Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Gaston Gundelfinger Frank

A little bit of a change here at the blog.  My mother passed away earlier this year and we had a memorial for her.  I always knew that she was writing a journal which among other things would have details of her fascinating and yet ultimately melancholic childhood in Switzerland during WWII.  I used details from her journal for my speech at the memorial.  I was told by many there that I should publish it in some form.  This was something my mother always wanted but oddly she avoided discussing these details with me while she was alive.

In any event, having already transcribed a dozen or so pages for the memorial I started toying with the idea of writing a longer narrative.  The basic gist of the story was that my mother and her mother fled to Switzerland where - thanks to some trickery on the part of my then 4 year old mother - my grandmother, who had lost her Swiss citizenship owing to her marrying my grandfather who was a stateless German Jew, managed to squeeze into the country and avoiding being put in the ovens.

During the course of her recounting the circumstances of their escape from Paris c. 1940 the love affair between my grandmother and grandfather came up.  My Opa was always revered as something of a god in our household - this even though he didn't have a penny to his name and died anonymously in an irrelevant corner of Scarborough, Canada (Scarborough, itself being an utterly irrelevant part of Canada up until recently where it now can claim the rapper the Weeknd as its most famous resident).  I can remember my step-grandmother still laying a empty plate and place mat at the dinner table until the day he died.

As it was I knew very little about my grandfather other than the awe and reverence that my mother and every member of her family had for him - and paradoxically the warning that was always associated with his 'example.'  My grandfather was an intellectual, a great individual but ultimately - a loser in my mother's eyes.  He was a weak man who womanized too much but was supposedly a weakling owing to his inability to stand up to women.

I guess from my mother's perspective he didn't choose his daughter over his wife (my mother's step-mother) and then in an earlier period he didn't stand up to his mother when he gave in to her poison regarding my grandmother (my mother's mother).  Oddly enough, in other respects my mother passed along incredible stories about his strength.  He apparently resisted cancer right to the end - walking, talking, smoking and carrying on until one day he just dropped dead when the cancer had spread through out his body.  My mother died much the same way.  My wife marveled at how health she looked and acted up to her very last day.

So beginning with this strange dissonant complexity - my Opa as a 'strong, weak man' - and the preservation of countless implausible stories about what happened next after he and my grandmother split in Paris at the beginning of WWII - I knew he ended up in a North African concentration camp run by the Vichy regime - I did a bit of research even while my mother was still alive.  I told her for instance that my grandfather is credited with being the first to discover mass graves at Dachau.

It was well known in my family that after being liberated from North Africa by the British he joined an American army unit and fought his way through Italy.  This is where he met and married my step-grandmother Vanna.  She was apparently some great beauty - though when I was growing up I only remember her thinning dyed blond hair held together with hairspray a top her petite frame.  In any event, he continued fighting and apparently had some role in the post-Nazi reconstruction government in Germany.  I shared the information with my mother and told her that there were apparently many more correspondences in the archives of some agency in Germany.

As I said, after my mother passed away, I decided to recheck my original research on Google.  I knew that he had two surnames - Frank which was the name of his actual biological father and then Gundelfinger which was the name of his stepfather, the man his mother Betty Marx married after her first husband died in a car accident getting a blowjob from his mistress.  As is often the case with Google, the material I discovered in 2016 disappeared from the web and instead I came across a completely different page - and then several pages - which made reference to his time in North Africa.

Not much is made of the Jewish experience in Djelfe and other camps in Algeria.  The sheer magnitude of the barbarity of the holocaust in continental Europe has eclipsed what others experienced.  Even in my family the fact that Gaston was taken to the Velodrome and shipped to North Africa rather than Bergen Belsen where his mother ended up was considered something of a 'lucky stroke.'  This even though my mother often recounted how devastated Gaston appeared when he and my father - a fifteen year old German POW who was sent to Siberia after the war.

