[Haute Vienne France, 1942]
On a warm July afternoon my husband Sal and I found time for a brief walk along the lake near Le Couret, the OSE childrens home deep in the Haute Vienne countryside where we both now worked. When we came back, Madame Krakowskie, the directress was waiting in the doorway. She took my arm and pulled me inside,
"Two village policeman came searching for you, while you were out," she said.
I wanted to ask what happened but was unable to make a sound. I felt myself swaying. Sal guided me to a bench in the vestibule.
"They said they were looking for Salomon and Amalia Kanner and their three daughters.," she said. "I said you werent here and told them they were free to look through the house if that was their duty. But they said, if they are not here, we cannot bring them in, and they went away. I prayed you would stay clear of the village road and come back through the path from the woods."
"Do you think they will return?" Sal asked. "What do you advise us to do, Madame?"
"I already sent a message to the Underground," she said. "We should hear soon."
In the kitchen that evening, Sal heated water, and I scrubbed pots. Madame Krakowskie had told me the children would clean up everything that night, but I had refused. I wanted to keep busy so that I would not panic. But it was impossible not to think of the danger that faced us.
"I thought wed be safe, isolated in the country," I said to Sal. "What if we had been here?"
"The Underground will help us, Mia," he said.
"Why are the children on the list? Lea is only five years old."
"That G-d Ruth and Eva at least are in America now."
Madame Krakowskie came into the kitchen. "Our people say the first step is to save the child. They are coming for Lea first thing tomorrow morning."
I was numb with shock. But how could I have known? How could I have known it would come to this when I refused to let Lea go to America? "She is so small," I argued. "Who would want to harm such a little child?"
Night came. I tucked Lea in, but I did not sleep, How could I give up my baby? I raged, I wept. I prayed. I found no help, no answer.
In the morning, an ambulance arrived at Le Couret. "This is the safest way to drive through the village," the driver said. "The police never look inside. People get appendicitis even during war."
I picked up Lea and kissed her cheeks, her forehead, her hair. "I love you, little one. I love you."
Sal was beside me, urging me to let go of my child. "Come Lea," he said. I released her. "Come Lea," he said again. "We are going to ride in the white truck."
The driver lifted Lea into his vehicle. Sal climbed in after her. It had been agreed he should ride with her to her destination. The ambulance pulled away. Lea was waving to me from the one small window in the back of the ambulance. She was much too small to have reached the window. Sal must have lifted her up so she could look out and I could get one last look at her.
When he came back, it was mid-afternoon, just twenty-four hours since we had returned from what had been a brief, carefree summer walk. "She never stopped crying in the ambulance. I told her she was going on a vacation to a nice place, but she shouted, Not true! Not true! I dont believe you. I cant remember when I have felt so helpless."
"What happened then? Where did you leave her?" I asked.
"The ambulance stopped on a deserted road, and Lea and I were transferred to a car that was waiting there. We rode for an hour. Lea stared out the window and didnt say a word. We came to a large house, very well kept. My guess is that it was in a Limoges suburb. A woman stood by the door. She was tall and had silver hair. I carried Lea up the steps and told her she would have a good time. She shook her head and said, I dont believe you, Papa.'"
There was not much else for him to tell me. The driver of the car made sure Sal had enough money to board a train and directed him to the local railroad station. Afraid he might be recognized at the Le Couret station, Sal got off one stop before and walked on the road the ambulance had taken for two hours.
"Lea will stay in that house just for a few days," Sal said. "They told me it would be safer if I did not know where she was going."
I thought I would go mad. "I have to know where she is."
The Underground is going to hide her," Madame Krakowskie said. "Be reasonable."
"I have to know," I insisted, but she said, "I dont think its possible."
I dont know how I got through the next two days. All I know is that Schlachter came to me with a message from the Underground: If I would risk a trip to Limoges, I could see Lea one more time before she was taken to her permanent hiding place.
Risk? The word was meaningless, irrelevant, nothing to do with me. They were letting me go to her. Schlachter drove me to a train station beyond ours. We sat in the car until we heard the train clattering into the station. He warned me to be careful and handed me a ticket. The Underground had secured it for me so that I would avoid contact with the station master. The less visible I was, the better. The train journey passed quickly. In Limoges, I walked, boarded a bus, walked again, without concern for my safety. I paid attention to nothing. My legs took me automatically to the right roads and made me turn at the correct corner. All my will was focused on arriving at the house where Lea lived. The directions, address and description of the house Sal and Schlachter had given me to memorize must have guided me unconsciously. When I came to a large white villa, I recognized it instantly and thought: This is where Lea is staying.
A maid opened the door before I rang and ushered me into a large foyer. A porcelain vase filled with fresh yellow roses stood on a side table in the hallway. I was taken to a richly furnished living room, and for an instant, I was taken back to my life in Germany before Hitler and before the war. Then I saw my little one sitting on a bench, facing a grand piano.
"Lea," I said.
She jumped up and ran to me. "Oh, Mama," she cried. "Can I go home now?"
"No, my darling, but you are going to a really nice place after this," I said. "It will be like a vacation."
She said nothing. She did not have to. The child had not learned to mask her feelings. The radiant joy in her eyes gave way to reproach, mistrust and betrayal. I should have known better than to try to mollify my five-year-old daughter with platitudes and untruths. She looked at me patiently, until my shame gave way to anguish, and I could pretend no longer.
I took a deep breath and said, "It is too dangerous for you now at Le Couret. You cant go back there anymore. If you do , the Germans will take you away. Papa and I cant let that happen."
The maid entered with a tray of cakes and cocoa. "Chocolate for you, little one," she said. Before Lea had drained the cup, a tall, silver-haired woman entered. "I am sorry, Madame," she said. "It is time."
I embraced Lea for the last time. "You have to be brave and grown up."
Lea nodded. "Ill try, Mama," she said. "But its not a vacation."
"No, its not a vacation. I shall come for you when it is over. Remember that I love you."
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