Lichtman, Rene

Lichtman, Rene


Rene Lichtman was born in Paris, France in 1937. He was the son of two Polish Jews from the Lublin area of Poland, who had fled Poland in 1936 to come to Paris. Rene’s father quickly took up arms for the French army, hoping to assist the French people in their battle against Nazi takeover. While in France, Rene’s father made an arrangement with a Catholic family, who lived just outside Paris in the village of Le Vert Galant. The arrangement was that, should anything befall Rene’s father during combat, then this family would take his son into their home. Not long afterward, Rene’s father was killed in battle, and Rene’s mother temporarily gave over guardianship of Rene to the Catholic family living in Le Vert Galant. As Rene states, his mother did not have the means to care for her son at the time she handed him over to the French family.

Growing up as a small child in Le Vert Galant, Rene remembered very little of his real parents. Rene recalls his mother visiting his French guardians occasionally, but not knowing really who she was. Rene’s guardians had him baptized Catholic at a young age, so he was temporarily severed from the Jewish community during the war years. Rene remembers his French guardians being a very loving couple who raised him as if he were their own son. One day in June 1942, Rene recalls his mother visiting his guardians one day; she informed them that she was to go into hiding in Paris because she knew that the Nazis would come to take her away if she did not.

As the years passed, Rene became accustomed to living the rural life of his guardians. Since Le Vert Galant was a very isolated farm community at the time, Rene lived in hiding with very little suspicion, although his guardians refused to let him go too far from the house. As his guardians knew, there were still many Anti-Semites living in their village, and, every time someone from their village spotted Rene, they often had to make excuses about who the boy was and to whom he belonged. Rene even remembers seeing Nazi soldiers come into the house once, for they were stationed across the street from him for a short while in a foxhole. However, throughout the war, Rene’s identity remained a secret.

After France was liberated and the war ended in Europe, Rene’s life was turned upside down. It was then that Rene went through an identity crisis. Soon after France was safe again, Rene’s mother, who remained in hiding during the war, came to pick up her son from the French family. Rene remembers his mother being the exact opposite of his guardians. While his guardians were country folk, his mother was a city girl who wore makeup and perfume and was still very young at the time. His mother’s French was very poor, and she spoke mainly Yiddish. For the first time, Rene learned that he was actually Jewish and not Catholic, and, for many years after, Rene struggled to identify where he belonged in the world.

Although Rene eventually became accustomed to his Jewish mother, he was a very hard child to deal with, and he still yearned to be with his guardians. Between 1945 and 1950, Rene visited his guardians during summer breaks from school in Paris. One day, while staying with them in the summer of 1950, Rene received a letter from his mother. The letter informed Rene that his mother had remarried, and he was to move to the United States shortly afterward. Rene remembers being disheartened, but his guardian mother assured him that living in the United States was going to be great. Rene moved to the United States in 1950, and he eventually came to terms with his Jewish identity. Rene says that his experiences during and after the war really opened him up to different cultures and people.

Interview Information:
Date: August 2003
Interviewer: Newangle
Format: DVD Recording


Rene Lichtman was born in Paris, France on December 4, 1937, to Hena “Helen” Zajdman and Jacob “Jacques” Lichtman. They both were from Lubartów, Poland, a town north of Lublin, “which had many, many Jews and today there’s just a cemetery that’s left. There were big roundups during the war there and everybody was murdered, including their family. “My mother had an extended family; at one point, she told me eleven brothers and sisters. All these young men and women, nieces and nephews that she lost. So, she was really traumatized by that. 

“Thousands and thousands of Polish Jews went to France between the First World War and the Second World War. Polish Jews just loved the idea of France. My father came in 1933 and then my mother came in 1936 which was very typical, the man first goes there and settles down and gets some work and he calls for the wife or the girlfriend. I never knew if there was a Jewish wedding with a rabbi in Lubartów, but legally they were not married. They married in France in 1938, the year after I was born. And then in 1939, Poland was invaded. 

“When that happens, a lot of these young men, including my father, are all left-wing politically because they’re anti-fascist, having watched the growth of Mussolini and Hitler. So, when Poland was invaded, they had these extended family in Poland and they joined the French Army to help Poland in some ways. Because he was a foreigner, my father couldn’t join the French Army because the French didn’t want all this mixing. The French Jews were very assimilated and also were not crazy about these Jews that only spoke Yiddish. So, he joined the French Foreign Legion, which was used for suicide missions, and that included his unit. He was stationed in Soissons, France at the Pont Gambetta Bridge, when the Germans invaded around June 4th or 5th 1940. We think that he was killed around the 8th or 12th of June according to witnesses who remember Lichtman being there, but his body was never found.” 

