Of Chilblains and Rotten Rutabagas

A chapter from a novel-in-progress set mainly during World War II, by the author of Small Changes, Braided Lives and Vida.

A chapter from a new novel set mainly during World War II. The chapter consists of excerpts from the diary of Jacqueline Levy-Monot, a young woman of 19 in her last year of lycee (high school), living in Paris with her mother and sister Renee/Rifka. Her other sister, Nadine/Naomi, was transported, by a series of lucky chances, to the U.S., where she is living with relatives. Her father is across the line in Vichy France, active in the burgeoning Jewish resistance. Jacqueline undergoes a marked development in the novel in her own growth as a person and in her sense of herself as a woman and a Jew.

August 22, 1941
This will be a brief entry, as I have had no sleep for the last two nights. We all went into the country near Bievres with Papa’s old copain Georges to buy up what food we could at two farms where Georges has formed a relationship. It was hot and Maman was off work, so we decided to make almost a vacation of it. The train was extremely crowded with others doing exactly the same thing, everybody carrying a minimum of clothes and a maximum of bags and knapsacks empty which we all planned to try to buy food to fill.

These days nobody but the Germans and those who cater to them and flatter them and serve them, are the least bit elegant. In winter we all wander around in as many layers of sweaters and shawl and cardigans and socks as we can cram on, because we lack fuel. All times of the year we go about Paris carrying empty bags or full ones, prepared for hours in line for a handful of old beans or a jar of jam. Nobody drives anybody except the Germans. Bicycles are the life line and if your tire goes, you must mend it to survive. So we stood in the mobbed train eyeing each other and wondering what edibles each of us was off to scavenge and what we were trading for them. We had a couple pieces of soap and a piece of somewhat ratty but still quite warm beaver that any clever housewife could make into a muff or use to trim a coat, a little of the worthless money that the Germans devalued and a pair of good wool pants of Papa’s, which we feel bad about trading but we are afraid the moths will eat them eventually.

When we came back, we came back to utter confusion. While we were gone, the Nazis closed off the entire eleventh arrondissement and shut down the metro stations and moved in. They arrested Jews on the streets, in cafes and restaurants, waiting in line—which is all we do from one day to the next— and even in their homes. The Balabans are gone without a trace.

For two days I have been running around Paris for Maman, who has been crying and crying, trying to find out what happened to them. Finally today I learned they are in some sort of camp at Drancy, out near the Le Bourget airport. Maman is greatly relieved to find out where they are. Soon we must find out how we can see them and what they need. Their apartment is a shambles, everything thrown on the floor and ripped open. The people in the building say the police who took them away did it. If they were looking for the legendary riches those sort always seem to think Jews have, they were looking in vain, because the Balabans owned hardly more than the clothes on their backs and some rickety second-hand furniture.

August 25, 1941
Things get uglier. Just a little over a week ago there was fighting between demonstrators and police—both the gendarmes and the German police—at porte Saint-Denis and porte Saint-Martin, and they busted a lot of people even though it was not different from a hundred other demonstrations everybody who has lived in Paris through the last ten years has seen and comes to take for granted! Anyhow,the Germans went ahead and executed two of the people they had arrested and one of them they are making a great fuss about because he is Jewish and they list him in big letters on all the posters as The Jew Samuel Tyzelman.

Henri says it is just the Nazi madness and people will begin to laugh at them and mass disobedience will result, but I find his attitude too optimistic for me these days. He brought me a beautiful present today—five kilos of potatoes and a little piece of mutton. Maman was in ecstasy although of course her second question was, Are you sleeping with him? If I were, Maman, perhaps he would have given me a bigger piece of mutton! I said. She made as if to slap me, but then she did not, because in truth she was too happy about the mutton and the potatoes too.

Henri has relatives who have a farm 35 kilometers north and he bicycled out there on Saturday and back on Sunday loaded down with parcels. We had such a feast tonight and Maman is going to stretch it over the next two nights. It is so long since we have had anything except cattle fodder and herbal extractions and a few rotten vegetables cooked for soup, beans beans beans beans beans and an occasional thin slice of cheese washed down with ersatz coffee and tzisanes. Every so often one egg apiece.

