One summer day in 2016, an old Jewish American, Henry Osman, who returned to the forgotten places of his early Parisian childhood, asked his interlocutor: "Is it possible that my parents touched this handle?" (that of the carriage door); and, designating the paving stones: "Is it possible that my parents walked here?" A time later, he questions: “But if my father was a street vendor, he must have had a small cart. Did he leave him in this yard? " Before seeing a unique memory emerge from darkness, that of having been taken to public baths by his mother. It’s one of the highlights of the book 209 rue Saint-Maur Paris Xe, that Ruth Zylberman had already filmed in a documentary released in 2018 (1). These questions without absolute answers, this exposure of a childhood memory made amnesic by the shocks of history were overwhelming.
Henri Osman, now Henry, an orphan survivor of the Holocaust, separated from his parents at the age of 4 or 5, lived at this address, located not far from the Place de la République. A building that Ruth Zylberman publishes today "autobiography", in a Perec attempt to exhaust a place typical of Parisian popular history. The documentary focused on children in the building who were victims of the Nazis and the Vichy police. In her book, the fruit of years of research, the author born in 1971, whose mother was deported as a child, more broadly paints the story of "209" since the middle of the XIXe century until the gentrification of the XXIe, in an approach that is both rigorous and subjective. So much so that the book vibrates with all the resonances of the living voices of today as of yesterday. We hear the noise of violent knocks on the doors, in the worst hours of the hunt for the Jews, but also the call of the bistro from the time when there was only one telephone in the building and he hailed from outside the person we were trying to reach, or the gunfire of November 13, 2015. Deaf also the rumor of ordinary days, in the large courtyard that connects the four buildings of "209": the sounds of pans, the musical notes of the apprentice instrumentalists, the bursts of voice springing from these long tiny dwellings with open windows.
The fate of the building's Jewish children remains the beating heart of the book, but the building takes on more form in the eyes of the reader thanks to historical insights. The author searches the departmental, police, and army archives … brings up a valiant communard, Claude Payet, who worked in a factory on the ground floor, authors of various facts – a broken mouth of the First World War II murderer of his wife's lover, the killers of an old man in 1983 stripped of his meager savings.
Ruth Zylberman also talks about today's meetings: the caretaker and the inhabitants of "209" got used to her, she is invited to enter the apartments, walks through the long and narrow corridors, goes down to the cellar, stretched out in his search for the spirit of the place, to the point that it would not seem surprising that specters from a time past stand at the corner of a corridor. The population of 209 still remains contrasted: on the one hand, old inhabitants, tenants, often immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the Maghreb and Portugal, and, on the other hand, ex-thirties who became owners in the 2000s after a sale by lots. They knocked down partitions, made up of pretty apartments, far from the one-room proletarians who endured.
Under the Occupation, a building that was still very popular was hit by deportations, including those of nine children. By consulting the censuses, Ruth Zylberman quantifies to a third the Jewish population of the "209" at the end of the 1930s, that is to say a hundred people out of three hundred, workers or small craftsmen from the East, still attached to the Yiddish language . Half were deported, the others managed to flee, children were placed, but some remained in the building.
Figures of non-Jews appear, neighbors often united, at least by the silence. The concierge, Yvonne Massacré, had established a code with people hiding in an apartment. When the police were inside the walls, she swept the yard in some way. The Dinanceaux sheltered Jews, fed them, a strange family where the father and mother were in solidarity with the persecuted and the son a junk engaged in a pro-Nazi organization. There was also "the mute", M's sisterme Coignard, a prostitute, who during police raids reported in writing all the doors of the targeted residents.
Charles Zelwer, Odette Diament, Berthe Rolider, Albert Baum… Ruth Zylberman finds the trace, thanks to her pugnacity and some meddling luck, of some of the surviving Jewish children of “209”. She pulls wires, crosschecks information, goes to Tel Aviv to interview Odette Diament, 12 years old in 1942, a bright woman with an intact memory, she will see in New York State Henry Osman whom she has identified as the little boy in the brick red coat whom Odette saw passing in the courtyard. She finds Berthe and her daughter in Australia, communicates by Skype. We give her tips, sometimes the memories are inaccurate, she calls it fakes "Memories portmanteau" everything is so far away. Relatives of deceased survivors provide information. Thus Robert, a widower, who testifies from a text of his wife, Hélène, adolescent in 1942, of the confinement of this one during two years in a room of 6 m2.
The author is also doing real detective work. What was the identity of this woman "green Eyed" who put a very small child in the caretaker’s arms while he was being arrested? This septuagenarian "baby", René Goldsztajn, we see in 2016 during the reunion with the "209" of the survivors. He hides behind the visor of his cap, he is overwhelmed with emotion, and like the American Henry, he desperately searches the memory of his young years: nothing remains of his parents' faces.
(1) The Children of 209 rue Saint-Maur, visible on the Arte shop.
Ruth Zylberman 209 rue Saint-Maur, Paris Xe. Autobiography of a building Seuil-Arte Editions, 448 pp., 23 €.
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