The first time I was aware of the name of the north east suburb of Paris with its dark never-to-be-forgotten history, was when I was introduced to the doleful Judaica collector Paul Kurtz in the late 70s while I was living in Paris.

I had become a successful vintage antiques collectors' items dealer. My subjects were very varied, as were my clients, ranging from Micky Mouse to WW2 tracts (airdropped anti Semitic and anti Churchill propaganda) and Judaica which began by accident buying a yellow Star of David badge bearing the word in black - 'Juif' for a song in Marche Montreuil early one Saturday morning. Little did I know it's significance until I was told by the well known postcard collector, author and historian, Gerard Silvain. Jews in Paris were forced to wear the large bright yellow badge stitched onto their coats. Gerard told me that on 10th May 1940 the Germans attacked France and occupied the capital on 14th June 1940 while the French government moved to Vichy under Marshal Petain.

I had a lot to learn about the history of the deported French Jews who were rounded up from 1941-43 and sent to the infamous Drancy internment camp. It was an assembly and detention camp for confining Jews who were later deported to the extermination camps during the German administration of occupied France from 1941-43. 65,000 Jews were deported including 6,000 children together with the Kurtz family.

I was already learning a lot from my client Gerard, who in real life sold ladies bras for an underwear company, but had amassed a vast collection of airdropped propaganda which I used to buy for him in London from military dealers. Gerard published an enormous heavy coffee table book with captions rather than text, one half being Sephardic postcards of life in Egypt to Constantinople and the other half, after turning the book upside down, was devoted to Ashkenazy postcards of places like Hungary, Riga and Eastern Europe.  I bought a copy and Gerard signed it to 'Jilliana, the British Queen of Ephemera.' However there is no mention of this long out-of-print publication on the net today, only a later publication called 'Yiddishlandia.'

It was Gerard who introduced me to Paul Kurtz, an intellectual pale and pasty miserable nerdy bachelor in his early 40s. I recall he was an accountant and, wanting to copy Gerard who was the number one collector in Paris, asked me to supply him with ephemera from London. First he wanted me to see his small but growing Judaica collection and so I was invited to the Marais after dark. I could not refuse. It was the evening when I was arrived at a depressing building off the famous Rue des Rosiers, the heart of Jewish Paris since the Middle Ages. Paul welcomed me to his dismal abode with a weak handshake.

I recall the dark hall with faded old wallpaper and a stale smell. I noted that there were square faded patches throughout the hall, up the stairs to the equally dark salon on the first floor. It was obvious that there had been photographs and paintings hanging on all the walls for decades prior to the war.

Nothing has been touched since that fateful day when he was at school aged about 8 in 1942. He returned home to discover his parents and grandparents had been bundled off in a sinister black Mariah Renault car by the French police who collaborated with the Nazis. Scared, he ran to the next door neighbour who had helplessly witnessed everything from her first floor window. Little Paul was somehow hidden by the faithful Catholic neighbour and taken to her farming family somewhere in central France where there was more food and The Resistance were strong. Years later he was to return to the neighbour when she gave the all clear after the Americans had liberated the city in 1946. He moved back into his bare ransacked home with a heavy heart and would be there until his dying day surrounded by his silent memories frozen in time.

Paul got out his collection of tracts, postcards and documents. There was one central light with very low wattage so I could hardly see his vieux papiers. We sat at the ghostly, large central table where once the entire family had eaten, covered  with a heavy red but faded chenille table cloth and studied what he had and discussed what he wanted me to locate in London.  I had quite a reputation in Paris for being the only serious English woman dealer speaking French and building up collections. I was expensive but honest and could be trusted. Word got round the large collector's community at the Foire de vieux papiers if any dealer cheated a client. I had been on the scene since 1977 and was known simply as Jilliana or 'le chaperon rouge' (Little Red Riding Hood) because I wore a red beret.

Then Paul brought out from a drawer a postcard of the town of Drancy with a brief message written in pencil from his father. It was sent to his home address but without his name saying that they would meet again after the war was over. Paul explained that his father must have had a pencil, not a pen, in his pocket when they arrested him. Families had no time to prepare leaving their homes only with a small suitcase each. Then he sat in his dark depressing home and sobbed. Tears cascaded down his cheeks and I sat there like a dummy holding back my empathic tears. I had never met a holocaust survivor before and did not know how to console him. I was a professional stranger and felt most uncomfortable feeling totally out of my depths. It was a learning curve, an experience never to be repeated.

Then Paul wanted to offer me a kir and some petit fours. I gladly accepted as it was early evening and I had not yet eaten. He walked over to a locked walnut glass cabinet typical of the 1940s and came back with two most beautiful elegant Art Nouveau aperitif glasses I had ever seen let alone drunk from. I almost burst into tears visualising his grandparents sipping a kir from those same glasses. He had a set of six, the only memory he had of his heritage. The French police had taken everything else. How come those exquisite glasses were saved? More than likely it would have been the kind neighbour who would have taken them to toast Paul's return from her countryside Midi relatives.

I couldn't wait to run away. I never looked for documents for him because he depressed me so much. Gerard, who was a historian, was another matter, had a twinkle in his eye and of course knew how to talk to people easily because he was a top salesman but Paul was an antisocial miserable individual, carrying the weight of the holocaust on his shoulders thirty years later.

A decade later I saw him on a bus in Paris wearing a wedding ring but I decided not to speak to him. My recollection of that haunting night in the Marais,
4th arrondissement, was too painful.

Never again!

Written in the dining room of the hotel Casa de los Bates, Motril, Spain 3 February 2017 and updated a month later at Villa Perla, Kaleici, Antalya, Turkey.


Drancy internment camp - Wikipedia
Jewishgen.org  - Drancy/Vel d'Hiv
Sarah's key - Vel d'Hiv by Tatiana de Rosnay 2006.
Sepharades et Juifs d'ailleurs - Gerard Silvain
Bubelio.com - Gerard Silvain
La lettresepharade.fr
La question Juive en Europe - Gerard Silvain 1985
The Independent article 10 March 2014 - Claude Landzmann

Paris Marais.com - Pletzl - Rue des Rosiers

Au revoir Les enfants - Louis Malle 1987 - You Tube
Monsieur Klein 1976 by Joseph Losey - You Tube
The Sorrow and the Pity by Marcel Ophulus (son of Max Ophulus) - 1969-71 - Wikipedia.
Shoah - Claude Lanzmann 1985 Wikipedia
Sarah's key 2010 You Tube