In 1946 a photograph in Vogue showed a young man in a dinner jacket flirting with a beautiful model near the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. The time was only two years after the liberation of the city, and I was a senior at Columbia who, like everyone I knew, dreamed of traveling to France. Pictures like this one represented the image of what life might hold in store for me if only I could reach the City of Light–a goal I achieved three years later thanks to the GI Bill. No, I was not–by a long shot–the elegant young man in the photograph, and my girlfriend was not a model. But our affair had its moments of glamour, even though they were shadowed by some of the worst events of modern history.
Ruth Baeck was her name. When I met her on the Left Bank in 1949, I asked her about the number tattooed on her arm and she told me her story. She said she was a niece of Leo Baeck, the revered Chief Rabbi of Berlin in the 1930s and ’40s, who, with Ruth and her mother and more than 100,000 other Jews, had been held in the Theresienstadt concentration camp outside Prague. At some point Ruth was called on by Baeck in an attempt to save the life of a young Czech actor who was sick with typhus and could no longer answer the roll call. The desperate plan was for her to marry the young man so that his ultimate fate might be forestalled–as if the Nazis could conceivably be sentimental about newlyweds. Baeck performed the ceremony in the barracks, but the next day the guards shot the boy as he lay in his bunk.
Ruth was 16. She survived as best she could–this was, after all, the showcase camp of the Nazis, and activities like music, art and acting were encouraged for the eyes of the visiting Red Cross. But there was a constant stream of Jews sent from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz.
Meanwhile, Ruth’s mother was dying of cancer and in great pain; there was no morphine. Not long after she died, the camp was liberated and Ruth made her way to Paris. Her father had been able to weather the war years safely in Morocco, where he had gone on a business trip. Ruth had herself photographed in the traditional formal way and sent the portrait to him so he could see what his daughter looked like after a lapse of seven years. They had never gotten along well and, after a brief reunion, never saw each other again.
In Paris Ruth lived at first in a hostel for displaced girls sponsored by the Rothschilds. She was a bit older than the others and, after finding work in a bookstore, moved to a studio apartment on the Rue du Boccador. It was about this time that she was introduced to me by her former boyfriend, Richard, a Polish Jew who had survived in Vichy France during the war and was now, like me, a student at the Sorbonne.
Unlike Richard, a true scholar who eventually became a distinguished professor, I was what the French would call a flâneur–more interested in sitting in cafes and strolling the boulevards, observing the passersby, eyeing the rare creatures who lived in the fashionable arrondissements, reading Jane Austen and Hemingway and even Molière. I was a prime exemplar of Brecht’s remark that an optimist is someone who hasn’t heard the news. For me it was all “April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom” and every romantic cliché I had imbibed from the French movies I had seen in New York.