In this second Newsletter, I have some thoughts upon returning from seeing the Paris Holocaust Memorial, and also the news that I have been invited to an audience with Pope Francis.
1. The Holocaust Memorial in Paris
I have just returned from a two week visit to Paris with Shirley. We had a great time.
We set aside a day to visit the Memorial de La Shoah at 17 Rue Geoffroy l’Asnier on the fringe of the Marais which is the Parisian traditional Jewish neighborhood. I have been to several Jewish Museums in New York, Rome, Ferrara, San Francisco and even one in Paris. I also visited Yad VaShem the Holocaust memorial in Israel so long ago in 1973. The Paris Memorial turned out to be a completely different experience.
First, I had no expectations. I had no idea what I was in for. Previously when I had visited Memorials like Yad VaShem or the Ardeatine Caves in Rome, I had what I call “expectations of memory.” The sites were so well known it was impossible not to preconceive what the visit would be like. I was primed for a somber experience where memories that I had read about prior would be invoked once again. Well known history would be retold. There would be a wall of names or an eternal flame and large Cathedral-like interior, yet open, spaces eloquent in their emptiness and silence.
There was all of that in Paris; although on a smaller scale. Upon entry there is a courtyard roofed with white draperies and in the center a round sculpture bearing the names of death camps and concentration camps. From there a few steps lead down to an open-air labyrinth of white walls about ten feet high bearing the names of the 76,000 French Jews, including 11,000 children, who were deported to the camps. I found myself in a narrow but not claustrophobic passage with names and dates of birth carved in black on either side of me. The sheer volume of the names is overwhelming stretching in front and in back and on both sides. And you are reminded that these are only the French victims, a fraction of total number of Holocaust dead.
And then, because my father’s family emigrated to the United States from France in the 1880s, I began to look for our name. More than a little background is necessary here. My father never told me his parents came from France. I guess he knew and probably my mother knew also. But things like that were never discussed when I was a child, and by the time I had become a teenager my parents had died. I did not learn about my French heritage until 1991 when I was forty three and had just passed the California Bar Exam. A lawyer from Redwood City, California, Martin Brandfon, called me out of the blue to say that every year for twenty years he had been checking to see if anyone with our name passed the California bar. Finally, when my name popped up, his annual search was rewarded. He explained how we were related and how after some genealogical research he had discovered that the family came from Strasbourg. They had left when the Germans conquered Alsace in 1870. France recovered Alsace-Lorraine after World War II, and I had spent the summer of 1966 studying French at the University of Strasbourg, not knowing its place in my family history.
What I did know since my childhood was that my name, Brandfon, was a truncated version of the family name Brandfonbrenner. My father had told me that much, and also that he had shortened it “so that it would not take me half an hour to sign a check.” Then sometime in the 1980s, my cousin Sylvia, from my mother’s side of the family and therefore not a Brandfon, informed me on good authority, she having a Ph.D. in Linguistics from MIT, that my name means “Liquor Distiller”. Brandfon is an anglicization of the Yiddish “Bronfon” which is from the German “Brenntvein” meaning burned or distilled wine. The full name, Bronfonbrenner, derived from the German Brenntveinbrenner means literally “burnt wine burner” or again “liquor distiller.” Finally, the brilliant scholar Amos Funkenstein has written about the profession of liquor distiller being predominantly Jewish in Central and Eastern Europe. Jews may have a reputation among antisemites for being money-lenders. But they were more popular as innkeepers and purveyors of distilled spirits. In one bizarre and poignant example, before World War II, Oswiecim, the Polish town that the Germans turned into the Auschwitz death factory, was the home of one of Poland’s largest Vodka distilleries, a distillery owned by Jews, although they were not named Brandfonbrenner.
Knowing all that I stood before the walls of white stone staring at thousands of names etched in black and craning my neck or crouching down to find a Baandfonbrenner. The names are listed alphabetically, but they are also grouped according to the year of deportation. On the walls devoted to 1941 I found Jules and Jacques Bronfmann ages 51 and 17 respectively. I imagine they were a broken-hearted father and son. Maybe they or their family had once been distillers. But probably they were not my family. Under 1942, nothing. But more than halfway up the first wall of 1943 deportees, there she was “Brania Bronfonbrener 1881.”
I never knew she even existed and I have no further information about her. The Archives at the Memorial were closed, and she does not appear in the online archive. She was the only Bronfonbrener on the wall. But I can create a bare bones story for her based on her birth date. She was born in 1881 at roughly the time my grandparents were emigrating. If she was related to them they barely knew her and she barely knew them if at all. Moreover, because Bronfonbrener was more than likely her married name, she probably had been born into another family altogether, having no contact with my grandparents or their family. She might have married a nephew of my grandparents who would have been himself a child when my father’s parents left France. Brania’s imaginary husband may have been a few years older than she, and when she was deported at age 62, alone she was probably a widow. At that age she was certainly not eligible for work in the Auschwitz complex. I can see a frail Jewish woman being herded directly from the box cars to the gas chamber.
My actual connection with Brania while not mere fantasy is surely attenuated. She could have married someone who may have been related to my grandparents. I can say nothing more than that. However, the very name itself establishes a cross generational connection apart from concrete or practical considerations.
We passed from the labyrinth of the memorial to the Holocaust museum attached to it. It is a good museum telling the history of the Shoah in France and Europe and we watched a somewhat bored school group being led through the various exhibits. But within the museum is a second memorial consisting of a small claustrophobic room whose walls, floor to twelve foot high ceiling, are plastered with photographs of French children who had been deported. It is really not bearable to spend any time in that room.
Between the Museum and the Memorial, especially the part where I found Brania’s name, I am reminded of the difference between history and memory. There are many explanations of that difference. The one that speaks to me today is the understanding that history is what we tell ourselves about the past, while memory is how we bind ourselves and our present identities to that past. Any good Holocaust Museum provides a representation of what happened in the mid-Twentieth century. But feeling bound to a name among thousands on a stark white wall is another experience altogether.
I am also reminded about the difference between loss and absence. If I once had something but no longer have it, I feel loss. When I realize I do not have something that I never had in the first place, I feel an absence. I had my parents and friends, but I lost them when they died. But I never had brother or sister; that is an absence. Finding Brania’s name feels like both a loss and an absence. I have lost something I never knew I had.
2. An Invitation to Rome
Upon exiting the Museum, I stopped to take a photograph of the round bronze installation covered with the names of the camps. As I was snapping the photo, I received an email from Deena Schoenfed, the publicity director at The Jewish Publication Society, informing me that I had been invited to the Vatican to present my book, Intimate Strangers A History of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome to Pope Francis. Apparently Father Norbert Hoffman, Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jewry, has read the book. No firm date has been set, but I have been invited to attend one of the Pope’s General Audiences sometime after September 1, 2023. Late in August, Father Hoffman should propose a date. General Audiences are large affairs. There can be hundreds of people at a General Audience. Most attendees make their own arrangements and get a ticket. The Pope does not know most of the people at a General Audience. However, I am invited. The Pope will be aware that I am there and will be expecting the gift. That is all that I know right now. There will be another Newsletter after the Audience.