Leaving Behind The Paris I Knew And Loved In 1939

In the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s, child rearing conventions were centered on not "spoiling" the children with affection and freedom. We were never kissed nor told we were loved. I shook hands with my parents and curtsied when greeting adults. Respectful, quiet, and obedient behavior was demanded of all the children I knew.

One of the beliefs of that time was that a daily walk to breathe fresh air was essential to one's health, and so every day after school my governess took me for a walk in a park. We often just sat together on a bench for an hour, then walked home. When there were other children, I was allowed to play with them. I remember playing marelle, hopscotch, and hide-and-seek. Children did not make play dates or visit with each other. I never had a friend come over, nor was I ever invited anywhere.

There were swings in an enclosure. We had to pay to go in, and then the man in charge would push me for a few minutes. The park also had a water faucet with a metal cup hanging from a chain. I often drank from that cup, as did all the other children and everyone else, including derelicts. No one worried about germs.

I had piano lessons every week and hated it because my instructor hit my hands when I played a wrong note. I was finally able to stop because I showed no talent. I also took ballet lessons from a former Russian ballerina who mostly yelled at us. That too did not last long.

When I was about 8-years-old, I sent one of my poems to a children's magazine where it was published. That early success encouraged me to continue writing and sharing my poems to this day. At a poetry reading contest in a movie theater, I recited the one I wrote and won first prize. The prize was a metal model of the newspaper and magazine kiosks that stood on street corners. It was my most prized possession, but we had to leave it behind when we fled Paris for the U.S. during the war.

At age nine, my mother thought I should go to a private school where I would get a better education than in the mostly anonymous lycée. It was a Catholic school run by nuns. I was known only as la petite juive, the little Jewish girl. I made no friends there because I was seen as an outsider, but I don't remember being unhappy as I had no expectations of anything different. The nuns gave me pictures of saints which I kept hidden from my mother. I loved them.

As soon as I learned to read, I immersed myself in books. By the time I was 12, I had read much classic French literature as well as Russian, German, and British in translation, but American literature was unknown to me.

On weekends, the family often drove to a farm on the outskirts of Paris where we drank warm milk straight from the cows -- pasteurization was not a word any of us had heard. We were given equally fresh eggs, punctured with a pin on both ends and sucked out raw. I hated the slimy feel of the egg whites but was told it was good for us.

My father always came home from his office and I from school for the main midday meal, called dîner. The evening meal was souper, which meant soup with something light like an omelet or bread and cheese. My brother and I ate at a little table in my room, far from the adults in the dining room. We drank wine diluted with water with all our meals except in the morning for le petit déjeuner, then we had café au lait with our croissants. We also always had 4 o'clock tea, which for the children meant juice and a petit pain -- like a hotdog bun with a chocolate bar in the middle, a chocolate sandwich.

No one I knew ever bought ready-made clothes. My mother used to attend fashion shows and then had the clothes copied by a local seamstress. I remember hating having to stand still while the fabric was pinned on me.

Every Christmas vacation we took a train to a mountain resort in Switzerland where I attended ski school. There was a special dining room for the children and their governesses, we never ate with our parents. For Easter vacation, we went to the beaches in Normandy or Brittany. There we rented a large house and were always accompanied by friends and relatives. We took our maids along and mountains of sheets, blankets, and pillows. It was a fun time, but again the children were kept apart.

And so, life was an easy routine until 1939 when the war upended all our lives. We left Paris with a small suitcase each, intending to return soon. We never did. Everything we ever owned was lost, as was the Paris I knew and loved.

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