Originally published in Critical Social Problems: in the spirit of C. Wright Mills 28 Feb 2013
When I was 15 and preparing for my GCE Ordinary Levels I spent a month staying with a Jewish Orthodox family in Paris to brush up my French. I had no idea who they were, and it was only a couple of years ago that I learned who they were from George Weisz. Below are the relevant extracts from our email correspondence.
29 Sept 2010, me to George:
I had spent a month in Paris at the age of 15, staying with an orthodox Jewish family, distant relatives – can’t remember their names, but the older son had lost a hand from a booby-trapped pen that the Luftwaffe had dropped in some numbers over Paris.
They lived near the city centre, near a park (Jardin du Luxembourg I think). I was there to improve my French before taking the GCE Ordinary Level exam. Greatly enjoyed it. And it must have helped as I just scraped a pass.
George’s reply, 24 October 2010:
The family you stayed with was my uncle and aunt and their 5 children. He was my father’s brother Arthur. The little boy whose hand was blown of by the booby trap was my cousin Henry. His twin brothers name was George. Henry and his older sister Judith lived with us in England for a while during the war. My uncle died in the concentration camp in Germany. Unfortunately we have lost contact with my cousins and we have no idea where they are now. The last time I was in Israel I tried to find the youngest cousin , by the name of Paul, who I knew had gone there years ago, but I did not have any luck in finding him.
My reply, 23 Nov 2010
What a shame you lost touch with them.I remember Henry’s twin brother George as well. He was always singing classical music aloud to himself, looking quite absorbed in it and blissful. I enjoyed those weeks in Paris, but perhaps they are still there? Though I have no idea of the address, and anyway it was around 1957, when I was 15, and I had no contact with them since.
So George’s father, Willie Weisz, was the paternal brother of the Paris family of Arthur Weisz. I had no idea they were not only closely related but the same Weisz family. This in turn means that the connection must have come from my paternal aunt Joci, (not Pepus who was Orthodox Jewish and who ordered cakes from my mother Maria and Joci). Later, Maria kept in touch with George by letter and George visited them frequently first from Los Angeles and Palos Verdes and later from Banning, California.
But back to Paris. It was an interesting experience living in an orthodox Jewish household. The Sabbath was observed by an automatic system of lights and other electrical circuits to switch everything on and off, to avoid breaking the Sabbath.
Henri showed me around quite a bit, mostly the main tourist sights. We tried to speak French but his English was too good. From George’s letter extract, above, I realised Henri had lived in London where George’s parents – en route for the USA – stayed perforce during the war as a young child, which accounted for Henri’s good English. This sort of undermined my ability to use my conversational French; primitive at best, even for Ordinary Level GCE. I was appalled how bad it was. The idioms were worse, I learned not to say “cafe au lait” but instead “cafe creme“. I particularly remember that when we were visiting the Left Bank Henri stopped and watched an older man with some interest, then told me that was Jean Cocteau, a relatively old man by then (or at least seemed so to me), who died a few years later.
I also had quite a lot of time to myself, exploring Paris and its environs by metro. I travelled widely in the Greater Paris region, going to the Bois de Boulogne, as well as Sacre-Coeur, and the Left Bank. The nearest park was Jardin du Luxembourg. I loved it all.
It was my experience of Paris that led to Kerstin and I taking our Honeymoon there in spring 1971 before leaving for Minnesota.