A PLEA FOR THE SOUL OF FRANCE by Mark Scheinbaum
by Mark Scheinbaum
American Reporter Correspondent
Lake Worth, Fla.
LAKE WORTH, Fla., April 15, 2002 -- The prestigious French daily Le Monde today was focused on neighboring Germany's reaction to the rise in anti-Semitism in recent weeks and months. It probably provides a welcome relief for French readers - if not French Jewish readers - from the wave of anti-Jewish attacks in their own country.
I was struck by the article's quote from the Bishop of Bavaria, who said that due to the history of the Holocaust, even when political and social feelings dictate otherwise, "Germany and Germans should not be among the first to condemn Israel." Similarly, an American - living in a land of ample blemishes among boughs of plentiful beauty - should not cast the first stone against France.
Still, a haunting dichotomy has long urged me to write on the subject of my almost visceral feelings about France.How does it come to pass that an America-born Jew secretly holds French citizenship in his soul?
But how does it come to pass that attacks on Jews in France seems as if the fiber of what America means is under attack as well?
It's a bizarre personal, intellectual journey from Brooklyn, N.Y., to France. It's a journey involving the heroics of Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, a dad in Normandy, and the Cross of Lorraine.
Recent headlines from the Middle East seem to have served as a catalyst for a wave of French anti-Semitism, attacks on synagogues, and the expected condemnation by the French government. Having been taught that monolithic French-bashing is just as bad as stereotyping World War II collaborators or Free French at opposite ends of a spectrum, we'll let sociologists sort out the current crisis.
Yet, long before recent headlines or September 11, 2001, I stood tearfully in the Hotel des Invalides, the venerable French military museum and vowed to unscramble my thoughts about my long-buried emotional French identity.
Two images a half century apart assured me that I am a closet francophile. One image is the foggy memory of early childhood. The other images are photographic images and word pictures painted by my parents and brother in Normandy on the 50th anniversary of D-Day. I recall as a very young child going on a field trip to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens and Prospect Park.
I was struck by a shiny marker in the sidewalk marking a Revolutionary War stand by the Marquis de Lafayette. It started me on my first school project in which I figured out that most Americans owe the nation's success in large part to a Frenchman of noble breeding, who left home and hearth for a cause. Teenage wanderlust probably contained heavy doses of adventure at first. But both the United States of America and France how honor him as someone who placed any mercenary interests far below a lifelong commitment to representative government. He was a hero and role model.
Rachel Keegin, assistant archivist for Prospect Park, writes me that my memory probably included a monument at one park entrance which was dedicated in 1917.
She told me: "It was sculpted by Daniel Chester French and designed by Henry Bacon. The monument consists of a large stele of polished Milford pink granite supporting a bronze relief. The monument's front is engraved with the following: 'Marquis de Lafayette: The Monument was erected and presented by Henry Harteau, a distinguished citizen of Brooklyn, to be an enduring tribute to the memory of one who, as a friend and companion of the immortal Washington, fought to establish in our country those vital principles of liberty and human brotherhood which he afterward labored to establish in his own.'
"The other side states, 'This memorial was unveiled and dedicated by Marshall Joffre and M. Vivani of the French War Commission, May 10, 1917.' The relief shows Lafayette standing in front of his horse, gripping a sword pointed toward the ground. A servant holds the horse's reins."
Okay, we can see how a five or six-year-old child might be pretty taken by the achievements of LaFayette.
The other image came when my father, wracked and hobbled by the mid-stages of Parkinson's disease, went back to Europe for the first time since World War II. It was the 50th anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, and my mother and brother (a professor of photography at the College of Santa Fe) were with him.
Along with a few surviving members of his U.S. Army 79th Inf. Div., he was honored by local officials, school children, and average citizens in the village of La Haye du Puis. His men had liberated the town, and I was told one elderly woman embraced him and said, "Thank you for letting me live a free life, in a free land. No matter what, I always thanked the Lord that you came here." The woman's father had been killed by American bombs on D-Day. The ancient Cross of Lorraine was the insignia of the 79th. With the exception of a Reserve Officer Training Corps unit I once saw in Fort Indian Gap, Pa., I had never seen it on a uniform other than my dad's. I learned that the symbol evokes images of nationalism, Joan of Arc, French culture, and all that is the evolution of French civilization. Through the French countryside, the 79th was always received with special warmth.
