Identity

Documents© Archives départementales des Hautes-Pyrénées

THAT AFTERNOON WE WALKED to the archive of the Hautes Pyrénées departement where the month before, I'd made an appointment to see the documents on Uszer Kahan.

The archivist, Cédric Broët, a soft-spoken black-bearded young man with perfect English, brought two sets of files out to the empty research room. First, he showed me a list of those deported from the departement, which included Uszer Kahan's name. Then he gave me the foreigner's file, and left me to spend as long as I wanted looking at and photographing the documents. He would be in his office if I had any questions, he said.

 

I shivered as I withdrew the documents from the file and spread them across the long wooden table, suddenly overcome by the closeness to this cousin whose fate I had pursued.

MOST STARTLING were the two Cartes d'Identité, foreigners' identity cards (in this case, for an industrial worker) that had many pages, folding accordian style. They showed each of the places where Uszer Kahan had to register his residence with the police, even if he resided in a town for only a few days.

Documents © Archives départementales des Hautes-Pyrénées

There was something intensely personal and chilling for me to see Uszer's photos on the identity cards. I had known him at first from his photo as a young man in Poland, soon to leave for his education in Belgium. Now I saw him as a mature man of 32 and 35, searching for his freedom in France with ever-increasing desperation.  

IT WAS MOVING to hold Uszer's foreigner identity cards, the worn and taped documents, with many inked stamps, that he'd handled so many times. (Documents© Archives départementales des Hautes-Pyrénées)

THE NOTICE  DE RENSEIGNEMENTS provided information about foreign refugees from the Occupied Zone who wanted to enter the Free Zone in southern France after May 10, 1940.   (Documents© Archives départementales des Hautes-Pyrénées)

THERE WAS ALSO A STACK of other documents, including Uszer Kahan's work contracts, letters of recommendation and file cards which matched his cartes d'identite. The most important among these, M. Broët told me, was what he called the Notice to Enter Free France, Notice de Renseignements, that gave information about how long Uszer Kahan had been in France -- since March of 1930 -- and told that his habitual residence was in Paris, but that he now lived in Tarbes. More pointedly, this was the only one of the documents to mark his religion -- israélite --and his reason for entering the zone libre: A cause de sa religion.

I spent hours looking through the documents, photographing them and asking M. Broët to make scans of some of them for me as well. Finally, in the late afternoon, as the October sky outside the windows darkened with storm clouds, I gave the file back to M. Broët. We left the archive, and walked back to our room at the B & B in the rain. There, I wrote about the day's experiences in my journal, recording my emotional reactions to the encounter with the disturbing documents, trying to describe what it was like to hold them in my hands. Then I fell into an exhausted, restless sleep.