Belleville

By NANCY LEFENFELD

But after the divorce, he moved back to Belleville. To his old neighborhood, the neighborhood of his youth.

His wife—now ex-wife—hated Belleville. It reminded her of the poor Polish girl she had been. All the years they were together, they lived in Boulogne-Billancourt.

He has a small apartment on the rue du Jourdain. It’s just a few steps from the tabac where he used to buy cigarettes for his father. And it’s practically around the corner from the primary school he attended, on the rue Olivier Métra.

Just walking the streets makes him feel that the past is retrievable. And that’s all he wants: a retrievable past. 

Friday evenings, on his way home from work, he stops at Le Petit Voltaire, a two-star hotel on the rue du Chemin Vert. He has a drink at the bar and a chat with the bartender. Eventually, he makes his way into the hotel reception area. The reception is the refuge of the cast-off and out-of-date: a stack of yellowed city guides from the seventies and eighties, a black felt board with white plastic letters (“No checks, No AmEx”), a ceramic ashtray shaped like a pineapple. He feels a deep affinity to all these things, all these remnants of the past.

At times, his mind’s eye conjures up ghosts. Tall Paulette, the older girl who lived across the hall. He pictures her in the open doorway, preparing to go out. Or Ginette, whose grandmother had a little white dog. Or his best friend Raphaël. Rafi! The ghosts, too, remnants of the past.

Now he sees himself as a remnant. Nothing more, nothing less.

One Sunday, a friend takes him to Chez Anny on the Sorbier, where there will be a buffet lunch, followed by a meeting of people who call themselves “enfants cachés.” Hidden children. The group meets twice a month at Anny’s.

He and the friend join a couple of dozen men and women in a small, windowless room at the back of the restaurant. They fill plates with scoops of chopped liver, pickled herring, and egg salad, and with slices of pumpernickel and rye. They find places to sit. Someone passes them glasses of peach Schnapps.     

Half an hour later, a man taps a spoon against a glass. “Friends, we’d like to welcome a newcomer: Alain Levin. Alain, I’d like to invite you to take the floor, to tell us your story.”

No one has ever asked him to “tell his story.” He stands and shoves his hands into his pockets.   

“Actually, it’s Lévy. Not Levin. Alain Lévy,” he says. “Well, I was born here in Belleville, on the rue Frederick Lemaître, in 1934. My father was from Poland. My mother was French. I attended Olivier Métra elementary school, albeit briefly. We left Paris in forty-one and made our way to the Free Zone.”

“We went from place to place. So many, I can’t, I don’t remember them all. I remember we lived in Béziers for a while. Eventually, we reached Grenoble, where my parents thought we’d be safe. And we were, at least for a time. But in September of forty-three, the Germans came. My parents had me hidden in a Catholic boarding school run by Dominican friars. When the war was over, my mother took me back to Grenoble. My father was in the hospital; he’d been ill but he recovered. And then we came back here.”

He shrugs and says, “That’s my story.”     

After that, someone gives a talk on the subject of Berlin Without Jews and other dystopian novels of the 1920s.

He returns two weeks later, and two weeks after that. He gets to know the regulars. The regulars have an easy familiarity: the men tease the women and razz one another; and the women listen intently and, every so often, rest a hand on a man’s arm.

The hand on the arm. It fascinates him. It is, of course, a friendly touch, but sensuous as well. And even a little flirty, right? Some of the regulars have spouses and some do not. He is not yet certain who goes with whom.   

In July and August, when everyone is on holiday, the group does not meet. He thinks about spending a couple of weeks in Berck, where his family vacationed before the war. He remembers the little guesthouse where they stayed, his parents in one bedroom and he and his grandfather in another. He remembers the early mornings, when he and Zizi walked the beach. They walked and talked, walked and talked. Zizi had been a soldier in the Great War. Down in the trenches, he had slept in a “tranchée-abri,” a slit in the earth.

But Alain doesn’t go anywhere. He stays home and rereads his dog-eared copy of Under Fire, by Henri Barbusse.  