Last month we had used up our bread allowance by the twelfth and even trying so hard this month, we ran out by the seventeenth. We would run out sooner but we all scrounge whatever we can, and my copains, the gang at the Cafe Le Jazz Hot, treat me almost every day. Most of them have decent black market connections. Of course it is much easier if you aren’t a Jew, but I can’t complain, because they share with me.

I am writing this tonight on a full belly, and it is amazing how strong and alert I feel. Right after we ate I almost dozed off. We sat around the salle a manger, Maman, Renee and I, and beamed at each other. We felt peaceful as cows in a field, and yet I could not be entirely ashamed that my bliss was built on having for once a well filled stomach, because I have learned how difficult it is to concentrate on an empty one.

It is also cheering to know we shall not be hungry tomorrow or the next day. I feel I can face the problems of our lives less on my nerves and more with a solider strength. I did not know if I enjoyed the lamb more or the potatoes. Even the rutabagas we loathe so much and eat every day tasted almost like food in the stew. Last week Celeste sold me a bag of carrots that must have weighed at least two kilos. Maman still had two of them left for our grand stew.

Most of our lives are spent standing in lines. We divide up the labor. Maman still has her job at the furriers, even though the firm has been taken away from M. Cariot. They are seizing all the Jewish businesses. But the man who has taken it over did not fire the Jews, as expected, because he says how is he supposed to run a skilled business with no skilled workers? Maman says we are very lucky. Renee and I try to do most of the standing in line. We take turns, but I do it better because I am bigger, while Renee gets pushed out of the way.

Anyhow the Germans have announced that everybody arrested no matter for what—and at least over half the people arrested are merely people who get caught out after curfew—are going to be treated as hostages. You get involved and miss the last metro, and then you are out of luck if a friend is not kind enough to let you stay over, as Celeste has let me stay several times, and Henri and Jules like gentlemen once, although of course I did not tell Maman where I was and she was absolutely furious. She hits the ceiling when I stay out. I don’t do it intentionally, but occasionally everybody misses that last metro. Anyhow that means that if you get caught at anything at all, some minor infraction, then they may take you out and shoot you some morning because some hothead has taken a potshot at a German officer. I do not understand what the Germans expect to accomplish by this brutality. Do they think when some poor dishwasher in a restaurant who misses her train is shot for an action one of the new resistance groups takes, that the Gaullist groups or the Communists are going to fold up and wither away?

I almost forgot, somebody else has moved into the Balabans already. They have thrown the Balabans’ pitiful things out into the street for the neighbors to pick through, but held on to their kitchen table and chairs. When the Balabans come back, I don’t know what they will do. I only hope Maman is not carried away by fellow feeling into taking them in. Without Papa’s income we have let go of my room on the top floor. Renee and Maman share her double bed and I sleep on the folding bed in the salle a manger.

September 8, 1941
I was coming from the Opera where I had been reading all the posters when I had to pass along the Boulevard des Italiens and I simply wasn’t thinking about anything in particular beyond the character of Berenice in Racine’s great tragedy, with whom in some ways I can easily identify myself, and about which I am trying to write an essay, when I saw a great crowd of people ahead. They were lined up to enter the Palais Berlitz.

“Oh, what’s that? Is there an exhibition?” I asked a middle-aged woman. I am always careful to ask information on the street from women, since I would not want to give an opening to some man who might imagine I am trying to pick him up, as Marie Charlotte used to warn. I still remember that idiot boy who followed us all the way to Marie Charlotte’s flat just because we answered his question and told him which way the Gare du Nord was. Now I understand he perfectly well knew, but he was simply trying to start conversation with us. Henri says I am definitely naive about men, but the truth is I have other worries and do not need more.

“It’s a big exhibition, everyone’s going,” she said, nodding at me. “It’s The Jew and France. You ought to go too. You aren’t too young to face facts.”

