Many people have ambled aimlessly through Paris or dreamed of doing so. Those who make the trip tend to agree the city does not disappoint. It transports visitors back to the days of kings and revolutions.
However, international visitors usually miss the footprints of World War II. Throughout the city, French-only plaques list the names of deported Jewish children and disclose the exact locations where young patriots sacrificed their lives to defend the city. Bullet holes in the exterior walls of Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe remind those who witnessed the messy liberation of Paris.
Many of these memorials you don’t visit on purpose. You stumble upon them while walking a neighborhood or waiting for a train. Most will never notice the dingy sign near the Bir-Hakeim metro, marking the old site of the velodrome where Jewish families, once rounded up, were held for days before their deportation to Auschwitz. People don’t come to Paris to remember horror. They come for light.
In 2008, I left New York, accepting a job in Paris. Little by little, I noticed these plaques and signs. Still, I carefully avoided Paris’s main site of Holocaust commemoration, the Shoah Memorial. I wanted to enjoy the present, not get dragged into the sorrows of long-ago. My grandfather refused to discuss the Holocaust until he reached his nineties, and I interviewed him for a college class. As a younger child, I was too intimidated by him to ask questions. I just accepted the story shared me by my parents.
He had fled well before the Holocaust to avoid Russian military service and started a life in New York. I found him so toughened by these experiences that I did not expect to see tears fill up his eyes before I even pressed “record.” For the first time in fifty years, he tried to say the names of his siblings murdered in Poland. On the tape, their names were so muffled by his grief that I still cannot discern them. This made me wonder whether the decades of silence were the effect of survivor guilt. My grandfather had brought his parents out of Europe but could not save his siblings.
The Holocaust memorial that changed my life, I found by accident. I had taken to rollerblading along the Seine. One Sunday, I found myself in the Marais—the Jewish neighborhood. I saw the Shoah Memorial wall there, and I felt ready to see if the authorities had deported anyone from France with my name, Federman, a common Jewish name. I was horrified to see my entire name. I ran my fingers over it. Sarah Federman, fifteen years old, crammed into a cattle car and transported to a death camp.
Researching the lives of French deportees would lead me on a ten-year research journey into archives and railway offices, in what eventually became a book focused on the troubled role of the French National Railways in those deportations. While grounded in archival research, the heart of the project was the ninety Holocaust survivors I interviewed in France and the United States. When the last word was written, I realized I had one last question to consider, something that had seemed to surface again and again.
In our conversations, so many survivors had remarked how the trauma of deportation and their memories of the camps had come back magnified as they neared the end of their lives. Why was this? And how did they manifest?
The French talk about the devoir de mémoire, referring to a moral obligation to speak about the past so that we can take the moral lessons forward. The time I spent with survivors revealed another meaning. Now in their last years, in their last chapter of Holocaust survival, many seemed to have no choice. Their unresolved past demanded to be remembered. For some, the trauma pulled them further inward. Some felt the additional strain of being the last witnesses and felt compelled to speak out.
Today, the French National Railways (or SNCF, Société nationale des chemins de fer français) is a worldwide rail company that bids for contracts all over the globe. Of course, the company suffered under the German occupation. Some workers participated in the resistance, but others helped transport Jews to the German border, where non-French drivers took them on the final leg to death camps such as Auschwitz.
As many as 75,000 Jews were condemned to the trains. Only 3,500 would return. But in the five decades that followed, the SNCF and much of the public celebrated the company’s heroic ties to the French resistance. It received these accolades thanks to acts of a proportionally small but brave group of employees who resisted the efforts of the German army. I found no evidence that the company’s executive team spoke up on behalf of the deportees or assisted them in any way.
In the 1990s, a few elderly survivors haunted by their recollections of the train company’s role in the deaths of family and friends unearthed records linking the SNCF to the Holocaust. This documentation brought much needed public attention, where sadly their personal stories had not. A couple of survivors sued the railway. This gave others courage. Over 1,000 survivors wrote letters of complaint to the SNCF. Eventually, these calls for accountability made their way to state courts in the United States, where immigrant survivors filed a class-action lawsuit and promoted legislation to block the company from doing business until it admitted wrongdoing. In both countries, the SNCF debates focused on correcting the historical record, making tangible amends, and rectifying public memory.
Leo Bretholz was an elderly survivor who, in his later years, couldn’t forget the past.
As a young man, Leo leaped out of a French train barreling toward Auschwitz. He escaped the Nazis roughly seven times in total and survived the war. While memories of those years were never far from him, it was in his final years that Leo argued for justice. In fact, he became the lead opponent of the SNCF, when it bid for a contract in Maryland. Leo died March 8, 2014, between two legislative hearings addressing the question of the SNCF’s obligations to atone for its past. Sitting Shiva with his family after the funeral brought into focus something I had seen happen to many survivors. A few members of his family remarked how in his last years, the weight of his Holocaust memories and the fight for justice had exhausted him.
