Allied troops landed on the French Mediterranean coast of France near Cannes on August 15  and began to fight their way north. Throughout the Occupied Zone, French Resistance fighters reclaimed towns and villages.
Even before Allied Forces marched into Paris, Limoges was liberated. The conviction that one day I would be reunited with my three daughters had sustained me during my worst times in France. Now I wanted my children back.
I had assumed Sal and I had only to make the request, and Lea would be returned to us within a day or two. Or if she were not brought to us, we would be told where to go to pick up our daughter. It was not so simple.
Working the night shift on the railroad freed Sal during the day, and he spent all his time trying to locate our daughter. Following a lead from the rabbi, Sal visited a member of the Resistance Movement in the city. The man referred him to someone else. Day after day, he was passed from one man to another, always with the frustrating words, "It takes time; you must be patient."
I passed the days waiting anxiously. Why was it so difficult? How many convents were there in Haute Vienne? What was wrong? It went that way for more than a month. And then, thank G'd, they found her. A letter came instructing Sal to be at the Limoges railroad station in two days to meet Lea.
I waited at the farm. Long before they were due, I was standing on the veranda. I looked past the approach to the estate toward the avenue. The road that had been blocked with trees felled by the Maquis was cleared now. The remaining trees, so tall and full, hid the destruction. The avenue looked as majestic as ever.
I spotted Lea and Sal, two small figures in the distance. I moved down the steps and quickened my pace as they came nearer. The child broke away, and we ran toward each other. Then I was holding my daughter in my arms, hugging, kissing and stroking her, unable to form any words but murmuring joyful sounds, Lea happily squealing, "Mama, Mama."
Sal caught up with us, and we walked to the house, Lea between us, holding each of us by the hand. "Is that your house?" she asked. "It's very big."
"It is not mine, but you will stay here with me," I said. "This is where I work."
"It looks like a nice house," she said.
I noticed Lea was limping. "What happened to your leg, sweetheart?" I asked.
"It's not my leg. It's my foot," Lea answered.
In the big kitchen, while Lea drank fresh milk, the story came out. "There was a nail in my shoe that dug into my heel," Lea said. "Only I thought it was a stone, or maybe my sock wasn't straight. But my foot kept hurting even after I pulled up my sock." She licked the butter off a second slice of bread. "After a few days my heel was swollen, and I showed it to the nun. She found the nail and pulled it out. She said my foot was infected." She looked up at me and asked, "Can you fix it, Mama?"
"We'll make it better," I said. I got up and kissed Lea lightly on the top of her head. She was seven and a half years old. My darling looked exactly the same as when Underground workers spirited her away in the ambulance more than two years before, her face round, her skin pale, the dimple still erupting on her chin when she smiled.
Her face, her arms and her legs were streaked with dirt. "I'm going to give you a bath, I said. We have a big wooden tub. Papa will bring it outside and fill it with water. Then you can soak and splash as long as you like.
Warmed by the afternoon sun, Lea stood on the grass, ready to climb into the round tub. It was then I discovered that the child's entire body was utterly filthy. I started to wash Lea's short-cropped hair and made another discovery. The child's head was infected with lice. I would get rid of them. How good it was to be able to take care of her.
I begged precious cans of petrol from Monsieur Meyer, the farm owner who was my employer, and for the next two weeks, I washed Lea's hair with it every day. I took Lea to the village doctor, who lanced the wound on her foot.
Over the next few weeks, as the wound slowly healed, Lea spoke sometimes f the two years she had been away. "The nuns shaved my head," she said, while I used the fine comb on her hair. "I don't know why."
Another day, while I darned Sal's socks, Lea said, "The nun taught us how to sew. She said, 'When you hem, pretend you're out walking with one foot on the pavement, the other in the gutter. Stitch up and down, girls, up and down, up and down."
I took a needle from my sewing box and said, "How nice. Show me," but Lea had become engrossed in her drawing. She would talk about something that happened only once, saying a few words, then become lost in thought, oblivious to her surroundings. It seemed as if by telling me what had happened, she was giving her memories away to me.
One rainy afternoon, when I thought Lea was totally engrossed matching dominoes, she suddenly looked up and said, "Liselotte was bigger than me and older, but in the convent she was my friend."
"Liselotte from Le Couret?" I asked.
Lea nodded. "She showed me how to pray. She showed me how to cross myself. She told me to watch her until I memorized when to kneel down during the mass."
I stared at my daughter in shocked silence.
"Liselotte said it's easy. I should just do what the others do. Kneel, pray and cross myself. But I had to remember it was just a game. We were only pretending because we are Jewish. She said we mustn't forget."
I said, "She was a good friend."
Lea rubbed the white dots on the dominoes. "Liselotte explained about my name. She said it was another part of the secret that the nuns didn't pronounce the 'r' at the end of my name. They called me Canne, not Kanner, to make me sound French. Liselotte said I had to get used to it and learn to write my name with a 'C' instead of a 'K'. She said then no one will know who I am except her, and nobody will guess we are Jewish."
Another day, while Lea was playing with a dog that lived on the farm, she said, "This is a nice farm, Mama. Before I was at another farm."
"I didn't know that," I said.
"The nuns sent me," Lea said. "They told me the people would be very nice, but I didn't like them, and I didn't like it there because the soldiers came all the time. Once the soldiers threw a man into the well."
Aghast, I reached for my daughter's hand. Lea's eyes were filled with tears, but she went on. "When the farmer saw soldiers coming, he pushed me out of the house and told me to hide in the fields. I hid behind a tree near a cave and watched the soldiers. They had guns, and once they pushed a lot of people into the cave. Then they blocked the entrance, so the people couldn't get out. The cave was very dark, and the people didn't have any food. None of them ever came out. Those people died inside the cave."
I put my arms around Lea and held her, thinking of her cowering behind a tree, alone. All this time I had worried only about my daughter's physical safety. It had never occurred to me that a little child would be witness to such inhuman, ruthless brutality.
As the winter of 1944-45 waned, the monstrous experiences of the two years Lea was hidden in the convent and on the farm faded from her memory. She liked books and games and got along well with children in her class. She seemed to be a happy, normal child, except that she could recall nothing of her life in France before the time she came back to me.
For more about Lea, see Lea's Journey.
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