Traces

THE NEXT MORNING, we went to the Museum of Deportation and Resistance. While we were waiting for my appointment with Solenne Manueco, librarian of the Tarbes museums' Documentation Center, we looked around.

 

The museum was created by eighteen veteran, Resistant and deportee associations and inaugurated in 1989. Its displays are straightforward and affecting: photographs with captions, small dioramas of internment camps, glass cases displaying wooden shoes and striped concentration camp uniforms, still crusted with dirt. There is little here about Jews; the focus is on Resistants. With its old-fashioned exhibits, I wondered if the museum could catch and hold the attention of today's digitally sustained young people.

SOLENNE MANUECO, (left) librarian for the Documentation Center of Tarbes' museums, with a museum employee. She showed me photographs from Panhard, the company where Uszer Kahan last worked in Tarbes.

When Solenne came, we went into the little museum office, and pulled out some folding chairs so we could look at the folder she'd brought of reproduced photographs. The original photos, from March of 1941 and November and December of 1942,  had been taken by a professional studio documenting industry in Tarbes, Solenne explained. They showed scenes from the automotive and military equipment factory, Panhard. The photographs, on glass plates, had become separated from the information about them, Solenne said, and they had not yet been studied. 

THE PHOTO SHOWS industrial designers at work at their drafting tables for Panhard in Tarbes. Uszer Kahan might have been among them.

I WAS CAPTIVATED by the photo of the room of dessinateurs, industrial draftsmen, at work at the Panhard facility at the arsenal in Tarbes. Sunlight streams through the tall windows, dappling natural light on the drafting tables. We see the workers from the back, each at their own solitary island of a table. The atmosphere seems quiet, even peaceful.

 

 I could imagine Uszer working here, bent silently over his design in the spacious light-filled room. Indeed, he would have been working at Panhard in November and December of 1942 -- in March of 1942, he had been given a three-year contract which he could never complete. So, I think: it is even possible that he is one of the figures in the photo.

THE FORMER ARSENAL OF TARBES -- where Panhard once produced gasifiers (which converted wood or charcoal into fuel) and where Uszer Kahan once worked -- is today a complex of many uses, including the city archive where I've arranged to meet Sandrine again that afternoon.  She makes copies of the document scans and photos that I've gathered from the  Hautes-Pyrénées archive, and we sit side-by-side at her computer while she looks through them and deciphers the fading stamps and writing on the identity cards. She's like a detective on a cold case, I think -- a case some 75 years old.

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USZER KAHAN'S IDENTITY CARD from 1939 through 1942 tracks his movement from one town to the next as he traveled south to the zone libre. At every place, he had to get a new police stamp, even if he stopped only for a day. (Documents© Archives départementales des Hautes-Pyrénées)

AS SANDRINE TRACES USZER'S FLIGHT from one town to the next after the German-French armistice  of 1940, we are both struck by the number of places he went, and the meticulous recording of his movements. Albert, Paris, Vaux de Vere, Déols, Saint-Girons, Bonac-sur-Leze, Pierrefitte, Figeac, Bagnac, and Tarbes. 

 

At each place, even if he resided there only one day, he was required to register with the police. Sandrine had me write down the addresses where he lived, and the address of the departement archives for each place, so I could write to each and perhaps find additional information (Later, I wrote to each archive, but partly because the material in many of the archives from that era was never organized or indexed, nothing turned up.)

THERE WAS ONE MYSTIFYING ASPECT of the documents. Why hadn't Uszer Kahan gone into hiding?  He had diligently registered with the Tarbes police when he first arrived in February, 1941, and again after he'd left and returned the following year. It's clear that the police knew his address  at 70 rue des Pyrénées and could have arrested him at any time. There is even a record of a tax he paid while at that address.  So, even after the Germans occupied the south of France in November of 1942, he was living openly in Tarbes. Why?

I can think only that Uszer felt protected by his work contract at Panhard -- a three-year contract dating from April of 1942. Perhaps the contract was enough to convince him that he was safe -- or at least safer than he would have been in hiding. Or perhaps he'd been personally reassured by his employer.

In any case, he was not alone in such a choice. Later, I read the Yad Vashem account of Joseph Beigelkrut, a Polish-born Jew who had been rescued by the mayor of Tarbes and Sister Llobet of the Mixte Hospital. But before that lucky escape, he had been working in a leather manufacturing plant in Tarbes, and was on his way to work in November of 1943, some nine months after Uszer's arrest, when he received the warning that the Gestapo was waiting for him at his workplace. He, too, must have felt relatively safe -- perhaps because of his job.

THE DOSSIER D'ETRANGER clearly shows that Uszer Kahan was not hiding from the police. The work contract from Panhard may explain why  (Documents© Archives départementales des Hautes-Pyrénées)

WHEN USZER KAHAN  first arrived in Tarbes, he lodged in a hotel (left), now vacant, near the train station.  The photo on the right is another of the four places where Uszer lived in Tarbes.

AFTER WE LEFT THE ARCHIVE, we walked around the town, finding some of the places Uszer Kahan had lived in Tarbes.  Uszer's last address, however -- 70 rue des Pyrénées, where he had been arrested -- eluded us. The names of the streets and numbering of buildings had changed in the past decades. The building probably still existed, but under a different identity. Sandrine had promised that she would find it.  

216 RUE SAINT DENIS was a newer building in a sketchy neighborhood -- but it turned out that Uszer Kahan never lived there anyway.

LATER, IN PARIS, we took a long metro ride to rue Saint Denis, to look for an earlier of Uszer's homes at number 216. It was a seedy neighborhood, with garbage piled up along the streets, sex shops, and prostitutes displaying their wares in the  doorways. At the end of the block, cut-rate department stores occupied formerly grand buildings. 

Number 216 was a remodeled building; I took some photos and we moved on. But back at the hotel that night, I studied my photos of the Cartes d'Identité again and realized I'd made a big mistake. Uszer didn't live on rue Saint Denis, after all; he lived at rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, just across from the Gare du Nord, not very far from our hotel.

 

But we were leaving the next day, taking a train to Germany in the early afternoon. We'd have to make an extra metro excursion to find this place the next morning, giving up a relaxing morning in a Paris cafe. Did I really have to see it? Steve asked. What was the point?

IT WAS A GOOD QUESTION, and one for which I did not have an answer. Seeing these buildings had not given me great insight in Uszer Kahan, except that he was alone, probably renting just a room in a hotel near a train station at first, then moving closer to the center of town in a place where he planned to stay.

Yet I felt compelled to see it, and Steve rallied after all -- his reporter instincts made him curious enough to see where the trail led. A metro ride and a 10-minute walk took us to Hôtel Faubourg, numbered 216-224 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. Had 216 been a hotel or an apartment in 1940 when Uszer lived there? I went inside to ask the receptionist, who of course did not know. 

No matter. Just looking at this bright classic building, with its tall windows and wrought iron balconies, its French flag proudly on display, reminded me of the hopes that Uszer must have felt when he first arrived from Belgium to France in 1930.  For a moment, as if I didn't know what was to happen, I felt them too.

PLAQUES AT GARE L'EST remember the victims of the Vichy government and Nazis, deported to the East during World War II.