It was a warm, sunny day in the beautiful part of France just a stone away from Spain, in Nouvelle-Acquitaine. Everything was relaxed around me: people, cars, even shadows. No pressure, no hassle, elegance all around.
We were interested in many things around us walking through the streets of Bayonne: historical buildings, gastronomic marks of the region, architecture, landscapes.
The place is breathing history, from the cousin of Marshal d’Artagnan who was serving at the local garrison for many years, until the defiant history of modern-day Basques.
We were admiring famous Bayonne Bridge, and were strolling the streets being quite impressed that the authentic building with a sign citing the year of its appearance, 1679, still functions completely fine, with a tavern and bakery inside.
We had no plan and no fixed schedule, a luxury for us. Circling around, I choose a cafe with its table on the one of the streets, from afar. “When coming back, we should go there” – I said to my husband Michael who was taken by the authenticity of the place to its Gascon roots and musketeer history all around. “ Why there?” – Michael mentioned off-hand. – “There are so many places around, and we would need to return to come to the place”. – “ I do not know why, but I do know that we should go at that very place” – I replied.
From the moment I have noticed the place from afar, I was actually waiting to come back there, without any particular reason.
When we were approaching the place after about an hour or so, Michael was still teasing me: “So, you are sure that you would like to be in that place precisely? Look, it is the one of the three cafes on the street, and the other two are quite similar”. – “Please, my dear. Not only that very place, but I also know the table” – I said looking on the sleepy Bayonne street from afar as we were approaching it. -’Even so?” – Michael smiled. – ‘ Fine then, let’s go”.
The table I wanted to sit at was not ready, and we had to wait a couple of minutes. Then we sat there. “Happy now? – Michael was still trying to get some reasoning in my logic and insistence. – The rosé (wine) is all the same around here, believe me” ,- he said. It surely was. But I was quite content at my chosen spot, more than usually when you are dropping at a street cafe table. I looked around.
Locals, for serious eating; some other locals, for a cup of coffee, not many people around. I looked on the street from the shadow of our table. In front of me, just three meters away there was a little green door. As old, as everything in this place, I was thinking, but nice, something special about it. Then my eyes slid next to the door where there was a memorial plaque.
Saying no word, I came closer. With rounded eyes, saying nothing, I came back to our table. I wanted to scream. And I did, inside.
It was the door of the Portuguese Consulate in Bayonne during the Second World War. Behind that little green door, Aristides de Sousa Mendes with just a couple of his brave colleagues had issued a big part of those over 30,000 visas, 10,000 of them for Jewish people, to the foreign refugees who had flooded the French border with Spain seventy-seven years sharp from the moment Michael and I were sitting in front of that place in awe.
Drama Amidst Beauty
The realities of the events on the French-Spanish border that were happening there seventy seven years back started to emerge in our heads powerfully. The next day we went to Hendaye, the other beautiful oasis on the French shore of the Atlantic. The multitude of places in the South-Western France bordering Spain is distinct by its variability, each of them being completely different from others in its character and landscape. Hendaye is a large serene marine, and the last thing one can imagine there is tragic breathless run, sorrow, and desperate struggle, hope against hope among the largest migration wave inside France ever, of those millions of people who flooded this very area in the hot summer of 1940 trying to get out the occupied France to still neutral Spain and Portugal.
There were from 6 to 10 million people on that desperate race in that summer seventy seven years ago. Many of them, the French nationals, returned back eventually. But the foreigners, people without French citizenship who were plentitude in France before the Second World War, and Jews in particular, had nowhere to go.
Those serene marines of Hendaye, those intimate streets of Bayonne, majestic bloom of Biarritz, every bit of beautiful, mesmerising and calm region of Nouvelle-Acquitaine was literally screaming sorrow on every centimetre of its soil during the fateful summer of 1940.
Both sleepy resorts of Bayonne and Hendaye were the places where Portugal have had their consulates during the war, additionally to that one in Bordeaux. All of them were stormed day and night by tens if thousands of people who were desperate to live – and to leave. How many visas can one person issue working day and night, as Chiune Sugihara did in Kaunas, as Aristdies de Sousa Mendes did in Bordeaux and then in Bayonne and Hendaye? How many could Mendes issue given that in Bayonne he was allowed to do during just three days, June 17-19 1940, until he was reported to the Portuguese Ambassador in Spain by the Salazar loyalist who happened to work at the consulate in Bayonne, after which Mendez rushed to Henday which is closer to the Spanish border, to proceed his frantic issuing the life-saving visas from there before he was stopped by furious orders and ultimate recall back to Portugal by Salazar himself?
Professor Yehuda Bauer believes and states his his classic History of Holocaust ( 2002) that Aristides de Sousa Mendes’ heroic effort was ‘perhaps the largest rescue action by a single individual during the Holocaust.”
