Chapter 2 of Bolivar 192
My father-in-law walked over to the building on Bolivar. It was very well situated, he said on the phone, a five-minute walk from the cliff.
The ten-floor building at Bolivar 192 seemed solid to Mauricio: twenty apartments of good proportions, large rooms, balconies, y cuartos de servicio para mantener una muchacha, service rooms to keep a cleaning lady. But according to the digital photos we received, shabby and not well-kept. The edifice was peppered with cracked paint; the unwelcoming entrances cried for renovation. The building was covered from top to bottom with a grey film of dust. A mosaic of tiny marbles lining both the main entrance and the smaller exclusive one around the corner — the one on Alcanfores leading to our future apartment at street level — were chipped. The marble threshold in both lobbies were dented, showing cement underneath. And on the vast windowless back-wall that faced a garage and a parking-lot, extended some old stain left by a leak big enough to infiltrate about three floors.
Nevertheless, we were talking about apartments in a high rise that used to be elegant and could be repainted and cleaned. It shouldn’t cost a fortune, labor is cheap and abundant in Peru — if I could only prove my filiation to Rosa Roussetzki.
It took us more than two years of hard work on the phone, dollars to Francisco Bermudez, trips New York to Lima and back, waiting days in consulates downtown Lima and New York. Francisco and his clerks successfully maneuvered Peruvian authorities until they wrote my first and last name on their books. Then, it took another stroke of luck for us to take actual possession of the apartments.
I call it luck but, in reality, we did our part of the research and of the waiting in line. I had to look into my name deeper than I ever cared. It was hard for me to summon any enthusiasm to reconstitute the stories of my ancestors, fall into the emptiness they left. But the fact is there is always more to absence than you’d expect.
One lead came from a document produced by a Facebook friend. I never met Marcel from France, I would never see him. I saw photos of him; a relatively young, thin, blond and blue-eyed Frenchman journalist, writer and historian. He needed to wear all these hats to survive in Paris. Why he would devote so much time and intelligence in providing to me information about my grand-father is a bright mystery. A light in the darkness. Our connection remained virtual, and yet, he dealt with the intimate, inner core of who I am and where I come from. Marcel presented himself as a personal historian who researched the circumstances surrounding the death of victims. Whether they came from Rwanda, Nicaragua or from good old France, whether they had passed away last month or fifty years ago, he would piece together their jig-saws. I wonder if he usually asked for a fee, he didn’t ask me.
First, Marcel sent me a message wondering if I was from the family of the Joseph Roussetzki who had been interned in Gours, a concentration camp in the south west of France famous for its treatment of Spanish refugees during the late 1930’s. During WWII, foreigners, Communists, Résistants and Jews were used as slaves and left for dead in Gours.
Lately, Max Stupp had become important in Israel. Marcel was investigating the lives of the Stupp family during the Occupation in France. Max Stupp and Joseph Roussetzki were arrested together; they were good friends who did some business on the black market. I told Marcel the little I knew about my grandfather, his responsible and good nature. It was an impression left in me by two generations of silence.
When I told him about Rosa Roussetzki, Marcel offered to help. It required finding proof of her parent’s names, and hoping they were the same as Joseph’s parents’.
We never found proof of Rosa’s birth in Poland. We assumed she was born in Warsaw around 1908 since Rosa died in 1970 when she was sixty-two, according to her death-certificate. Warsaw had fallen by 1908 into another black hole. No trace of the birth of Rosa Roussetzki.
The Roussetzki family arrived in France in 1914; Rosa was six. Abraham Manassah Roussetzki, maroquinier, and his wife Rachel Viller and their twelve children settled on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, 3ème Arrondissement. Rosa never got married in France. She didn’t give birth to a child. Although she spent her growing years and her youth in Paris, twenty-four years, there were no records of her passing through in the Parisian schools. How strange, the French administration keeps scrupulous track of its young citizen’s progress.
Rosa was not a French citizen. Even though she was born in Poland, I wonder if she ever was a Polish citizen. She left France on a cargo boat in 1938 with two of her brothers. She was thirty years old. Her brothers returned six months later to Europe and soon met their fate; she did not return to Europe, not even for a visit long after the war. She had a third life in Peru. But again, in her Peruvian life, no marriage and no birth. Was she ever naturalized Peruvian?
She was processed when her cargo boat arrived in Tumbes, a tiny northern harbor all the way up the coast near Ecuador. But, as it turned out after persistent inquiry from Francisco, there was a great fire in Tumbes a few years after she arrived and all the papers in the Immigration and Customs offices were lost. Francisco could not even trace her DNI card, the number that allows you to work in Peru. The one number without which you may as well not exist. How did Rosa do, then?
Admittedly regulations were looser forty years ago, laws were even less enforced back then. And a white, French-educated woman like Rosa had it easy among locals and officials. Frustratingly, she may have come with some money, yet hardly any business deals had been recorded under her name. The building had belonged to a company called Bienes Viller Incorporados. The company did not survive Rosa. In 1971, the building at Bolivar 192 fell under the management of a cooperative of owners.
Francisco unearthed the only legal document bearing Rosa Roussetzki’s name: her death certificate; but nothing is ever this simple. The certificate brought another difficulty because our name was spelled twice with a “y.” Her parents’ names were spelled “Abraham Manassah Roussetzky and Rachel Viller.” Francisco explained to us that the driver of the hearse was the only witness, he’d signed what he thought was correct. The clerk at the Immigration and Customs office just copied what he read.
“Muy triste”, it’s sad, “but it happens quite frequently,” said Francisco. “Old European Señoras who have no one to sign for them.”
Rosa had built at least one building in a prime location, she had employed people, had had servants, had sold apartments, rented them — lived in one and kept others to the end — but she was alone at the cemetery. At least, not surrounded by anyone capable of spelling her name.