Indeed in a manner that replicated the final days of my mother's struggle with cancer, he became delusional - with the disease apparently spreading to his brain.  He was back at the camp, only now a old man.  'Please don't take my children, please don't take my wife - they aren't Jewish!'  He was in a hallucinatory haze that sucked him out of this world but not before taking him back to his three years in hell.  If anyone cared to look in retrospect the signs were there that the camps broke him.  He emerged from the camp eager to shed his Jewish identity.  He purposefully baptized his two children by his new Italian wife as Catholics.  'If this (the Nazi regime) happens again, they won't experience what I went through.'

But what did he go through?  Oddly enough my mother never delved that deeply into matters.  Perhaps it was owing to her marrying a German man - who my Opa apparently liked very much.  Perhaps it was owing to my father's mother living in our house, she still remained an ardent supported of Hitler to the day she died.  Whatever the case, she got the sense that his experience in North Africa was bad whenever he and my dad exchanged 'concentration camp' stories.  But the world at large didn't know much or make much of a big deal about 'camps in North Africa' and she was wrapped up in abandonment issues with her father.  It was more or less a dead end.

I was utterly shocked to discover with a new Google search that my grandfather's experience in Djelfa (the location of the 'North African concentration camp' I had heard the subject of so many anecdotal references all my life) was so bad it was the subject of a famous writer's book.  Apparently during my grandfather's internment he befriended a prominent ambassador of the Republican government of Spain who happened to a fellow German Jew - Max Aub.  Aub ultimately made his escape from the camp before the arrival of the British but in the years after the war made my grandfather the subject of his books.  Here is what I discovered:

Outre ceux dont témoignent plusieurs poèmes de Journal de Djefa, Aub en fournira deux exemples significatifs dans dans « Situation des réfugiés qui se trouvent en Afrique ». Le premier renvoie aux cachots de Caffarelli, le deuxième révèle l'existence de sévices racistes : Que pense des Nord- Américains le procureur de Bucarest [...] emprisonné dans les oubliettes mortifères de Djelfa pour avoir écrit à sa femme qu'il y avait des scorpions dans le camp ? Que pense des Nations unies Isaac Guldenfïnger juif de bonne souche que l'on obligeait à travailler les samedis, à coups de crosse, le corps brisé après avoir résisté de façon incroyable criant que sa religion le lui interdisait ?49 Des manifestations d'antisémitisme sont bien perceptibles à Djelfa.

Au nombre de 179 en mai 42, les juifs font généralement l'objet d'un décompte spécial, sont jugés « dans l'ensemble dangereux et indésirables » et nécessitant une étroite surveillance50. Interdits de travail, ils ne pouvaient bénéficier des suppléments alimentaires fort nécessaires51. Les sévices racistes à l'encontre du dénommé Isaac Guldenfinger, Aub les racontera à nouveau dans « Le cireur de chaussures du Père Éternel ». Guldenfinger y devient le Parisien Godman, victime des mêmes violences, enfermé quasiment en permanence dans les cachots de Caffarelli : « mais il ne meurt pas, ne tombe même pas malade. Il supporte tout. Il rêve de retourner régenter son magasin de fourrures, boulevard des Capucines52. » Dans le contexte également fictionnel du « Cimetière de Djelfa », sans le nommer, Pardinas (l'épistolier narrateur) lui attribue un autre destin et parle de « ce juif », resté à Djelfa, associé avec le bijoutier Mohamed ben Cara, et « qui ne voulait pas travailler le samedi »53. Peut-être le relevé nominatif des internés juifs d'Afrique du Nord dressé par Jacob Oliel, en signalant à Djelfa un Gaston Gundelfinger de nationalité allemande54, désigne-t-il le même personnage. Quant au périmètre restreint, là où se trouvent relégués « les idiots, les fous, les plus sales, les soi-disant voleurs », Aub révèle que « [la] nuit le responsable du camp spécial — un Espagnol vendu — [entrait] sous les tentes pour y [frapper] les tristes bougres avec une chaîne de fer55 » et qu'il eut lui-même l'occasion de connaître de l'intérieur ce sinistre endroit : La police interne du camp, remplie de mouchards, prenait grand soin de renseigner l'administration sur la filiation politique de chacun.