Meanwhile, two-year-old Rene was in Vert Galant, a neighborhood or quartier of Villepinte, conveniently located one hour northeast of Paris, with a train station directly to Paris. It was in the Ceinture Rouge, the Red Belt, which was essentially a communist area all around Paris where all the factories were built and run by communists, the unions. “My town had this kind of left-wing orientation and was welcoming to anybody. They were not nationalist French who would keep the immigrants out and they allowed not only Jewish immigrants but also a lot of Italians who fled Mussolini. So, Jews who worked in Paris were going to Vert Galant, to Villepinte, since the early 1920s and started buying land there and building little country houses for vacations with the kids in la Campagne, the countryside. So, that’s how my father knew about Vert Galant. How he found the Lepage family I don’t know. I was six months old when we first went there.

“Anne Lepage, Maman Nana, and her husband, Paul Lepage, Papa Paul, had no children and were the couple that I stayed with throughout the whole war. Before the war, she was a nourrice, a caretaker, and she took care of little kids. Maman Nana and Papa Paul were motivated to take me in because of all of the fighting going on and hostages being shot locally. They were all neighbors and they cared about each other. 

“Next door was my Papa Paul’s sister’s house which I never, never knew about during the war, and even after the war, nobody talked about it. Her name was Emilie Lepage and she saved Jewish children which we know because she took them to school to have them registered. They all lived in Paris or had parents who lived in Paris and at one point the Jewish families hid the children because they realized you can’t be as agile with kids.

“I didn’t go outside ever because it was too dangerous. Didn’t do anything. I have no idea whatsoever how I learned how to read or write. I think except through comic books…. I stayed with them in the house. Also, I was circumcised, and I think that’s one of the reasons why I was not allowed to just go about because the French authorities and the Germans did physical inspections on boys. I remember there was one situation where a doctor came, and he must have been someone trusted because he examined me carefully and must have noticed that I was circumcised.

“It was a very well-built house, and we had an indoor toilet…. In the back of the house there was a big garden, and it was part of the design of city planning in those days by the French. When they laid out these areas in the suburbs, la banlieue, they said to the homeowners, ‘We’re giving you enough space to have a vegetable garden.’ Many of them would have leftover vegetables and they would come to the market, le marche, on Sundays and sell their leftovers. 

“My memory of those four years was being with Maman Nana because Papa Paul worked in Paris and caring for that garden. Because of the food, we were in some ways self-reliant and that was very important. We also kept rabbits and chickens and some other animals in the lower level of the house, where there was a dirt floor. That dirt floor area was also a kitchen. In the summer when it was hot, you could be there, and it was cooler there. The upstairs was much more formal. That’s where we had the nice furniture. And the bedrooms were there.

“Maman Nana always wore these long skirts. She would use one of them, her working skirt, to gather vegetables or wipe her hands. My job was to hold onto that skirt and follow her in whatever she did. And we always had animals following us and she was always talking to them. So, she would talk, and I never knew whether she was talking to me or to the animals or both of us.

“Everywhere in my house we had crosses, crucifixes. So, from what I understand of the Lepage family they were both Christians, Catholic, and left-wing, communist. But they never preached to me about anything…. They never said anything to me because there was a security issue from what I can tell. Silence was important. You couldn’t trust anybody because there were collaborators all around. 

“Maman Nana told me an amazing little story where she was in town shopping. She was in this little store and the man was waiting on her and the wife comes out of the store and says, ‘Madame Lepage, you take care of children and if you have any Jewish children you need to get new ID cards, carte d’identite, with the word Juif stamped on them and etrangers sous surveillance, in little red letters underneath it.’ Foreigner under surveillance means you have to register at the police anytime you move, or you get a new job, or you go to school, you have to let the authorities know. As Maman Nana starts making up a story, the husband says to the wife, ‘Stop asking questions, go back to doing what you were doing.’ So, the less you were outside in public the safer it was. 

“My Jewish mom stayed in Paris in our building on Place de la République next door to La Synagogue de Nazareth. On July 16, 1942, about halfway through the war, the French police began the big roundups of Jews. By that time, they didn’t care whether they were children or foreigners or French-born. The Germans had to use the local people to do their dirty work and the local people were most happy to collaborate. 