One morning, at summer’s end, he sees Sima in the produce aisle of the supermarket. Sima’s one of the regulars. He goes over to her; they fall into easy conversation. When they’re done shopping, he walks her home.   

The next day, they go to the Parc de la Villette, to visit the gardens. In the afternoon, they take refuge from the heat in the Garden of Shadows. There, in the dappled light and shade, they crane their necks to survey the tree canopy, several stories high. This is, they agree, another world. A veritable oasis. The air, so cool and fragrant. Sima says, “Oh, it’s delicious.” And that secretly pleases him, her pronouncing it “delicious,” though he doesn’t know why. Because when others use the word that way, not speaking of taste, he thinks it sounds slightly ridiculous.  

They sit on a bench. They talk about the regulars, about who’s married and who’s divorced and the one who recently lost her husband to cancer. About divorce that comes late in life. And the grown children of divorce that comes late in life. About the current exhibition at the d’Orsay, on the architect Charles Garnier, who was thirty-five and unknown when he won the competition to design the new opera house. About her visit, the previous summer, to Grenoble and the Vercors and the Resistance memorial built in the side of a mountain.

As they talk, he realizes she remembers his whole story, down to the last detail. He’s flattered, though he doesn’t tell her so. And he cannot dismiss the feeling that, because she remembers, it now seems to him more real.

He says, “Sima, you know everything about me, and I know nothing about you.”

She says, “What’s to know?”

He says, “Tell me your story.”

“To tell you the truth, it’s not much of a story.”

He waits, studying the shadows on the walkway. The gray shapes are soft and elongated, and their edges indistinct.   

She says, “I have no memories of my father. I was only three when he left home in 1940, to join the Foreign Legion. He was killed a few months later, at Soissons. Not long afterwards, my mother married a man who was much older. Old enough to have been her father. He was never particularly warm or affectionate with me. I don’t think he liked me or disliked me. I was just part of the package.”

She stops and runs her fingers through her hair, to brush it back from her face. Her hair, cut short, is wavy and brown. But now, as the light hits it, he sees strands of other colors, of silver and amber and gold.

“When things got very bad in Paris, my stepfather took Maman and me to a house in Villepinte. A Madame Vincent lived there. Just her, nobody else. I wasn’t allowed to go out, not even into the garden. Sometimes Maman would go out. I never knew where she was going or when she would be back. Or if she would be back. Finally, after it all ended, after the Germans left, it was just the two of us.”

“What do you mean? What happened to your stepfather?”

“I never saw him again. And I had no idea what had happened to him. It wasn’t until 1978, when the Klarsfelds’ book appeared, that I learned he was a Jew and had been deported. Early in the Occupation, he’d made himself into a Catholic. He had a certificate of baptism. He attended Mass. I thought he was a Catholic. Though I’m sure my mother must have known the truth. And she must have known or suspected he had been deported, although she never told me. Not even when I asked her about it, long after the war.”

They head home, along the canal. At one point, they stop by the edge of the walkway, to look at the water. The water is turbid and dark green and it moves quickly. She takes his arm.  

They stop for supper at an outdoor café, near an entrance to Buttes-Chaumont. She excuses herself. He tries to picture a young girl in a house in Villepinte, but what he sees is a woman in a garden, running her fingers through her hair. He wonders what she wants, if she wants anything at all. He has no idea.  

When she returns, he sees that she has put on red lipstick. They sit side by side, their shoulders touching.

Out of the blue, he asks, “Were they in love?”

“Who?”

“Your mother and the older man she married.”

She doesn’t answer. She stares straight ahead. Finally, she says, “I’m inclined to think there was love involved, although I don’t know for sure. After the war, she never talked about him. Never spoke his name.”

On the second Sunday in September, the group meets again. He tries to mingle easily, but he’s constantly aware of where Sima is standing and with whom she’s speaking and who’s making her laugh. But then they sit together at lunch, and she leans close to him and they confer conspiratorially. And when the presenter gives his talk, he rests his arm across the back of her chair. 

One Saturday night, they go to a restaurant in the basement of a building on the rue des Blanc Manteaux. They eat Jewish meatballs called klops. At nine o’clock, a klezmer band performs.  

