretly, but through a sensation of absolute loyalty. It is true that I knew nothing of Judaism and was still a Catholic. But something had changed. A tie had been reestablished, an identity was emerging, a confused one certainly…but from that day forward…there could be no doubt: in some manner or other I was Jewish….
He was Pavel again, the impersonation was ended, but he did not know who Pavel was.
Pavel had been born in 1932 into the assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie of Prague. Jan Friedländer’s book plates displayed a score by Chopin set within a Star of David, an emblem of an honorable delusion. “Judaism as a religion had completely disappeared” from Pavel’s family, Friedländer…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.