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Goodbye - A Jewish Story


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A Time to Say Goodbye

By Sidney S. Fink

Things, events that happen to us, as we live the varied days of our lives on this, our planet, that all of us call home, can evoke in us through a variety of feelings and emotions. Sometimes we even surprise ourselves at the twists of fate and how we react, or perhaps how we don’t react to what is transpiring at that particular moment…and perhaps even thereafter.

My name is Jack, and I like to think of myself as a writer, of sorts, an amateur one at that…perhaps…but I suddenly see, or hear something and off I go into myself creating a tale because of that sudden unexpected “something” This time that something happened on a barge trip in France, down the canal below Dijon, that my wife and I took from a company in Boston called “French Country Waterways”, in a special offering to celebrate our fifty years of marriage. We had spent the previous day and evening after our arrival upon landing at the Charles de Gaulle Airport located just outside of Paris at the famous Hotel Meurice, situated across from the Tuilleries Gardens.

The Hotel had been noted since World War II for having been the German’s headquarters in Paris. After settling ourselves in our room, my wife and I left the premises and found the renown Parisian hot chocolate cafe just up the street a piece to our left. After enjoying our delicious, almost beyond imagination respite of a cup of their famed Angelina’s hot chocolate, we wandered across the avenue into the Gardens itself.. We wandered past the amusements that seemed to perhaps have been recently set up…the Ferris wheel, the roller coaster and other fun rides, over to the bandstand area.

We sat down on the folding chairs that had been assembled there and listened to the rehearsal of the renown Claude Bolling Orchestra until they had finished their rehearsal for tomorrow’s holiday events. Tomorrow, after all would be July 14th, France’s version of our Independence Day, their Bastile Day.

That evening we had our final meal of the day in the dining area of our hotel. We knew no one else there that might possibly be joining us on our trip, but I did notice a somewhat distinguished looking older gentleman and a woman seated with him at a table just past ours. The woman seemed to be a bit older and more sedate than the man. They were obviously both older than we were. For whatever his reason, the gentleman at times seemed to be staring at me, as if he perhaps thought, or felt that I seemed familiar to him somehow from somewhere. I knew that I did not know him at all and did not return the stare.

The following morning the same twosome were there once again at breakfast in the dining room and the stare at times returned. We left them after we concluded our breakfast such as it was and we then proceeded outside to the main street to witness the holiday’s parade and the happenings that were passing by in front of our hotel. Tanks and personnel carriers laden with soldiers went by us and warplanes in formation flew by overhead. The entire area was quite crowded by other joyous holiday observers, but we did manage to stroll a block, or two by vigorously squeezing through the onlookers and passersby and to get into the feel of the occasion.

We returned to the Meurice a short while later to leave our room, to collect our luggage and check out downstairs as we were required to do, and to wait in the hotel’s sumptuous lobby, our prearranged meeting point just outside the dining area for our tour guide to arrive, as expected. The guide was scheduled to meet us and all the other passengers who were by then waiting there for the journey to our barge. None of us knew each other. The gentleman who had stared at us and his wife were there as well.

Finally our young guide, who turned out to be a lovely young woman arrived, gathered us all together, then escorted all of us and our luggage outside through a side door entrance to an awaiting minibus. She loaded all our luggage and ourselves aboard, and then drove us to a Parisian train station where e then boarded a TGV train to Dijon. When we arrived in Dijon we boarded another waiting van that took us to our temporary barge home, the “Esprit” and each couple was assigned to their particular room below.

Our luggage had already been placed there. We proceeded to unpack and make ourselves as comfortable as was possible. Fortunately for us, our abode had a built in double bed, a clever storage area that consisted of a real closet, and as we had encountered previously in France, a rather miniscule bathroom that luckily had a fine shower arrangement. There was a bowl of flowers on a built in dressing table, and a welcoming gift bottle of a fine French wine upon it as well.

As previously advised we dressed casually and the proceeded upstairs to join our fellow passengers for dinner and to spend a few moments getting acquainted with one another and our crew before eating. The dining area was just at the top of the stairs and the tables were set for a getting to know you arrangement. Going forward towards the front of the barge was a setting of comfortably arranged, fully stuffed chairs and sofas, a coffee table upon which lay a medley of art books, a small library of books, some of which had probably been left behind by former English speaking passengers and fresh flowers everywhere.

To the right of that was a bar open to all for cocktails. We were met by our guide, the Captain and his crew and introduced to them, and they to us. The bar was fully stocked with everything imaginable and we were advised that if anything we desired was indeed missing, that they would provide it the next day. And indeed so it was. We were informed that the bar was open to us at any time. We then proceeded to meet and get acquainted with our fellow travelers prior to being advised to seat ourselves for dinner.

We made ourselves comfortable and began to familiarize ourselves with one another as we dined, stating where we were from, how long we were married, how many children we had, a bit about them and then we went into who and what were. We all seemed quite warm and friendly as we explained our backgrounds. The distinguished staring gentleman was a physician, William Fridkin, from Ohio, a retired surgeon, and his spouse Wilma, was a former nurse. They had two sons who were also physicians. Another of our fellow passengers was a physician as well and he inquired “From which school did you get your degree?”