“He was Holocausted out,” someone told me.
After his passing, Leo’s friend and fellow survivor Rosette Goldstein flew from Florida to continue the fight.
“Leo and I had a special bond,” she said. “We are Holocaust survivors. We are mishpocha—family. We can speak to each other—understand each other, feelings that cannot be understood by anyone who did not go through the Shoah. We have memories that will haunt us to our dying day.”
My research had taken me beyond the train drivers to the elderly survivors. What did they make of recent legislative battles? And what kinds of amends-making might be meaningful to them today? They did answer my questions, but most added other concerns, often related to aging and loneliness. The death of their partners, siblings, and, in some cases, children, as well as their own increasing fragility, triggered a grief many had not reported feeling since the war. In this new phase of life, memories long suppressed returned, and some urgently wished to be told.
At a conference, I sat next to a woman who said that her father, on his deathbed, begged to tell his gathered family of a long-repressed wartime experience. After escaping Europe, he had snuck back into France as an undercover agent working within the train system. He never talked about this period because the memories evoked such regret. One day, while carrying out his duties, he saw his aunt and cousin being loaded into the deportation train. He could do nothing to save them.
One day, I received a call from a man whose father I had interviewed. His father was frantic. Before he died, he wanted to publish his memoir and the one written by his wife that he had held onto since her death. He told his son that I might be able to help.
We tend to think that memories soften with time, but my interviews soon convinced me that this isn’t always the case. The stories I heard pointed me to an underexplored part of Holocaust survival—the period from retirement to death. Many people find retirement a difficult transition. For survivors of genocide, it seemed to introduce new, unexpected phases of trauma.
Immediately after the war, physical survival required the full attention of remaining family members. Most emerged poor. Few had homes. One man related how his family was forced to sleep in the train station until they could find housing. Once their basic needs were met, survivors returned to school or focused on their careers and often raised a family. The need to create a sense of home was urgent. Many married the first person they dated after the war. Often, in the relative silence of retirement, long-suppressed emotions flooded back. For years these survivors had swum away from trauma. It was only when they stopped swimming that the undertow pulled them back.
The oral histories I made reveal some of the ways wartime memories affected survivors in their final years.
As she grew older, Jacqueline Birn’s childhood memories seemed to take up more space in her life. I met her for the first time at a conference where, at the age of eighty-four, she had come to relate her Holocaust experience.
She and her family survived the German occupation in hiding. Her parents sewed a cyanide pill into her and her sister’s clothing. If the Germans came to their small house, they were to take the pill. She voiced no complaints with the railway company because it was an SNCF worker with the resistance who saved their lives: a gun to his head, he refused to reveal their hiding place.
After the war, she studied cello at the Conservatoire de Musique de Paris and obtained a degree in organic chemistry. When her husband was accepted to the U.S. Foreign Service, they began a life of international travel and raised a family. Her daughter Anne-Emanuelle says, “She was always doing a million things as an A+ diplomatic spouse, moving frequently, raising kids, entertaining, then work at the Foreign Service Institute teaching French, gardening, sewing, and always music.”
Jacqueline was generally sentimental about the past, but forced retirement due to illness changed her. This was not uncommon. Several survivors told me that the vulnerability that comes with illness and the death of loved ones forced the pain back to the surface.
At the age of seventy-eight, Jacqueline published her memoir, À Dimanche Prochain: A Memoir of Survival in World War II France, which her daughter says “launched Jacqueline’s fifth career of writing and speaking out about the Holocaust often in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.”
In her last years, the past took up more physical space too. Jacqueline’s small apartment was overstuffed with books about the Holocaust. Dozens of folders contained newspaper clippings about perpetrators captured, compensation programs, commemorative events, and personal stories. In the last few years, I watched her squeeze in chemo treatments around local college courses on Winston Churchill and other war-related topics, survivor group meetings, commemorations, even the class-action settlement signing on December 8, 2014, that we attended together at the U.S. Department of State designed to put the SNCF conflict to bed.
In the evenings, a small television above the cupboards broadcast TV5, a French television network, connecting her in a small way to her home country and maternal language. A small doll sat permanently in a highchair next to the dining room table. The doll was the size of a baby, with soft limbs and eyelids that open and close in response to being moved and held. This was the doll Jacqueline had gripped during her family’s time in hiding and who remained faithfully at her side her whole life. The doll accompanied her to many of her talks. Its presence helped transport Jacqueline and her audience back to the world of her childhood. Not that she needed the doll to remember, but perhaps the doll’s unwavering gaze reassured Jacqueline that, yes, it really happened. All of it.
Jacqueline passed away not long after the lawsuit settlement. Now roughly a hundred books from her Holocaust library fill my office.
