by Janice L. Booker (Malibu, CA)
Suzanne’s parents had moved to Paris in the 1930s as a young married couple from Ukraine. Mr. P. was a barber and opened a shop on a busy Paris street. They wanted to start a new life away from the anti-Semitic fears in Ukraine. Two daughters were born and the family lived in an apartment on the floor above the shop.
And then came the rise and popularity of Hitler. And then the war. And then the occupation of Paris by Germany. The barber shop was shuttered and the family stayed in their apartment clandestinely to see if they could outlive the occupation. Sarah, the younger daughter, then about to become a teenager, blonde and blue-eyed, became Suzanne as a way to fool anyone who stopped her as she was the one sent out to forage for food.
For four years they were able to avoid detection. When Paris was freed, Mr. P. decided not to attempt to reopen his shop, fearing that vestiges of the Vichy anti-Semitic regime remained. Instead the family made plans to emigrate to the United States where Mrs. P. had cousins in Philadelphia.
My father was a barber and had operated his own shop for many years. We lived behind the store in a two-story house. When he needed another barber to work “the second chair,” the Barbers’ Union sent Mr. P, whose languages were French and Yiddish, but not English. However, the South Philadelphia neighborhood where we lived was still primarily Jewish at that time, peopled with many immigrants, so speaking Yiddish worked fine. After a few weeks Mr. P. said to my father, “I have a daughter exactly your daughter’s age. She is miserable. She won’t go to school until the fall and she doesn’t know any English or have any friends. May I bring her to meet your daughter?”
The arrangement was made. I was not consulted, which increased my anxiety of meeting a girl my age who had undergone life experiences I could not imagine. The next day Mr. P. arrived with a pretty 17 year old who looked visibly intimidated. We introduced ourselves and tried to find a way to talk. My high school French had taught me “Open the window” and “The pen of my aunt.” I didn’t think either phrase would help us communicate, but we discovered we were both fluent in Yiddish and that was our method of conversation for the next few months until Suzanne began her halting study of English.
Eventually, Suzanne married and moved to the suburbs with her family. I did the same. We lost touch but sometimes met at a Jewish film festival and were always glad to see each other.
Many years later I was a volunteer interviewer for the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Project. I decided to interview Suzanne, and in the intimacy of a two hour conversation I learned more about her years barricaded in the family apartment. She shared emotions I had not heard before: the daily apprehension of being discovered, her inner trembling when she walked on the street to buy food, the tensions, even in a loving family, of spending four years locked together in one space, never knowing what had happened to their extended family.
I suddenly understood the seclusion and safety of the Jewish life I had led living in a Jewish neighborhood and the false sense of security this evoked in me. The war had not been threatening to us and it was a while before we heard about the horror and devastation of concentration camps and could begin to understand the attempt to exterminate our people. Leaving Suzanne’s house that day, I felt for myself the wrenching internal anxiety Jews had always felt throughout the world, throughout eternity.
Some time after that experience I wrote a memoir about growing up in Jewish South Philadelphia and sent it to Suzanne, certain it would evoke many shared memories. She, in turn, sent me her memoir of those parallel years which she spent hidden in the Paris apartment and told of the loss of dear cousins and friends. She thought she was lucky; I thought she was incredibly brave. It was not until I read her poignant memoir that I learned Suzanne had been Sarah.
Janice L. Booker is a journalist, author of four books, including The Jewish American Princess and Other Myths, an instructor in creative non-fiction writing at University of Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia radio talk show host, and a free lance writer for national publications.