I thought at first she meant that as a Jew I should understand anti-Semitism, but then she went on, “You have to keep yourself pure, a young girl such as yourself, but you must understand contamination too. It’s a matter of educating one’s self for the New France.”

I am ashamed that I was so embarrassed for her, to be so stupid and rude, that I could not say one word. I’m afraid my manners simply automatically caused me to thank her and hasten away. She was a well-dressed lady of middle age, wearing a navy suit with the new shoulder pads they are showing and a crisp white blouse with a bow tie, an oversized hat with an entire little dead bird on it.

I wish I had struck her, but that would be absurd, and actually an evil reaction to return verbal violence with physical violence. Perhaps I did the best thing. But then I took no stand. What should I have done? If I were truly a noble soul such as Berenice in Racine’s play, the words would have come to me and I would have said something clear and ringing that would have touched her and shown her how foolish she was to speak that way of an entire people.

As it was I felt utterly discombobulated and simply proceeded along the broad sidewalk toward the crowd ahead. Right on the front of the Palais Berlitz between the pillars was this enormous four-story-high poster of an old man with a beard and long nose supposed to be a Jew and digging claws into a globe, where France was drawn in. It was ghastly. I became very hot and I did not know where to look. I was afraid I would burst into tears right on the street. As I saw all these ordinary people, my countrymen whom yesterday I might have stood beside in the Metro or sat beside in the cinema or said hello to at the newsvender’s kiosk all waiting to cram into this Nazi display put on by a French organization L’Institut d’Etude des Questions Juives, I felt like a cockroach they were trying to crush under their well-shod feet.

On one hand I wanted to climb a soap box and shriek at them, how dare you imagine that the ugly picture you’ve drawn has anything in common with me? It’s your own disgusting imagination you revel in, resembling those filthy drawings the boys used to make and then try to make us look at them. Tell us what that is, tell us what that is. Your own ugly mind, I told Paul: one time I did think up the right thing to say.

I think one of my worst flaws is that while my mind seems to work more quickly than other people’s, often I see too many sides to a question, causing me to be weaker in my response than would be a case if I saw things more simply. I should strive to be simpler. Sometimes I think simplicity is virtue, and when I say that, or rather write it, I think of Maman, who always seems to go straight to the heart of the matter.

When I came home, I thought whether I should say anything about what I had seen, and then I looked at Maman, so careworn and exhausted from working all day at the furriers and then rushing about trying to find something to make into soup for supper, and poor little Renee, who is so subdued and quiet these days I worry about her. And I thought, when Papa comes home at last, I’ll talk to him about it, but in the meantime, as he said to me, I must take care of Maman and Renee, because in some ways I really am cooler headed.

October 3, 1941
Last night six of the synagogues of Paris were blown up! I cannot believe it. But it is true. I went with Renee this morning and we looked at our own where we go on High Holidays. Nothing remains but a shell with glass and mortar and pieces of cloth and blowing papers. All around Jews of the neighborhood were milling and picking through the rubble trying to save something. It made me so indignant I burn with helplessness. What a vile idiotic act. Blowing up a building of worship. What kind of fools think this is a proper political act?

All the newspapers are screaming that this was a spontaneous act of the French people who want us, the so-called foreign element, thrust out. Who are rejecting us as they reject a disease or a poison. I must say, it is great to have become a microbe. I walk around Paris these days and it is just as if some lout is striking me in the face every twenty paces, when I see one of those newspapers going on about how great the recent round-up is, and how France is being cleansed and purified, or when I see some truly crude and disgusting caricature supposed to represent me or Papa or Maman, or when I try to find out what is happening in the world, and in place of the newspapers that for all their partisanship at least carried the world’s news, we have nothing but these rags that shriek hatred and call for death for all of us.

Sometimes I cannot believe it still, that all these Frenchmen run about sucking up to the Germans and flattering them and parroting their ideas. I have silly fantasies of rushing into the offices of one or another of these rags or the magazines that pretend to literary or philosophical merit. Les Nouveaux TempLa Gerbe, Aujourd’hui, Nouvelle Revue Francaise, they all hew to the occupiers’ line and none of them defends us. They are only politer forms of L’Appel and Au Pilori which shriek their diarrhea of abuse at us daily and call openly for our death. I feel as if I live in a rabid city, where every other man froths and foams in violent insanity.

