Author: By David Mehegan, Globe Staff

                   Date: SUNDAY, July 18, 1999

                   Section: Books



A Son's Search for the Truth of Vichy

By Isaac Levendel. Northwestern University Press. 341 pp. $25.95.

David Mehegan is book editor of the Globe.

The responsibility for evil deeds seems relatively easy to assign insuch cases as the Littleton, Colo., killings or the Oklahoma City bombing.But in such vast crimes as the Holocaust, even knowing who all the guiltyare, much less calling them to account, is impossible. That is the grievoustheme of ``Not the Germans Alone,'' Isaac Levendel's cathartic but anguishedbook about his search for those who killed his mother in Vichy France.

One begins with Hitler and his henchmen, the judges, bureaucrats, andcivic officials who implemented his ideas; the generals and lesser officersand enlisted men; police chiefs; chemical-company executives who made thepoison gas, gas chambers, and crematoria; railway executives who providedthe transportation; minor clerks and guards, civilians who informed onneighbors or refused to aid them, etc.

The responsibility spreads like rings in a pond, and includes not onlyGermans but also willing or tacit accomplices in all of the countries overwhelmedby the Nazi beast. But in the occupied countries, justice in many caseswas never done; fatigue, cost, the desire to rebuild or meet new challengeslike the Soviet threat, shame and fear or the craving to forget promptedmany with marked consciences, as well as many traumatized survivors, totry to bury the past under a blanket of silence.

It was this silence that Isaac Levendel, a French-born Jew who has livedin the United States since 1974, could bear no longer. 

In June 1944 in Avignon, in a part of France ruled by the Vichy regime,Levendel and his mother had fled the increasing pressure on French Jewsby hiding at a small cherry farm away from Le Pontet, the town where sheowned a small business. Her husband, Isaac's father, had been safely internedin neutral Switzerland when his French Army unit was driven there by theGerman onslaught of 1940. 

Sarah Levendel had reason to feel fairly safe, but against the vehementarguments of the farmer's wife, she made up her mind to go back to Le Pontetto settle business and gather some of her possessions. She never returned.Arrested June 6, 1944, she was deported to Drancy, a transit camp nearParis, and from there to Auschwitz, where she was gassed on July 4. Heronly child was 8.

Protected by Jewish and Christian families, Isaac Levendel survivedthe war, but the disappearance of his mother gnawed at him for 45 years.When his father returned at war's end and tried to put the past behindand get on with his life, Isaac regarded him coldly as one who wished toviolate the son's devotion to his mother's memory. Yet as a young man inFrance he could not bear to seek the truth about her death, avoiding thescenes where it had occurred and even the people who had protected him.He refused any help from the postwar German reparations program: ``I couldnot accept anything in exchange for the loss of my mother,'' he writes.

In 1957 Isaac emigrated to Israel, worked for years on a kibbutz, marriedand became a father. And then in the mid-1970s he and his family came tothe United States, settling near Chicago. (He is described in the bookonly as a ``computer technologist and manager.'') As the decades passed,he could not live with the silence in himself, and in 1989, after readingabout the work of Serge Klarsfeld, a Parisian lawyer who specialized inresearch into the fate of the French Jews, he contacted Klarsfeld and learnedthat his mother had been on a particular well-documented transport of FrenchJews, No. 76, from Drancy to Auschwitz.

Discarding his long-held resistance, Levendel became determined to findout the whole story. During several visits to France in the early 1990s,he found an eyewitness to his mother's arrest. Several French-speakingmen arrested her in her house, and when she ran out to the home of a neighbor(the witness), they followed her. She begged them not to take her, shoutingat them, ``You have no hearts,'' but they replied, ``We have hearts, butthey are made of steel.'' She tried to commit suicide with a knife, butthey grabbed her and hauled her away.

Levendel found a woman who had been with his mother at the Avignon jailwhere the arrested ones were held before deportation. She recalled ``thewoman from Le Pontet who had left a little boy and was crying without respite.. . . `I have left my son behind. . . . I do not know where he is. . .. I will never see him again.' '' Another witness, a woman who survivedAuschwitz, recalled seeing Sarah Levendel arrive there, as Levendel writes,``sick and indifferent,'' and remembered that she had been immediatelygassed.

One of Levendel's agonies had been relieved: He knew now what had happenedto his mother. The next question was, who did it? He had always assumedthat Germans had seized his mother. But the latter third of his book reflectshis confrontation with the brutal fact that the perpetrators were mostlyFrench, that one official who had supervised the fingering and roundupsof Jews was rehabilitated after the war and even styled himself a victimof the Germans, and that those in charge of the Vichy archives as lateas the 1990s were reluctant to give an outsider access to the informationthat might clear up the mysteries.

Levendel's efforts coincided with legal action by Klarsfeld to overcomebureaucratic resistance to full disclosure of the details of collaboration.In the face of official noncooperation, Levendel finally got a minor clerkin the Veterans Affairs department to send him, against the rules, a copyof the identification card issued to his mother at the Drancy camp. Thecard bears the classification ``B,'' which meant, ``Complete Jew . . .deportable.''

Despite his continuing efforts, Levendel never identified the men whoarrested his mother. But he suspects they were part of a French criminalgang active in the area, the Palmieris, who carried out arrests for theGestapo in exchange for 1,000 francs per Jew and the right to plunder thehomes of their victims. A few hours after Sarah Levendel's arrest, he writes,``French militiamen had come with a truck and emptied our house and thestore of merchandise and valuables.''

Isaac Levendel's well-written and well-documented account (alas, itlacks an index, which would have been helpful given the quantity of namesand details) is full of anger -- at the murderous French lackeys of theNazis, at those who turned away and would not try to save the Jews, atthe bureaucrats who still try to whitewash the truth, at the anti-SemiticCatholic leaders who tacitly approved of the campaign against the Jews.But, most poignant, it is also clear that he retained for all those yearsa deep-seated anger at his mother for going back into danger, and guiltthat he did not go with her or try to stop her. It was these pains, itseems, more than simply the longing to know what happened, that his discoveriesdid much to assuage.

``If I could go back in time,'' he writes, ``it is clear that I wouldbe faced with a decision impossible for an eight-year-old. I would haveto choose between two equally terrifying alternatives: accompanying mymother to the gas chamber or losing her forever by staying at the cherryfarm. It is, of course, her misjudgment that would thrust me into my inextricabledilemma: no way could I make the choice. But after many years of angerand resentment, I have become able to understand her side of the tragedy.Learning the details of her fate has been a great relief.''

Isaac Levendel has relieved the silence for himself and, with this book,for his readers. But he still has a fear, even now, of another kind ofsilence, the silence of the ages. In 1992 he visited Auschwitz for thefirst time, and walked amid overwhelming emotions the path that his motherhad walked from the railhead to the gas chamber. In his book he writes,``At Passover the year after my return from Auschwitz, our family heldthe usual seder. But I was unable to read the Haggadah aloud and retell,as I usually do, the story of the exodus from Egypt. As I silently readthe text, I measured the distance separating me from the Jews in Egyptand realized how abstract my own story would sound to the distant generationsto come.''

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