He mentions the evening to a colleague at work. The colleague asks, “Are you two seeing each other?” He shrugs.

Later, at home, the question returns. Are they seeing each other? Which, of course, means, are they dating? He’s not sure. Better, perhaps, to think of it as keeping company.

But, in the larger sense, are they seeing each other? And, for that matter, has anyone in his whole life ever really seen him? Zizi saw him, long ago, when he was just a boy. But, apart from Zizi, who?

One Sunday, though they know the others will take notice, they slip out of Anny’s before the talk begins. It’s early November; the day is sunny and warm and the sky a brilliant blue. When they reach Père Lachaise cemetery, he takes her hand. They wander slowly. Yellow leaves rain down, coming to rest, one atop the other, on the cobblestone walks and mossy monuments.   

“Is your ex a Jew?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“What’s his story? Did he grow up in Paris?”

“No, he was British. He was a British soldier, stationed in Germany after the war. In 1954, he came to Paris, on furlough. That’s how we met. I was seventeen years old.” After a pause, she asks, “How about yours?”

“Jewish, yes. From Warsaw. She had two older brothers. Her father and her brothers, all deported. Only one brother returned. My wife would not talk about any of it. She simply shut the door on the past.”

Later, he asks, “Did you ever go back to Villepinte?”

“Yes, I went back five years ago. In June 1985.”

“Yes? What did you do? Did you go to the house and knock on the door?”

“That’s exactly what I did. I went to the house and knocked on the door. A woman answered. She was Madame Vincent’s niece. I recognized her, but she didn’t recognize me. Not at first. But as I began to explain, she knew who I was. She’d inherited the house.”

“And was she surprised to see you?”

“Well, yes and no. She invited me in. She showed me around.”

“But what made you decide to go there after so many years?”

“I don’t know. I just felt it was something I had to do. I hadn’t felt that way before. And since then, I’ve gone back several times. Just to have a look at it, from the outside.”   

He says, “I’ve never gone back to the boarding school where I was hidden. Several years ago, my wife and I went to Grenoble for a long weekend, to attend a wedding. I wanted to take an afternoon to go to Coublevie, where the boarding school was. But my wife had a fit. She called me crazy for wanting to go off and see ‘some old building,’ as she put it, rather than be with family. So, I didn’t.”

She says, “So why don’t we go? Nothing’s stopping us.”

“When?”

“Anytime. Next weekend.”

Surprising himself, he says, “Yes, why not?”

That evening, he stands at the stove, stirring a pot of soup and drinking a glass of wine. He’s thinking he must call her the next day. He must tell her something’s come up. He cannot leave work early on Friday, as planned.

Yes, that’s what he’ll do. It’s the only sensible thing to do. Because what will it be like, returning to Coublevie? What will it do to him? How will he feel?

Who was he back then? He tried to picture the boy in the faraway school in the mountains. The boy who answered to the name Alain Lévêche. Lévêche, the new boy. Lévêche, who could never keep up, who was always doing the wrong thing. Lévêche, who never left school to see his family, not at Christmas or at Easter. 

And what if Sima were to catch a glimpse of the rather pathetic Lévêche? It could mean the end of whatever this was, of whatever he wished it to be. But if he cancels, that too could mean the end.

Friday afternoon in the Gare de Lyon. He’s on the platform, beside the waiting train. Boarding begins. He scans the crowd. Which direction will she come from? There she is, in the red coat. She is hurrying. smiling. Her coat, unbuttoned, flies open.   

It’s dark when they reach Grenoble and check into the hotel. They leave their bags in the rooms and meet in the lobby. The clerk gives them a map of the neighborhood. The rue de Bonne, rue de Miribel, rue Gentil Bernard, rue Bressieux. He knows these names.

The streets are crowded, and the atmosphere festive. They walk to the rue Montorge, to the apartment building in which he and his parents had lived. The ground floor of the building houses a children’s clothing store. Red and blue winter outfits fill the brightly-lit windows.  

