When changing you identity is your only way to survive...From Sarah to Denise, two first names for only one person.In this moving testimony, the author plunges us into History. And it is above all the story of Sarah, a little girl that life and atrocity are going to change into Denise. How did one get to this ?Terror, solidarity, fight for humanity, absolute horror and unconditional love : through the story of a child, of a family, this deeply moving work immerges us in an essentiel page of our French History. Terribly actual, this essential reading will not leave you unharmed.Annie Dhainaut-Mintz was born in Niort in 1948.With strength, patience and emotion, she has reconstituted her family history, that of her mother who is Sarah and Denise. She gives us here her first book.A deeply touching testimony that will walk you through one of the most terrible times of our History.EXCERPTA few moments are enough for me to imagine the happiness that we would have had had being together, to discover through their origin another culture that would have transported me beyond the frontiers to my Polish family. But the ideology and the barbarism of a man decided this otherwise.How to fill this immense void if not by telling their story, from the arrival of Benjamin and Ewa in France to the tragic destiny that led them and their family, to the death camps because they were Jews? This account is the finest homage that I can pay them so that they will also have their place in our memory.The chronology of the story follows that of history. I reconstitute a puzzle of which the pieces have been scattered for a century.ABOUT THE AUTHORAnnie Dhainaut-Mintz was born in Niort in 1948. With strength, patience and emotion, she reconstitued her family's history and that of her mother, who is Sarah and Denise. From Sarah to Denise is her first book.
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From Sarahto Denise
Translated from french by Elaine Harris
“Remember only that I was innocent and, just like you, mortal on that day, I too, had had a face marked by rage, by pity and joy, quite family, a human face.”
Benjamin Fondane,1944, died at Auschwitz.Testimony read at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
To my sisters, Martine and SylvieTo my brother, Jean-YvesTo my children, Stéphanie, Thomas and MatthieuTo my grandchildrenEtienne, Nicolas, Clément, Noah,Benjamin, Adèle, Max and PaulTo my nephews and niecesAntoine, Raphaël, Aurélia and EmilieTo my cousins Emilie and HélèneWarms thanks to Elaine Harris andDanièle Guérenneur for this English edition.
I am dazed… On this 4th of January 2005 I represent my mother at the commission of indemnification for the victims of the anti-Semitic legislations in force under the Vichy regime. It took all these years for the French government to make a mea culpa and a reparation official. What a derisory act in the face of so many broken lives. But a salutary act with regard to those who today still deny the existence of the concentration camps and the genocide of the Jews.
July 1995, anniversary of the police roundup at the Winter Velodrome in Paris, the President of the Republic Jacques Chirac solemnly “recognized the imprescriptible debt of the French State with regard to the seventy-six thousand Jews of France deported to Auschwitz who will not return”. A commission of investigation, presided over by Jean Mattéoli has identified the public and private archives about the assets held by the banks and financial institutions coming from spoliations during the Second World War. In the same way, in the United States, the Jewish organizations pursued the same investigations for the people concerned. On January 18, 2001 the Franco-American agreements signed in Washington(1) ended the disagreement between the two countries about the despoilment question.
After the recognition of the facts, the time for compensation finally arrived under different forms, like the indemnisation programme, the creation of a Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah.
The Commission meeting behind closed doors gave a ruling on the dossier of my mother. It invited me to attend on January 4, 2005 rue de la Manutention in Paris to inform me of its conclusions. The meeting lasted for only a few minutes. A spokesman set out the despoiled property, the apartment and its contents, professional goods including merchandise, the Citroen car with its trailer, my grandparents had a hat business on the market at Niort, and the identity papers. The Committee proposes an indemnity of thirty thousand, five hundred euros. The silence sweeps through the room. Embarrassment could be seen on the faces of the five spokesmen present. They all look at me… They are all waiting for my agreement for this amount on which I have no hold. No compensation will ever replace the least human life. This meeting plunges me sixty-years back and will remain engraved in my memory. As never before, I realize the reasons why my grandparents died and I tremble with despair and anger.
A few moments are enough for me to imagine the happiness that we would have had had being together, to discover through their origin another culture that would have transported me beyond the frontiers to my Polish family. But the ideology and the barbarism of a man decided this otherwise.
How to fill this immense void if not by telling their story, from the arrival of Benjamin and Ewa in France to the tragic destiny that led them and their family, to the death camps because they were Jews? This account is the finest homage that I can pay them so that they will also have their place in our memory.
The chronology of the story follows that of history. I reconstitute a puzzle of which the pieces have been scattered for a century.
After assembling the souvenirs of the surviving relatives, the documents of my father about his engagement in the Resistance, the family photos, long years went by before I could start writing, because my sorrow and emotion were so great.
At Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux, domain of the Dukes of Aquitaine, my paternal grandparents, Pascal Géant and Amélina Légeron, were born respectively on April 17 and May 20 1881 in Catholic families. It was in this little village in Vendée, near Maillezais, at the border of the Marais Poitevin, that they got married on July 18, 1905. My aunt and my father were born in the neighbouring commune of Porte-de-l’Ile, Yvette was born on May 22, 1913 and Jean on April 18, 1920, in the family house recognizable by the palm tree planted in the garden, an emblematic tree that indicates that the owner is a Catholic. Close friends of my grandparents, Protestants, living in the Deux-Sèvres, planted a banana tree. This tree is also found in the gardens of sailors who passed Cape Horn leaving the Atlantic Coast.
