Chapter 3 of Bolivar 192
Marcel worked for the pure pleasure of completing the puzzle. He found information in the digital archives of the Préfecture des Pyrennées-Orientales, under whose jurisdiction Gours camp had been.
Marcel took photos of old pages: fountain-penned letters and typewritten papers. Contradiction was not an issue. One described Joseph Roussetzki as “apatride” and “sans profession,” without profession nor patria, without nationality; while another mentioned that he was “tailleur” — a tailor — who lived at 58 rue Notre-dame-de-Nazareth, 3ème Arrondissement in Paris, where he also worked.
One page was almost empty, except for the words: “Joseph Roussetzki: Nationalité Indéterminée.” One indicated a number: “958495.”
It was not that Joseph had no nationality; rather, his was indeterminate, un-localizable.
Him, his brothers, sisters, and his parents had emigrated from Poland to France in 1914. Yet, Joseph was still not French when arrested in the so-called Zone Libre during March of 1942. He was 40-something years old. His French wife and son remained in Paris; understandably, he needed to make enough money to send them. That’s when he met Max Stupp, and the black market. According to Marcel, there are incriminating documents, written and sealed when Max and Joseph were arrested. Marcel couldn’t make copies of those, for some arcane reason.
In one small page written at the time he interned Gours, Joseph’s father and mother are named Abraham Manassah Roussetzki and Rachel Viller. He was “taille moyenne,” mid-size, 1 meter and 70 centimeters (exactly my height). He was described as having “le front bas, le nez protubérant et les oreilles manifestement sémitiques” — his were obviously Semitic ears, as well as the crooked nose and low eyebrows. A French clerk had taken on himself to add his personal assessment regarding the Jewishness of my grand-father Joseph.
Until then, the man had tried and succeeded to forget that he was Jewish. He’d married a French woman and found natural that his son follow the religion of his mother, Catholicism. Before the war broke, my father was baptized and attended catechism like all the other French kids in his school.
Joseph was a man without nationalité and profession. His being a Jew had voided his marriage to a French woman and annulled is being the father of a French Catholic child. But he had possessions, solid walls under his name. In the building at 58 rue Notre-dame-de-Nazareth, Joseph owned two large apartments on the top floor, tucked under the eaves of the tin roof; and the boutique. And a suburban house with its exuberant garden in Domont, north of Paris, where I would sometime go and play on Sunday afternoons. At Renée’s, my grandmother’s, we had a chambre de bonne on the sixth floor, inside the tin roof, a garret. Joseph had worked in his boutique at street level and he was successful. He had taken roots in France and made a cozy little world for himself and his loved ones — before he was stripped of all rights and had to find refuge down south, Toulouse. Once there, the Jew he thought he no longer was had caught up with him and he smuggled gold. Had no other choice. At the moment of his arrest, he was indeed sans profession and of nationalité indéterminée.
Marcel was not only efficient at what he did, he was driven, tenacious. Taking advantage of a camping trip, Marcel went in person to what remained of Gours and, sixty some years later (1943–2012), followed Joseph’s footsteps about the camp. Then, he sent me a long narrative full of footnotes and endnotes encompassing all that he’d learned about the end of Joseph Roussetzki.
It was not all news to me. I have always suspected my grand-father of making a terrible mistake in the middle of brutally nonsensical circumstances; yes, he committed a blunder. I didn’t know which exactly until Marcel sent me the hard evidence of documents. Coincidence here again: just when I was becoming sole heir to Rosa, he made me the sole beneficiary of that disastrous story, the chain of events that brought about the absurd end of Rosa’s brother Joseph. Marcel shed a blinding light on the last movements of my grand-father, he revealed aspects and he dissipated the fog, but the story Joseph Roussetzki leaves behind — leaves to me, the one concerned, the one who has to bring it to the light of day — remains fragmented and incoherent.
Joseph attempts to escape from the camp a year after his internment, and gets caught. It’s only after this botched escape that his fate was sealed. From then on, they consider him a dangerous element and consign him to the next train. Before that, he had not been arrested because he was Jewish, only as part of a gang dealing in gold. Police work is police work. Joseph’s crime was “de droit commun,” petty illegal activity. Maybe his features were Jewish, but he was not considered élément dangereux and, it turned out, could have vegetated until the end of the war inside the camp. This is what his friend Max Stupp did.
