(photo credit: Mark Schulman)
Road trips are about spontaneity, about driving to an unknown destination, to an unknown future.
At least, that was what road trips used to be about for me as a college student in the US - piling into a friend's car and driving the open road throughout the night to some far-flung location; places like New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Florida for spring break and the big one of them all, the marathon cross-country trip out west to California.
Almost 20 years later, the road trips have become tamer, more planned, more family-oriented - all except for this last one where I found myself in a car with my 80-year-old father as co-pilot.
This was no typical father-son bonding trip. This was no fishing trip. This was a trip to the past, to World War II Occupied France and where my father survived the war.
A knock on the door
Born to Polish Jews living in France, Sam Schulman grew up in Paris. When the war broke out in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland, my father was an 12-year-old schoolboy - studying Voltaire, Balzac and Dumas in a French public school by day, attending yeshiva classes at night. The following year Germany occupied France, taking Paris in June 1940.
"My mother and I were among those who fled Paris with the arrival of the German army," Sam Schulman recalled, in scenes reminiscent of IrÃ¨ne NÃ©mirovsky's best-selling historical novel of the event, Suite FranÃ§aise. "We followed the exodus out of the city, but after several blocks I started feeling sick and we decided to go back to our apartment and hope for the best."
Under German occupation, Schulman and his mother (his father had been on a business trip in the US at the outbreak of the war and was stuck on Ellis Island in New York and could not return to Europe) managed the best they could. His mother, Sarah (my grandmother), worked in a pocketbook factory to make ends meet while he finished grammar school. Despite the food rations and curfews, the anti-Jewish laws and the roundups, they managed to keep a low profile... at least for a while. It wasn't until a major roundup in July 1942 that it became clear Paris was no longer safe.
"One night the German Gestapo and French gendarmes knocked on our apartment door," Schulman said. "Out of instinct or just plain fright I stopped my mother from answering the door. We knew we were on a list to be deported. We knew about the concentration camps, but not the extermination camps."
About 76,000 Jews, including 12,000 children, were deported from France between 1941 and 1944. Only about 2,500 survived. Drancy, outside of Paris, was the primary camp for Jews being deported to Auschwitz and the other death camps of Poland and Eastern Europe.
"When the knocking stopped and the footsteps of the men in the hallway went silent, we ventured out," continued Schulman, who credited their concierge for telling the authorities that they were not at home but staying with relatives because of the curfew. "The next morning we packed our bags and left the apartment. We didn't look back."
For the next two weeks, Schulman and his mother stayed hidden in a hotel near the Eiffel Tower, until arrangements could be made to be smuggled to a safer place.
That "safer" place was to be smack in the middle of what was once known as the Vichy-controlled "free zone," in essence, an area controlled by a French puppet government under the watchful eyes of the Nazis.
Miles from nowhere
Sixty some odd years later, the drive with my father from what was once occupied France to "unoccupied" France passed without incident. No heavily fortified border crossing to get through. No German soldiers with guard dogs on patrol. No fear of arrest or deportation.
Rather, we set off on an autumn drive through the French countryside, a CD selection of prewar French crooners - the likes of Edith Piaf, Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel (who was actually Belgian born) - humming in the background.
Pionnat is no Paris. Located 400 km. south of the French capital in the central DÃ©partement of La Creuse, Pionnat is a small farming hamlet of several hundred in, well, the middle of nowhere. The closest town, GuÃ©ret, with a population of only 14,000, is 15 km. away. The largest city, Limoges, is 100 km. away.
Not much has changed in this region over the years. Farming, mostly cattle raising for beef, dominates the landscape. There are no commercial vineyards here. For that you would have to continue on a bit to the southwest before reaching the famous Bordeaux wine region.
"Far from the city where roundups were frequent, being in the middle of nowhere was about as safe as it could get given the circumstances," explained Schulman, who spent three years, 1942-1945, with his mother in hiding here.
Unlike Anne Frank and the hundreds of thousands of other Jewish families hiding in attics and basements throughout Europe during the German occupation, Schulman and his mother for the most part moved openly around the village, working at local farms to survive. In return for their labor they were given food - milk, cheese, bread - and were allowed to farm a small plot to grow potatoes and vegetables.
"We really had no serious shortages of food," Schulman said. "The neighbors were nice and gave us fruit from their orchards. Except for the local priest, who said nothing, I don't think they actually knew we were Jewish; they considered us refugees from Paris and helped us when they could."
There was, of course, the occasional brush with German soldiers and French gendarmes, but they were warned ahead of time by members of the local resistance movement and had time to hide out in the fields for a day or so until it was safe to come out again.
To avoid attracting any unwanted attention, Sarah, my grandmother, actually feigned being mute throughout their stay in Pionnat as she didn't speak French, only Yiddish.
"We never spoke in public, only in whispers at home. Despite the anxiety of being caught and not knowing where the rest of the family was, we had it relatively easy," said Schulman who was alluding to his relatives, including his grandparents in Poland, who perished in Auschwitz.
Schulman survived the war, returning to Paris when it ended. He later went on to join Aliya Bet as a sailor on the Exodus and fought in Israel's War of Independence. He eventually settled in New York.
"When I think back at this period of my life, I think about how lucky I was," he said. "Despite the danger, I think the hardest part of my time in hiding was probably the isolation and the loneliness."
A haven for holidaymakers
Today, ironically, it is that very isolation that is attracting people to the Pionnat area.
Not quite as well known as Peter Mayle's Provence, the Creuse region - known for its rural landscape, rolling hills and unspoiled streams and lakes - is increasingly becoming a popular holiday and second-home destination for the French and many others.
Case in point: While driving around the farm lands where my father once toiled on the land and lived in a small, one-room apartment without electricity and running water, we came across a newly renovated inn. The Au Beau Rivage, run by a Welsh family that moved to the area three years ago, offers several cozy rooms and serves excellent food, ranging from traditional French dishes like pÃ¢tÃ© and coq au vin to popular English pub classics like steak and ale pie.
Forget the World War II food rations and endless days of potatoes, my father is still raving about the inn's food (and the reasonably low price of 17 euros for a five-course meal!).
Pionnat has certainly changed since my father's day, although in some ways, things have stayed the same - people are still finding their way here to escape, whether from the rat race of modern day life or the dangers of a bygone era.
"I'm glad I made it back here after all these years. It brings back memories and something I wanted to share with my son," Schulman said. "You're never too old for a road trip."
The writer is a journalist in Geneva, Switzerland.
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