November 29, 1941
What a sad subdued birthday the 24th was. We had a recent message from Papa. Some callow youth in boy scout uniform appeared with it. A most unlikely carrier of clandestine messages, I would think, but he made a point of telling me he is in the E.I.F, which stands for the Eclaireures Israelites de France, the Jewish boy scouts. He shrugged off our thanks and said he goes back and forth across the border freely, saying it is not difficult for him, because he has his ways.

He also brought a bottle of cassis to us as a present from Papa, which is certainly welcome because Maman and I particularly miss the warmth of a little wine with supper, and it has been months since we have tasted anything alcoholic at all. We trade our tiny wine ration to Mme. Kahn for a little butter and some skim milk for Rifka. Cassis, Maman says, is particularly welcome because our stomachs are so often upset from eating rotten food or bread that has strange additives in it—we suspect everything from ground up bones to plaster dust from demolition. Cassis we will measure out a tablespoon at a time after supper to warm us a little and soothe our poor suffering stomachs.

Papa is in Toulon, the boy told us. He seems to admire Papa very much. He said Papa cannot get back. He almost got caught once and had to leave Menton where he was operating for a while. He said Papa is a very brave man and we should be proud of him and he was working on securing papers for us, which he himself hopes to deliver on his next trip, but that what Papa needed now were some recent photographs for counterfeit identity papers.

At that point the three of us went into the bedroom, shut the door and examined Papa’s note carefully to make sure it was really from him, and this was not some Fascist youth in disguise, trying to entrap us. But the handwriting was obviously Papa’s. The note was short and said only that he loved us, missed us powerfully and that we should give the young man what he needed, because he would carry it back to Papa on his next rounds, as Papa put it.

The trouble was that we had not had pictures taken of ourselves for several years, and we hardly dare pry the photos off our present identification, much as we hate it, for the sake of providing relatively recent photographs. We told the young man we could try to get pictures taken the coming week. We scarcely have any money. He said we should see what we could do, and he would look into it too, but that he couldn’t wait, as he had something to do farther north. He would drop in on us on the way south, he said, and if we had the photos he would carry them away with him, and if we didn’t, if he could, he would arrange for them to be taken right away.

Needless to say I do not intend to say a word to anyone outside the family, and I cautioned Maman, who is always sensible, and Rifka, who is not, to keep their mouths tightly shut on this visit.

Then a present arrived from Naomi in Detroit in the United States. I was astonished that the little mischief-maker had remembered my birthday, but then I imagined that probably one of the adults had arranged for the package for her. It had been mailed two months ago, but everything in it was intact and we were delighted. She sent us a big kosher sausage, so I guess they make them in the United States too, a kilo of sugar, a jar of strawberry, a jar of apricot and a jar of raspberry jam. Anything sweet is a big hit with us. She also put in two bars of Camay soap and a jar of liver pate.

Naomi writes regularly, but her French grammar is dreadful and growing worse. She is becoming a barbarian. I do not know if Papa did the right thing sending her off that way, by herself, although of course we get letters from Rose Siegal in Yiddish, a language I cannot read, although Maman translates for us. She assures us that Naomi is well and improving her English (while depraving her own language, I comment) and growing rapidly. So is Rifka, but she is too thin. If only we could get a little more food for her. At school they give the children vitamin cookies. Some of the children trade theirs, but I have ordered Rifka to eat hers every day. Every time a letter comes from Naomi or from Aunt Rose, Maman cries all night and Rifka gets even more melancholy. She used to be a lively child—a devil. Now she seems half lost.

It was thoughtful of Naomi or Rose Siegal or both to send us these gifts. Winter is setting in early and we are freezing already. We have no heat and Maman is developing chilblains. We go to bed with a hot water bottle, but it stays warm only for an hour. We go about the house wrapped up like packs of old clothes and wearing gloves except when we must take them off to wash a dish.

