Jews, Nazis And a Hiding Place in Paris

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There could be little doubt that Emil was rather eccentric, but in an endearing, unaffected way.  He was young, slim and good-looking, one of those people who always look good no matter what they wear. His hair was a mass of long, tangled black curls that always glistened whether held back in a pony tail or left to fall freely about his pale face and his shoulders. Anyone who called to visit him could see immediately that he took a great deal more care of his appearance than of his apartment which was always an untidy mess; among the mess was always a dozen or so freshly laundered and impeccably ironed white shirts hanging from curtain rails and the backs of doors, islands of calm in the chaos of a turbulent life.

No-one ever stayed very long when they visited. Sometimes friends felt that they were in the way; mostly they felt uncomfortable in the mess of books, coats and cushions that lay wherever they had been dropped. However Emil was not intentionally unwelcoming, he was just somewhat unaware and generally abstracted, elsewhere, and more often than not meant that his head was in his music.

Jeanne and I called to see Emil late one night on our way home. We had been for a meal at “Tzar Alexis”, the restaurant her uncle owned near Place Contrescarpe, and Emil’s apartment was nearby. We climbed the concrete stairs in darkness, feeling our way, and when we hammered on his door it swung upon: he never locked the door when he was at home. The usual pile of coats and papers and books was strewn around the one tiny room Emil rented in the attic, but there was no-one there. Jeanne picked up a book and started leafing through it while I called out but there was no answer.

We decided not to stay since it was late and we were only calling on the off chance that he might be in since we were in the area, but as we turned to leave Emil emerged from behind a curtain on the back wall.

“Jeanne, Rask,” he called, almost in a whisper. “Come and see my Jew hole!”

Coming from anyone else Jeanne might have been offended, but as a Russian Jew herself, brought up in Paris as Emil had been, she knew immediately what he was talking about. I followed her as she picked her way through the mess towards the curtain that Emil was holding back and we all walked through a gap in the wall I had never noticed before.

“I found it last year, but I didn’t want to tell anyone until I had it prepared,” he explained. His voice had gone much higher than normal in his excitement and his face was flushed underneath its normal pallor.

This new room that Emil had discovered behind the wall of his apartment was bigger than the one he rented. The brick walls had been whitewashed and the parquet floor was gleaming. The light came mostly from an enormous menorah whose candles were lit, and there were no windows. Like many Paris apartments in certain areas of the city, entire rooms had been bricked up during the 39-45 war. The brickwork was cleverly disguised so that when Nazi soldiers came on a raid they would never guess that a family of Jews would be hiding behind the living room wall.

And now Emil had come across one of these Jew Holes. For a year he had been removing the bricks and rubble bit by bit, not wanting to draw attention to his find in case the landlord would find out and start to charge him for the extra space. He had restored the faded floor, whitewashed the walls, got rid of the rubbish and the stale air, and somehow had contrived to squeeze a baby grand piano up the stairs, through his apartment and into his new space. That was the only furniture he intended allowing into the room other than the menorah. Sacred space he called it as he took his place at the piano and started to play.

The light of the candles threw sinister shadows over Emil’s face as he played and they gave a sense of suffering to his pale, passionate expression. As Jeanne listened she looked around the room. It was obvious that she was imagining how it must have been for the family who had lived there during the war. Where they ever discovered? What about the non-Jew who took the risk of creating the Jew Hole in his own home? What had it been like for the family living in fearful silence, coming out for short spells to wash and eat and stretch their legs before retreating, not daring to speak in case it alerted the neighbours?

Emil’s music seemed to heighten the emotion awakened in Jeanne’s heart. They looked at each other through the music and the atmosphere of past suffering and I felt like an intruder. They had tears in their eyes and neither could break the stare. I turned and left. This was surely sacred space as Emil had described it, and there was no place for me.

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