Bearing Witness: Finding my Father

Last summer, when Hamas rockets were raining down on Israeli towns and cities and on European streets, demonstration after demonstration was taking place calling for death to Israel and death to the Jews, my little family and I found ourselves on vacation in Southwest France, in the Dordogne region (or what the French call Perigord).  Just an hour outside of Bordeaux, in the land of foie gras.

In the 13 years I have lived in Europe we have spent quite a lot of time in France.  We go to Paris at least twice a year and often choose the French countryside to kick back in.  Sure, France is a natural vacation destination for people from the Netherlands because of it’s proximity, it’s warm summers and plentiful offerings.

But, that’s not why we so often choose France.

My dad was born and lived out his first 16 years in France before he, his parents and my aunt immigrated to the United States in 1950.

My grandparents had a true love of France.  Originally from a small village halfway between Minsk and Vilnius they adapted quickly to French life.  They loved the language, the culture and the assimilation offered by the Western world.

When the war came, their small town was bombed and my grandfather took them south to Toulouse.  There, one of his former professors and a friend allowed them to use his childhood home, in a small village called Vacquiers, an hour outside of Toulouse and about a 2 hour drive from the cottage we rent in the Dordogne.

All three times we went to the Dordogne region, I had the intention to go to Vacquiers.  To see the house they lived in, the one with the vegetable garden that I saw in photos.  To see the village, which was a hillside with a smattering of houses, overlooking the sunflower fields and peach orchards.  To see the Church at the top of the hill, which was the center of the town’s activity.

The Church that my dad, grandparents and found shelter in for 3 dark days and nights, when the Nazis entered Vacquiers in 1944, just a few months before France was finally liberated.

The first two times in Dordogne, we didn’t go to Vacquiers.  I found reasons, it’s too far, it’s too hot, I only know the name of the town and have a photo of the house in my mind’s eye, we’ll never be able to find it.

On our second trip there,  we went instead to Cahors, a city on the banks of the River Lot.  My dad spent 6 weeks in Cahors on his journey to Toulouse, so even though I have no idea where they lived, I told myself that Cahors was the smarter choice.  It’s big, it’s anonymous, I don’t know that much about their time there.  I won’t feel them there as much.

$hit, it was just easier to go to Cahors.

But, last summer, as I clung to the Times of Israel Live blog of Operation Protective Edge and my newsfeed, as I lived between the sirens and the headlines and watched Europe again sing a chorus of death the the Jews, I figured something out.

Vacquiers was calling.

I realized it was no accident that I kept circling the place where my dad spent the majority of the war.  Where, at the age of 5, his life was about  concealing who he was, and the fear that comes with building a life on a foundation of secrecy.

How, at the tender age of 5, when you learn how to hide, you keep hiding, long after there is nothing more to fear.

You hide from your parents, your wife (well, actually, wives), your children, your friends.  At its core, your life is about keeping things hidden.

He learned how to hide in Vacquiers.

It didn’t matter if I couldn’t find the house or the Church.  I knew I would find my dad there.  The part of himself that he hid there.  The part that didn’t live in fear.

And so, on a bright summer day in July, when the mercury topped 40 degrees celsius, we drove to Vacquiers.

It was just like my grandmother said it was.  A few houses on a hillside with a Church at the top and the World War I memorial.  And just down the hill a bit was the white house that sloped up the hillside, with the vegetable garden in front.

I could see the photo of my grandmother holding my dad and my aunt on her lap.  The garden was still there, overflowing with tomatoes and beans, fenced off on the other side of the dirt road.

There were the narrow stairs that led up to the door, the same stairs that my dad sat on in the photographs.

From the church I could see miles of farms below and just a few meters down the hill I saw the orchards.  Maybe those were the peach orchards my dad helped harvest in exchange for food.

I sat on the stairs of the house for a long time, finally laying three stones, one for my dad and two for my grandparents and all they had lost and all they had survived.

I had borne witness.

Just as we got the slightest hint of a breeze and my tears combined with my sweat, I looked up, and there, my 10 year old daughter was running toward me, giggling, with her arms outstretched.

Sorrow does not have to be their legacy. We’re not hiding anymore.

About the Author
Dana has made it her habit to break cultural barriers and butcher languages wherever she goes. Born in Pittsburgh, Dana lived and worked in Tel Aviv for five years, before moving to the Netherlands where she lives with her husband and daughter in Amsterdam.