“My mother’s neighbors who were not Jewish, Madame Lilly and her daughter Madame Gaby, heard the rumors about the planned roundups and came to my mother and said we know the French police are coming in the next few days because of all these rumors and we have a spot for you upstairs. The remaining two years she had to hide. The French police knew where the Jews were, and they just went in the building to where we lived on the third floor. My mother was not there. They break the door down. They go in and they take things. When they left, they barricaded the door so she wouldn’t go back in.

“Before July 16, 1942, my mother could come and visit me in Vert Galant with the help of Maman Nana’s brother, Albert Meunier, who was part of the Resistance. Since my mother was a foreigner and did not speak the language, he would bring her to visit me. But I don’t really remember her because she was in hiding for the last two years of the war in Paris and could no longer visit. So, I never saw her.

“When the war ended in 1945, my mother shows up again. For many hidden children, that point when parents returned for their children, was the most traumatic event. Which is really kind of surprising, shocking. You would think that when liberation happens, you’re free. You’re happy. Well, it turns out that’s not the case with hidden children. For many children who were like me in a secure, safe environment that I was used to and the fact that a stranger shows up and takes you away is difficult to accept. 

“So, my mother is this young woman. She has an accent. She wears perfume which I was not used to. She’s just really, really different than Maman Nana. And evidently, she says, ‘I’m your mother and I’m taking you back with me.’ It was very difficult for me and the Lepages since mother had not communicated with us and my French family had plans for me. I used to draw pictures and Maman Nana was going to send me to art school. They were going to adopt me and had me baptized, Catholic. Albert Meunier was my parent, my godfather.

“Now for myself and many other Jewish children, there was a whole question of identity because we had not been raised Jewish. As a matter of fact, the goal was to hide our Jewishness. So, the question of Jewish identity after the war was complicated. The way that I learned about Jewish culture was through my mother and her friends who survived and lived in Paris. It was a Yiddish-speaking world and when you’ve got that common language you don’t need to prove that you’re Jewish, you’re living it all the time. So, they did, and they were Yiddish speaking, and they would have parties often in Paris and they were quite wonderful and warm and beautiful. There were couples and people who were not couples where one of the partners was killed by the Germans, including my mother and my Aunt Charlotte. My mother had a boyfriend in Paris, and he had lost his wife. Everybody smoked and a lot of people played cards and other people drank and talked, sat around, and sang songs. My mother sang and she had a beautiful voice, and the songs were always very sad and brought back all of these very, very sad memories of the losses in Poland of their relatives. 

“My relationship with my mother was just very difficult. I went to school, and I always felt kind of a loner. I don’t know how I did it, but I passed whatever tests they gave me. I don’t understand how I learned to read and write or any of these things because I just didn’t have any help from anybody. 

“I spent a lot of time with the Lepage family in Vert Galant when I wasn’t in school. I was with them in 1950 when my mother sent a letter and told me she decided to come to the United States where she had remarried a religious Jewish man. She’s much younger than him; he’s already a grandfather and he speaks Yiddish.

“So, I came to the United States when I was twelve and it was just really a difficult period. But fortunately, in public school in Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York, I started hanging around with these kids and I could draw pictures. I could draw portraits of them, and they liked that. And I became friends with all these different types of kids and some of them were really tough kids so they kind of kept an eye on me because there were gangs around…. At the same time, teachers learned that I could draw, and I had an art class. I also did posters and any kind of visuals and I became pretty well known as the artist

“I had these wonderful teachers, Mrs. McCarthy and Mr. Young, who encouraged me to go to this special high school, Music and Art, close to the Bronx. At the high school, we were always told, ‘You guys are special. You’re the best in the whole country.’ So, it was an elite school, and I didn’t really belong there. I was from a working-class, poor immigrant from Brooklyn. I was like a token kid up there. But it really gave me this identity as an artist. 

“When I was about eighteen, I decided to join the army. I volunteered for two years and joined the Air Force. Evidently, I did very well on some kind of math test because they put me in the artillery, surveying which is very math oriented… As soon as I joined, they found out that I could draw and paint and they sent me home to get my art supplies so I could paint in the mess hall, especially where the officers ate.” 

Rene is grateful for the role models that he’s had in his life, women like Maman Nana and then Madame Lilly and Madame Gaby. “These were wonderful role models, and they were not what we think of as heroes. They just feel that it was the right thing to do.”

Rene thinks that for young people, “The Jewish values that you should be proud of have to do with social justice. If you’re going to be a social justice warrior or fight for social justice, you’re not going to be popular. The people who did the rescuing in those days were not popular with their neighbors because they were endangering the neighbors by hiding Jews. So, by fighting for your social justice values, you’d better have some allies to support you.”

Interview Information:
Date of Interview: October 3, 2023
Length of Interview: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus