by Richard Zacks

In 1987 my wife and I volunteered to help the Yale University Library Archive for Holocaust Testimonies collect video interviews of the recollections and personal histories of Holocaust survivors. The library lent us a bulky, primitive video tape recorder and sent one of their staff to show us how it worked. She advised us to discourage family members from attending our interviews. “Most Holocaust survivors,” she said, “do not want their children and grandchildren to hear them tell what they endured or how they managed to survive”.

One of our first interviews was with Bessie S., the widow of a Yale professor. On the phone she was articulate, and eager to tell her story:

“Come soon, very soon.” she urged. “I’m not well, untreatable cancer, temporarily in remission. I hope to live long enough to tell you my story and to see my first grandchild born– my daughter-in-law is pregnant.”

When we met in her garden a few weeks later. Bessie greeted us impatiently. She had no time for preliminaries. “Let’s get started,” she demanded. “I haven’t got all day.”

“We could reschedule the interview to a more convenient time, say…:

“No” she interrupted. “At a more convenient time I may be dead.”

“In 1940”, she began, “I was 8, and my brother Claude was 10. We lived in Paris. My father collected and sold rare books. When he heard that the Germans were approaching Paris, my father asked an employee to drive my mother, Claude and me to Thonon-les-Bains, a village in southeastern France. Mother refused to leave my father alone in Paris. So, on a sunny April day Claude and I kissed our parents goodbye and headed south. We never saw them again.

At first, we attended a Catholic school in the village, but when the Vichy government began to enforce anti-Jewish Nazi laws, the priests who ran our school took us to a Catholic orphanage near the Swiss border. We hid there for two years under assumed non-Jewish names that I choose not to remember.

One evening two nuns came to the orphanage to tell us we must leave at once. We had been betrayed. The Germans had ordered their Vichy collaborators to arrest us. A nun drove us to the Swiss border. There, a 15-foot-high wire fence separated France from Switzerland. An armed Swiss guard patrolled the area. The nun told us the guard had orders not to let us, or anyone else, enter Switzerland. But, she assured us, he’s a good Catholic and has agreed that if a Swiss farmer’s hay wagon happens to stop later tonight on the road you can see through the fence, he will turn his back to the fence, not see two children climb over it, or notice anyone climbing aboard the hay wagon.

We waited in the dark. On the French road behind us we could hear the wailing horns and see the glow of the headlights of an approaching Vichy police convoy. The hay wagon arrived. We ran to the fence. The Swiss guard turned away and pretended to urinate behind a nearby tree. My bother climbed over the fence. I followed, but my skirt snagged on the jagged top of the wire fence. I was stuck. The Vichy convoy arrived. A man shouted in French: “Climb down or I’ll shoot.” I said a prayer and prepared to die. And then the strong arms of the Swiss guard lifted me over the fence and dropped me safely next to my brother on Swiss soil. We ran together to the hay wagon. The Swiss guard resumed his patrol. The Vichy convoy disappeared. We survived.”

Several weeks after our interview Bessie S. called. “I’m a grandmother. I’ve just been to the hospital to see my first grandchild. We’ve outlasted that bastard Hitler. “Am Yisrael Hai,” she shouted. “The Jewish people live.”

Richard Zacks: When I was a lawyer, I wanted to be a writer. LP² has let me begin to imagine that I could become a writer who used to be a lawyer. This essay was a Writing Workshop class assignment.