Memory in France: one person, one name
IT WAS JUNE, 2021, A YEAR AND A HALF AFTER I had written the last letter to the mayor, after I had decided that the Stolperstein memorial for Uszer Kahan was unlikely to ever take place.
Then an email arrived in my inbox, with all the weight of an inheritance from an unknown relative. In a sense, that's what it was.
"I'm taking the liberty of writing to you on account of your ancestor, Uszer Kahan," the letter began. The writer, Thomas Ferrer, introduced himself as a history teacher at a lycée in Tarbes. I recognized the name and recalled that he was one of the authors of a book I'd seen when I was there: Tarbes et les Hautes-Pyrénées. Collaboration, Résistance, Libération.
"I am aware of all the attempts you made a few years ago to have a Stolperstein installed in memory of Uszer Kahan," he wrote. He said he'd be "delighted to rekindle the project" as an educational project, in which students would study local archives, museums and historical sites, as well as my Grey Folder web site to learn about Uszer Kahan and make a film about his life.
And then, in the most startling of his bullet points: he proposed planning a ceremony to install "the first Stolperstein in Tarbes, with you attending of course."
M. Ferrer said he had the support of the local leaders of the FNDIRP ( National Federation of Deportees, Internees, Resistance Fighters and Patriots), which commemorates those who perished or were interned in the camps in France, Germany or Poland. Local leaders of the organization, he said, were willing to support another application for the Stolperstein and were ready, he said "to get in touch with the town's officials to get what they want."
Would I support another application, communicate with the students, and work together to see the Stolperstein become a reality?
Of course, I replied. "Of course!" And soon another email arrived, "I am very happy with your reply."
YES, I WAS THRILLED -- I had long hoped to get educators interested in the project. But I was also skeptical. How many times had I been stonewalled in my attempts to even get a direct response to my queries? It seemed that the officials didn't want to draw attention to what had happened to the Jews here.
So, as Thomas wrote to say that he and Frédéric Santos, vice president of the Hautes-Pyrénées department of the FNDIRP, would be meeting with the mayor on August 24, I tried to tamp down my expectations. "Good luck with the town hall permission, which has eluded me for so many years!" I wrote. "You have a much better chance."
BUT OBTAINING THE MAYOR'S PERMISSION was by no means a given. "As expected, he was rather reluctant at the start of the exchange," Thomas wrote. "But after half an hour of discussion, his position changed somewhat."
This was encouraging, but certainly not a resounding approval. In fact, I later learned from Thomas that the Stolperstein proposal was not only "far from being accepted at first glance," but that the mayor's initial response was "a categorical no."
Why was that? The mayor had three arguments. First, he pointed out that Uszer Kahan had lived in Tarbes for only a short time. Thomas Ferrer responded by saying the Jewish and Roma populations were persecuted, hunted down and murdered during World War II; by definition many were uprooted, rather than longtime residents.
Second, the mayor asked if the project would be well received by the memorial organizations of Tarbes. For this question, Thomas contacted an association of 14 local memorial organizations. They met and gave their unanimous support to the project.
Finally, the mayor wanted documentation of the address change. Researching the Hautes-Pyrénées archive and the property tax service, Thomas and Sandrine found documentary proof that 70 rue des Pyrénées had indeed become 92 Avenue du Régiment de Bigorre.
THE STUDENTS WON a competition for lycée students in the Occitania region on the work of memory. In February, 2022, the students were honored at an awards ceremony for their documentary film, "sur les traces d'Uszer Kahan."
ALL THESE OBJECTIIONS, replies and reassurances went on over the next six weeks, and for the most part, I was unaware of them. Privately, I didn't really believe that the mayor would give approval. I wrote to tell Thomas that even if there couldn't be a Stolperstein, his class's educational project would be meaningful.
So, I really had to pinch myself when I received an email from Thomas in early October, with bold type in the first line. "Great news!" it read. "The town hall of Tarbes has given its agreement for the placement of the memory tile!"
"That is amazing and fantastic news!!" I wrote back. Immediately, I thought of another person who would appreciate the significance of this news: Anne Thomas, who coordinates Stolpersteine requests and activities outside of Germany. I had been in contact with her for years, and through her communications with me and other relatives who had been trying to get Stolpersteine, I knew that it was particularly difficult to gain approval for them in France. Her response to the news echoed my own. "Wow!" she wrote back. "That is amazing!"
In the same e-mail as the major news, Thomas Ferrer had sent me the students' questions for an interview (over Zoom) to be used in the film they were making on Uszer Kahan. I mulled over
one of the questions in particular: What conclusions have you drawn from all your research?
I couldn't really answer that question. How could I possibly draw conclusions? At times I could not find any documentation -- the last residence of choice for Uszer's brother, for example, or the names of three of his sisters. Other times, I found documentation but it failed to nail down specifics with absolute certainty.* And I could only guess at some of the larger questions, such as why Uszer continued to work and live openly as late as February of 1943.
MY RESEARCH SEEMED always to lead not to conclusions but rather to more questions.