Tu te souviens de ce juif qui ne voulait pas travailler les samedis ? Celui qu'on envoyait trois fois sur quatre au camp disciplinaire ? Celui-là est aussi resté ici. Il avait changé trop de fois de camp, à force de travailler " sous le fouet - disait-il - beaucoup de samedis ". Il s'est mis à le faire avec Mohamed Ben Cara, le joaillier. Celui qui fut condamné à six ans de prison, ce fut Gribouille - son nom importe peu -, ce sergent qui frappait n'importe qui avec sa cravache : parce qu'on s'était trompé de nom, parce qu'on avait répondu " présent " en avance ou en retard, parce qu'on avait donné de l'argent à un type qui s'était échappé (sans le savoir : ce fut Barbena qui a payé les pots cassés, tu te souviens ?). Le même qui a pendu le Malagueno à l'envers et est monté sur lui à califourchon, tandis qu'il le battait sur la plante des pieds. Pour les tortures le monde n'avance pas de grand-chose. C'est incroyable avec la quantité d'inventions que l'on voit. Mais est-ce que ça peut faire autant de mal que de t'arracher les ongles? et c'est vieux comme le monde.

Quick English translation:

In addition to those shown in several of the poems in the Diary of Djefa, Aub will provide two significant examples in the "Situation of Refugees in Africa". The first refers to Caffarelli's dungeons, the second reveals the existence of racist abuses: What do North Americans think of the prosecutor of Bucharest ... imprisoned in Djelfa's deadly forgetting for writing to his wife that there Had scorpions in the camp? What is the opinion of the United Nations Isaac Guldenfïnger Jew of good strain who was obliged to work on Saturdays with his rifle butt, the body broken after having resisted in an incredible way, shouting that his religion forbade it? 49 Demonstrations of anti-Semitism are Well perceived in Djelfa.

Numbering 179 in May 2004, Jews are generally the subject of a special count, are considered "generally dangerous and undesirable" and require close supervision50. Forbidden to work, they could not benefit from the very necessary nutritional supplements51. The racist abuse against the man named Isaac Guldenfinger, Aub will recount them again in "Shoe shiner of the Eternal Father". Guldenfinger became the Parisian Godman, the victim of the same violence, locked almost permanently in the dungeons of Caffarelli: "but he does not die, does not even fall ill. It supports everything. He dreams of returning to regiment his fur store, boulevard des Capucines52. In the fictional context of the Djelfa Cemetery, Pardinas (the epistolary narrator) attributes to him another destiny and speaks of "this Jew", who remained in Djelfa, associated with the jeweler Mohamed ben Cara, and "Who did not want to work on Saturday" 53. Perhaps the nominative statement of the Jewish internees of North Africa drawn up by Jacob Oliel, pointing out to Djelfa a Gaston Gundelfinger of German nationality54, designates the same personage. As for the restricted perimeter, where "idiots, fools, dirtiest, so-called thieves" are relegated, Aub reveals that "[t] he night the head of the special camp - a Spaniard sold - [entered] The tents to hit the sad bugger with an iron chain, "and that he himself had the opportunity of knowing from the inside this sinister place: The internal police of the camp, full of spies, took great care To inform the administration of the political affiliation of each.

Remember this Jew who did not want to work on Saturdays? Who was sent three times out of four to the disciplinary camp? This one also stayed here. He had changed too many times, by working "under the whip," he said, "many Saturdays." He began to do so with Mohamed Ben Cara, the jeweler. The one who was sentenced to six years' imprisonment was Gribouille - his name does not matter - that sergeant who struck anyone with his whip: because they had erred in name because they had answered " Present "in advance or late, because money had been given to a guy who had escaped (without knowing it: it was Barbena who paid the broken pots, do you remember?). The same who hanged the Malagueno upside down and stood on him astride, while he beat him on the soles of his feet. For torture the world does not advance much. It's incredible with the amount of inventions we see. But can it do as much harm as tearing your nails? And it is as old as the world.

I have ordered a copy of Aub's original short story and will post it here soon.  The interesting thing here is that my mother did mention Gaston's frequent visits to New York to visit an old friend 'Max' but assumed it was part of some business dealing or failed business venture.  My mother's odd disinterest in her father's life or her inability to see him beyond what he represented to her will likely be the context of the new work.

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