I dedicate this book to Henri and Suzanne Ribouleau
and their two sons René and Marcel.
Without their courage, my life would have ended at the age of seven.
My thoughts go to my wife Patricia,
my children Olivier, Corinne, James
and my grandchildren Rayce, Jake, and Rhyder.
Chapter 1. July 19, 1942
It is a summer day.
My father wakes up at dawn. Like every Sunday, he gets himself ready without making any noise so as not to wake us up. He is waiting for Marcel Ribouleau, our neighbor’s son, who accompanies him on his expeditions throughout the countryside. Times are hard. Food is scarce, so Papa exchanges clothes for poultry, butter, eggs, fruit and vegetables.
At 5:30 a.m. someone knocks at the door.
My father opens. At the doorway, much to his surprise, are two French police officers, “gendarmes,” he knows very well. He has often done favors for them, repairing worn-out uniforms at no charge, as he is a tailor by profession. But they have never come so early in the morning, on a Sunday, no less.
The two policemen seem embarrassed. One of them clears his throat. The second man gazes downward.
“Mr Malmed,” one finally says, “you must accompany us immediately to the police station. He emphasizes the word “immediately”.
“But why?” asks my father, surprised.
They don’t offer an explanation.
Awakened by the discussion, my mother comes out onto the landing. She has hurriedly thrown on a robe over her nightgown, which she has buttoned up crookedly.
“Your husband must follow us,” repeats one of the policemen, decisively.
“But why? What’s going on?” she asks.
“Let’s not waste time,” one policeman replies, raising his voice.
“I’ll come with you,” my mother adds. “It must be a mistake.”
Looking pale, she clenches her fists. She suddenly thinks of us. “But what about our children?” She is nearly crying.
I am four-and-a-half years old, and my sister Rachel will soon be ten. The loud voices have woken my sister and me. I don’t want to stay alone in the bedroom. Clutching my sister’s hand, we join our parents. As soon as our mother sees us she cannot hold her tears back any longer. Frightened by the gendarmes and seeing my mother crying, I run to her, also in tears and grab onto her robe.
“Why?” she repeats.
Papa asks again “What have we done?”
Neither understands what is wanted from them, they are frightened and the questions remain unanswered.
The policemen are growing impatient. The tone of their voices becomes hard. “Don’t make such a fuss,” one says. “Hurry up, get dressed and follow us!”
We live in a very quiet neighborhood. Such noise is even more unusual because it is so early on a Sunday morning. Our neighbors are awakened by the loud voices. Mr Ribouleau, our neighbor, who lives in the apartment below us, climbs three stairs at a time. It is so early that he is still wearing his pajamas.
“What is happening, monsieur Malmed?” he asks.
Searching for his words, my father explains that the policemen have come to arrest him. They will not say why.
“They must have made a mistake. Don’t worry,” says Mr Ribouleau. He is a calm, even-keeled man in his thirties.
“You will be back in an hour,” he adds confidently.
“Yes, yes,” replies my mother in a choked voice. “Rachel, take care of Léon. I will be back soon.”
My mother tries hard to hold back her tears; she does not want us to worry. My parents return to their bedroom to get dressed. One policeman follows them. He demands that the bedroom door be left open. The one on the landing looks at his watch impatiently.
A few minutes later, my parents come out looking desperate as the gendarmes grumble “Hurry up!” I try to run to my mother, but monsieur Ribouleau holds my hand firmly.
“They will be back in less than an hour,” Mr Ribouleau repeats assuredly.
Stunned and frightened, we watch them go away. I hurry with Rachel to the window of the living room overlooking the street. Mr Ribouleau puts his arm around our shoulders. The three of us wait silently, our foreheads glued to the glass.
About an hour and a half later, we see them coming down the street with a gendarme on each side.
“Maman! Papa!” we scream.
“You see, it was a mistake,” begins Mr Ribouleau, with a hearty smile that brightens up his welcoming face.
Suddenly, he is quiet. Maman looks extremely distraught. Her eyes are swollen with tears. My father is disheveled.
“They have a warrant to arrest both of us,” he says. “They wouldn’t tell us why. We have come back to pick up some personal belongings.” My father’s voice is shaky. He tries very hard not to break down.
Why didn’t the policemen immediately tell my mother that she was also to be arrested? They had to know that my parents were arrested for the simple reason that they were Jewish. They obeyed blindly the orders of the SS.
