Saturday, October 19, 2013

In Moissic, photo by Susan Hillyard

I am in Moissac, France, a village about twenty kilometers north of Auvillar, searching for the house where Jewish refugee children lived during the Second World War, a "safe" house. I have an address, 18 le Port that I show to a woman in the Tourist Bureau. She sends me to the port where tourist boats are tied up a dock. This is not the place. Clearly, she did not choose to hear what I said—in French; yes, haltingly, but still French, la maison Juif. My companions, Eugene Gloria, a poet, and Susan Hillyard, a photographer, and I consult a map. We walk, looking for a street named, le Port. Eugene suggests I ask a group of men and women picnicking at the river for directions. They are French. One young woman who speaks English, points our way, but as we walk, I’m insecure, so I stop at a hotel, ask a man behind a desk, receive the same directions. I am writing about Jews and France during and right after the Second World War and about the attitudes of these villages, a collective conscience that some have and others don’t. For two years, now, I’ve returned to France, conducted interviews, visited a "safe" house in Beaulieu,  a village in the Dordogne. The house was run by the Jewish Scouts, Eclaires Israelites Francais, a normal scouting organization before the War, a resistance organization during the War. I’ve visited Moissac, the cathedral, the famous Abbey, all of the usual tourist sites which obviously did not include the house where Jewish refugee children had lived. Nor had I known that the Jewish Scouts had operated a safe house in Moissac, so close to Auvillar, the village where I generally stay. Finally, we find what we think is the correct street. Eugene finds a plaque affixed to number eighteen, but it is not a plaque that memorializes Jewish children or the people of Moissac. Eugene reads aloud—something about Napoleon, when suddenly, a window opens, and a head appears, startling me, startling Susan. Eugene stops reading. Half in shadow, voice speaks as if from a ghostly past, “Je suis Napoleon,” I am Napoleon.
            At that moment, I believe he is Napoleon. He’s smiling, joking. Again, I ask about la maison Juif. As I listen, intently, my frizzy hair flying he points, giving directions in both English and French, and this is when Susan snaps the photo of me and Napoleon.
We walk again. Now, my friends are impatient, Susan lagging behind, Eugene forging ahead, then stopping to ask if I’m sure there was a house in Moissac.
I snap. “Of course, I’m sure.”
Then, I apologize. This is my quest, not his, and I’m wondering why finding this house is so important to me. Why do I want to see bricks and mortar, windows, the door where those children and their caretakers entered and left. The door where before a German raid, the mayor would send a messenger to warn the directors, Shatta and Boule Simon. Always, their rucksacks were packed, their tents ready so they could leave, quickly, and head to the hills until danger had passed. 
Walking again, we leave the river, and now I’m sure we’re off track. Another hotel, another set of directions. This time we find a small plaza and there on a wall, two plaques, one honoring Shatta and Boule Simon, a second honoring the people of Moissac for opening their hearts and their homes to protect Jewish children during the dark years of the German occupation. And I realize this is where everyone was sending me, not to a house, but to this small plaza named for Shatta and Boule Simon. We read and linger, then I walk, hurriedly, back to number eighteen. The window is closed. No one says in a deep voice, “Je suis Napoleon.” I take a picture. Perhaps, this is the house. Perhaps, it isn't. Still, I’m satisfied. I don’t know why. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Caves at Pech Merle, France

Yesterday, visiting Pech Merle, an ancient cave near Cabreterts, a village in the midi-Pyreéneées section of France, I could not believe my guide’s words. The drawings in these caves are 25,000 years old, renderings of horses, mammoths, aurochs, pre-historic cows, bear and the imprint of a negative hand. These ancient people made art, painstaking, time consuming, beautiful, sensitive art. They drew with their hands on soft stone, etched with a tool on harder stone. They used pigment, magnesium oxide to make black, iron oxide to make red. Five hundred years later, an artist added spots to horses using ash. Dates can’t be exact. Scholarship continues to evolve. What is clear is the negative imprint of a hand on a cave wall. So, how did the artist create a negative image? Pretty sophisticated. He or she—and one print does seem to belong to a woman—placed a hand on a wall, and in the case of the smaller hand which I saw more clearly, it was a left hand. Then, taking colored dust into her mouth the artist spit pigment onto the wall. Careful, controlled little puffs. A single hand print took twelve hours. Did this artist work alone?  Did she have helpers, all taking dust into their mouths, all spitting. We don’t know. We do know that archeologists reached these conclusions about time using materials available 25,000 years before the Common Era. Then, they reproduced the artist’s process. Twelve hours for that hand. Thirty-two hours for a horse.
            Temperature and moisture continue to preserve these drawings, a fish with scales, a mammoth with long wooly hair. A theory is these caves were used for ceremonial purposes. Perhaps, though, this was an ancient artists’ studio, a place where people came to make art. I am particularly struck by the rendering of a bear’s head, its snout, it’s nostrils, seemingly quivering and picking up my scent as I stand where an ancient artist must have stood, etching his fine lines. How many hours for this bear’s head?
            Inside the cave, stalagmites and stalactites. On the ceiling rock formations that look like clouds, on the cave’s floor, standing rock that resembles columns. A foot print sunken down into what must have been mud, and I am imagining an artist, leaving the cave, heading home after a long day, exhausted, satisfied, knowing that she has left behind some essence of humanity on these cave walls.  

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What's New?

“Hey, Joe,” my dad would say to my uncle whose name was not Joe, but Seymour. “What’s new?”
            “Nothing much,” my uncle would say to my dad whose name was Leon. “What’s new with you, Joe?”
            Why Joe? Why not their names? A certain playfulness, I suppose. I remember their faces, their smiles, a glint in each eye. Intimate in their own way, my uncle and my father exchanged news. Perhaps a friend had moved to the suburbs. Or bought a business. Or lost a business. They talked about sports, those damn Yankees. And always there was something new. News. Today, I have news. The winter issue of Stone Voices will include my essay “Hidden Messages.” Stone Voices explores the many connections between art and spirituality. You’ll find visual art, poetry, stories, essays. It’s a beautiful magazine published in Brunswick, Maine, and I’m honored to be included in its pages.
Take a look at the preview for a taste of "HIdden Messages."
From the preview page, you can get to the Stone Voices website. You can also order a copy of the magazine which will be out in November and read all of “Hidden Messages.” Perhaps, you'll be so intrigued, you'll order a subscription.