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A Hidden Childhood
A Jewish girl's sanctuary in a French convent 1942-1945

by Frida Scheps Weinstein ©2014, Paperback, ISBN: 978-1-935232-71-1, 178 pp
 

A sensitive young girl, known to the reader as F., is sent from the Jewish neighborhood in Paris where she lives with her mother to a convent school at the Chateau de Beaujeu. It is 1942, and the little girl's removal, although she is too young to realize it, is meant to provide sanctuary from the Germans, who have overrun much of France. F.'s initial fascination with her new surroundings is tempered by uneasy recollections: her father has gone to Jerusalem, and her mother often embarrassed her by speaking Yiddish on the street. Isolated from her past, F. becomes increasingly fascinated by the power and mystery of the Catholic Church, and she is soon first in her class at catechism, intent on becoming a “daughter of the Church.”

 

Much of the power of this memoir derives from its being narrated from a child's viewpoint, evoking F.'s innocent confusion at being separated from her parents. In her eagerness to be like her classmates, F. has difficulty identifying with her Jewish heritage. More than anything else, she longs to be baptized, and when her mother refuses to give permission, F. decides she does not need a family, because she has God and the Church. But her memories of life among the Jewish refugees in Paris grow increasingly vivid and disturbing when she realizes that the Nazis have taken her mother from France. As F. prepares to leave Beaujeu, she knows that she is truly alone.

Me, shortly before I was sent to the Chateau de Beaujeu.

I TUG ON THE STRING a little harder. I’m afraid the

box will tear. The shoebox is jammed against the

sidewalk. It’s because of my mother. She’s pushing

me. We have to hurry. When I’m with my mother

we’re always late. I run to free the box. My doll has

come halfway out from the jolt, and her blue eyes are

almost open. It’s my first doll, which can open and

close its eyes. The scraps of cloth have come out, too.

I rear range them. I like old cloth. It’s so soft when you

touch it, and you can rumple and tear it and you still

have a piece of cloth.

 

The passersby are laughing because the shoebox is

dragging and making a noise. They stop. They don’t

see that it’s a little baby carriage. My mother can’t buy

me a real one. I also wanted a mechanical doll that

could walk by itself. My mother has no money. But we

are not poor. I don’t like poor people or beggars. I am

warmly dressed and well fed. My mother says that’s the

main thing. She deals in the “market.” Everyone says

she manages very well. Aunt Ida—that’s her sister—is

always coming to the house to ask where she can find

work. But she doesn’t like to deal in the market. She

loves to dress up, to play the coquette, and my mother

says she is looking for a husband. Aunt Ida does every -

thing I want. She is afraid of me. I’m a spoiled child.

We arrive at the railroad station. It’s still very dark.

We got up early. We can hardly see through the smoke

billowing over the engine. Two cars are linked. I love

it. It makes a funny noise when they touch each other

where the big nails are. A very tall lady, holding two

little girls by the hand, stops us on the platform. She’s

wearing a long black veil with a little red cross—it’s the

Red Cross lady. I recognize her. One of the little girls

has long black stockings on. I’d like some, too.

 

My mother is wearing her everyday green coat. I

hate her. I don’t want the other girls to see me with

her, and I won’t take her hand. She doesn’t look like a

French woman. What’s more, she speaks with a foreign

accent. When she’s not speaking she keeps her mouth

open the way foreigners do, like the refugees on the

rue des Jardins Saint-Paul. That’s where we live, at

number 24. But across the street, at 35, almost no one

speaks French. They’re disgusting. As for me, I speak

without an ac cent, like a real French girl. I was born

 

in Paris, at the Hotel-Dieu. Only I don’t have a French

name. When I’m called on in class I blush. The teacher

can’t pro nounce my name. Everyone laughs. But I am

not a foreigner. They say my name is German. But if

the Germans question me they’ll soon see that I’m really

French. I look at my shoes, they’re shining. I have

to keep an eye on my doll in the box. One never

knows in wartime; there are a lot of thieves, especially

in train stations.

