An article in Sunday's Travel section misstated the location of the Majdanek concentration camp. It was in eastern Poland, outside the city of Lublin. (Published 10/12/1999)
The Air France flight was crowded. I sat with an elderly Frenchman who fussed a lot; his food wasn't right, he didn't seem comfortable. He smelled a bit. We tried to talk but the dialogue meandered, cut in jerky pieces by my broken high school French. He was on his way to New York to visit his brother, a population-control expert for the United Nations who left France in the '20s. It had been several years since they had seen each other. He would be staying only a week.
I asked, as conversation filler, did he speak any other languages? Only Yiddish, he said wryly, certain I wouldn't speak the mamaloshen.
I wish I could say I did, that our conversation continued from there flawlessly, but I have only those few phrases grandparents use when they're making nice. There was, instead, a moment of recognition. "Juif?" I asked. "Oui. Juif," he answered. Of course. Tell me, I said groping for the words, what did you do during the war? He sighed. Deported, he said, rolling up his sleeve to reveal the indelible number, branded forever on his now-loosened skin.
I wasn't expecting that. As the granddaughter of a refugee from Nazi Vienna, "Holocaust" has been a part of my personal lexicon almost as long as my own name. It's a piece of my Jewish communal memory, as real to me as my family. And yet, when he rolled up his sleeve, despite myself, I was shocked.
With no further preamble--it was as though, I thought later, he had been waiting for the question--he launched into his story. Boris--his name, I now knew--had been my age, 24, and a partisan with the French resistance in 1943. He had an opportunity to escape, and chose not to take it. Somehow, and this was lost in translation, someone had given away a rendezvous between resistance fighters to the Gestapo. He was interrogated for days, refusing to give up his contacts. Boris was shipped to Drancy, the concentration camp outside Paris. From Drancy, he was sent to Auschwitz. Boris began working in a factory making what he believed were parts for bombs. When the Nazis liquidated Auschwitz, he was marched hundreds of miles from Poland to the Austrian camp Majdanek. There he was finally liberated.
At the end of his story, Boris took out a weathered wallet. Inside he carried two photos: one was of himself, age 26, the day he arrived back in Paris. It was only his face, the kind of photo taken in a photo booth with friends. It was striking in its normalcy; it reminded me of a photo I carry in my own wallet--my sister and me, a picture also taken, coincidentally, in a Parisian photo booth. The other was a woman in uniform, but hers was a highly stylized 1940s portrait. My wife, he explained. A member of the French government in exile, she was at the gates of Paris, welcoming back the far-flung French. She was the first person he met when he returned to his city. "Now I am alone," Boris said, with great sadness. She died in 1997. Forty-nine years of marriage, he kept repeating, as if still in shock.
For the rest of the flight, Boris talked about his life in Paris today. He lives in the center of the city. He has a daughter who lives nearby. He has diabetes.
As my French petered out, I helped Boris with the immigration forms. The tiny sheets of paper were too small for him to read. One was only in English. We filled them out, me explaining in my insufficient French, he writing.
Boris gave me his address and promised I would be welcome in his home, should I come to Paris. We said goodbye.
With my U.S. passport, I was finished with immigration control in minutes. But I couldn't stop thinking about Boris. As I waited at the baggage claim, I began to wonder why he hadn't yet arrived at the carousel. I doubled back to the area for foreign passports. The customs officer was asking the waiting line if "anyone spoke any French." Boris had his forehead in his hands.
I got closer. A young Frenchman was translating the customs agent's English. "You need an address in the United States," the man said.
Boris shook his head. He couldn't remember his brother's address. The agent, irritated, closed his passport. "You'll have to go back to Air France," he said, dismissing him. "I'm sorry, but we can't allow you in without an address."
Before I could think, I had crossed past the line from baggage claim back into the no man's land of passport control. The customs officer turned to me, barely noting my indiscretion, and said, wearily, "This man needs an address for his visa forms." I took the long green form from the agent. In the area designated for "address while in the United States," Boris had penned a tentative "New York City." I crossed it out and wrote in my own address.
"Are you family?" asked the bewildered agent. "Yes," I said firmly, and took Boris by the hand to the baggage carousel.
Sarah Wildman is a freelance writer living in Washington.