* A striking example of the lack of certainty is the confusing documentation of Convoy 50, on which Uszer Kahan was deported. Some of the deportees went to Sobibor; others to Majdanek and 10 to Auschwitz, but there are no records showing which deportee went to which place. After consulting various authorities, I was referred to Diane Afoumado, chief of the Holocaust and Survivors Resource Center at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "It is very difficult to give you a definite answer regarding the destination of the convoy 50," she wrote, "because the documents are somehow contradictory." Majdanek had only fragmentary records, she said, and none mentioned Uszer Kahan. She checked with a source in France who said the last trace is the list of deportation from Drancy on March 4, 1943. "However, given what we know," the source added, it was "probably right to think that Uszer Kahan was 'probably' murdered in Sobibor." Serge Klarsfeld writes: "Convoy 50 was a "reprisal" convoy, following the killing in Paris of two officers of the Luftwaffe. It took close to a thousand people, some to Maidanek and the great majority to Sobibor, the former for immediate killing and the latter for slave labor. Indications are that most were killed at Sobibor; only four people from this convoy were alive at the end of the war. Convoy 50 included ten children." (from "French Children of the Holocaust"
THE STOLPERSTEIN CEREMONY took place in Tarbes on May 6, 2022. There was a musical prelude, speeches, and the placing of the bronze tile. Though I'd participated in the paperwork, payment and Stolperstein inscription, with the Covid threat still high, I did not attend. However, I did send a speech to be read by one of the students. As I looked at the photos and read about the event from afar, I was so moved that it had become reality, a true recognition.
ONE STUDENT WROTE that she was surprised to find that the home where Uszer Kahn had been arrested was on a street where she often walked.
"It is indeed a door in a street with an unknown history," she wrote. "I wonder why this story and this arrest are so little heard or known. If we hadn't talked about it in high school, I never would have known and never would have known that this place had a history."
A student joins teacher Thomas Ferrer (r) and the mayor, center, before the Stolperstein is placed in the sidewalk.
WHO WILL WALK BY this brass-plated stone? Who will pause to read the inscription? Who will wonder, 'Who was this person? 'What happened to him? And why?'
A STUDENT READ my text in French translation during
the Stolperstein ceremony. You can read the speech in English below, or in traduction française ici.
I NEVER KNEW USZER KAHAN, but I am profoundly connected to him. I was named for his mother, Toba Kahan, a favorite sister of my grandmother who lived in what was then Poland and is now Ukraine. Toba and her husband had six children. Of this family of eight, only one survived the Holocaust, a daughter who had left for Palestine in 1939.
Uszer left Poland for Belgium when he was 20 – not to escape persecution but rather to study engineering at the University of Liège. After completing his studies in1930, he went to France and found work as an industrial draftsman (dessinateur) for an aeronautics company in the Somme region. But in June, 1940, after France surrendered to the German forces, Uszer joined the millions of French residents fleeing to the south of France, hoping for safety and freedom in the unoccupied zone, the “free zone.”
I wanted to know the details of what happened to the son of the woman I was named for, and my research on Uszer Kahan led me to Tarbes nearly seven years ago. In archives, I was able to see and to hold Uszer’s identity cards, which showed his photograph and a stamp for every stop he made on his 1940 flight south. In Paris, Vaux de Vere, Déols, Saint-Girons, Bonac-sur-Leze, Pierrefitte, Figeac, Bagnac, and finally in Tarbes, he was compelled to register his location with the police.
Walking through Tarbes, I saw the places Uszer had lived and the building where he would have worked for Panhard, the automotive company that made military vehicles during the war. I learned, to my surprise, that Uszer had not been in hiding but instead had lived openly, paying taxes and even writing to the police to ask if his brother, who was interned in a foreign workers’ labor camp (groupements de travailleurs étrangers) could come to visit him. Perhaps he felt safe in Tarbes because he had a job and a work contract from the Ministry of Labor. Perhaps he felt safe because he had heard whispers about the good people of Tarbes– including the mayor Maurice Trélut, who along with the Sisters working in the hospital hid persecuted Jews and resistance fighters, disguising them as patients or as nurse’s assistants.
Yet, Uszer was not safe. On February 24, 1943, he was arrested in his home, not by the German occupiers but by a French policeman, the inspecteur de la sûreté of Tarbes, acting on orders from the Préfet of Hautes Pyrénées. On March 4, 1943, just three days before Uszer’s 39th birthday, he was deported from the transit camp at Drancy on Convoy number 50, destined for the extermination camp of Sobibor.
FROM THE TIME that I discovered Uszer Kahan’s last address in Tarbes, I wanted to have a Stolperstein placed here. A Stolperstein marks the last residence where a Holocaust victim chose to live. It is not a grave or a memorial to millions, but rather a commemoration of one person, one name that should not be forgotten. It brings a personal meaning to history by focusing on one individual who lived in one particular residence.
This commemorative stone came into being only with the help of many people in Tarbes. I wish to thank the archivists who helped me so much in researching Uszer Kahan’s life and generously trying to answer my many questions. I am grateful to M. le Maire Gérard Trémège, whose permission to place the Stolperstein was essential to this project. Last but definitely not least, I give my heartfelt thanks to Thomas Ferrer, who brought the Stolperstein initiative back to life by envisioning it as an educational research project and a creative film project for his history class at Lycée Jean Dupuy. It was M. Ferrer’s commitment, persistence and encouragement that made it all possible. Merci beaucoup to all those who participated.
Thinking of the Stolperstein and the efforts to make it a reality, I ask myself: Who will walk by this brass-plated stone? Who will pause to read the inscription? Who will wonder: “Who was this person?” “What happened to him? And why?”
THIS STOLPERSTEIN may encourage some to ask questions, to search for understanding, to remember all those who suffered the same fate. I hope that some will return to this street, to reflect on the life of Uszer Kahan, to remember his name.
Toby Sonneman, 6 May, 2022