It’s the time of year when we think about our families. So I hope you’ll indulge me with this blog post about my family. More specifically, my father, and the trip that Cy and I took with him to southwestern France in October.
As I mentioned in another post, my father lived in southwestern France from June 1940 to early 1943, from age 5 to 8. Back in May, Cy and I started planning a trip to France to visit some of our wine producers and we asked my dad if he wanted to come with us. He did, and also asked if we could help him research his time in France and take part of the trip in Hérault, one of several places he and his family stayed as they repeatedly fled the Nazis. He hadn’t been back to that part of France since he left it in 1943. He wanted to locate and visit the grave of his sister, who died in August 1942, and also see if there was anyone in the village where he lived who remembered his family.
And so the research began. First, we had to identify the name of the village, which Dad couldn’t recall precisely enough to find it on a map. To those of us who can remember practically every street address we’ve ever had, this might seem strange. But we didn’t live through a war and can’t really conceive of what things were like for people in Europe during World War Two, especially Jewish people. Even though Dad was in Hérault for more than two years, he and his family arrived there as refugees and it wasn’t home in the sense that we think of it. After doing the research and taking this trip, I was surprised not by his not remembering things, but by how much he does remember despite the constant upheaval.
Which brings me to the second reason for writing this post. Many of us will be with family during the holidays. I encourage you to talk to some of the older generation about their lives. You may be surprised about how much they remember and how much you can learn from them. The internet is a big help, but there’s nothing like getting the story from the people who lived it.
The research wasn’t easy, but we were lucky that there were some things, and especially some people, to point us in the right direction. My father had a card from the funeral home that handled his sister’s remains, along with a letter from his father in the early 1960s that pointed us to Cimitière Saint-Lazare in Montpellier. I learned that we could probably locate my father’s sister’s death certificate, which would give us the name of the village where the family lived. And most of all, our wine producer and friend, Jean-Baptiste Pietavy, who lives in Hérault, helped with tracking down people, making telephone calls, and especially (as you’ll read below) with his persistence and willingness to help.
My father, Thomas Natan, was born in Vienna, Austria, in December 1934. His parents were shop owners and they had a relatively prosperous, middle-class life in the city. From the reading I’ve done about Jewish culture in Vienna between the wars, my father’s family seems to have fit right in. While we think of America as a melting pot, Vienna was also one from the 1880s through the late 1930s for Jewish people from all over eastern Europe. My grandmother Margit was born in Vienna in 1902, but much of her family came there from Hungary in the 1880s or 90s. My grandfather Matyas was born in 1897 in what’s now Poland but was part of Austria-Hungary before World War One.
Austria was annexed by Germany in March 1938. My great aunt Stella, Margit’s youngest sister, told me many years ago about the stunned, sinking feeling they all had watching the Nazi soldiers parading through Vienna. Stella left for London that summer and remained there through the war. Shortly after, Matyas fled to Brussels, mere hours after Nazi police came to his home looking for him (luckily he wasn’t there at that moment.) About a month later, Margit sent my father to Brussels by train with a couple who was traveling there, and soon followed after selling off as much of their business and personal property as she could.
They chose Brussels because Matyas’s mother was living there. And there was also a sizeable Viennese Jewish refugee population in Brussels at the time. So while far from ideal, there was a little familiarity at first. But Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and while Belgium was officially neutral, any sense of normalcy evaporated. Suzanne, my father’s younger sister, was born in March 1940, and six weeks later the Nazis invaded Belgium. The family, including Matyas’s mother, got in a taxi and headed for France. In all, about 40,000 Jewish people living in the Netherlands and Belgium fled to France in May 1940.
My grandfather was immediately arrested and put in a POW camp when they crossed the border, since he was an Austrian male of fighting age. My father, along with his mother, grandmother, and sister, went to Paris and Margit set about visiting the resettlement office there to get them out of the city. Around the time France signed an armistice with Germany in late June, Margit and her children were in Graissessac, a village in Aveyron in southern France.
My great-grandmother stayed behind in Paris, and we don’t know what happened to her afterward. Officially, roundups and deportations of Jews in Paris were limited at first to foreign-born men in 1941 and then broadened to foreign-born women aged 16 to 55 in July 1942. Assuming she had registered with the police in Paris as Jews were required to do, she would have been older than the 1942 cutoff. But foreign Jews in France weren’t treated the same as those born in France, either by law or socially. And by 1943, all bets were off as far as what would happen to any Jewish person anywhere in France.
In fall 1940, my grandfather was given a choice of staying in the POW camp or working in a mine and smelting facility in Hérault. The mine was in a village called Ceilhes, as we learned from Suzanne’s death certificate. The workers were provided with basic shelter housing, and my grandfather was able to have his family there with him. It was pretty much a subsistence life. As we learned from talking with people in the region, food was scarce during the war, and it was actually illegal to transport food from one village to another. So either you had to travel covertly at night and barter with people from other villages, or make do with what was there.
Unfortunately, although my grandmother tried her best, the family suffered from malnutrition. Especially Suzanne, who was born while they were already on the run. She got sick in late July 1942 and had no chance of fighting it off. By the time she was taken to a hospital in Montpellier, it was too late. She died of encephalitis on August 18. My father contracted typhus later in the fall, and he went into the same hospital. He survived because the nuns who worked in the hospital kept him there even after he recovered, so that he’d have a chance to eat well and gain a little weight.
My father and his parents left Ceilhes early in 1943, and I’ll continue their story in another post. For now, I’d like to tell you a little about our visit. Once we learned that Ceilhes was the village where my father lived, we contacted M. Cambon, the mayor, by e-mail and told him we wanted to visit. I asked Jean-Baptiste to follow up, and he told me the mayor would be expecting us.
When we arrived, M. Cambon gave us copies of photographs of the mine area, called Usine Métallurgique de l’Orb. The whole area is now under a lake – the river was dammed outside the village in the late 1950s, covering the entire facility, and the photos are the only evidence the mine was there. The mining and smelting company produced lead, arsenic, and galena (we didn’t try any fish caught from that lake, believe me). Some of the photos show the buildings on the property where the mineworkers lived. My father remembers it as a small, bare-bones compound a couple of kilometers from the village, and the photos confirm that. The school and city hall are in the main part of the village and are located in the same building, which looks exactly as it did in the 1940s. In fact, the village looks frozen in time, at least as far as I can tell. It didn’t jog my father’s memory, but M. Cambon confirmed that my father’s family was indeed in Ceilhes, and there were two other Jewish families there as well.
M. Cambon then introduced us to Mme Hugette Parent. She came up to my father and grabbed his hands, saying she never imagined she’d ever see him again. They went to the village school together, and Mme Parent remembers his family too. Mme Parent’s parents, the Sicards, lived on a farm just outside the village, and Mme Parent said that my grandmother would visit Mme Sicard with Suzanne. Mme Sicard gave Margit vegetables and milk when she could.
As I read this over, it sounds like a clinical recitation of facts, but it was really a little overwhelming. I had thought that my father might be the only living person who remembered Suzanne while she was still alive. That Mme Parent did too was very touching. She told us about Margit’s first visit to Mme Sicard after Suzanne died, and how they had all cried together. It was really lovely to hear Mme Parent’s stories. And it wasn’t all somber – she was surprised to hear that Margit had been born in 1902, since Mme Sicard was born in 1916 and Mme Parent thought that Margit looked younger than her own mother! (Besides the obviously good genetics 😉 Margit was a city girl, after all, and as Collette said, nothing ages a woman like living in the country…) Mme Parent also told us that Margit corresponded with her mother after the war, so she knew that the family had survived, but didn’t know that my dad and his parents had moved to the U.S.
It was a wonderful visit. We spent the rest of the afternoon in Roquefort eating cheese followed by a trip to the Millau Viaduct, rested up in Montpellier the next day, and then went to the cemetery the day after that.
As I mentioned, Jean-Baptiste was a big help in getting information. No more so than with locating Suzanne’s grave in the Cimitière Saint-Lazare for us. He got no response calling the cemetery administration so he called the Rabbi of Montpellier’s largest synagogue and asked for help. Three days later, Rabbi Didier Kassabi called him back to tell him the location of Suzanne’s grave. When Jean-Baptiste said he wanted to visit her, Rabbi Kassabi told him that at least part of the gravestone would be horizontal and that he should bring a whisk broom to clean it off plus some chalk or talcum powder to highlight the carving. He also told Jean-Baptiste that it was customary to bring a stone to leave on the grave of a Jewish person to show that he or she hasn’t been forgotten – generally it’s just a small stone no bigger than the palm of your hand. But Jean-Baptiste didn’t know that and brought four fairly large rocks from his vineyard. It was very sweet of him and made me smile when I saw the photos he sent – it was as if he were trying to make up for all those years when it’s likely that nobody visited.
Jean-Baptiste’s photos were bright and sunny, and didn’t convey the sadness of the place. The Cimitière Israélite Ancien is a very small part of Cimitière Saint-Lazare. It’s all the way at the end, as far from the main gate as you can go, and completely walled off from the rest of the cemetery. As is typical of Jewish cemeteries, there’s no vegetation at all, only rocks, because by tradition there can’t be anything that’s alive there. It gives the cemetery a barren, other-worldly feeling. Especially compared to the rest of the cemetery grounds, which are lush and green.
Suzanne’s grave is small, befitting a small child, and unadorned. It has a simple horizontal concrete stone on top with her name and a Star of David carved into it. As I looked at it, I wondered how my grandparents had been able to afford it in those days, simple though it is.
Suzanne has always been a bit of an abstraction for me, since growing up all I knew about her was that she had died very young. Other than his memories, my father has two photographs of her and a drawing done from one of the photos. And now here we were at her grave. Time and the elements have made the stone nearly illegible, and we spent a few minutes tracing the carvings with chalk to be able to read them. Crouching next to her gravestone with our pieces of chalk made me feel a little closer to her, and to my grandparents, too. Dad, Cy, and I then put our own small stones on Suzanne’s grave. As we left, I looked at the neighboring stone, for a woman who died in 2007. It’s much larger and fairly elaborate, and the number of small stones on it showed that she’s well-remembered. I found myself hoping that the next time the woman’s family comes to see her, they’ll notice that Suzanne hasn’t been forgotten, either.
