Our last day was the most moving and most rewarding for many of us. Once again we were on the tour bus at eight o’clock. The sky was a dark gray, and every vehicle on the road had its lights on. It looked as though the sun was not yet up. We stopped at several hotels to pick up fellow passengers. The fine drizzle turned into heavier rain. We passed a trolley bus and crossed the River Vienne. At 9:20 we were out of the city. The bus began to climb.
Our guide for the day was Professor Kiener, who has made a detailed study of the history of the Jews in Limousin and was a prime mover of the five-day Limousin event. The area in which Montintin is located is 500 meters above sea level, 100 meters higher than Geneva, he told us. Our first stop was the railroad station and village of Magnac Bourg, which is on the route between Paris and Toulouse. During the war many of the children arrived at this station and then walked the 12 kilometers to Chateau Montintin. Some of our group remembered the station well. Almost always both the children and the adults had to ask the way to the OSE home. Everyone in the village knew there were Jews there.
During the war Limousin had 30,000 little villages, each a close little community of three to 15 houses. There is a small café next to the Magnac Bourg station as there is at most railroad stations. A majority of railroad workers were members of the Resistance and would meet in these cafes. It was impossible for Vichy or Nazi officials to police these cafes.
Driving through the village of Magnac Bourg, Michel told us that the stone houses had not changed in 60 years, though they have been modernized. The only difference between then and now was that then there were numerous hens wandering in the streets, even on the main national road running through the village.
We stopped in the village of Chateau Chervix to see a café there that was typical of hundreds of village cafes. The house continues to be inhabited and has not changed since the 1940s. The small room off the street looks like a simple rural kitchen. It has just one table that can seat no more than eight and took up most of the room. This was the heart of the café; in the next room was a tiny rustic barbershop.
A slim, attractive 80-year-old called Jacqueline Bayle and another woman climbed into our bus and were introduced as people who lived in tiny villages near Montintin during the war and were involved in the life of Montintin. Jacqueline worked at the Chateau. They remembered children from Montintin who used to come into the village. One of our group remembered them as young girls.
We already knew that we would not be able to go inside Chateau Montintin, and that we could not even go on to the grounds, but could view it only through a high security fence installed by the current owner.
It was now about 11:30 and raining heavily. A further disappointment was in store. Michel said it would not be possible for us to go even to the perimeter of Montintin, as our bus was too wide to go on to the narrow path that led to the Chateau three quarters of a kilometer from the main road. Because it had been raining almost continuously for the past week, the path, which was covered with grass and weeds, was extremely muddy and not walkable. A place along the road from which the Chateau can normally be seen would not yield a view today due to the extremely poor visibility.
We could and did, however, go to La Chevrette, the OSE home for Orthodox children that was up the hill from Montintin. This was where my mother was cook while I was in Montintin. I was very excited to go to La Chevrette. I have a photo of my mother and father standing on a small porch on top of a flight of stone stairs that leads into the house (photo). As soon as I got off the bus and turned to see the house, I recognized the place from the photo and identified the exact spot where the picture was taken. I stared at the spot, oblivious to the pouring rain, and then slowly made my way up the steps to where they had stood more than sixty years ago. Norbert, who had lived at La Chevrette, was standing next to me, and we passed our cameras to Marianne so that she could take a photo of us there (photo). We walked around the outside of the house, which was most recently a private residence but is empty at the moment. Then we headed across the lawn to the end of the property from where we could see one of the turrets of Montintin.
To understand my excitement, I have to say again that I don’t remember being in Montintin. Many years ago when I left my parents’ Brooklyn home and moved to Philadelphia to attend graduate school, I had trouble understanding why my mother was so desperately eager to visit me. “I have to see where you live,” she insisted. After she came, she said, “Now that I have seen your apartment, when I think of you I can see you.” At La Chevrette I understood what she meant. I had no memory of Montintin or La Chevrette. Now seeing and being at La Chevrette, having already walked through wartime Jewish Limoges and visited Le Couret, I could at last picture my parents during those years when we were apart. What they had lived through became truly real for me. It was an overwhelming and deeply moving experience. In another village seemingly untouched by time, we had lunch in a relatively large café in a room with old stone walls, where a long table for more than 30 had been set for us. Outstanding features of the wonderful lunch menu were the white asparagus in a delicate sauce, chestnuts which Norbert said they used to collect in the woods in great quantities, and a marvellous plum cake, much like one of my mother’s specialties.
We drove out of the mountains in the rain to Saint Leonard de Noblat, a village of 3,000 people in the early 1940s, which took in and protected 1,000 Jews. We were invited to the lycee, where 31 Jewish girls were hidden in 1943 – 44. There we broke up into groups of three and four to speak to the high school seniors about our experiences. Peggy Frankston, the Paris representative of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., who is bilingual, gave a word-for-word translation to the students. Their reaction was much like that of high school students I talk to in and around London about my experiences. They were extremely attentive, perhaps surprised at what they heard, and at a loss to ask questions. In one of the other classes students wanted to know what happened to the speakers after the war, also the most common question I get in London schools. The students seem to be looking for proof that it all turned out all right. It did for just some of us.
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