New York Review of Books
March 12, 2020
Our friend Huguette Martel is an artist and French teacher. When she was younger, she drew cartoons for The New Yorker, and also gave language lessons to staff there. Not long ago, she moved into the same building in Manhattan where my wife and I live, and, seeing her more frequently than before, I learned more of her history—not something that she, a compulsively modest person, naturally presses upon one.
So it was that I heard the miraculous saga of how she, a child of French-Jewish refugees, had survived the Holocaust; and the Daily subsequently published her pictorial memoir, “Growing Up in Wartime France,” which relates the main elements of her story. But the tale turned out to have quite the dénouement, for that version—the only one she’d known for the first eight decades of her life—was significantly incomplete. The full history was even more remarkable.
Huguette was born in Paris in 1938, the second child of Mendel Fajwelewicz and his wife, Ryvka, immigrants from Lithuania. She also had a brother, Maurice, who was five years older, and together the family lived in the Marais district of central Paris, where Mendel was a wholesaler of workmen’s clothing. After the Germans invaded in 1940, the family fled to the countryside. They never made it to the “free zone” of Vichy France, but instead found shelter in a rural area under occupation called Sarthe, named for a tributary of the Loire. They settled in Vibraye, a village about a hundred miles southwest of Paris, not far from the city of Le Mans, famous for its motor-racing circuit.
Huguette was a two-year-old at the time, so the precise circumstances have always been murky to her, but somehow she and Maurice were placed with a peasant family, while their parents found similar refuge nearby. Her father paid the family for the children’s upkeep, but at a certain point he was running out of money. So, in July 1942, the Fajwelewiczes undertook the risky journey back to Paris, taking Huguette with them, so that Mendel could turn some of his stored drapery stock into cash.
It was a fateful venture—and very nearly fatal. They arrived back at their old apartment only hours before French police began the roundup of Parisian Jews that became notorious as the Rafle du Vel’ d’hiv, when more than 13,000 people, including some 4,000 children, were confined in a Paris velodrome before being transported to internment camps in Drancy, Compiègne, Pithiviers, and Beaune-la-Rolande, and thence to Auschwitz. The Fajwelewicz family escaped only because the concierge of their building, one Madame Mignon, tipped them off and helped them hide in the basement for two days and nights, until the coast was clear to flee again to the country.
Back in the village of Vibraye, the family succeeded in evading detection for another two years, until their part of western France was liberated by the Allies sometime in August 1944. Huguette recalls dancing in a field with Maurice, chanting “Nous sommes juifs! Nous sommes juifs!” (We’re Jews! We’re Jews!)—scarcely knowing what it meant, having lived most of the last four years in disguise in a Catholic household, but knowing that it was at last safe to say those words.
Read the complete article: New York Review of Books
Matt Seaton is a writer who lives at Westbeth.