We know how the state of Portugal did treat the hero who saved thousands of lives in the nightmare summer of 1940 in France. We know on the Mendes and his family’s poverty and oblivion for decades. His destiny was sadly typical of the ones of his colleague diplomats who dared to help the Jews. Whatever late and very late public acknowledgement of all those heroic people today, their after-war destinies in their own countries and their own ministries for foreign affairs unable to erase that utter shame over the appalling, and so tellingly universal, treatment of them back home for many years after the war.
The rest of our staying in Noveulle-Acquitaine seventy seven years later was all merged into the history fog. I could not see the streets full of people and aroma of the best chocolate on earth ( the Jewish receipt brought by hundreds of those of our people who were running for life in the opposite direction, from Portugal and Spain five centuries before escaping the Inquisition niceties and the Isabella’s II edict) without thinking on what was going on in these very spots of beauty seventy seven summers back. I could not anymore to gaze towards the ocean serenely without trying to imagine on what those thousands of Jewish people running for life and clouded by despair were thinking and doing just here at the time. Some of them managed to escape, but how many did not. I was thinking on the paradox which was growing for me more and more tangibly: on how the beauty has intensified the sorrow. How awkward that blossoming serenity must had been for those people crowded in not that big space, the refugees who were fighting for life, literally. How much the sunshine has become a shadow. Never again the inviting, intricate beauty of Nouvelle-Acquitaine was as innocent and relaxing for me as it used to be before I saw before my eyes that little green door in Bayonne.
Simple broche, dear memory
Our good friend Ina Ginsburg, the muse, dear and special friend and supporter of Andy Warhol, was one of those people who got life thanks to the action of Aristides de Sousa Mendes who was struggling through his nervous breakdown while acting to save lives. Ina, the only woman whom Warhol painted thrice, lived a long and productive life being patron-at-large of arts and music in the USA and bringing out, supporting and promoting her fellow Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as Harrison Ford and scores of others, not to speak of Warhol himself who was a pariah in American high society until Ina changed it effectively and single-handedly, starting from a single handshake with the odd outsider and boldly inviting him to her and her husband’s house, an important venue of the American political, financial and cultural establishment. Ina told me all that in detail.
Ina who was blessed to live until 98 and passed away in the end of 2014, was ever attached to her family and their dramatic story. More, she was essentially attached to her wide family of Jewish people and our ultimate tragedy that had happened during Ina’s lifetime. She always was acutely aware that she and the part of her family had been enormously, incredibly, miraculously lucky, including the gift of life for them provided by Aristides de Sousa Mendes, but so many of our brethren did not receive that chance to live. Ina as I knew her, was the person who always kept something in the back of her head, and that ‘something’ was her pulsating memory of the Holocaust.
She did not tell too much about it, but one knew that the matter is always there. And when she did, you were burned by the pain that did not wade for a bit. How could it.
Ina was famous art collector whose house was an exquisite small museum and who did acquire much more than a person, a private collector could hope for. At the time I was lucky to get familiar with Ina, thanks to our dear friends Leona and Jerrold Schecters, these lovely quiet giants of American Jewry, she was much more like a very knowledgeable art expert and mentor than a keen collector, understandably. And how surprised I was when Ina did show a very keen interest in the one of my art pieces. I would never think that person whose house in the heart of Washington DC had not enough place for many of her exquisite and rare Warhols and many other extraordinary pieces of superb art would be so keen, so specially keen to have something that I did produce for one of my exhibitions.
Back and again, Ina was looking onto the map that I had created for my The Route exhibition telling on the historical journey of the Jewish people throughout time, history and countries. As a marker for the map, I have used just one element, my photograph of the early XX century Eastern European broche of my grandmother Adel Chigrinsky. As a matter of fact, the broche was the only piece of jewellery that my grandma had ever owned. It was interesting to mention it to Ina who was known for her museum-quality vast jewellery collection. Ina loved my grandma’s broche and she loved my map. The great art collector did commission me to do a big-size special piece of this work. “As big as you can, my dear. This map is important for me”, – she said. “ But you barely have space on your walls, Ina. – I was baffled. – We have had discussed it just the other day”. – “Don’t you worry , my dear – Ina replied with he thoughtful smile which always was a bit apart of her yet more thoughtful eyes. – If I would need to take something down to put your map on my wall, I will do it in a minute. I love this map”.
At the time, I thought that great Ina Ginsburg was responding to the style of my map, and that she felt nostalgic for Europe and the European art. And I was happy that her expert eye saw something interesting in what I do. How naive we are even in an advanced age, I think now. It was Ina Ginsburg’s heart, not eye, that captured something in the map telling about the Journey of Jewish people with a pointer of my grandma’s broche.
I needed years and a bumping into the little green door of the small old stone building in Bayonne where Aristides de Sousa Mendes 77 years ago was issuing the visa for refugees, including so many Jewish people, in a mad fashion without sleep, non-stop, during those three days in June 1940, to save lives, to let Ina Ginsburg to live, to seeing my map seven decades later, in the end of her life, and to hear my family and my grandma’s story, to put it all on the map of our memory, to live.
That little green door.
July 2018- January 2019.