Chapter 3. Before the Storm

Rachel has often told me that my parents were ecstatic—especially my father—when my mother gave birth to a son, a sweet-looking baby with a lot of thick, black curly hair.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Léon Malmed, 1937

My father was convinced that I was the most handsome and probably the most intelligent boy in the world! For the last five years Rachel had received my parents’ full attention. When I came along, they were so happy with having a boy and gave me so much attention that she felt she was no longer loved. On my eighth day, family and friends came to Compiègne from Paris and other towns for the circumcision ceremony.

My first four birthdays were major events. I was treated like a little prince, which made Rachel feel a bit jealous and neglected. I did not know until much later in life that I had been given such preferential treatment.

I cannot think of my early childhood without thinking of my cousin Charles. Everyone called him Charlot, the only son of Uncle Joseph and Aunt Madeleine. He was born on October 10, 1938, almost a year to the day after me. He was a handsome boy with long, black and curly hair. We probably played together, but I don’t remember. When Uncle Joseph was young, he had an accident and an unsuccessful operation left him lame. He had a pronounced limp, which probably sent him to the gas chamber on his arrival in Auschwitz.

I was too young to remember any of my family, aunts and uncles from Paris or Saint-Quentin whom I had met before the war.

My cousin Salomon, two years older than I, is the son of Meyer Malmed, one of my father’s brothers and Gela Kibel. Salomon’s childhood was also disrupted during the Occupation. He assured me that he had never seen Rachel or me before our arrival in Saint-Quentin in September 1947.

Salomon’s father died in 1937 at the age of twenty-nine from post-operative complications a week after stomach surgery. Salomon’s mother remarried two years later. She was deported to Auschwitz with her second husband, Joseph Borowicz, in 1944 and exterminated. Salomon survived, thanks to the humanitarian organization, O.S.E., Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants,[2] an organization created by doctors in 1912 in Saint Petersburg, Russia to help needy children of the Jewish population. Branches of O.S.E. were later established in other countries. They saved the lives of thousands of Jewish children during World War II. Salomon wrote about his experience during the war in a testimony titled Sali,[3] which was his fake identity during the war.

My parents and my Uncle Joseph were shopkeepers. My parents sold children’s clothes; Uncle Joseph sold leather and sheepskin jackets as well as women’s and men’s coats. They worked the open markets of Compiègne on Wednesdays and Saturdays and in the surrounding towns the other days of the week. They made a modest and steady living.

Nearly every morning, Papa and Maman walked fifteen minutes to the garage in rue Vivenel to pick up their van, then dropped me off at the nursery before driving to the town where the market was being held that day.   

                             

Dedicated nuns ran the nursery. I still remember one of them in particular. She greeted me each morning with a welcoming smile. Her large headdress was so white and stiff that I thought it was made out of cardboard! Plastics did not exist in those days. I wondered if she had any hair, for none could be seen.

My sister Rachel went to the public school, “Jeanne d’Arc,” one block away from our home. The discipline was very strict. Rachel, who was unruly at times, was terrified when she was sent to the principal’s office.

My parents returned from the markets around 2:00 p.m. They picked me up at the nursery before going home. After lunch, they walked down to Uncle Zelman’s workshop behind the store where they manufactured garments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Left to right: Ida Malmed, my cousin, Rachel, my sister,
Uncle Zelman, Boubé, my grandmother, Rachel Blum,
and my father Srul Malmed, 1933

Along with my father and my Uncle Joseph, there were two young apprentices in the shop.

Uncle Zelman had a driver’s license, but he hated to drive. Mr Patte, owner of the bakery a few doors away, drove Uncle Zelman around. Mr Patte suffered from respiratory problems as a result of having been gassed during WWI. As a veteran, he hated wars with a passion. He was a kind person and a very good friend of the family.

Every year, Uncle Zelman took his wife and three children to Mont Dore, a spa town located near Clermont Ferrand in the center of France. Uncle Joseph, his wife Madeleine, and their son Charles always joined them.

In the summer, my mother and her sister Sarah Blum, Ida, Zelman’s wife, Madeleine Malmed, Joseph’s wife, and sometimes Suzanne Epelberg, her friend from Paris, would walk to the park of the Castle in Compiègne close to the center of town.

The women knitted, sitting on a bench or on the grass, while Fanny and I would play on the beautifully manicured green lawns surrounded by magnificent flowerbeds.

 

Suzanne holding Fanny Epelberg, Chana, my mother, and Léon, 1938

What did they talk about? What were they dreaming of? They probably spoke about their children’s future and about a nice home they would own one day. I would love to know. Maybe they were imagining the kings, queens and other royalty strolling in these very same royal gardens a few centuries before.

On Sundays, when the weather allowed and they had no urgent work, my parents would prepare a picnic. We would spend the afternoon on the banks of the Oise river or in the park Songeon a few blocks away. Almost every evening during the week, after work and while my mother prepared dinner, my father took a walk with my sister and me. He carried me on his shoulders to the corner of our street and the town main street, rue Solférino. We watched the pedestrians, bicyclists and the few cars. Papa was excited by the cars.

“Look,” he would say, “a Renault or a Chenard and Walker! What a magnificent car! One day, we’ll have one just like that!”

We could hear the trains at the station close by, on the other side of the bridge. My father would imitate the sound of the train’s whistle to make us laugh.

Little did he know that soon he and my mother would leave from a train station some thirty miles away, shoved by rifle butts into a cattle car, standing with a hundred other innocent people for four or five days toward a tragic destiny.

I have only a few photos of these happy years along with hazy bits of memories. My sister Rachel and my cousins Jacques Malmed and Jean Gerbaez have helped me recall.

According to testimonies from our neighbors and friends, my parents were kind and generous people. They made a very handsome couple. They loved each other; they kissed often (which was, I was told, rare among Eastern Europeans); no one had ever heard them quarrel. Discrete and unassuming, my parents devoted themselves to their children and their work. I was told that my mother’s voice was always calm and soft-spoken. Maman’s voice … I seem to hear it when I think about it, although I know it’s only a mirage brought on by nostalgia and desire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My mother with Leon, 1937

My cousin Jacques remembered the rumors of the pre-war years. Concentration camps in Germany were talked about but nothing was said about extermination camps. Who could ever imagine that such an abomination was possible, yet German architects, engineers and manufacturers were diligently working on designing and manufacturing the industrial human death factories.

The peaceful lives of many were about to be toppled. The upheaval of war was about to inflict deep wounds that would “never” heal.


 

[1] Cossacks: members of a people noted for their horsemanship and employed for military duties

[2] Organization to Save the Children

[3] Sali, by Saloman Malmed (Editions Le Manuscrit, 2005).

Chapter 3

Chapter 3