The soap is a particular treat, because we will institute a regular system of bathing again, at least once a week. We have had no soap since October as we have been trading it for food. Rifka must eat and so must Maman. I fare the best because I am petted by my friends who are half of them at least into the black market and they are always giving me tidbits and even meals. I try to slip a roll or a bite of chicken into my pocket for Rifka and Maman whenever I can, because once Celeste caught me stuffing a half a Croque-Monsieur into my pocket and said, well if you aren’t hungry, I’ll eat it, and did.

Yes, I eat ham outside the house. I would eat a toad if someone served it to me. I would have given it to Rifka and simply told her it was corned beef. I felt miserable because I was hungry and I wanted dreadfully to eat it, but I had wanted even more to give a little to Rifka, who is so skinny and almost blue. Maman thinks she might be anemic, but what can we do about it? Henri has not been treating me to lunch this week. He has decided I have a virginity fetish, he says, and I must overcome such bourgeoise hangups.

Fine, I said, I’ll go out on the Boulevard and stop the first pedicab and offer myself.

A stranger might have a disease, he said. I’m only thinking of you.

I know how you are thinking of me, and dream on, I said. Dream on. I act very cool as is the way to act with all of them, but it makes me feel very strange to sit at the table with him and have him constantly as if casually touching my knee, my elbow, my shoulder. If we did not wear so many layers of clothing, he would be able to see that sometimes I get goosebumps. But luckily for me, we are both wound up in our clothes like mummies in a museum and even when he tried to kiss me, he got no nearer than six inches because of all our padding. Still I dream of his light brown eyes like wet sand fixed on me, wanting.

December 12, 1941
So now Germany is at war with the United States too. Henri says they will have finally bitten off more than they can easily digest, but they seem to have digested us easily enough. I have little concrete hope except that by the time I am an old lady, I may live in a saner world. But no more packages from Naomi and no more letters either. We are cut off from our sister as if she were on the moon!

Yesterday something simply unimaginable occurred. The Nazis rounded up one thousand French Jews, including all the lawyers who practice at the Paris bar, yes every one of them. They took doctors, lawyers, writers and intellectuals and simply arrested them. Nobody seems to know where they have been taken, except that this time, it is not Drancy, where the poor Balabans are still imprisoned. We have brought them little parcels. We rescued some of their clothing from the street. The place stinks from a block away. It is an unfinished housing project now surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers. You would imagine the poor Balabans to be some sort of dangerous murderers, terrorists, rapists, instead of a simple family of factory workers.

Where they have taken the terribly dangerous writers, lawyers and doctors is anyone’s guess. We speculate and fear, we pass on rumors and wait for the boy scout to return, but he has not. The excuse for this round-up—for some reason they like to have excuses, no matter how off-the-wall—is that this is punishment because somebody took a pot shot at a German air force officer. That is all.

Everyone at Cafe Le Jazz Hot makes jokes about how I am the last virgin in Paris. Celeste announced today they are going to have me stuffed and stuck in a case in a museum, Le Musee des Hommes. I said that was fine with me if I could be stuffed with roast chicken and veal chops and steaks. Henri said how about his salami. Sometimes what they say makes me blush inside but I remain very cool. I said, no thank you, your salami isn’t kosher.

Then afterward when Henri was walking me to the Metro, he asked me if that was why I wouldn’t sleep with him, because he isn’t Jewish. He wanted to have a very serious discussion on the sidewalk about what I said as a joke to shut them all up. I ended up having to kiss him in a doorway. Then he tried again to put his hand up under my sweater. I said, Don’t you try to do things by degrees, Henri. You won’t move me along that way. When I decide, I will do the whole thing, but until then, don’t paw at me, I think it’s vulgar. He got mad and went off, but I know the problem isn’t going to go away.

Marge Piercy is an author whose most recent novel, Fly Away Home, was published by Summit in 1984. Her next book of poems, My Mother’s Body, will come out from Knopf in March, 1985. © Marge Piercy 1984.