Marcel thinks that Max is the one who’d convinced Joseph to be in the gang. Even though I’ve never met him, I cannot imagine Joseph in a gang of smugglers. Unless it was in desperation. Yes, it must have been. Not that I need to idealize my grand-father, but it does not fit the character. His achievements. I have to imagine him unassuming, scrupulous and hard-working. Unless, yes, in desperation; but perhaps also because Max Stupp had style, and fast-talking charisma. Max Stupp survived the war, ironically, by not trying to escape Gours. By not having the courage.
Why did my grand-father escape alone and unprepared, without a plan?
Marcel took photos around the camp. Barracks have been preserved and turned into a museum where tourists and their children are supposed to come to learn and buy bonbons and postcards. Except that there were hardly any tourists, Marcel writes. And no children. Who wants in the midst of a pleasant summer to expose oneself to disaffected concentration camps? The serenity belied its ugly history. In his photos, cypresses undulate in the wind, the grass glistens in the sun, plants and rivulets run along the modernized shacks. Horses and donkeys gallop. A Paradise.
I have not visited Gours. But I have been in that lush region bordering the majestic Pyrenean mountains. Marcel tells me he and his companion imbibed the southern French sun, dived in ponds frequented by ducks and geese, they ate pheasant cooked in a red wine sauce. Sixty years ago, Nature was as idyllic outside the camp, while inside — to have an idea of the ordeal inside, I read Scum of the Earth by Arthur Koestler, an Anglo-Hungarian journalist trapped in Gours a few months before 1945. Koestler explains why he could not have made it much longer.
Is that the reason why Joseph attempted to escape? He could not take it much longer, he saw his end coming. My grand-mother Renée had been helping him through the barbed-wire: food, medicine; that is what the family said, my father repeated it to me the last time I saw him. For a year, Renée rented an apartment in Gours village and harassed the director of the camp, bribed the French guards, asked them to spare Joseph, to not send him in the next train.
For a year, Renée kept him in the camp. However, she could not avoid to notice the decadence in her husband. Joseph must have been delicate; as a tailor, he used to handle tiny needles and sew shimmering fabric. Yet, here he was, doing the worst of farming, to the elbow into dirt, manure, domestic jobs normally left to men much rougher than him. Joseph could not shower properly, couldn’t dress adequately, couldn’t clean his clothes, didn’t eat sufficiently, didn’t sleep normally. His skin was not filled with life, no blood in his face, shame in his look. Humiliation to the bone. It was a miracle he didn’t fall sick with all the diseases that went around the camp.
Grand-mother prepared his escape. She went to the Dominican Consulate and learned that Joseph could start the process of becoming Dominican if he could only show up in Marseille for the interview. Marcel sent me the image of an official letter from the Consulado Dominicano dated 15th of July, 1943. That late in the war, Renée must have paid a hefty sum to the Consulado in Marseille.
And there was something else that captivated me from the moment I read it: Renée bought a 3rd class seat under the name of Joseph Roussetzki on a boat leaving San Sebastian in Spain on the 16th of August, 1943.
I downloaded the letter from a British company addressed on the 8th of August to Joseph; it concerned a trans-ocean trip to Santo Domingo. Here is a bit of the original French:
United Kingdom Mutual Steam Ship, West England à Joseph Roussetzki. Quartier C, Baraque 45. Camp de Gours
« Monsieur, (passage San Sebastian/San-Domingo)
Nous référant à la lettre en date du 31 Juillet courant de Madame Joseph Roussetzki, votre épouse, nous avons l’honneur de vous informer que, conformément au désir qui nous est exprimé dans votre nom, nous vous avons réservé une place en cabine de 3ème classe sur notre plus prochain navire à destination de San-Domingo. »
A third-class seat in the next boat was waiting for him. She’d planned every aspect of the escape. But Joseph did not take that boat nor could he change the course of his life. He could only precipitate it.
Did he ever read the letters addressed to his barrack? Marcel thinks that they were allowed. Prisoners de droit commun: robbers, tax evaders, your basic gangster, had the right to receive letters. Technically, they were not deported. Foreign born and gold smugglers Max Stupp and Joseph Roussetzki were assigned to tasks useful to the Republic in danger. But Marcel also tells me that, by severity, the commander of the camp kept the letters destined to Jews. He’d stacked them in his office and that’s the reason why Marcel found them unopened in the archives.
