Jul 16, 2016

What It Can Lead To: Menez Hom


Today marks the 74th anniversary of the Rafle Vel d'Hiv, the two day period (July 16-17, 1942) when 13,000 Jews were rounded up in Paris -- by French policemen, under Nazi occupation in World War II -- placed at the Velodrome D'Hiver, and then deported to concentration camps, most of them to die there. The Velodrome D'Hiver doesn't exist anymore but, sadly, the memories do. Especially for my 90 year-old neighbor, who was 16 when her parents were taken from her during this horrible (and horribly-named) "rafle", never to be seen again.

In her own words, mostly (but translated):

"I was just barely 16 when we were taken. My parents had heard there was a round-up happening, but they hoped it wouldn't reach them. But just in case, my mother had packed up three huge suitcases with our clothes for her, my father, and me. We were taken to a garage. At one point the guard talked with my parents. I have no idea what happened, or what they said, and I never will, but the guard came over and told me I was free to leave."

"I waited outside, watching as the buses departed. My mother was on the steps of the bus, and she threw me a key. She yelled out, 'Take care of your brother! And go to your Uncle's restaurant!'"

My neighbor returned to her apartment, where she no longer had any clothes, since the suitcase had been left with the others in the garage. "I was afraid to leave my apartment. I had to wash my clothes by hand. Luckily it was hot out, so they would dry right away. I didn't have one single thing other than what I was wearing. An upstairs neighbor, who was a friend of my mother's, the mother of a Spanish family, brought food down to me. And then, finally, my Aunt called and told me they were still there, and that I should come down to the restaurant."

"I earned tips there, and was well fed, so I could start to buy some clothes. My brother, who had been in a Sanitorium for his lungs, came and joined us. But my Uncle was betrayed by somebody at the market at Les Halles. They knew he was Jewish because Jews only had the right to go out and buy food there between 11am and noon. For just one hour. We couldn't even buy a loaf of bread at a different time."

"So six months after I arrived, my Uncle and Aunt were arrested and taken away, to Auschwitz, I think. They were taken at 7am, so their son wasn't there. We stayed with my cousin for a couple more months, but it was difficult. He was just 23, an only child, and had always been spoiled by his parents. He just wanted to kill himself."

"When I was at the restaurant, I had access to a lot of food. And so I brought food to the Spanish family. I was happy to pay back their kindness."

"My brother's best friend was living in the Free Zone, down near Limoges. He wrote a letter asking about our family. We told him our parents were gone, all of our aunts and uncles gone. He asked if we wanted to come down to live with his family. 'How?' we asked. He told us he could get us false identity papers. His sister came up to Paris for some reason, and we met with her. We gave her our ID cards, which had the stamp on it saying we were Jewish. She somehow made copies, with all our real information, but without the Jewish stamp."

"My brother went first. He made it and then called back to tell me he succeeded, and he hoped I would, too. So, I dressed up in my white sheep's wool coat. It was all the style then, and it would keep me warm. I did up my hair to look as young as possible. I was only 17, but I looked even younger. I was nervous, of course, but I had my false papers. We were lucky, because they also conducted the 'rafles' on the trains. But we both made it through."

"I lived in Limoges with that family until the liberation, about a year later. They're all gone now, all of them."

The last of my neighbor's family was her brother, who was alive until the age of around 93, a couple months ago. "We talked often. And every time we talked, even just a week before he died, he would say, 'Do you remember when this or that happened during the War?'"

People say "Never Forget" as a slogan, marking the importance of the Holocaust. But for a survivor, it's not a slogan, it's a fact of life. They can never forget. The first time my neighbor told me about her parents being taken, she cried. And I cried. Even though she's 90, and this all happened when she was 16, she still feels the agony of watching her parents being taken away, of a life lived without them.

After liberation, she came back to her apartment and, once again, was left with nothing. Literally nothing. The apartment had been emptied down to its four walls. This is not an exaggeration: every pot, pan, the appliances themselves, the cabinets, every single piece of furniture or decoration. Another survivor I met once told me that when she returned to her apartment after the war, even the nails had been pried from the walls.

When my neighbor shows me and the girls her star, she explains about the pencil test: the star had to be sewn on tightly, with small stitches close together in order to make it difficult to remove it. The authorities would attempt to stick a pencil in between the stitches, and if it could fit, the Jew in question could be fined and/or punished, harshly.

When I recently wrote about Serge Gainsbourg, one of my friends pointed out that Gainsbourg, born Lucien Ginsburg to Russian Jewish parents in Paris, also wore the yellow star under Nazi occupation. As did so many other people -- and for most, the injustice and humiliation of being ordered to label themselves was the very least of their problems.

And this is the sort of thing that Trump is advocating? Labeling Muslims? It makes me sick.

Discrimination, hatred, and a callous regard for the value of human life are not relegated to the World War II history books; we see them and the effects of them on a daily basis: the guards patrolling monuments and places of worship, news stories of attacks in all parts of the world, blowhards like Trump or Boris Johnson, spewing hatred.

Above and below, the Memorial for the Deportation of French Martyrs. Below, walls of engraved names, and more names, and more names.


The Memorial of the Shoah, in the heart of the Marais, home to the largest population of French Jews during World War II...

...and still today.


In the Memorial for the Deportation of French Martyrs, there is a carving in the stone wall: Forgive, but Never Forget. Never Forget. And Never Again. That's something to keep in mind as the American presidential elections approach.


Menez Hom is a beautiful cheese -- or should I say four beautiful cheeses -- from the Finistère department, at the tippy tip of the arm of Bretagne sticking into the Atlantic and English Channel. You can buy the Menez Hom fresh or aged, ashed or unashed. When they are ashed, they are black, with white molds forming on top to make them look gray. When they are fresh, they are plump and juicy, with lots of liquid, and as they age, they shrink down and get tangier and more flavorful.

We come home from our favorite cheese shop in Bretagne, Fromagerie de Kérouzine with two ashed versions -- fresh and aged. They look like works of abstract art, but I won't say they're too beautiful to eat. It would be a shame to let them go to waste! We dive right in and love them both, though there is a distinct difference in the amount of flavor.

The fresh one is mild and light and absolutely stunning spread on some good bread with a drizzle of honey. The aged version isn't bad with a drizzle of honey, either, but it's definitely got a stronger, goatier flavor and crumblier texture, and can be popped into the mouth as is, bread optional.


Some may say there are two sides to any story...


...but I maintain there are some things that are black and white -- not just the deep wrongness of the Nazi era but also the modern-day bigotry that would lead anybody to denounce an entire religion, race, gender, ethnic group, sexual orientation, etc.

This brings me to the name of the cheese, Menez Hom which looks and sounds very much like "Menez Homme", meaning "Lead Mankind". In fact, it's in imperative/command form: "Menez Homme!" "Lead Mankind!" I would like to command our leaders to Lead Mankind in a positive direction, which seems pretty imperative to the world. In case it's not clear, Trump terrifies me, because I feel like this must have been what it was like at the beginning, watching Hitler rise. My neighbor, who is still quite sharp, seems disgusted by Trump, and I don't even think she follows US politics enough to know the half of it.

(This display of Czech stacking dolls, seen in Prague, says it all.)

Menez Hom is from Finistère, but is in no way sinister. In fact, I feel bad associating such a beautiful, delicious cheese with the memory of the deportation. So let's just say that I'm associating this beautiful, delicious cheese with the promise of better leadership -- somebody who knows that in black-and-white matters of evil and intolerance, there is no gray area.


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