Thursday, December 3, 2009


Gene's mother was born in Paris.  Family legend has it that his grandparents had lived in the rue des Rosiers in the third arrondissement, at that time the center of Eastern European Jewish immigrant life. Apparently they had come separately from Eastern Europe to find work, had been caught in Paris by the outbreak of World War I, met, married, had two children and left for the US in the early 1920s.

A couple of years ago we tried to pin the story down by going to the mairie (the local town hall) of the third arrondissement to get copies of his grandparents' marriage certificate and his mother's birth certificate.  They didn't exist, at least not in that arrondissement.

Somewhere we got a bad photocopy of the page of an official register listing Gene's mother's birth.  Family legend was way off.  Her name was spelled differently, her birthdate was one day off and the family residence was way across town, in Montmartre, on a tiny street climbing the hill behind Sacre Coeur.

The other day three generations of that family went looking for that street:  Gene, his niece and her baby son, with wives along for the ride.  The rue du Chevalier de la Barre is a short, narrow, winding street slipping down the hill behind the huge Basilica of Sacre Coeur, (the official address of which is actually on that street, it turns out).  The street address on the photocopy was unreadable; all we knew was that somewhere on that street a baby had lived who grew up to become Gene's mother and that baby's great-grandson was being carried down the same street nearly 90 years later.


It's a pretty little street, vaguely picturesque, steep but not requiring steps to climb it as many others in the neighborhood do.  At the top of the street is a building, le Centre Israelite de Montmartre, with a plaque on it, one of the ubiquitous plaques on Parisian walls commemorating an event or a person.  This one tells of the 79 Jewish children who had been sheltered in that building until the bombardment of April 1944 had forced them out and that they had eventually been arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz, where 71 of them had died.  How they had managed to stay there until 1944 isn't clear.

The building is a refuge for homeless Jewish families and has been since 1920.  We don't know if this is where Gene's family lived or if they had an apartment elsewhere on the street.  There is a Jewish creche next door, an infant day care facility.  We don't know if his mother might have been taken there while her parents worked.  We don't know any more details.  What we do know is that if her parents had not left Paris for the United States in the 1920s the chances of any of those three generations being on that street on Tuesday were slim to none.


Karin B (Looking for Ballast) said...

"What we do know is that if her parents had not left Paris for the United States in the 1920s the chances of any of those three generations being on that street on Tuesday were slim to none."

So, so true. This post brought tears to my eyes. What a wonderful post! I have been blogging a little about the book "Sarah's Key" by Tatiana de Rosnay in a few posts on my own -- it's a novel about the Vel d'Hiv roundup in 1942. It is so heartwrenching to read about. I am so glad Gene's family left back then, and that Gene is here now.

My boyfriend's ex-wife is Jewish of North African descent, and his two kids are being brought up with knowledge about their heritage - especially his son who was "bar mitzvahed" almost exactly two years ago. Still, they do not know much about what happened in this city during the Vichy government in WWII.

I hope they can learn a little more.

I love to see the different plaques and memorials, just as you have posted there, which commemorate the lost ones of that time. There is a very touching memorial in the Buttes Chaumont park for the young children and babies of the 19th who were lost in the Holocaust. Never forget...

Thank you so much for posting this and sharing about your journey! What a remarkable, memorable one!

Anne said...

Great story and a wonderful example of how those immigrant tales get so mixed up that you're often not sure which end is up.

Sweet Pea Paris Baking & Catering said...

Shelli, a beautiful story....