One day in 1992, exactly twenty years ago, a very special friendship was born.
In those days I taught English (EFL) at a high school, and among my classes there was this extremely bright and pleasant group of 15/16 year-olds. We studied together a passage from the famous book by Fred Uhlman, Reunion. As you may remember, the book deals with the friendship between two young German boys and the way they drift apart because of the rise of National Socialism.
At this point, I heard that an exhibit was coming to our town, on the subject of Anne Frank’s life and fate. The colleague who was teaching them French literature and I then decided to take the class to see it, so as to give the students a better insight and knowledge of the context.
The show was very interesting, but it was nothing compared with the meeting we made there, of an elderly couple.
When noticing the interest that our pupils were showing in the exhibits, and hearing their questions, this gentleman came up to us, and offered to tell us more about the camps, announcing right away: “I was there”.
He started talking to our students who had gathered around him.
Time went by, and he talked.
No one moved. He talked and we were all under his spell.
Silence, deep silence surrounded him as he talked, explained, described.
Time went by and he talked on.
But then it was time to go back to the school – not without first asking the gentleman if he would agree to come there one day, to tell us more about what he had gone through.
We made it a date, and this is how Herman Idelovici came into our lives.
Herman was deported in September 1942, at the age of 15 with his whole family: his parents, his two younger sisters; his young aunt who was expecting a baby and her husband. When they arrived at Auschwitz, only he and his father were ‘selected’ for work. All the other members of his family were immediately gassed. Herman went through, and survived, 7 concentration camps. He survived the 'Death March', and was liberated by the Americans in January 1945. His father who had been of constant support to him was shot in Buchenwald but a few weeks before the camps were liberated… leaving him an orphan.
Herman had never talked publicly of his deportation. In 1992, exactly 50 years later, he opened up the vault of his memory and started transmitting his painful experience for the very first time, to our students.
Time had come to pull down the wall of silence that, perforce, the Jewish survivors had built around themselves all those years, and for many reasons – one of them being that no one really wanted to hear or listen to what they had to report. In France, the surviving members of the Resistance who had been deported were the ones who spoke. The others kept to themselves, as if ashamed.
On the other hand, if ever someone has lived through a trauma, he, or she, knows how painful it is to speak about it. Some just can’t do it; they can’t live it again as they put the ordeal into words. But Herman was able to overcome all these obstacles; he answered in the most sincere and direct way all the questions he was ever asked – including the most embarrassing ones. He even anticipated them at times, so as to make the younger generation understand how such horrors were made possible, and why it is always necessary to remain vigilant, so they won’t ever happen again.
The history teachers at my school asked Herman to come back. He did, year after year, bringing documents, preparing his conferences with the utmost care, addressing all sorts of audiences – and each and every time the kids would go up to him at the end of his talk, and, tears in their eyes, thanked him for coming to them. My husband Jacques met him too, and then with the help of a couple of colleagues, he interviewed and filmed him. The result was a documentary entitled ‘Autumn 42’ that teachers all over the country can use in their classes to teach about the Holocaust. This enterprise also helped create very deep bonds of friendship between Herman, his wife Gabrielle, and the two of us.
Herman was a fighter, but cancer got the better of him on April 14, just a couple of days before his birthday. He would have been 85.
Sebastien Cagnoli, a young friend who was a 15 year-old student on that very first meeting (he is now a writer and translator from the Finnish) just wrote me: “I shall go on thinking about him. It is one of those encounters that are forever part of us.”
A week ago I wrote a piece on the Righteous Among the Nations. They pass away, one after another, just like the survivors of that horrendous period of our recent history. It is the harsh law of mortals. However, their imprint remains, especially when, in addition to being the keepers and sharers of memory, they have proved to be rare, special, fascinating, intelligent, generous human beings - intent on protecting their loved ones beyond death.
Such was our friend Herman Idelovici, and we shall not forget him.