As I said earlier, I’ll write about the rest of our trip in another post. I wanted to end this one with a holiday recipe from my father’s side of the family, but my father said more than once that Margit wasn’t much of a cook. Like many Austrian women of her day, though, she knew how to make apple strudel. Strudel takes a lot of counter space and time, even if you use pre-made phyllo dough, and it’s really better if you eat it within a few hours. After seeing recipes for baklava cups – basically a few layers of phyllo cut into squares, fitted in mini muffin tins and filled instead of made in a big sheet – I thought they could be adapted for strudel cups. They’ll keep for a few days stored in an airtight container, and are a lot easier to serve than slicing a big strudel.
A few hints: Since phyllo dough sheets from the grocery store are about 12 inches by 16 inches, you can butter, stack, and cut them on a baking sheet so you won’t make a buttery mess all over the counter. You’ll want about a tablespoon of filling for each strudel cup, but any leftover filling you have is delicious on top of ice cream or stirred into yogurt. I’ve suggested using golden syrup in the filling because you want it to stick together, otherwise it will fall apart when you bite into one of the cups. Honey would be more traditional for baklava, and it’s fine if you want to use that instead. But I think that honey overpowers the apples a little bit, so use a mild one. Plus it’s worth having the golden syrup around, it makes a delicious sweetener for drinks instead of simple syrup and is great on scones or biscuits. The crumbs in the recipe also act as binder, and they’re traditional in strudel and baklava. Austrians love to use leftover cake crumbs in a lot of baking recipes, and if you have leftover cake, by all means use it. But dried bread crumbs, graham cracker crumbs, pulverized vanilla wafers, or even ground-up plain biscotti work just as well.
You can serve the strudel cups with champagne, of course, or with a shot of rum, or a dessert wine. Try Les Secrets du Château Palvié Doux ($28), a blend of Muscadelle and Loin de l’Oeil, a grape native to southwestern France. It’s lightly aged in oak, and the vanilla essence from the oak goes beautifully with the apples.
Whatever you serve for the holidays, we first viners wish you all safe travels, and a wonderful time with family and friends!
Makes 24 cups
1/3 cup very finely chopped walnuts
2 tablespoons currants, or raisins cut in half
1 teaspoon rum
1-2 Granny Smith apples
¼ cup dried bread crumbs, or pulverized graham crackers or vanilla wafers
1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon sugar (divided use), plus a little extra for sprinkling
A pinch of ground cloves
A pinch of salt
1-2 tablespoons golden syrup, or honey, or a combination of the two
1 stick of butter, melted (divided use), plus 2 tablespoons butter for browning the apples
12 sheets phyllo dough
Equipment: 2 mini muffin tins each for making 12 muffins, or one large tin
If you’re using frozen phyllo dough, put the package in the fridge to thaw the night before you want to use it. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F before assembling the strudel cups.
Mix the currants or raisins and the rum in a small bowl and set aside. Peel one of the apples. Then cut off a small slice from the bottom so it sits upright on the counter. Cut vertically around the core of the apple, making four apple pieces. Cut each piece into ¼-inch slices, and then into ¼-inch cubes. You’ll want about 1-1/4 cups of apple cubes for the recipe. One apple may be enough, if not, use some of the second apple.
Melt the two tablespoons of butter in a large nonstick skillet and add the apple cubes, spreading them out into a single layer. Cook them for a couple of minutes on each side. When they begin to soften, sprinkle on 1 teaspoon of sugar and turn the heat up to high. Keep mixing and watch carefully – the moisture should cook almost all away, and the mixture should turn a little brown but not burn. Remove the apples from the skillet onto a plate and let them cool until just barely warm.
Mix the walnuts, bread crumbs, 1 tablespoon sugar, and the pinches of salt and cloves together. Stir in 2 tablespoons of melted butter, 1 tablespoon of the golden syrup, the currants with any remaining liquid rum from the little bowl, and the cooled apples. Mix gently but thoroughly. The filling should just stick together. If it doesn’t, stir in up to another tablespoon of golden syrup, and that should do it. Set the filling aside while you prepare the phyllo.
Place one sheet of phyllo dough on a rimmed baking sheet, and brush it gently but thoroughly with melted butter. Put another sheet on top of it, butter, and proceed until you have a stack of six buttered sheets. Using a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, cut the phyllo into 12 squares – 4 squares by 3 squares, each about 4 inches on a side. Gently fit each square into the cups of the muffin tins. Make another buttered stack of six sheets of phyllo. Then spoon a rounded tablespoon of the filling into each phyllo-lined cups and pack each one down gently. Add more filling if they look a little low, or if you have more and want to put it in.
Fold the phyllo edges down over the filling. Brush each cup with a little of the remaining melted butter, and sprinkle each one with a little sugar. Bake until the edges of the phyllo are lightly browned, about 20 to 25 minutes. Let them cool enough to handle, then remove from the tins.