It was my privilege to interview Régine Zylberberg in 2011. She recounted to me some of her achievements in spite of the adversity she encountered in her life. A self-made woman, she developed as a singer, an actress, and a businesswoman who ran an empire of nightclubs. This partly explains why she considered herself a self-made woman who worked her way to the top.
Régine was born in Belgium to Polish-Jewish parents on December 26, 1929. The family emigrated to Paris in 1932. Though her mother wanted to keep custody of her two children, Régina and Maurice, she left France for Argentina without managing to take the children with her.
When the war broke out, her father found different places to conceal them. One was a convent in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France. Régine took several identities, so many that she did not remember all of her names when she wrote her memoirs in 1985. It is significant that she entitled her book: Call Me by My First Name” (Régine, Appelle-moi par mon prénom).
The mid-1980s was a period when Holocaust survivors’ memoirs began gaining public interest. Her memoir would be followed by three other books about her life and achievements, including one dedicated to her son.
At the age of 13, when she had been in hiding for two years with the Orthodox Heyman family in Lyon in a boarding house for old people, she lived with an Orthodox Jewish family and observed the Sabbath with them. She fell in love with their son Claude, who was 16. One day, he was rounded up while visiting a relative. He never returned.
Immediately after the war, Régine felt she should not look back in order to rebuild herself. She needed a radical break from a humiliating past. “I refused to recall the little girl who was dressed in the clothes of others,” she remembered.
Shortly after the liberation of Paris, she was reunited with her father. Joseph Zylberberg had joined the Resistance during the war. Afterward, he opened a Parisian coffee bar with the name “La lumière de Belleville,” and asked her to manage it. It was at this time that American Jazz was becoming popular in Paris as well as “Bee-Bop,” a conjunction of circumstances that would prompt her to fulfill her yearning to become famous.
She married at an early age (in November 1947) to a young man who was in the textile trade business. Régine gave birth to her only child, Lionel, whom she would have difficulty raising. Her son would reproach her for abandoning him while she was busy building her career.
In the early 1950s, she left her father’s café and worked as a saleswoman in a shop in Juan-Les Pins, a trendy place in the south of France.
There, she went to fashionable discotheques and saw famous stars on vacation. Suddenly, she realized that she had a talent for organizing evening dances and parties. Régine got divorced and quickly became addicted to work. In 1969, she married again, to Roger Choukroun, a computer engineer with the Philips company and a Sephardi Jew. They were married for 34 years before they eventually divorced.
The queen of the night
Régine liked being called “the queen of the night.” While she may have coined this phrase for herself, she did not exhibit her identity as a Holocaust survivor. She preferred being pictured as a singer and as the inventor of the modern DJ. In her autobiography, she confessed that the secret of her successful enterprises was linked to her compulsion to work countless hours. She seized the opportunity given by the realm of the night: “It was my stroke of luck, my refuge, and my fascination.” Régine opened a discotheque in Paris on the famous boulevard Montparnasse in 1958 and named it “Chez Régine.”
A most daring move for her was to set the gold standard for exclusive partying. At the same time, she aimed at reaching grandiosity, a choice expressed in the style of her songs. “La Grande Zoa” remains one of her greatest hits. The former hidden girl had metamorphosed into a diva under the Parisian limelights. Hence, she began building her own legend while she opened new nightclubs. She believed in “constant work” coupled with “constant vigilance.” Reflecting on what success is made of, she said: “Success is a cross-country race. It is normal to feel anguish sometimes. It is even a good sign. I have always slept with teeth clenched, but there are nights when they are more clenched than others.”
In fact, she slept very little. She feared missing something while sleeping. The realm of the night turned out to be a refuge when she had to overcome the personal tragedies in her life, such as the death of her only son, the journalist Lionel Rotcage, in 2006.
The singer sang some of the most famous French songs written by the best songwriters, such as Serge Gainsbourg, another hidden child who would not exhibit his identity from his painful past in occupied France. As a Holocaust scholar, I recognized the double-entente meaning in a song he composed for Régine in 1965.
The apparently joyous piece of music entitled “Les P’tits Papiers” (The Small Papers) is an indirect reference to the multiple identities Jews in France had to borrow to avoid arrest and deportation.
One of Régine’s most moving songs remains “My Yiddishe Mame,” which she sang in Yiddish, the language she heard at home. She also appeared on the screen in secondary roles, as in the film Mazal Tov by Claude Berri, in which she sang that classic song.
Régine turned her dream into reality and created a worldwide circuit of nearly two dozen nightclubs, while enlarging the circle of her celebrity friends, which included actress Brigitte Bardot, writer Françoise Sagan, and artist Andy Warhol. She boasted that she had taught world celebrities, including the Duke of Windsor and Audrey Hepburn, how to dance the fashionable “Twist.” At that time, in France, a successful career of a young woman starting from scratch was most unusual.
In 1969, Alice Saunier-Seité, then the only woman appointed dean of a French university and the future minister of universities, was asked to address a Rotary Club in England about the successful careers of women. She mentioned the case of Régine because she admired her threefold career as a nightclub owner, a singer, and an actress, all the more as the artist did not have family wealth.
Régine knew how to benefit from proper guidance. Among the famous writers who authored her lyrics were Patrick Modiano (the 2014 Nobel Prize laureate for literature), celebrated French novelist Françoise Sagan, as well as lyricist, journalist and novelist Jacques Lanzmann. They must have been impressed by a woman who went from one hiding place to another as a teenager.
Nevertheless, her willpower and strong determination to bring herself into the limelight, combined with an intuition to seize unique opportunities in the field of music and entertainment, led her to build herself the way she did. By exporting abroad the concept of her exclusive nightclub, especially to the US, she became a transnational figure. However, she never forgot her hardships as a child and teenager and donated to charities helping children in need.
In the 1970s, she expanded what has been called her “business empire,” which included her nightclubs all over the world. She moved to New York and lived in a suite in the Delmonico Hotel. She opened a club on the ground floor of the hotel that served French food under the direction of a French chef. At that time, there were 25 clubs across three continents that bore her name. She also designed a line of evening clothes, “Ready to Dance,” which were sold at Bloomingdale’s.
All in all, although she met with professional success and recognition by others within her profession, family life has been problematic. She could not avoid the constraints linked to her professional career and engagements. Philanthropy, however, has been an important element that brought her self-confidence. A city in the arid south of Israel has benefited from her financial help, she proudly said: “We help Israel, in particular the city of Beersheba. Helping Israel is our duty.”
Régine reiterated that working long hours was a drug. She meant a drug that made her forget her wounds. She shared that hyperactivity with many Shoah survivors. In 2003, she sold her nightclubs. The legendary singer passed away on May 1 at age 92. I believe that her interpretation in French of Gloria Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive” still lingers in the air. ■
Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan is senior research associate at the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University. Her latest book is entitled: How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives: France, The United States, and Israel (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2018, Studies in Antisemitism)