My grandparents, my father’s parents, met in Paris in 1944. That much we know. But the rest of the story is a complicated mystery because they were both married to other people at the time and their love was a devastatingly romantic secret for a while. According to my aunt, she learned about her mother’s first husband when they were on a train in Paris. This was a trip they took before my aunt left for college. My grandmother wanted to show her where she had grown up, etc. and when my aunt happened to mention the name of a character in a book she was reading, my grandmother repeated the name and then said, That was my first husband’s name. That story pretty much sums up my grandmother.
They died in 1988, when I was 18, and they died just six weeks apart. Remarkably, one thing that survived is the letters they wrote to each other during that year when they met, fell in love, and tried to figure out what to do. At the time, my grandfather was an American soldier stationed all over Europe (he stayed after the war, as well) and spent most of his letters writing about his astonishment at finding actual love, a love that he didn’t believe was possible. It is no accident that he died six weeks after she did.
My grandfather didn’t know French, though my grandmother’s English was surprisingly good, but they also spoke to each other in Yiddish, a language they had both grown up speaking at home.
I am going to figure out how to write more about them because their story is a fascinating one to tell, but right now I’m going to start with this letter, written by my grandmother, Frida, who was just 23 at the time. A few years earlier, her parents had been taken away by the S.S. but somehow she had escaped and had hidden in the country with a friend for much of the war. Then she returned to Paris. I wish I knew more.
16 Sept 1945
Many, my darling,
It is already 3 days that I did not receive a word from you. You spoiled me and now I feel upset when I don’t have 3 or 2 letters a day. It is not a reproach because I know that you are better than I am and write me every day.
Since I last wrote I had 5 letters from you – You are better than I and I don’t deserve you.
Darling, why did you apply for school in London as you knew that you would not accept to go away for 2 months? I am sure that you are interested in Motion Picture Photography and refused to go because you would not see me for two months. I know how hard it is for you and for me, but you must not forget that you would have learned a lot and the more we learn actually the better it will be for our future. We won’t have to work hard to make a living, a few hours a day in an interesting job to earn enough to support ourselves and the rest of the day we can go out, see interesting things, shows, assist to good conferences, travel, but this can only be done if we know enough to have a good job that brings you in a couple of hours, what a hard one would do in 8 hours. I don’t know if you understand what I mean because my English is getting worse every day – I don’t study it enough.
I was surprised to find Marion, Charlie and Karen’s photographs in one of your letters, They seem very nice. Marion does not like to fat when I compare her body to mine – you can tell that I am twice as big as her and you still think that I am pretty!!! I’ll have the snaps of myself ready by the time you’ll come to Paris, one is quite good.
I am expecting you on the 21st. I think that you will need a porteau to bring all you have for me – if it is too heavy leave a part of it at the bus stop and we can go and fetch it together. I still think that you are crazy and spoiling me – however I am so impatient to see you and kiss you for all the time we did not see each other.
Yes, Dear, it is a year we know each other – I cannot forget the impression I had when I first saw you; with your helmet and glasses you looked so hard and proud – and now you are my Mani darling – the one I love.
Darling, don’t be jealous if I dance with others; I don’t do it for the dancer but for the dance itself; the fellow I was with loves dancing not like the other men who do it to be sociable.
I have not yet any reply as far as the perfume shop is concerned. It is impossible to have a leave from the O.S.E. if I go away it is definitely and, except for the friends I have here, I won’t miss it. It is, the direction and institution, the most rotten thing I have ever seen and wish to leave it as soon as possible.
I also had a dream about my parents. Somebody came and told me that Daddy died a few days before the camp was liberated and also explained me how he suffered. It was terrible and I was thinking that I would have prefer to hear that he died a few days after his deportation than to learn that he suffered 3 years and died so near the end of his liberation. I dream more often of my parents these last few months than I did before. Oh Darling, if you could bring me back, at least one of them, I would go crazy of joy.
Darling, I still have a lot to tell you but must go away in a few minutes. I kiss you with all my heart. Today in a week we’ll be together and I will be able to kiss you how much I want.
All my love darling –