ONE MAN'S WHODUNIT
SEEKING THE TRUTH IN A MOTHER'S DEATH 45
YEARS AFTER THE END OF WORLD WAR
By David Mehegan, Globe Staff
SUNDAY, July 18, 1999
NOT THE GERMANS ALONE
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
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