As infantryman and then combat medic. With two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars, a Presidential Citation, and the Legion of Honor, my dad became inexorably part of the core and cadre of French history. A Jewish kid from Brooklyn fought for many reasons, but I like to think there was some cosmic payback for the deeds of LaFayette and his French comrades 170 years earlier. Even though this Normandy image came second hand, I was particularly impressed by the writings and music of French composer Aubert Lemeland. In some notes accompanying his "Omaha--Songs for the Dead Soldiers," he recalled:
"My father's diary mentions that on July 5th we met the first American soldiers to arrive in Glatigny, a village located several kilometers from La Haye de Puis. As if it were yesterday I remember a small armored car with large tires and a little canon, assembled with other vehicles at an intersection. Almost immediately, Americans and Norman farmers were fraternizing. Hidden old bottles were brought out and passed around, an improvised banquet where everyone is standing, glass in hand. These are powerful images that haven't dimmed with time. Everyone was radiant with joy to have rediscovered freedom. Nothing complicated.
"... Three soldiers came from the 313rd regiment of the 79th Division. They were very friendly. We gave them cider, even if at that time of the year it was a rather stiff drink. "All of these men came from so far away. In the photos taken on the beaches, which we saw later on, they give the impression of emerging from the ocean. With their gear, their tanks and their large, open-mouthed boats in the distance, they resembled modern knights.
"...[T]his was probably the strongest, the most intense period of my life. There was no room for lukewarm. All at once we learned what fear, and even terror was. We were mere witnesses, however, not the actors, of the drama. The actors were all those soldiers whose eyes we met and who were heading towards hell, death, their own death... "... [back in school] I found the Greek myths and Corneille's tragedies mere incidentals. This feeling has never left me. I couldn't stand having the page turned so quickly. Out of affinity and sympathy for all those soldiers. We owe our birth to our parents, but we also owe our survival - there are always exceptional circumstances in life - to people who permitted you to continue to breathe because they were placed there, at a certain moment of their lives, to defend you and even die to save you. There's nothing stronger than that.
"When I see the pictures of the beaches with these men rising from the ocean, this image becomes an obsession for me: June 6, 1944, Anne Frank notes it in her diary, is also a date of hope for all those who are in the camps. And all these waves of assault on the Normandy beaches are like the declension of the word freedom, its first syllable.
In transcribing these words, taken from an interview the composer had with Hilary Kaiser, I am as deeply moved as I was in my first reading eight years ago. The special bond between Normandy and Americans might explain why my father felt that Parisians were cooler toward him than the Normans. I remember him not so much scolding Charles de Gaulle as pointing out certain ironies. As the Americans guarded entrances to Paris, it was always my father's contention that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower held the tired and torn troops outside the city until the starched and proper French forces could heroically regain their own City of Light first.
A generation of American cultural imperialism from McDonald's to television has probably not helped to heal wounds of national pride and ego. They seem almost trivial in the global scheme of things.
In junior high school, two Italian immigrants, Mrs. Cerutti and Miss Pelligrino, attempted to teach me French. It started a seven-year journey with detours into German and Spanish, which left me with notebooks filled with French verb conjugations, and a repertoire of several French folk songs. I struggled to understand the French political psyche by reading "Le Defi Americain" in the original French with a dictionary on one knee. Many years later in graduate school, I was short credits, and forced to take an advanced French literature course taught entirely in French. I decided Phaedre was not half as amusing as the fables of LaFontaine.
As a young journalist I gravitated to the Western Hemisphere. Both academically and journalistically, time in Haiti taught me that the spirit of both LaFayette and my father lived in names such as Jean-Jacques Dessaline and other heroes of the Haitian revolution of 1804.
In fact, it seemed as if French political philosophers, as well as their British colleagues, had sparked the U.S. revolution, the French Revolution, and the only modern slave-colonial uprising in Haiti. I was at the French Embassy in Port-au-Prince to sign the book of condolence on the day DeGaulle died, and thought again of the congruent cross currents of U.S. and French history.
It was the grandfather's stories which probably served as the catalyst for my oldest son's 6 1/2 years in the 82nd Airborne Division (the same division that glided and jumped into Normandy). No one could guess that 20 years after my newspaper days, my son would be assigned to the United Nations force in Haiti, participating in yet another struggle in a nation's unfulfilled quest for what LaFayette prized.
