At the end of September 1961, Madeleine Gagnon arrived in Paris to begin courses at the Sorbonne. Over the period of two years alive in that city as a woman in her early twenties, Gagnon reflects on the impact of the friendships, education, and culture she experienced as an “enigma of time written slowly” and a touchstone for life’s later challenges.
Here on Meta-Talon, read an excerpt from As Always: Memoir of a Life in Writing.
As Always: Memoir of a Life in Writing
Translated by Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott
Patience and still patience,
Patience beneath the blue!
Each atom of the silence
Knows what it ripens to.
– Paul Valéry
I made a new friend that year in Paris, a close one. Her name was Lucienne Topor, and she was exactly my age. She was from Manosque, in Provence, and she lived in the Cité Universitaire d’Antony, on the outskirts of the city. Lucienne opened up horizons such as I had never imagined, and my friendship with her had a depth that none before had. I said she came from Manosque, and that’s true, that was her home and that of the Dickenses, who had adopted her during the war from an orphanage for abandoned Jewish children in Normandy. She was ten at the time and had lost her biological parents at four – when they were twenty-seven and twenty-eight. They had been forced out of their home in the raid of July 1942 in Paris and taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver.
Lucienne told me her story many times and I never tired of hearing it, so strong was the impression it gave me each time of getting to the heart of History writ large through the Holocaust. It was surely the fact that I was a foreigner, as well as my innocence about war, which I knew almost nothing about, that allowed Lucienne to share her confidences. In 1961, in France, people were beginning to break the silence. But not in front of just anyone. The evil geniuses, fascists or former Nazi collaborators, might repeat the dirty deeds of the war, who could know? With me, Lucienne spoke in complete trust, trying to reconstruct her history from scraps that her child’s memory had retained deep within like a painful treasure. She said, “When I talk about it, it seems to hurt less.”
Her parents, a young couple from Poland, had managed to flee their invaded country and the misery of the ghetto with their little girl born in 1938. Lucienne had vague memories, mixed up as in a nightmare, of escaping and fleeing in the night, travelling through the forest, feeling so hungry her stomach ached yet not being able to shout or cry because of the risk of getting caught.
She vaguely recalled a hand over her mouth, her father’s or mother’s, stifling her moans. They were afraid. Bundled up against her father’s or her mother’s stomach, she felt the trembling with cold and fear, she heard the gurgling of hunger. They ate snow, she remembered. And frozen berries torn from the bushes. And one time, her mother sang, she recalled.
And finally, the apartment in Paris. She was too small to know whether it was large and comfortable. She didn’t know what neighbourhood they were in. She had a vague recollection that for a long time they slept in the same bed and that it was warm, that there was always something to eat on the kitchen table. She remembered drinking milk.
A final memory that still felt like a kick in the stomach and made her heart stop: she heard men charging up the stairs in heavy boots. She remembered her mother pushing her behind a sideboard and putting her hand over her mouth while the door was broken down. She heard men shouting and her mother saying “No” and crying. Lucienne was lying on the floor, and from under the sideboard she saw black boots. They went back down the stairs making a terrifying racket. And then, nothing. Silence. Cold. Absence.
Lucienne didn’t remember how long she remained in the apartment. Hours? Days? Certainly a day and a night, because the night came with its darkness and ghosts, and she cried until sleep took her into its arms. She ate everything there was to eat in the apartment. Then, on a sunny day, there was nothing left to eat or drink, and she went down into the alley. Saw a cat. Looked for food in the garbage cans. It was there that she was found by a woman. From social services, she later learned.
She went on a train with the woman. They travelled a long time. She slept. She ate. She searched for her parents down to the depths of her dreams. She scanned the countryside they crossed. Maybe they would come to the train. How many times did she imagine she saw them emerging from a clearing or standing in a field of wheat where they had been taking a nap? But nothing, ever, and the train rolled on.
The woman took her to Normandy, to a big house full of orphans, most of whom were crying. She lived there six years. The Dickenses came and got her when she was ten years old. They had a nice house in Manosque, which I would see the following year when I moved to Aix-en-Provence. They loved her. They pampered her. Since she had become a ward of the state, they were able to give her the best education in whatever she chose.
Lucienne eventually became a lawyer in international law, in Paris. She criss-crossed eastern Europe and went to Israel and the United States, looking for any trace of her parents. She went to the labour camps and then the extermination camps, but she never found anything.
One day years later, she took me to the memorial for the French Jews who had been deported and murdered, a masterpiece of restraint situated at the tip of the Île de la Cité near Notre-Dame Cathedral, like a ship on the Seine, with black bars on the outside that let in the light and let out the shadows inhabited by the names of the absent ones, which shone brightly, and poems of resistance. In the moving silence of the huge crypt, among the thousands of lights representing anonymous Jews who died, Lucienne showed me a shimmering star, saying simply, “Here are my parents.”
Although her adoptive parents had loved her very much, they had never been able “to put out the fire that was eating away at her heart,” in the words of her mother Madame Dickens, whom I loved like my own mother. Lucienne helped me to go from innocence to awareness of the world. I went there through the door of the Shoah. I have often said I was a Jew. Or at least, I have written it.
Lucienne came to Montreal after I returned to Quebec. I remember her playing over and over the new song by Barbara, “Dis, quand reviendras-tu?” (Tell me, when will you come back to me?). She was sitting on the carpet in the living room, her sad eyes gazing far, far away. I don’t see Lucienne anymore. Why? I don’t know.
As Always will be published in Spring 2015.