“Oh!, after the war. I went to Geneva myself”

The gentleman hesitated for a moment.

“No, not exactly…I was drafted out of medical school in 1940.”

“Drafted? In 1940?… We didn’t…”

“Into the German Army…into the artillery. I finished medical school after the war. I met my wife while serving at an American Army hospital there and came to the U.S. afterwards.”

We asked no further questions of him after that. They seemed nice enough and the war was long past at this point in time.


It was a small barge and as I may have already stated, we were eight couples of celebrants that had never met before, yet we became quite compatible. The barge traveled at a leisurely pace, we awoke for a leisurely buffet style breakfast, perhaps a walk then on the tow paths that ran besides the canal, or for a bicycle ride, were we inclined to do so, or perhaps for a tour of a nearby village, chateau, or vineyard. We enjoyed a warm buffet style lunch, which had a different seating arrangement that allowed us to change eating partners and thereby get to know one other better. Each luncheon, as did dinner, had bottles of both a red and a white wine before us, never the same one repeated, as well as three different cheeses, again never the same one repeated. And in this manner we all became a close, warm friendly, almost even a family cohort in no time at all.

On one particular morning near Beaune our young female tour guide, Elise, unexpectedly took just one of us, Bill… William, the husband of Wilma, out alone, and the two of them went somewhere nearby. Why Bill, the now retired gentleman physician from Ohio, did not take Wilma his wife, along was a mystery to the rest of us. When Elise and Bill later returned the enigma of their sojourn got the better of those of us left behind. We were as might be expected, reluctant to approach Bill, so we unobtrusively as possible cornered Elise once Bill and Wilma had gone below deck to their room for a respite..

“Where did you two go off to in this region today” Morris the other physician inquired of her.

“Why, he asked me to take him alone to a nearby small cemetery”

“A cemetery? Why?"

“He apparently knew people that were buried there, a philosopher friend of his father’s and his daughter. He bought some flowers on the way at a place in Beaune and he went into the cemetery by himself. He said that he wanted some private time there and he left me at the van.”

We all left it at that.

At lunch that day, as we all talked and proceeded to become more familiar yet with each other and our backgrounds, Bill’s history after that solo trip had us intrigued and he knew quite well that we were all now even more curious about his past history, and he eventually decided to reveal more details to us.

“My full name” Bill began “ is actually Wilhem Ettinger…Germanic, of course, by birth ,but now William and totally American….I was drafted in 1940 as I have stated out of medical school into the German army along with some fellow students. The need for manpower I suppose. I served in Russia…as a medic with an artillery unit and then later in this part of France from 1943 till 44 after I had suffered a wound to my leg.

I finished my medical training not long after the war and was fortunate to be able to join the staff at an American hospital unit…Wilma…my wife, was then a nurse at that American unit hospital. It was 1952. We met, we fell in love, married, and then I was able to come to the USA to join her. I was now a surgeon and we settled in Minnesota, Later we moved to Ohio. Our sons are presently surgeons there. I was a fine surgeon and highly sought after there. I made some rather fine innovations in techniques and tools and to become well regarded there...still am…As to my sojourn today…When I was stationed in this area of France I used to visit a close friend of my father…a Frenchman like my father he was a professor of philosophy. I went to his resting place today to pay my respects.”.

We let it go at that point not wishing to pry any further. They seemed like a lovely couple and again, it was “now, not then.”

It was but two mornings later that I found myself walking beside Bill on the narrow canal trail with the Espirit just trailing slowly behind us. Bill is as I’ve noted, was tall, over six feet two and still quite a handsome, white haired gent.

“You noticed me staring at you at the Meurice. Are you Jewish?” Bill suddenly asked me.

“Yes.” I quietly replied, being somewhat surprised by his inquiry. “Why do you ask?”

“Where was your family from originally?”

“Poland, just below East Prussia.”

“Ah! I am from that part of Prussia. I speak German of course, Russian, Polish and even some Yiddish. Your face reminded me of some people that I once knew…a long time ago.”

I stopped walking at that comment and he did likewise. I looked at his face, and he into mine, and it seemed that he wanted to say more, but was reluctant to do so, whereupon I then calmly inquired “Why did you really go with Elise to that cemetery? The area was part of Vichy, France and I was there myself in late forty-four...what made you go there…just you and Elise?...What did you really want there?”

“Yes, I was right in my thinking. I saw in your face what I did not see in the others when I spoke of my past youth…and that is why I am here with just you now…I must…I must…I have to speak to someone…no, I did nothing wrong…but I must unburden myself to someone…somehow, when I saw your face…you now are that someone…I was not a Nazi…I did not hate, or wish to harm Juden…I”

“You don’t have to go on with that…what do you want to tell me Bill? Why the visit to the French cemetery? You are correct… that…that has me going. I feel that there is a lot more to that story than you have revealed ”

“Yes…you are correct.”

