April 20, 2006
A Hidden Child Tells Her Tale
As a young child in Nazi-occupied France, Marie Kaufman knew the rules: "Don't be seen, don't talk, don't stand up, don't do anything."
"I used to always think that I was going to kill something, or I was going to make something happen to us if I did anything wrong," Kaufman recalled.
Sitting in a rocking chair in her Beverlywood home, Kaufman, 65, vividly remembers those dark days, when she hid from the Nazis. But she also recalls something different, something life affirming, what she described as the "silent conspiracy of goodness": the effort of the entire village of Milhars, a hamlet in southwestern France, to save her family.
Kaufman will tell her story Friday evening, April 28, at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, as part of a Holocaust commemoration honoring Catholic rescuers.
Almost from the time she was born in 1941 in Milhars, Kaufman had to be invisible, she recounted. Her parents had come from Poland, where they had suffered under Nazi oppression. Southern France, where the Nazis were not yet asserting themselves, had offered hope for her mother, Anna, and her father, Michael -- and work for Michael as a cement factory worker.
For a time, her parents managed well. But in 1942, the Nazis, already having overrun northern France, appeared in the south.
"The Germans were all over," Kaufman said. "They had the whole area covered." Kaufman and her family had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.
It would take a village to save them.
When the Nazis came looking for Kaufman's father at the factory, the owner lied, saying Michael Kaufman was gone. Her father had to stop going to work, but he never stopped receiving a paycheck.
The mayor implored the Catholic townspeople -- about 200 families in all, according to Marie Kaufman -- to do whatever they could to help the few Jewish families in their midst. He summoned the village priest, who gave Anna Kaufman false identification papers and a baptism certificate for Marie. When Marie's sister was born a couple of years later, the priest performed a mock baptism in a church.
Neighbors gave Anna Kaufman work in the fields along with food, bedding and baby supplies.
Meanwhile, Michael Kaufman hid in the cellar of their home, where, to make some money, he would mend torn flour sacks. When the local police were pressured by the Nazis to come looking for him, the officers would sit in the living room, chatting with Anna Kaufman. They would never search the house.
"Another instance of quiet resistance," Marie Kaufman said knowingly.
"You're talking about a whole village," she added, "a mayor, a priest, police, factory workers, who just did extraordinary things at the risk of their lives."
They were taking a big risk. Marie, a babbling toddler, was a particular liability. During the day, while her mother would search for work, Marie would stay with the neighbors, whose teenage children would watch her vigilantly. When she darted across the street one day, Pierrot Andrieu, one of her teenage protectors, sought to teach her a lesson by dressing up as a gypsy.
"I'm the boogeyman," he told her, "and I'm coming to get you."
Her mother taught her to call the man living in the cellar -- her father -- "my other mother." At any moment, Kaufman explained, "I could've given the whole shebang away."
She recalled the difficulties she caused her mother. Once, Marie took the ducklings Anna had been nurturing for food and drowned them. Marie had only wanted to give them a bath. Another time, she uprooted the vegetables Anna had been growing in the backyard. Her mother told her that now they would have no food to eat. Life as a hidden child "was always black," Kaufman said.
So, Marie and her family lived in virtual darkness until the Allies liberated France in 1944. Then they moved to Paris and, in 1951, boarded a ship for Los Angeles.
Arriving in the United States at age 10, Marie Kaufman knew she was different. Her parents, who worked as tailors in sweatshops, spoke Yiddish. People called her a refugee, and she had no extended family. Her grandparents, aunts and uncles had all been killed.
Having been so young during the Holocaust, Kaufman had few memories of her prior life. And her parents spoke little about it. What was real, and what was imagined? she wondered.
"Basically, you're always searching for identity," said Kaufman, who is a social worker specializing in couples therapy. "Who do you belong to, really?"
In the 1980s, after her father had died but while her mother was still alive, Kaufman joined one of the first child-survivor groups. For the first time, she found people who understood her, who knew her fears, her history.
Kaufman wrote to the new mayor of her old village, inquiring about the families who had sheltered her during the war. He wrote back, and she made plans to return.
In 1996, in what would be the first of five visits, Kaufman went to the little farmers' village by a river, now a town of about 300 people. She stood with her husband in the town square, where she had planned to meet the mayor.
"There wasn't a soul in sight," she said. "I thought, This isn't real. I misunderstood. My French is no good."
And then, one by one, the villagers came out to greet her.
One described what Kaufman had looked like as a child: always scared, with her eyes darting back-and-forth and her hands holding onto her mother's skirt. Another recounted how they used to play together, rolling down hills. They all called her their sister.
"Up until then, my story had really been my parents' story," Kaufman said. Now, she had reclaimed it.
At dinner one evening, Kaufman told the now grown-up teenagers, "her rescuers," as she calls them, that she would like to honor them at a special ceremony.
"They just stared at me," she said, and asked, "Why?"
"I said, 'Well, if it weren't for people like you, I and many like me might not be here.'"
"And they looked at me," she continued, "and they went, 'C'était normale.' It was the normal thing to do."
Marie Kaufman will speak Friday, April 28, at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. The service begins at 8 p.m. For information, contact Rabbi Ed Feinstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (818) 788-6000.