They study a panel of call buttons at the entry. He presses the button beside number seven and waits. He presses it again. Is there a button for the concierge? If so, he can’t find it. The entry is dimly-lit, and nothing is well-marked.

“Try a different apartment,” she suggests. “Maybe someone will answer.”

He looks up and down the street. “No. Let’s go have dinner.”

They go to a restaurant on the rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a place the desk clerk mentioned. It’s homey, with dark wooden tables and chairs and mustard-colored walls. He orders a bottle of wine. She removes her scarf. Across the top of the table, they reach out to one another, like two people clinging to a plank in the middle of the ocean.

She says, “You look tired.”

He says, “I didn’t sleep well last night.”

She says, “I’m sorry.”

He says, “It’s not your fault.”

“Isn’t it?”

“No, not at all. Don’t say that. I’m glad we’re here. I’m glad you’re with me. I wouldn’t have come by myself.”   

“What time is the train tomorrow?”

“Nine twenty-seven. It’s a quick trip to Voiron. Twenty minutes.”

“I’ll plan to go downstairs, to breakfast, at seven-thirty.”

“Good. Me too.”

The morning is bright and sunny. When they reach Voiron, they decide not to take a taxi but to walk the few kilometers to Coublevie.

Nothing looks familiar until he catches a glimpse of mountains in the distance. They walk through a busy commercial area, a neighborhood of neatly-kept homes. As they turn onto a lane that follows a gentle rise, he says, “It’s just ahead.”

Until then, the surrounding countryside has been largely obscured by buildings and tall hedges and trees. But now, off to the left, they can see across a large, open field, to two tall hillsides, joined at the hip. Their upper halves are covered in a fur of dense green forest. The lower halves are a patchwork of white-walled houses with red tile roofs, green yards, and clumps of trees.   

“Those are foothills of the Chartreuse Mountains,” he says. “We had a great view of them from the dormitory.” He points to the right. “The Dominicans’ property is over there. It’s huge. The school was just a small part of it. And rather insignificant.”

They approach a chapel separated from the road by a low stone wall and an ornate, rusted gate. A nearby sign references the hospital center of Voiron. He says, “Apparently, the Dominicans are gone.”

The road ahead rises steeply and is flanked, on the right, by a row of old buildings. The buildings are somber, unwelcoming structures whose windows are covered with plywood or rusted iron rods. He stops at one of the smaller ones. “This was the dormitory. It’s where I lived.” They stand and stare.

“I want to show you something.” They trudge on, to the top of the hill, where a distant mountain range comes into view. Puffy white clouds hover over a long, unbroken line of purplish-gray peaks.

“How lovely,” she says. “So solid and immutable. And at the same time, so dreamlike.”

They go back down the hill and wander through a parking lot. Here are a few modern-looking buildings that have something to do with the aged. They choose one and go inside. He asks the woman at the front desk if he might speak with someone about the old boarding school that was there during the war. They take seats in a waiting area.

A man comes out. Young and earnest, he listens with an air of grave concern, nodding frequently. He asks if they would like to go inside the dormitory building, then goes to get the keys.  

Even with the lights turned on, the interior is dim. And cold. Colder inside than out.  

They walk through the first floor, through the empty dining room and kitchen and the study hall. Where there are built-in cabinets, the doors stand open, as if to show that they have completely surrendered their contents.  

They climb two flights of stairs. In the large room where he and the others had slept, skeletons of old bunk beds stand in neat rows. Next to the bedframes are the little wooden crates in which they stashed their few belongings.

He stands at a dormer window and looks out, across the field, to the foothills. The furry tops, the white houses with red roofs below.   

The young man asks him what it had been like, living here.

He doesn’t feel like speaking. He simply wants to stand there and gaze across the field.   

But he turns from the window and musters an answer. He speaks of schedules and a “typical day.” They worked in the mornings: kitchen duty, laundry, clean-up, and such. The work crews were shuffled; the jobs, rotated each week. They had their lessons in the afternoon. Sometimes, before dinner, they went outside and played sports.

As they’re leaving the building, the woman from the front desk hurries over. “Good. You’re still here,” she says. “There’s a man in hospice who was a teacher in the school during the war. I asked him if he might like to speak with you and he said yes.”