Bill looked directly into my face and began to speak slowly and softly.

“I was stationed in Beaune after being wounded on the Eastern Front. As you must recall our forces went into Vichy despite our promises to Laval… and there was a rest hospital there for our men that I was assigned to. My father had been a philosophy professor, and I lost him in thirty-eight. I knew that he had a French philosopher friend in Beaune. They wrote to each other and he often spoke of him to me, so I went to see him…and thereby met his family…a teenaged son, and an older daughter of eighteen…his wife had also passed away. He rather reluctantly welcomed me, which came as no surprise after all, but it was also a smart move on his part I only discovered later. His eighteen year old daughter was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen, and I was totally smitten. She however, was not so with me. She avoided me despite all my efforts…I brought food…gifts, even flowers on my visits. All to no avail.

"Then for whatever reason that I never understood, or learned the reason for, I was then assigned as a medic to our local staff HQ and suddenly she seemed to become more open, more interested in me…I thought it was due to my six foot four height, and my great looks and charm. We went out together fairly often and at times we received many hostile stares from the area locals. I was overwhelmed by her and her beauty…I did not realize that our seemingly simple conversations at the romantic places we visited in Beaune…were in reality but disguised attempts to gain information about events at our HQ. I thought it was but innocent conversation by two new lovebirds. I had no idea that she, her father and her brother were active in the French underground, or that she was seeking information, or that she was involved in aiding downed Allied airmen escape to Switzerland. She was “ par excellance” in her efforts and I was madly in love by then… but the Allied invasions came and I along with the rest of the HQ were ordered back into Germany. We left and I lost touch until after the war ended.”

Bill stopped at this point, but I urged him to begin again.

“What happened? Did you go back… what did you discover…of course you went back.”

“They killed her…and her father.”

“They? Who. ..your fellow Germans?”

“No…the French…the French Communists…they entered Beaune first after we left and went after suspected collaborators that were pointed out to them…our supposed affair was brought to their attention…people didn’t know about her and her family’s underground efforts. It was necessary to keep that a hidden secret for safety’s sake and many of the locals thought…they thought, thought they were collaborators…they…the Communists came to their home and they shot her father. She was shot trying to shield him …and trying to explain to them, but they would not listen and they dragged him outside as she followed them screaming in horror…and trying to explain, but they just laughed at her not willing to even believe her and she put herself in front of him and they just laughed as they shot them both.”

“How did you learn all this?”

“The brother.”

“The brother told you? He was not there then?”

“No, he was away north of Dijon with his underground group at that time assisting the Allies…when he came back with them and they discovered what had happened…he and his group then went after the bastards and got even with the damn Communists. The locals…the now aware and thoroughly ashamed locals helped them get their revenge. He sadly told me about it all when I returned to find her after the end of the war. When he told me about it, I just fled in horror, sick inside and I never returned…until now…more than fifty years later…I have always felt that their deaths ,.. her death was all my doing ”

“So you had to make your final goodbye…for your own inner peace. You’ve lived with this eating away at you inside for all these years.”

“ All these years. I had to say a final goodbye. I loved her even knowing even now…that for her it was perhaps but an act…but I forgive her…for me it was the real thing… and I realize that her being with me… her being with me was the cause of her and her father’s deaths. I went to see them and to apologize… and to ask for their forgiveness…I did…and now, and now I think that I can forget her and go on with my own final days…after all I do have my wife and children, grandchildren…and fifty years of bliss…” Bill paused for a moment. “Shall we continue with our walking now?”

“There is more to this. Why did you go back to find her after the war?”

“You are shrewed. Yes…I went back to marry her. I thought that we had agreed to do so.”

“Marry her? Then your liason became much more involved. You became more deeply enmeshed and in love with one another?”

“We became sexually involved. I felt it was sincere. I told her things that were taking place at our HQ. I suspected, but refused to believe that she was just using me. I knew, or at least felt by then that we were losing our war and that it would be ending. I told her that and I asked her to marry me when it was over. She agreed and we told her father and brother. They seemed to accept it…perhaps it was just an act to be able to get more from me about the goings on at HQ. I will never really know. Her brother died but a short time later in an accident.”

“But knowing of this return to marry her…her brother told you about what happened out of his understanding…told you exactly what had happened?

“Yes. Apparently he could see the hell taking place within my soul… That is my story.”

“And why me. Why tell me?”

“Your face…it reminds me of lost family I once knew. My father’s grandfather was a Jew in Prussia. A doctor. When I was very young, on occasion we would visit him, or other relatives in Poland. They spoke Yiddish. We stopped the visits to our Juden relations when my parents no longer wished to be anything else but pure Germans. Somehow you look to me… you look somewhat like those people…who knows…Perhaps we should move on now. I feel the need to walk.”

“Why not. My legs could use the exercise. And your last comments…Well who knows.”

And so we continued our walk, and our journey with our fellow celebrants and yes, we are still in touch with each other...Bill and I. After all who knows about faces and times past these days anyhow…it’s so long ago…just another time to say goodbye to.


from the August 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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