It is also possible they were too embarrassed. They had known my parents for a number of years and undoubtedly appreciated my father’s kindness and generosity. Why didn’t they forewarn my parents the evening before, or even during the night?
My parents had returned on foot from the police station to our home, 17 rue Saint Fiacre. We lived on the top floor of the three-story apartment building. We had moved here a year after we came back to Compiègne from Paris when the German bombings in 1940 had destroyed our home on “rue du Donjon.”
We are all scared. What will our parents do with us?
Who is going to take care of us?
To whom will they hand us over?
How long will they be away?
Why have they been arrested?
They have not committed any crime or infraction to justify their arrest. So many questions without any answers!
Mr Clausse, our first floor neighbor, advised my father a number of times to go into hiding. He didn’t listen to him.
Our parents believed that the Germans were arresting only rich Jews. They were not wealthy so they did not worry. Besides, where would they have gone?
They probably wondered who else was arrested that day. So many thoughts must have been racing through their minds during that short journey back to the apartment.
“They’re arresting foreign Jews,” our father tells us. “Why? For how long?” someone asks. “We don’t know,” my father answers in a tired voice.
It is probably the first time that we see my parents cry. Everyone is crying except for the gendarmes.
My mother asks Rachel to run to our Jewish friends who live close by.
“Tell them to come and take both of you to their home.”
My sister leaves quickly. She rings the doorbell several times. She knocks on the door. She calls out. No one answers. She races back home.
“There is no one there,” she says out of breath.
My parents are on the verge of collapse, panic-stricken.
“What are we going to do? What will happen to our children?” my mother asks.
“Hurry up. Hurry up,” repeat the policemen, now irritated. They are totally indifferent to the terror we all feel.
“Mr and Mrs Malmed don’t worry. My wife and I will take care of your children until you return,” says Mr Ribouleau, a good neighbor, not even a friend.
This simple sentence saved my life and that of my sister. It changed the course of our existence and the future of our families.
He spoke soothingly. His wife had joined us after hearing the commotion. She takes my mother’s hands to reassure her, and says:
“Don’t worry, Mrs Malmed. Your children will be fine when you return.”
In tears, my parents go back to their bedroom and pack a suitcase. One of the “gendarmes,” stands in the doorway, watching them.
“Come on, hurry up!” he says.
My mother piles some clothes into a suitcase. Tears roll down her cheeks. Rachel and I cry and moan—we are scared to death!
Mr Clausse’s wife, a young, discrete and unassuming neighbor, hears the noise and comes to see what is happening.
“The police officers have arrested them. They are taking them away,” whispers Madame Ribouleau.
“But how is that possible? And what about the children?” Madame Clausse asks, almost shouts.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” urges one of the gendarmes.
“What a time we live in! My God! How can such things happen?” exclaims Mrs Clausse.
The gendarmes are impatient and urging my parents to leave the apartment.
My father hands a bottle of wine he had kept for a “special occasion” to Mr Ribouleau.
“We’ll drink it together at the end of the war,” he says and adds as quietly as possible, “The tires … money … in the garage.”
My parents rented a garage where they kept their car and their merchandise. It was common at that time not to leave cars in the street to avoid exposure to bad weather and theft. They had also hidden some money there in case their apartment was burglarized.
The gendarmes are urging my parents towards the stairs. I latch onto them. Rachel screams: “Maman! Papa!”
“My children! My children!” pleads my mother.
The policemen push us back and my parents are forced down the stairs struggling with their suitcase. Mrs Ribouleau holds us close to her. From the window in the living room, we watch them walking away with four policemen this time, two others were standing at the door to our building. My father is pulling his hair out and is shouting. My mother turns her head to catch sight of us. Tears stream down her face.
“I will try to get some information,” says Mr Ribouleau, still believing a mistake has been made.
He follows them from a safe distance on his bike all the way to the police station located a couple of miles away. There, we were told years later, my parents were immediately handed over to the German SS. Mr Ribouleau tries in vain to question the gendarmes as to their destination but gets no answer.
The next day, Mr Ribouleau went to the garage my father had mentioned. The doors had been forced open and the tires and money had disappeared. Were the “gendarmes” involved? We‘ll never know, not that it matters.
This is how Maman and Papa brutally and suddenly disappeared from our lives. We did not know when we would see them again. We never thought at that moment it could be never.
Of this day, I only remember my sister and I crying and screaming while hanging onto our mother’s dress. I was four and a half years old, my sister, ten. She remembers.
It was July 19, 1942, a despicable day.