 

My mother is holding a paper bag. I recognize the

smell of oranges—I know it’s from the black market. I

see grease stains through the paper. There must be

some heavily buttered bread—it mustn’t show—people

mustn’t know. I’m supposed to eat bread every day, and

a lot of other nourishing things. But I won’t eat unless

I get a story. My mother tells me what’s happen ing at

the market. She tells me that they’re cheating her. That

makes me sad, but I want her to keep on talking.

When she tells the same story twice, I stop eating. That

gets on her nerves. She forces me but I clench my

teeth. Then she cries and says I make her miserable.

When she cries it makes me cry, too. I don’t like to cry

in front of people. My mother is always making me eat

on the trains, in gardens, in the street, places where nobody

eats.

 

I like stories and the street, too. Running in the

street with a gang of little girls. They never come to

my house. We swing on the chains around Ave Maria

Square, across the street from the school where I’m

learning to read. And then we run into the Metro

Saint-Paul and push the buttons on the map that has

all the different-colored lights. They chase us. We run

 

away. I’m always the last and they shout at us, “You

little brats!” We run back to St. Paul’s Church, near the

steps. I run faster. I’m afraid of churches. When the

bells ring it’s sad and grand. The great door is always

closed, except for marriages. I love to see the bride in

her white veil. I would like to get married like that

when I’m big.

 

The stationmaster shouts and whistles—people

rush around. I like the buttons on my new coat, I

touch one of them through the buttonhole. For several

evenings, my mother’s been doing some sewing across

the street at our neighbor’s house, Number 35. She also

made some new dresses for my trip. And she left me

all alone in the house. Locked in. I don’t like to be

locked in. I’m afraid my mother will be run over crossing

the street and there’ll be no one to open the door

for me. She always leaves while I’m asleep, but I wake

up; I scream and turn the light on in the blue room,

which my mother painted all by herself. The last time

I turned the light on I got very frightened. Someone

yelled, “Light, third floor!” The Germans. I thought,

It must be across the street, at Number 35.

 

I tried to open the door. I banged on it with my

fists. You needed tools to open it. I saw the locksmith

break one open once when I was at my nurse’s in the

country. I went to look for my father under the side -

board. My father—that’s the toolbox. My mother says

the tools are his and nobody’s to touch them. I’ve never

seen my father. He saw me when I was little. But I

don’t need him. According to my mother, he’s traveling

far away in Palestine. It’s a hot country. When I eat

figs—I don’t like figs but they’re nourishing—I think

 

of him. They are fruits from over there. I also think of

the old book that’s on the toolbox. But I never say “my

father” like other little girls; that seems funny to me.

I’m not like them. My father is an engineer, that’s very

im portant. The old book is his, too. He knows how to

read French. My mother doesn’t. The beginning and

end are missing pages. But there are still a lot of them

left hang ing from threads. Rats have eaten it. Each

time I look at the book, “It’s serious,” I say to myself.

I sit on my little wooden stool and leaf through with

the finger I put in my mouth, like I saw a very welldressed

lady do in the Tuileries gardens. I know the

name of the book, but I always get up and go to my

mother to ask her again. She says, “I’ve told you a

thousand times, The Wandering Jew.” My mother

doesn’t pay attention when I talk to her. She’s always

thinking of something else. I don’t like to read alone.

 

There are no pictures. I open the book again, sit down,

and ask her once more what it says. She’s busy, naked

in the kitchen, washing herself in a basin. It’s not nice;

the French hide them selves when they wash.

It’s strange, I think, that the Jews should be in a

book. They have a book all to themselves. I picture

them in the street and at Number 35, talking Yiddish.

It’s not only rue des Jardins Saint-Paul. I think it over.

I know that there are faraway things in the book which

I don’t know about. I repeat, “Wandering Jew, Wanderingjew”—

Wandering is not part of his name, it

doesn’t sound Jewish.

