In 1957, I received my Doctorate in Literature from the Universite de Poitiers, in France. Lectures were held in Poitiers but I lived in a rented room in a lovely home in the nearby city of Tours in the province of Indre et Loire. The Loire Valley was called le jardin de France…the garden of France and was famed for its fabulous castles, chateaux and palaces of former nobility. Tours is noted for speaking the purest form of the French language in France. Historically, it is the place where the invading Muslims were defeated in 732 at the Battle of Tours which saved all of Europe from Muslim invasion.
As far as I knew, I was the only Jewish student in the university. I don’t know what the Jewish population of Tours was in 1957 but I was able to locate a map in the hotel de ville (city hall) indicating the existence of a synagogue built in 1908 at 37 rue Parmentier. On two separate occasions I found my way to its location only to find the door chained and padlocked. A woman from a nearby window saw me and shouted to me “Le Dieu des Juifs est en vacances” (The God of the Jews is on vacation).
Tours is located in the center-west of France with a present day population of 130,000 inhabitants. I think it was smaller in 1957. In that year, train travel between Tours and Paris was a three-hour train ride. Today, on France’s modern rail fleet the journey is only one hour.
As the only Jew, I never experienced any anti-Semitism. There were however, comments when we discussed the infamous Dreyfus Trial of 1894. Several students insisted on the guilt of Alfred Dreyfus despite all the information which cleared him from treason, released him from Devil’s Island and restored him to his officer’s position in the French army. Few thought that Count Esterhazy was the real traitor.
My studies were in comparative literature…French, German,and English. When I decided to write my dissertation on the Centrality of Jerusalem and Zion in Hebrew Poetry, there was a problem since no member of the faculty was familiar with Hebrew poetry and it would have been impossible for me to make my defense.
But two members of the committee were able to contact the French Jewish scholar, Professor Andre Neher of the University of Strasbourg who agreed to work with me and to serve on the committee. It is thanks to Professor Neher that I successfully defended my dissertation.
In 1970 he wrote his masterpiece “L’Exil de la Parole. Du silence biblique au silence d’Auschwitz”… The Exile of the Word. It dealt with biblical silence and God’s silence after the Holocaust and great world tragedies.
“L’espoir n’est pas dans le rire et dans la pleinitude. L’espoir est dans les armes, dans le risqué et dans leurs silence” …. Hope is not in the laugh or fullness; hope is in the tears, in the risk and in their silence.
Despite my education in France, I was really never close to my French student body. A young Swedish girl from Gotenberg, Sweden, Dorte Malling, once asked me if I felt comfortable as a Jew among the French.
I don’t remember how I answered her.
France has become more anti-Semitic over the years. Particularly so because it has such a large Muslim population, many of them French citizens of North African birth… Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
But my heart aches for the very recent terrorist attacks in Paris which claimed more than 130 lives. The bloodshed and the massacre of innocent Frenchmen is all too familiar to us Israelis. We have lived with it for almost one hundred years and tragically there is no end in sight. Perhaps the French tragedy will open the eyes of all Europeans to our century-old conflict with the Arabs. Perhaps they will be more understanding of our conflict and more sympathetic to our pleas for peace.
The words of the French national hymn, “aux armes cityoens, formez vos bataillons”, can be a message for us here in Israel. To arms, citizens, form your batallions…not necessarily the arms of war but battalions of our people spreading our desire for peace to all who may be ready to listen. “Not by the sword and not by the gun but by My word, says the Lord of Hosts.”