Pascal’s father was a farmer. Amélina’s was a weaver; he made his daughter’s trousseau of which a few sheets are still left that I still use today. On these immense pieces of coarse material, Amélina finely embroidered her initials A.L. with red stitches. A century later I still admire the work of the weaver and the quality of the material. My great-grandfather also wove a cloth called “droguet” (drugget) made of wool and cotton or only wool. This cloth, which could be luxurious was ordinary most of the time and was used to make everyday clothes.
Pascal whom I did not know is a handsome man, tall, with a slightly turned up moustache. His bearing is haughty in his military uniform during the First World War in which he was an ambulance driver. The proud man impresses, knows how to be humorous in the family. Illness carried him off on June 16, 1945.
Amélina, called (poum maman) “Mummy Poum” never smiles in the photos. This did not stop our only grandmother from being very affectionate. Always present in our early childhood, she used to cradle us in her arms, consoled us the way grandmothers like to do. This slim distinguished looking woman wears dark dresses going from dark grey to light grey according to the seasons. She gathers her fine greying hair in a small chignon covered with a hairnet placed above the nape of the neck.
We often met at Porte-de-L’Ile, my older sister and I, when we were a baby then little girl, between the ages of four and seven. We slept in the rocking cradle of white wrought iron of our aunt and father. When we were little girls we played in the garden with our wicker work prams and our dolls. Our cotton hats protected us from the burning summer sun. I still remember a snack I preferred to all others, a slice of farmhouse bread, covered with the thick cream formed on the surface of boiled milk and sprinkled with sugar! This fresh milk that we went to fetch at the farm next door in the evening, avoiding the geese. We lived these little childhood joys with the cousins, boys and girls, of my grandparents. No matter where we looked, we saw the arches of the Abbey of Maillezais as though they were suspended in the sky.
From the 12th century, the monks transformed the abbey alternately into a fortress then a cathedral. They fashioned this damp marsh to create zones suitable for cultivation and zones for farming, with little rivers of water alongside, where the uninformed walker can get lost. Rabelais stayed there from 1521 to 1527 after having been a novice not far from there, at Fontenay le Comte. I do not doubt that this wild and luminous land that stretched out to the ocean inspired him. I have very often travelled in a flat-bottomed boat in my dear Marais Poitevin following the little rivers, bordered with ash trees and willow trees. These little rivers are covered with a little carpet of green duckweed that only something dropped into the water disturbs.
After the birth of Jean on April 18, 1920, Pascal, Amélina and Yvette move to Niort into a house in town bought in rue Barbezière. It is made of white stones and forms the corner with the rue du Petit Blanc, where will settle not far from there, the Minc family in 1937. The first floor is decorated with a balcony of wrought iron adorned with window boxes where our aunt Yvette hides chocolate eggs at Easter. On the ground floor the dining room – sitting-room and the kitchen with a high ceiling are the two living rooms. On the first floor, three bedrooms and a bathroom. From there a little staircase reaches the attic where Pascal installed a henhouse on piles that was very useful during the Occupation. Adjoining the attic, a little maid’s room served as a hiding place for Sarah my mother, during the war.
The ritual of the meal on Sunday at noon is unavoidable. Pascal officiates in the kitchen in the basement. His preparations start on Saturday: he washes and prepares the “veal stomach” that he stews. Fresh vegetables accompany this dish appreciated by friends among whom are André and Louise Séguéla. Janine, their only daughter, still remembers these delicious meals during which her appetite returned as though by a miracle. Yvette, skilled in desserts, prepares sometimes apple pie sometimes floating islands. The Saint Honoré de “Riquet”, pastry cook and great friend of my father, is imperatively the unavoidable dessert of the Sunday meals.
Some memories of our Aunt Yvette come back to me. She liked to joke, to pepper her conversation with words from the dialect of the Vendée, “quaito quolé… que’q tu bignailles…, puns and “lady like” expressions. Her quick wit enchanted us. She gave in to all our caprices, like borrowing her dresses and high heels that she no longer wore, to walk in the street banging the pavement, like ladies… She spoilt us on every occasion. We had, only her, she had only us, her nieces and her nephew. Contrary to our father, with pale skin and blue eyes, Yvette has a darker complexion, “distant sign of the passing of Arabs between Poitier and Tours in 732” she liked to joke! Her dark brown eyes, her short black hair, her fine and slender figure distinguished her from other women. My sisters and I found her so beautiful in the photos when she was a young girl, that we wondered why she had never got married. We teased her about this without knowing that her great love had died during the war.
Benjamin Mintz and Ewa Dluga were born in Russian Poland in middle-class families of Ashkenazi Jews. While reading a copy of their family record book, issued at their marriage, I read the place and date of their birth.
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