My first trip to Europe came on the week of my 50th birthday. A rare media assignment to live and patrol with U.S. troops in Bosnia. Actually, my first step on European soil was near Kaiserslautern in Germany--quite an emotional shock for a second generation American Jew. (My mother's father, as a young emigre from Czestochowa, Poland served in the original 82nd Army Div. in World War I). In Bosnia I met French and Belgian forces working with American men and women in another chapter in the LaFayette and Normandy quest.
A year later on a trip to London, a 12-hour whirlwind tourist stopover in Paris seemed like a blur. A postcard had come to life, but for only a moment.
My parents had close friends whose cousins were French Jews and would often visit in the United States. Some of my brothers' friends lived and worked in France. They all seemed somewhat more urbane, "tuned-in," and worldly than the kids in the neighborhood. The lure and romance of far away places shades the most objective viewer, but the French mystique seemed to hold me in a subliminal spell through the years.
A year ago, business and family affairs finally placed me in Paris for several days. The only LaFayette my wife and my friend's wife wanted to see, was the one with clothing sales and credi cards (the department store by that name). We mostly went our own way, but I dragged my wife to the World War II exhibition wing at the huge Hotel des Invalides. The French Underground story was told in letters and photos. The brave struggle for freedom now had names and faces. The unsung patriots were honored in wall after wall and display case after display case.
Although one would not necessarily expect too much about the Allied forces, there were plaques, flags, and honors displayed. Although there were powerful references to French prisoners of war, the Holocaust, and savage Nazi retribution against defiant French citizens, I viewed it all with a stoic honor and respect.
But when my wife came looking for me a half hour later, I was wiping tears from my face.
On the wall amidst the French tributes to French legends, was a display of Allied Force insignia, and there was the double-barred red cross: the Lorraine Cross. DeGaulle's chosen symbol of the Free French. The unit insignia of my father and his buddies, some of whom are still buried in French soil.
It's easy and foolish for an outsider to pretend or portend great wisdom on the subject of French anti-Semitism. I've read that the 600,000 estimated French Jews are now part of a demographic tapestry which includes perhaps seven or 10 million Islamic Frenchmen.
The same French culture taught by the Ceruttis and Pelligrinos; the same tales of LaFayette, Napoleon, DeGaulle, or for that matter Jacques Cousteau, permeated former French colonies as well as other nations. One supposes that transplanted Algerians or Tunisians who were taught to hate Jews in their previous homeland have found no reason to change their views in France. Certainly global anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, anti-Jewish, and anti-American protests in recent weeks provide plenty of fodder for prejudice. The curious thing is that with my rudimentary French vocabulary, I found my daily travels in Paris not only cordial, but particularly warm. My wife and I found the exact opposite from the stereotypical disdain of Americans by the French. We were moved by the warmth and helpfulness of Parisians, and the frankness, even to strangers, on political, artistic, social, and cultural issues.
Many of the things our children had lost in the Television Age were still prized by the French. Things such as criticism and conversation. Friends and loyalty. Companionship and laughter. The same shopkeeper who discussed football and tennis, could review movies and concerts, and scan newspaper stories on art and literature.
The synthesis of this stream-of-consciousness would make James Joyce seem rigidly organized. It is the overwhelming feeling of chagrin, if not betrayal of a sister homeland, when I read of the wave of French Jew-bashing. The strong government condemnation was both swift and unequivocal, but even a small minority presents a sizable danger to liberty. I hold no French passport, yet I wanted to defend all that was, and is, great about France in front of colleagues who shook their heads and reproached French authorities. It does not escape me that the same insignia worn by my father was on the ancient battle shields of the Crusades, at the fall of Jerusalem. The emotions which fill me with a feeling of adoptive French pride, are probably the same emotions which fan the flames of those who would kill me. Still, I was pleased to learn that as Nazi Germany tried to reclaim the Alsace-Lorraine region, French resistors risked their lives to deface German propaganda signs and posters.
The Jewish Kid from Brooklyn is mostly blind, and can't say much from his wheelchair in a nursing home these days. But his son notes that the French Resistance chose the Cross of Lorraine to cover over the swastikas. Later in the war they would sneak back and paint, beneath the cross, a large "V" for Victory.
Former UPI Newsman Mark Scheinbaum is a weekly columnist, and chief investment strategist for Kaplan & Co. Securities, www.kaplansecurities.com