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Unresolved History; Unfinished Business

By Bruce Sarbit

World War II, of course, severely disrupted my family's life. How could it not? The tragic events that shook the world shook us as individuals too, even though we lived far from where the war was actually fought. Like all Canadians, we lost relatives, friends and neighbours who served in our armed forces. We also lost family for whom France was home.

When, following the war, our parents were asked about the family in France, they shrugged and said that perhaps all had died in the Holocaust. But, one day in 1996, Aunt Rose found in her keepsakes a letter (to her deceased husband, my Uncle Sam) from one of the French cousins, Charles. It was dated 1946, and gave an address in Lyons. As far as anyone knew, there had been no further letters from France. And, there was no way of telling whether Uncle Sam had replied to Charles.

In the letter, Charles told his story and that of the family during the war. Two members of the family had gone to war for France. One died in battle. All were forever scarred by the horrible events of the war and by the Holocaust: his father, mother, sister-in-law and niece were among those who died at Auschwitz. Charles' wife and brother, a nephew and niece had survived. Charles, himself, once France had been defeated, had changed his name from Goldberg to Peyrin so that he might go underground with the Resistance. He, then, spent some of the war as a spy for the Allies in a German munitions plant in Lyons. Following the war, he made his home there and was now active in the textile industry.

Our friends chose Brian Moore's novel "The Statement" when it was their turn to host our book club meeting. The novel fictionalized the later life of the Frenchman, Paul Touvier, a particularly vicious Nazi collaborator in the Vichy region. Convicted of "crimes against humanity" for having had many Jews executed, Touvier sought and found refuge in a number of Catholic monasteries. The novel followed him from one monastic hideout to another as police and Nazi hunters tried to track him down.

As often happens when the book club choice stimulates my interest in new learning, I began to research the subject. I wanted to learn all I could, in this case about Catholic support of Nazis, about Vichy France, about Touvier and other Nazi collaborators, particularly Maurice Papon and Klaus Barbie, who, like Touvier, had been in hiding for many years.

The Internet had a wealth of material on Touvier's trial, his conviction and his death in prison. It also had up-to-date information on the preparations for the upcoming trial of another Nazi collaborator, Maurice Papon. But, it lacked extensive information on the Vichy Regime. The local library, though, had just what I needed, a book on Barbie and Vichy, particularly the city of Lyons, during World War II. Touvier was frequently mentioned.

As I thumbed through it, searching for information that might help my participation in the book club, I remembered to search for, without much hope of finding any, connections to my long-lost family in France. In the index, I looked up the name "Peyrin." Nothing. I looked up the name "Goldberg" and, there, found two page numbers for "Goldberg, Michel." I knew that the name Goldberg was very common. Still, I still read the first of the two pages with great excitement. What if he was a long-lost relative?

I read that Michel Goldberg had been a child in Lyons when World War II began. Despite Barbie's round-ups of Jews, he had survived: he hadn't been in the streets when the troops came through. His parents, however, had not escaped the round-ups. They had both been deported to Auschwitz and died there.

Each night following the war, Michel dreamed, until he woke in a panic, that concentration camp numbers burned into his arm kept growing and growing. He didn't share his dream with anyone; he suffered silently and hoped that the dream would go away. Then, in 1975, his young daughter asked him where her grandparents were buried. "They weren't buried," he answered. "Their ashes were mixed with the ashes of all the others burned at Auschwitz." He knew then that the terrible dream wouldn't stop until he did something to quiet his grief over his parents' awful death.

Ask yourself this: under similar circumstances, what would you have done to relieve your grief?

Incredibly, Goldberg decided to kill the infamous "Butcher of Lyons," Klaus Barbie, perhaps the man most responsible for the death of his parents. He flew to Bolivia where Barbie had received asylum. Posing as a journalist, he succeeded in gaining an interview with Barbie. He purchased a gun and hiding it in his coat pocket, conducted the interview in a restaurant. Barbie was accompanied by an armed security guard.

While Goldberg was asking Barbie questions, a local man teased the Nazi thug: "Hey, Barbie, why do you get so much attention? You were nothing but a minor administrator for the Nazis." Barbie was offended. He puffed himself up and replied, "That's not true. If it hadn't been for me, Jean Moulin, the leader of the Resistance, wouldn't have been killed. If he had survived the war, he, not de Gaulle, would have been President. And, then, France would have been a communist country."

Absolutely disgusted by this malicious and pompous man, Goldberg reached into his pocket for his gun. Then, he reconsidered. Barbie's bodyguard might kill him before he could get off a shot. Even if he did manage to shoot Barbie, he might then be killed himself. Or, worse still, he might be kept for years in a Bolivian jail. In any case, he would probably never see his daughter again. He released the trigger, excused himself and left the restaurant. As he walked back to his hotel, he threw the gun away. Shortly after that, he flew home to France. End of story.

That's the way it is for many Jews post-war, post-Holocaust. Unresolved history. Unfinished business. We keep searching through our personal and collective pasts, hoping that something we do will make for, or lead us to, a solution or to a sense that justice has been done. We watch and support the prosecution of Eichmann and Barbie and Touvier and Papon and hope that their convictions and punishments will make some significant difference to us. We cheer when those who fight Holocaust denial are successful; we hope that their successes will become ours.

But, with respect to Michel Goldberg, I am left hanging. I have so many unanswered questions. How did Goldberg resolve his grief? Having faced Barbie, did he feel any better? Or, perhaps, did he feel worse because he failed to do anything with the opportunity? What would I have felt had I been in his shoes? Was he satisfied when Barbie's Bolivian sanctuary was ended, or better still when the "Butcher of Lyons" was brought back to France, put on trial and found guilty of "crimes against humanity?" Am I less conflicted as a result of Barbie's conviction?

Of course, I also wondered if Michel Goldberg was one of my lost relatives. The answer was in the book's second reference to him. There, I read that his parents had moved to France from Poland in the 1920s. My relatives, on the other hand, had come to France from Jerusalem prior to World War I.

I continue to search for my relatives and for resolution.


from the November 2001 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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