THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
70 rue des Pyrénées
THEY WERE CHILLING, THESE DOCUMENTS that told of Uszer Kahan's arrest in Tarbes, France, on February 25, 1943, and of the March 4 transport on Convoy 50 that brought him to the extermination camp of Majdanek, Poland.
DOCUMENTS TELL THE STORY of Uszer's arrest by French police in Tarbes and the deadly trip from France to Poland on Convoy 50. The S.S. Security Service order, under the authority of S.S. lieutenant colonel Adolf Eichmann, notes a total of 1,000 Jews on the transport, and is signed by Heinz Röthke, chief of the Gestapo's Jewish Office in France. (Although the document indicates "direction Cholm," the International Tracing Service informed me that Convoy 50 of 4 March, 1943, actually went to the death camp of Majdanek.)
As I examined the arrest document, which I'd received from the Pyrénées Atlantique archive, I began to realize that its official lines told something more: the particulars of a life at its end.
EMILE SIMON -- HERE WAS THE NAME the name of the Tarbes policeman who arrested Uszer, acting on the orders given the day before from the prefect, the Vichy government's representative of the Hautes-Pyrénées departement (an administrative district, similar to a county).
"KAHAN Uzer Pinchas, born on the 17 March 1904 in Szumsk (Poland) of Polish nationality, living in Tarbes, 70 rue des Pyrénées" was at home on 25 February, 1943, when Emile Simon arrived to arrest him and take him to the gendarmerie. The next day he would be imprisoned in Gurs, then Drancy. One week after the arrest, he was on Convoy 50 to his death in Poland.
I had read about the many roundups that took place in France in 1942, followed by the massive roundups and deportations all over France in February, 1943 -- but this was specific evidence: what the International Tracing Service called "this individual's path of persecution." One innocent person, arrested by one city policeman, at his own home. At 70 rue des Pyrénées. Tarbes.
OUTSIDE HÔTEL DE VILLE (CITY HALL), TARBES. The statue, titled "1792" honors Danton, a French politician of the Revolution (who had never been to Tarbes).
TARBES, I LEARNED, IS A mid-sized industrial town in southwestern France, the capital of Hautes-Pyrénées département, in the Midi-Pyrénées région. It is very close to Lourdes, one of the most visited pilgrimage and religious tourism sites in the world, second only to Paris as a tourist attraction in France.
In contrast to Lourdes, Tarbes is known to most tourists, if at all, for the Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrénées Airport, located between the two cities.
I looked up the address, 70 rue des Pyrénées, Tarbes, France, on Google Maps. And there is it is (although not quite accurate, I later discover), both real and ephemeral, the place where Uszer Kahan lived. His last address.
NOW I MADE A PLAN: I would go to Tarbes, to at least see the place where Uszer had lived -- and perhaps other traces of his life there as well.
I had queried the Tarbes archive before, seven months before. At that time, an archivist had checked the refugee list for 1940 to 1942, but had not found his name. She noted that there were many more records to check, but it was too time consuming. "Maybe you could call a French correspondent to do this research?" she suggested. "I’m sorry I can not give you more information.”
I’d been discouraged by this response, but now, in July of 2015, with a plan to travel to Tarbes, I decided to try again. “I will be in Tarbes in October to research my mother’s cousin, Uszer Kahan,” I wrote. “Is there anyone who speaks English who could help me in the research?"
Before long I had a reply from the archive. "I speak English a little and will try to help you in your search in October." Her name was Sandrine Espouey, and she would become my friend and fellow researcher, with an unwavering commitment to the search and the memory of Uszer Kahan.
At her request, I sent her all the details I knew about him: his birth in Poland, his studies in Belgium, his address in Tarbes. I attached his youthful photo, the documents from Belgium and the ones about his deportation.
"Thank you very much for all these elements," Sandrine Espouey wrote. "You managed to gather very important pieces of the puzzle."
And yet, it would not be so easy for me to see where Uszer Kahan had lived. "Nowadays, the Rue des Pyrénées still exists but this part is now called Rue du Régiment du Bigorre. It seems that n°70 has been demolished, to create an entry to Haras National," she told me. "But it’s possible that today street numbers have changed too and that the house still exists. Difficult to say."
SANDRINE ESPOUEY, an archivist at the municiple archive in Tarbes, France, would become my friend and fellow obsessive researcher in the search for Uszer Kahan's story.
"USZER KAHAN'S COURSE unfortunately looks like many Jewish people’s at that period in Southwest France," Sandrine continued, speculating that he might have hidden in the attic of some home, and "probably did not work and did not go outside." Or perhaps he worked as a draughtsman (his profession, dessinateur, was indicated on the arrest documents) for one of the big companies around Tarbes, under a false name, she suggested -- until he was "denounced by some malevolent neighbors."
It was a well-reasoned theory, but facts were to prove otherwise, surprising us both.
Sandrine had found no specific references to Uszer Kahan in the city's archive, but she recommended that I write to the archive of the Hautes-Pyrénées Departement, also in Tarbes. "I imagine a file exists there about User Kahan’s survey and arrest in February 1943," she wrote.
This was news to me. Somehow, during my communications with the Pyrénées Atlantiques Departement, which had sent the files on Gurs, I'd overlooked (or rather, been completely unaware) that there was another departement that could have information. I wrote immediately asking if they might have anything on Uszer Kahan.
Just days later, I received a response from the archive director, François Giustiniani. Their research had turned up three types of files that could interest me, he wrote, and I could consult the files when I came to Tarbes in October. He listed the three types of files: police reports about Jews from 1940 to 1944, a census of Jews made in 1942 by the French administration.
AND THEN THERE WAS THE THIRD FILE. I was astounded to even hear of its existence, to know that in just a few months I could see and touch the documents it held. It was a foreigner's file, specifically for one person: Uszer Kahan.