I read for the first time the letters my grand-mother wrote to the French authorities in the middle of the war, all the way up to Monsieur le Préfet, who headed the Département des Pyrénées-Orientales, the administration, including the police in charge of the region. She begged him to consider that Joseph Roussetzki was a family man, a father and a husband; second, that he had never done anything wrong, had paid his taxes, respected the laws of the Republic, and educated their French child in the Catholic faith of his mother and of the country. She wrote elegant cursive letters slightly slanted, as though the fountain-pen and the hand holding it had to bend against strong wind, fight a steep uphill battle, yet without losing dignity, without stooping; just asking the Frenchman in good grammatical and orthographic French, to look at their situation sensibly and give back a father to her son, a husband to his wife, a man to his work.
Who knows, maybe Monsieur le Préfet would have flinched; but not after the escape, which occurred, as grinding fate would have it, at the time when he was finally ready to answer my grand-mother’s request. There is this brutal letter included in Marcel’s report, a copy of which found its way to the director of the camp. The letter is addressed to Madame Renée Roussetzki. In it, Monsieur le Préfet considers Joseph Roussetzki “un élément dangereux” and “un récidiviste” who does not deserve “notre sympathie” and certainly not the kind of clemency Madame Roussetzki dares suggesting.
My grand-mother must have received the original from the Préfecture. But Renée never spoke about it. Nobody in my family ever mentioned her correspondence with the Préfet.
Why did Joseph try to escape alone, dirty and weak? If he knew about his wife’s preparations, why had they not fixed a date, a time, a place to meet? Maybe he said no, at first, he was not ready, it was dangerous and not necessary. But then, by the second week of August, Marcel suggests that he panicked. There was a rumor that the camp had received a demand from the Germans to make up a list of 2000 interns in retaliation for 2 SS officers killed by the Résistance, and fill up a train. Joseph worked during the day in a farm; he escaped.
“If he intended to reach Marseille, he didn’t go anywhere,” writes Marcel. “Fifteen miles at the most from Gours after four days and as many nights. Avoiding villages, sleeping in ditches, with no food, no water, wearing his rags in the heat of summer. It looks like in the end he gave up, walked on the road in broad daylight, asked villagers for water. Gendarmes escorted him back to the camp.”
Joseph had failed to escape, failed to respond to his wife’s preparations, the risks she had taken to help him; he received the worst treatment and was put on the short list for the next train (which, Marcel verified, was about retaliation for the 2 SS killed).
But why, I still wonder, was she not on the outside waiting for him? Could they not have chosen a discreet place where to meet in the vicinity of the farm if they had shared her preparations? Did she not talk to him about the Consulado and about the 3rd class seat? She had money for a car and a driver to bring them to Marseille and then San Sebastian. My father told me that, back in Paris, mother and son survived the rest of the war selling her jewelry and her furs.
Maybe they missed each other? They could no longer communicate through the barbed-wire? The director cracked down on communication with the exterior too early.
The facts will always elude me, but the moving truth is not in the facts.
I understand now why grand-mother Renée never mentioned that escape, or said much at all about Joseph. She could not reproach him post-mortem that he had failed. She kept quiet about him, even when, as a child, I asked her nagging questions about what her ex-husband had said and how he’d behaved. Except for the walls in which we lived, the properties which he’d accumulated and which constituted the floor and solid foundation of our lives, there was so little of Joseph around me. Nothing. Renée repeated that he was a good man, a good father and husband, nothing deep. Why did I need to know more? What for? My father respected her silence and didn’t add anything.
There is not one word I could use to describe the feelings my father had towards his father Joseph and his viciously circular story, that of being sent back to Poland (Auschwitz is in Poland, right?) where he came from originally. He seemed to have had none, my father, no word and no feeling; at least, none left by the time I was able myself to feel and listen.
I still wonder how much my father heard about his father’s failed escape. Not more than what his mother learned harassing the French authorities after the war. Bits of the failed escape she may have shared with him while not mentioning the boat en route to Santo Domingo nor the attempt at exotic nationalization — what for? Too painful.
Renée could have bragged about her dedication to Joseph, but she didn’t.
Silence. Story closed. Or so it seemed because, even before my own failures, the erratic life my father led could be traced to that primal mistake that was more than a mistake. The mother of all errors, the losing streak we presupposed but never heard about. The unrewarded courage of Joseph; the unrequited dedication of Renée unknown. Like they had never been.
Silence. Until Marcel pieces the past together for me and leaves it illuminated, and more incomprehensible.