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Paris, 1955

The letter before me on the marble table-top becomes a crumpled memory. Is this a trick of light?

Or is it really him, sitting in a woollen winter-coat a few stools away? My hand cradles my face as I lean forward to have a better look.

Slightly greying, short cropped hair frames a map of fine lines in a noble face. Deeply immersed in Le Monde, the man draws at his pipe. I am overcome with surging joy. Jean-Claude has defied the odds.

There is no crumbling facade or smashed glass. I don't tremble at the sound of grating, harsh voices in immaculate, charcoal uniforms. There are no painted, blonde girls, hoping for a meal. There are no gaunt shadows trying to make themselves invisible, watching through half-closed eyes for opportunities, veiled in smoke.

The exterior of the Café Rouge is now whitewashed, making the café a welcoming place. Its large, iron-framed windows attract customers who are either people-watching or admiring the latest, gleaming Citroen models, as they head towards the Place de la Concorde. The art deco floor, and cast-iron, fleur-de-lis chairs, are ideal for intimate chats and endless coffee breaks. As the aroma of tobacco envelops me, it conjures up sadness and I find myself back in front of the Renaissance building on the opposite pavement.

It is October 1941. My yellow Star of David is pinned onto my puny chest. Hard fingers shove my thin, ten-year old body forward. My hands clasp the wrist of my whimpering, younger brother Kobe, whom I pull along with me. Around us, we smell unwashed poverty. We observe old and young on the move, thin-lipped, cowering despair, faces being extra vigilant not to attract unnecessary attention.

As I slip Kobe my last bit of bread, my rumbling insides remember its taste. Being five years old, with trusting eyes, he devours the food in short gulps. He has not learned yet to chew with deliberate slowness, to make the taste last longer on the tongue.

They take Maman and Papa away from the platform and cram them into a bursting full wagon without windows. We are to be relocated. The hopeful, the frail, the sick, even a screaming, newborn baby, became their companions. Despite the stench, we want to feel Maman's and Papa's safe arms around us, but there was no more room for us. We were at a loss what to do and shuffled anxiously around their vicinity.

Maman looked stone-faced at the officer when he asked if we were her children or otherwise related.

'I have never seen them before,' she declared, turning away.

When the figure with polished brass buttons hit an old man on the platform, Maman urgently motioned us to leave. I remember her hand in front of her mouth to stifle herself from crying. We didn't argue and ran as fast as we could towards the exit.

We were never to see them again.

The Taubers, close friends of Maman and Papa, wept as we came back alone and made us welcome as best as they could. Their once glamorous apartment, part of an imposing grey structure opposite the Café Rouge, became our home.

It was not unusual for Monsieur Tauber to watch from the window the comings and goings below. We were subdued children and even the Mermelstein brothers, who befriended us, couldn't cheer us up. Outdoors, we learned to avoid the scrunch of marching-boots. We clung together, hiding like hunted rabbits in some hole.

Serving the Fuehrer smoothed the path of many hard-eyed, arrogant young men to indulge in even more inhuman acts. Their bored, amused expressions, accompanying smoking pistols which had served their purpose, was legendary.

My nails have left a deep, angry trail on my face. The peacefulness in this café, the chatter of well-dressed, relaxed people, is a relief. Out of habit, my fingers comb my unruly, dark curls before I risk another glance at Jean-Claude's table. The pleasant scent of tobacco still hovers over the abandoned pipe, but he is nowhere to be seen.

Distraught, I motion to a waiter, only to see his familiar figure appearing from the restroom to settle back into his seat. Is it my imagination, or did he purposely change the position of his chair?

From the corner of my eye I notice his brief glance in my direction, but nothing in his face reveals recognition. Disappointed, I sip at my second cup of café au lait. I am not sure how to approach him and disclose who I am.

The incredible words on this mangled sheet of white paper melt into one. Blowing my nose with a quick look at the time, I realize that I have waited more than an hour. If need be, I will wait a lifetime.

What a strange coincidence that Jean-Claude has come to the same place as I, today. I chose to be here for the anonymity, the bustle of a city freed from its shackles. Has Jean-Claude got an inkling as to why I am here?

Coffee was a luxury back then. The Taubers drank it with a contented sigh if they could obtain some on the black market. We were compensated with all the milk-powder they could root out.

They managed to coax grateful smiles from us if there was a bit of butter, eggs or vegetables on the table. Chicken went a long way. Soup was made from the carcass, gribelach and fat from the skin, to remind us days later of the rare treat of a chicken. We knew they queued for us for hours. There was nothing this childless couple wouldn't do for us. Kobe and I grew to love them, but his tearful plea every night left a feeling inside me like a clenched fist.

'Please God watch over Maman and Papa, tell them that we miss them and are waiting for them at the Taubers.'

Hitler's men started to loot Jewish flats.

'Raus,' they roared at incredulous, white-faced citizens. Some managed to grab a case and made it to street-level.

We hid under the floorboards when they entered the flat, pushed Mrs Tauber onto the floor.

'Please, don't harm her,' Mr Tauber croaked.

Staccato shots silenced further begging.

I held my trembling brother who had wet himself.

We became involuntary witnesses of strange male grunts, mixed with the muffled sobs and screams of the woman who had been like a mother to us. More released bullets echoed in the flat.

Then it was eerily quiet. We crept out from our bolt-hole and stared. There was blood everywhere. I didn't want Kobe to see their glassy stares or their twisted bodies. Grabbing his hand, I dragged him to the street. The horror on our faces was mirrored in the figures with bowed heads.

'Well, well, look what we've found,' a cutting voice rasped.

Hate is suffocating, my body is saturated with sweat under my coat. Even the brightness of the café can't console me. I am ten years old again and nothing will keep me from reaching the table of the man who saved our lives.

'Hilde, Peter, I can't believe you got lost again.'

A frowning, young man pulled us in a protective, firm gesture towards him.

'Give me that Star of David, girl, I told you not to play with the other children.'

'Papiere,' the officer barked at our corn-haired angel.

With an irritated expression, our protector produced our documents.

'Apologies, Sir.' The officer bared his rotten teeth.

'I should have noticed they are Aryan children.'

He clicked his boots in an exaggerated salute. 'Heil Hitler.'

We clung to our saviour with savagery. It was a miracle that despite what we endured, we didn't discard our belief in goodness. Without further interception we reached the outskirts of Paris.

Despite his youthful appearance, Jean-Claude handled his work in the Resistance with maturity. He brought us to a disused, derelict-looking building where we were met by orphans like us. Scarce food-supplies were on the daily menu. Lice became our regular companions. Yet our inconveniences were blotted out by wishful dreams, future lives, freedom. We children never broached the subject of what had become of our families.

Time with Jean-Claude injected some normality into our life. When he could, he joined us in imaginary games, attempting to dispel our fears. Kobe and I worshipped him. Sometimes Jean- Claude came back, grim-faced and alone. We had become wise to ask no questions and were content to sit next to him, sharing his silence, while his eyes turned the depth of a raging ocean.

'You'll be safe here, till we get you over the border into Switzerland,' he said, patting our heads.

We remained underground. Eventually visas were found for us.

'Are you sister and brother?' a uniformed, officer barked, while we leaned out of the window

from the eastbound train.

'Of course,' I replied, raising my fingertips in a furtive, good-bye gesture to Jean-Claude, whose head was barely visible amongst last minute travelers.

Without warning, the officer trapped my pigtails in a vicious grip.

Seeing my pain-contorted grimace, my sweet, docile Kobe could hardly contain his inner turbulence.

'Who are you visiting? Rapunzel?'

'None of your business,' my little brother spat at him.

To my horror the officer pulled Kobe off the train.

'Perhaps you will remember later,' the brute suggested smugly.

'Channa, Channa, help,' Kobe called, struggling in the merciless arms which had lifted him out of the window.

The train spluttered like a charcoal, smoke-filled dragon, and gradually rattled out of the station.

I had failed my brother.

Words were not necessary as I ran into Jean-Claude's safe embrace. He remembered a cautious, withdrawn child and couldn't believe what a handsome young woman I had become. Jean-Claude moved my chair over to his table.

A lot of gaps in time needed to be filled in.

Energetic footsteps halted before us. A tall youth with wavy chestnut hair and trusting eyes bent down to me.

'It wasn't your fault, Channa,' Kobe whispered, as he kissed my wet cheeks. 

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Tuesday, 29 November 2022

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