|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.