Now I’m talking

Renée Fenby

reader Juliet Dante

1953. Paris. I am fifteen. It’s a pity that Hitler did not find you. The man in the taxi queue yells at us as he pushes us aside.

1942. Paris. I am a noisy four-year-old. Renée. Paris is full of Germans. My mother is Fajgla, which means little bird in Yiddish. In France, she becomes Fanny.

Father, was called Alter but his French name is Albert. He is a French prisoner of war in a stalag. Mother and brother Louis must wear the yellow star. 

Bang! Rifle butts are smashing against the door. Open up! The gendarmes are outside. Inside my mother presses her fingers against her lips. I see terror in her eyes. I must keep my mouth shut. I stuff my fists between my milk teeth. The gendarmes scream Where are the Jews on the second floor?

They left. says the neighbour downstairs.

No. Their shutters are open.

The neighbour’s voice shrugs.

They left in a hurry.

In another part of Paris they are dragging away my aunt and her little boy. First the Vel d’Hiv and then Auschwitz. Gas. Murder.

Father escapes from prison. Mother hides in a coal wagon travelling south. For weeks there are traces of black around her eyes. Mascara, she laughs.

Louis and I are given to the passeurs. They pass us children into the Free Zone. Some keep the money and then sell the children to the Nazis. We are not sold.

September 1943, we are hiding in La Tronche, a hamlet near Grenoble under Italian occupation. We move to St André, a tiny village with a few roadside houses and a hill-farm, where we will be hidden. In St André’s square is the town hall, school and post office, all in one building. I go to primary school. Monsieur Aubéric, is our schoolmaster. One night, when father leaves a glass of wine on the table, my brother and I pour the deep red into the hens’ feed. Soon, they are swaying from side to side, the cock lurching senselessly. He cannot even stand on his own two legs.

My father is working out how to save us. He, who before 1940 was a leather goods merchant with his own Parisian shop, can pass as a Polish farmworker with his blond hair and blue eyes. Now, we all have Turkish identity papers. Turkey is neutral. But we speak no Turkish and have never set foot in the land. Our Polish name Wartski, becomes the Turkish Wartiki.

1944 and the Germans are retreating but, instead of running away, they hunt down Jews. Father takes my brother into the barn and shows him a tube of toothpaste. Inside are gold coins. He tells Louis, If anything happens take care of yourself and little sister Renêe.

Monsieur Aubéric arrives unexpectedly. He whispers urgently, Ils sont là. They are here. Mother, Louis and I run to the hills. Father stays. When the Germans ask him if there are any Jews in the farm, he shrugs, I don’t believe so. They all left. Later, I learn that our teacher was in the Resistance. For us he risked a bullet in the head. Or a hanging.

After the war, whenever I was in the Paris metro, I would look to see if there was a niche in the tunnel, between the train and the platform. Where can I hide if the Nazis come to get me?

In England, at first, I did not come across antisemitism. It was later that I found it. In the left wing press. In polite English society, Left or Right, you realise, that, when people talk about Jews, you should keep your mouth shut. Well, I am no longer that little girl with her fists in her mouth. Now I am talking.

Giving Voice

Find out more about Giving Voice