 

We are Jews, too. Didn’t want to say it before—got

to be careful, you never know. But “nothing doing,”

it’s like that. My mother always says “Nothing doing”

 

when I insist and cry, she doesn’t want to give me what

I’m asking for. My family says I don’t look it. But when

I’m playing in the street I’m always afraid they’re going

to call me a Jew. That’s why I don’t want to be seen in

the street with my mother except when she’s wearing

her nice navy-blue suit to go to the Tuileries gardens.

My mother looks like a Jew. And often when I’m with

the other girls I don’t want them to come up to my

house—I’m the first to say I don’t like Jews, and every -

one repeats it after me. Inside myself I feel uneasy. At

home I’m Jewish. But in the street I could be French.

But then, I have very curly hair. The teacher says it’s

pretty. All Jews have curly hair, that’s how I recognize

them. It’s very important. Being with Jews is just like

being at home; you can do what you want. But you’ve

got to be careful when you are with French people. At

our house we speak only Yiddish. Don’t like Yiddish. I

hate it when my mother talks it in the street or in the

Metro with Aunt Ida. I’m ashamed. Don’t dare tell my

mother—she does it on purpose in the Metro; people

look at us. I pinch her.

Praise for A Hidden Child


“This book ... tells an extraordinary story—the story of a Jewish

child living among Christian children, in fear of growing estranged

from her own memories: it has the rare quality of a testimony of innocence.”

Elie Wiesel, professor, political activist

author of 57 books, including Night


“Mrs. Weinstein's account of her ''hidden'' childhood seems universal

in its appeal – for which of us did not feel that our true selves were

hidden beneath a necessary and convoluted shell?”

New York Times


“Frida Weinstein’s childhood story is one of the most sensitive accounts

I have read about those years of darkness—an account of

the unusual ‘Catholic’ childhood of a Jewish girl, one not described

up to now. A moving and beautiful book.”

Saul Friedlander, award-winning Israeli historian,

professor of history at UCLA

 

 

“This moving memoir is an important addition to the literature of

war, and of childhood.”

Hilma Wolitzer, author of Ending,

In the Flesh, The Doctor’s Daughter, and Hearts


A Hidden Childhood is a wonderful and terrifying book, a vivid

memoir, remarkable for its acute observation and almost chilling

objectivity.”

Madeleine L'Engle

Author, A Wrinkle in Time

New York Times | "Memoirs of a Would-Be Catholic Girlhood"

 

The Pulitzer Prizes | 1986 Finalists

Frida Scheps was born in 1936 to a Russian Jewish immigrant family living in Paris, France. Frida’s, father, an engineer by profession, wanted to move the family to Palestine. Shortly before the war, Mr. Scheps traveled to Jerusalem to pave the way for the move. While he was making the necessary arrangements, war broke out in Europe, and Frida and her mother were trapped in France. In 1040, the Nazis invaded France and the persecution of the Jews of France began. At first, various laws restricting the rights of the French Jewish community were enacted. But by 1942, the Germans began rounding up Jews and shipping them to various death camps in Poland.

 

Seeking somehow to save her six-year-old daughter, Mrs.. Scheps placed Frida in a Catholic convent school at the Chateau de Beaujeu.

 

Isolated from her past, Frida soon began to forget her Jewish roots. She soon became the best student in her class at catechism and asked to be baptized as a Catholic. Mrs. Scheps wrote to her daughter, begging her not to abandon her faith. Frida received packages from her mother on a regular basis. One day, however, the packages stopped coming. Frida understood that the Germans had takes her mother away. In the middle of the night, Frida was haunted by dreams reminding her of her Jewish heritage. At the end of the war, nine

year-old Frida left the convent school. Two years latter, she was reunited with her father in Jerusalem.

 

Today she lives with her husband Ken in New York City.

A Hidden Childhood

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Frida Weinstein

 

Nominated Finalist
for the
Pulitzer Prize

 

 

 

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