“One of the Dominican friars?” he asks.

“No, a lay person.”

The hospice building isn’t one of the modern ones. It’s old but homey and soft-lit. They follow a nurse down one hallway and then another, to a room with a leaded glass window. A man in light blue pajamas lays in a bed, his head and shoulders propped up with pillows. The nurse goes over, removes the cannula from his nose, and says, “Monsieur Juneau, you have visitors. Monsieur and Madame Lévy.”  

Alain goes over and sits in the chair by the bed. Sima stands nears the door.

“Professor Juneau! You were my geography teacher!”

The old man looks at him. His eyes are bloodshot and watery. “Geography?”

“Yes, geography.”  

“Tell me your name again. I didn’t catch it.”

“My name is Alain Lévy. But I don’t expect you to remember me. I was a student long ago. Eons ago. During the war.”

“Alain. Alain Lévy. But you were registered as Alain Lévêche.”

“My God. That’s exactly right.”

 “Of course, I remember you, Alain. You were one of my favorite pupils.”

“I was?” he asks, incredulously. 

“Yes, you were. I remember you were in the same class as Raoul, Raoul…I can’t remember his last name.”

“Raoul Hervé.”

“Yes, that’s it.”

Alain smiles broadly and leans back in the chair. “I can’t believe you remember that.”

The old man says, “Tell me something you remember about my geography class.”

“I remember the blue dots you painted on the floor. We had to make sure that the right front legs of our desks were positioned directly over the blue dots. So that all the rows of desks were neat and straight.”

The old man smiles and nods. “Yes, of course, the blue dots.”

“And you were very strict. You didn’t tolerate any nonsense.”

He stares at Alain, his head nodding almost imperceptibly. He asks the nurse to prop him up a little more, and then he turns his gaze towards Sima. “Please, Madame Lévy. Come over here. I cannot see you very well.”   

Alain gives her the chair.  

She says, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Monsieur Juneau.”

A little renegade wisp of white hair hangs down, over his forehead. She reaches out and says, “May I?” She gently sweeps it back into place and smooths it down.  

“Thank you, my dear.” Smiling mischievously, he says, “Your husband was also in my Latin class.”

Alain groans and covers his eyes with a hand. “Oh no. I was hoping you wouldn’t remember that.”  

“He wasn’t much of a Latin student…” He stops, seized by the need to cough. The nurse helps him with a glass of water. She puts the cannula back in his nose.

He whispers, “He wasn’t much of a Latin student, your husband. But he was kind. Not all the boys were.”

The nurse gives Alain and Sima a quick half-wink. They begin to say goodbye, but the old man stops them. He instructs Alain to open the bottom drawer of the bedside table. “See the photo in there? Take it out, Alain. I want you to have it.”

It’s a framed black and white image of the field and the foothills, taken from on high, a long time ago. The white houses on the hillsides are few and far apart.      

He reaches out, to take the teacher’s hand. As he does so, a corner of the frame separates, and the whole thing starts to collapse. But Sima’s hands are there, holding onto it, taking it from him.

Alain grasps the old man’s hand in both his own and gives it a long shake. The dying man has a surprisingly strong grip.

Outside the hospice building, he sits on a bench, waiting for her. Tears run down his cheeks. He lets them run; he doesn’t wipe them away.

Soon, she’s beside him. She’s found a large envelope, to hold the photo and frame.   

She slips an arm around his waist and grips him tightly. He pulls her close and rests his head against hers. He feels the tears drying on his skin. 

 

Nancy Lefenfeld has contributed scholarly research, findings, and analysis to the study of Jewish humanitarian resistance in France during the Shoah. She is presently using the medium of short fiction to consider a particular aftereffect of that catastrophe. Often, a Jewish child who survived reached adulthood with only a fragmentary and/or imprecise understanding of what he or she endured. It was in the 1980s and nineties that many of these adults embarked on efforts to revisit the past and correct or refine their childhood narratives. “Belleville” is one of a group of short stories that Nan has written on the subject. All are set in France in 1990. 

Belleville

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