Esther Caspi lived a much more isolated final chapter. She greeted me with a huge smile in the foyer of her apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
“Happy birthday, Esther,” a woman called to her.
“I never tell people how old I am,” Esther said. “I know they’re waiting for me to die so they can have my apartment.”
Her poorly dyed black hair was disheveled. She shuffled down the sidewalk with me to where we had lunch. Esther was born in Poland. At the start of the war, her father moved the family to France, not the United States as her mother beseeched. The family spent over a year together in a prison camp before being split up. Esther owed her survival in large part to a young priest who hid children in the basement of his parish—across the street from a Gestapo headquarters.
Over tea, she showed me pictures of her postwar years. In her twenties, she looked like a brunette Brigitte Bardot. She married young, had a son, and worked as an artist. Eventually she divorced. Now in her eighties, she told me she wakes up in sweats. “I cannot make it through a night without thinking of these things.”
“I remember the police pulling women by their hair in the streets. I still cannot get the image out of my mind,” she said. She shared a recollection of hiding with her mother in pits on top of the dead and nearly dead while planes flew overhead shooting at people below. One man tried to get up, but his leg fell off. “There was no one to help him.” Separated from her mother, she ended up in a series of orphanages. In one, a man molested her in exchange for milk.
Esther reunited with her brother after the war, and they remained very close throughout his long life. During her postwar decades, the past appeared in curious ways. When she unrolled her artwork, I saw that everything was painted in muted tones. “I’m afraid of color,” she said. “I have never painted with bright colors because they remind me of the yellow Jewish star and the bright red flag with the swastika.”
“When my brother died two years ago,” she said, “I stopped believing in God.” I asked why the Holocaust had not shaken her faith the way her brother’s death did, but she didn’t answer. She rarely talked to friends about the Holocaust years. “Why bother?” she said. “They wouldn’t understand and probably don’t want to hear about it.”
She now felt closest to another survivor in his mid-eighties who was dying from cancer. “He hides from people,” she said. He was deported to a death camp at fifteen. The camp guards made him cut the hair of the women or said they would send him to the gas chambers. This task horrified him and haunted him in his old age. The memory made him think of his sisters and mother whose hair was cut too and for the same purpose. He felt like a perpetrator even though he helped where he could. Much stronger than most, he held people up during roll call so they wouldn’t fall and be immediately killed.
As for the French National Railways, she doesn’t care whether the company bids for contracts in New York. Her anger was more generalized. “I will never forgive the French or the Germans.”
Four years have already passed since our day together. I called her while writing this article to see how she was. The phone line had been disconnected—she’s gone now.
Some survivors, even those who after the war lived great lives, felt tremendous pressure to live for those who died. I met a man named Daniel who survived Auschwitz, married a wonderful woman, had seven children and a successful career, traveled the world, and won the Legion of Honor medal for his volunteer work with people with disabilities. After one of our days out together visiting the Versailles gardens and hearing about this fruitful life, Daniel said, “I still wonder if it would have been better to die at Auschwitz.” I wondered how many felt this way.
Raymond Federman was the sole survivor in the family of Sarah Federman, the young girl whose name I found on the monument. Sarah’s young life ended at Auschwitz. Their mother thought to shove Raymond into a small closet when the French police came for the family during the Vel d’hiv, the great roundup of Jews in Paris on July 16 and 17, 1942. Raymond made his way to New York and became a well-known author befriended by the likes of Samuel Beckett and Michel Foucault. He often wrote about his murdered family. Of Sarah, not much remains: a single photograph which Raymond discovered, after a period of hiding, when he returned to their Paris apartment. With the help of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I found a daughter, Simone, but sadly Raymond, himself, had already passed.
Thousands must struggle, often alone, to make sense of their early years in their final ones. So many have unanswered questions. Unraveling these mysteries through research and chasing perpetrators can be a way to respond to the late-life memories many cannot outrun. In some ways, the French National Railways provides a stand-in for the unaccounted-for perpetrators.
In 2014, France agreed to pay $60 million to compensate survivors not covered by other programs. This ended the SNCF atonement debates, at least for now. For some, the fight for legal justice was a meaningful one. Others, perhaps far more, would rather have help facing loss and loneliness.
I learned that in their later, quieter years, many revisit the traumas of their past. They need people to listen. Those once reluctant may now be ready to speak. One of the best discoveries of this research was that it’s not too late to have honorary grandparents. Elderly people are everywhere. Right now, many are sitting alone, mulling over the unresolved mysteries of their lives and replaying traumatic moments. Ask them about their pasts. If you are asking someone you asked before, ask as if this is the first time. They may have something new to tell you.
Sarah Federman is an assistant professor of negotiation and conflict management at the University of Baltimore and the author of Last Train to Auschwitz: The French National Railways and the Journey to Accountability.