The first time I met with Ida Akerman-Tieder, it was in the quiet Jerusalem street where she lived. She had placed a hanukkiah outside her apartment as required by Orthodox tradition, and she had just lit the first Hanukkah candle. And I said amen.
Emboldened by the festive and mysterious quality of the Jewish festival, I introduced myself to a charming lady in her 80s. Chance had it that I had just finished reading her memoir, And You Shall Tell Your Children: A Chronicle of Survival – Lessons of Life for Today. I was impressed by the pediatrician and captivated by the psychoanalyst. That evening in December 2011 I tried to discover the mystic side of the poet in her, and her reasons for celebrating life the way she did, against all odds.
Born in Berlin in 1927, Akerman-Tieder is the granddaughter of a rabbi, and the daughter of a man versed in Talmudic studies who became a tradesman, and of a woman who transmitted Judaism to her children through the observance of Jewish rites joyfully celebrated in a loving home.
Akerman-Tieder had managed to flee from Berlin to Belgium in 1938 with her parents, brother and sister, and then to France in 1940 as refugees with the beginning of the war. The whole family was interned in the French internment camp of Agde where starving men, women and children were separated and kept in inhumane conditions. In the sordid barracks they suffered from the cold, the presence of rats, lice, the lack of water, and sexual abuse. She recalled how even pregnant women were beaten up by the French “gendarmes” (police guards), and that there were no restrooms or showers. She escaped miraculously from this camp while her mother was meant to go to a hospital and come back in the evening. Later on, she learned French, but felt terribly hurt by the French population’s indifference to the suffering of the Jews and by the cruelty of the Vichy administration.
When her parents were deported, her father sent his children a last message and instruction from the train on the way to Auschwitz: “Never rebel against God, keep Shabbat, and be good to one another.”
After the arrest of her parents, Ida had suddenly become an orphan at 14. She miraculously escaped the roundup of August 26, 1942 in the southern part of “free” France. After wandering from place to place for three months without any news of her family, she joined her brother and sister who had already found refuge in the Moissac children’s home. The place was admirably run by the Eclaireurs Israélites de France (The Jewish Scouts of France).
After the war, from 1950 to 1963, Ida studied medicine in Paris, obtained good grades and married a fellow student who later became a noted neurologist and headed the department of nuclear medicine at the famous Parisian Foch Hospital.
Akerman-Tieder was also a respected pediatrician and psychoanalyst in France when in 1990, the couple immigrated to Israel to join her three children.
In her book, Akerman-Tieder expresses and analyzes some of her traumatic memories. “After the war, our parents never returned from the deportation. All the children who were hidden, away from their families and deprived of their identities and familiar surroundings, came back to Moissac.”
It was a time when returning deportees were warmly welcomed and perceived as heroes if they had been resistance fighters. It was then that Ida Tieder felt as if they were the “children of silence,” those nobody ever spoke about even though they had made it through the war without their parents.
In the aftermath of the war Moissac was a place that enabled children to renew their lives. It also became a sort of cultural and intellectual center where many Jewish intellectuals were invited to lecture on Jewish philosophy. The Jewish Scouts’ children’s home was the starting point of a postwar Jewish identity based on Torah.
This atmosphere, which she enjoyed until the age of 18, helped Akerman-Tieder begin again. While studying, she also taught school children at Moissac, but adapting to daily life was still difficult without parents. Throwing herself into her studies was the thing that mattered most to her. She relates later in her memoir her interview with the head of pediatrics at the hospital where she worked:
“When I worked in Doctor Brissaud’s department for children with meningitis caused by tuberculosis, I arrived before the procession of doctors and I made the children laugh because I couldn’t bear to see their sadness. One day, he arrived earlier than usual and saw me. He remained behind the door, not wanting to disturb me. He called me to his office and asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ I answered, ‘Pediatrics, but there’s no way I can. I don’t know anyone.’ In those days one couldn’t expect to get a place as a non-resident student in a good pediatric service if one didn’t have connections. The head immediately gave me a word of introduction.”
This type of help was all the more appreciated as even registering in a medical school had been by no means easy. Being a stateless person was an extra hurdle. She explains the complex situation she had faced:
“I was supposed to be Czech, my father being Czech as he was born in Czechoslovakia, a country bordering on Hungary and Poland. But the Czechoslovakian consulate did not recognize my right to their nationality.... I wasn’t French either, and the French didn’t want to give me the identification document of a stateless person since I was a Czechoslovakian.”
One of the educators of Moissac went to the consulate in Marseilles on her behalf to declare that she renounced her previous nationality in order to obtain the green identification paper of a stateless person. But when she began studying medicine, the Ordre des Médecins (Board of Physicians) was opposed to the idea of granting citizenship to foreign medical students. So she registered for a course of literature at the University of Toulouse, while waiting to obtain the French naturalization papers, which she had requested.
Her sister and brother were also encountering similar difficulties at the same time. In France, children of deportees who were not French were considered as war orphans and as such could receive small scholarships.
Eager to study, Akerman-Tieder finished her medical studies in brilliant fashion, promising to make children smile again. She emphasized that she married Fred Akerman, a young man born in Berlin who happened to attend the same medical school she attended but whom she met by chance on a boat bound for Israel in 1953.
Although Akerman-Tieder soon gave birth to three children, she went on to study for her specialization in pediatrics and, later on, psychoanalysis. It was quite a challenge but she yearned to help all those who suffered, and especially those who had endured persecution during the war.
Even though Akerman-Tieder and her husband enjoyed prestigious jobs and social status, she felt they lived in exile. Unlike the word Diaspora, the term exile conveys a negative connotation which she developed in her book.
In her opinion, the Jews of France whose Judaism has to remain in the private sphere suffer from a form of “split personality.” Conversely, “Identity Out in the Open” (a chapter title of her memoir) is what she experienced when on Israeli soil, pointing indirectly to the uncomfortable double identity of some Jews in exile.
Before making aliyah Akerman-Tieder had visited the Jewish state many times. One of her poems written in French titled “Fifty Years After” illustrates to what extent living in the Land of Israel was a dream that came true: “Fifty years after the war / We’ve had the good fortune of having returned to our Land.”
In a chapter she titled “Back in Our Element,” she wrote about their planned emigration: “This project preoccupied us. We’d made many journeys to Israel, and aliyah seemed to us the culmination of our path, the concretization of our Jewish identity, a way of showing ourselves to be fully fledged members of our people in our land, claiming our collective heritage without having to be pigeonholed as dati or “religious,” terms which don’t always fit me.”
Akerman-Tieder’s three children all live in Israel today and share the same Orthodoxy as her, the same spiritual energy, transmitted in turn to their own children. Akerman-Tieder is a happy grandmother and great-grandmother whose transmission of her past has been achieved through her memoirs, which she has had translated into both English and Hebrew, the language of her grandchildren.
Akerman-Tieder’s religious background and evolution has definitely played a part in her reconstruction and in the narrative she presented in her memoir, focusing on the depths of the “Jewish soul” and the logical move to Israel as her final home. Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan is a senior research associate at the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University. Her latest book is How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives: France, The United States and Israel (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2018)l