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.
For a brief time Ruth and I began the kind of young love affair set in Paris that is familiar to everyone. We often had lunch at a tiny Russian restaurant, where we appreciated the food and the friendly proprietor. We danced at the Tabou, a smoky, torrid cafe where young existentialists, dressed in black turtlenecks, gathered and where I was startled to see the patrons deodorizing themselves by splashing their underarms with an obligatory glass of cognac. After a night together we went to the Louvre on a Sunday morning–it was not crowded in those days–and lost ourselves admiring the Winged Victory.
It was a great season in Paris for theater and films. I went with Ruth to one of the first showings of Citizen Kane in France. Surrounded by French students who obviously adored Welles’s masterpiece, I felt a burst of patriotic pride–Americans were capable of superb artistic achievement despite all the voices that claimed the primacy of European culture. We saw Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud in a French version of Hamlet–the staging was hopeless, but Barrault and Renaud were splendid. We saw a dramatization of Colette’s Chéri starring Jean Marais. Ruth especially loved a production of Jules Romains’s Knock with the incomparable Louis Jouvet.
But something was disturbing her. As we huddled together in bed one winter evening, a barrage of thunder and lightning roared out of a snowy sky. She was frightened almost to the point of hysteria. Nevertheless, on her birthday Ruth dressed in a long gown and dragged me to a luxurious nightclub called Le Grand Seigneur. It was early and we were the only customers. I was wearing a lumpy tweed suit and felt extremely uncomfortable. She was the picture of highborn self-possession. The musicians played the theme from The Third Man, a tune that swept Paris after the movie opened.
I was now aware of how fragile Ruth was, and I could do nothing about it. She had lived through unimaginable horror, whereas I was a strapping American boy who had spent most of the war years in an idyllic high school surrounded by loving friends and teachers. I was abashed by my good fortune; I had never been hunted down, imprisoned, not sure whether I would live or die.
Ruth suddenly gave up her job at the bookstore and took to sleeping all day, exchanging poems clandestinely with her friends in Prague, who by then had come under the heel of the Stalinists. After recovering from an attack of appendicitis (which set off a hallucination that she was being protected by the King of Romania), a mood of mourning and melancholy came over her. Then she turned wild, once breaking away into onrushing traffic in the Place de la Concorde, chased by Richard and me. Within a day or two, with the help of the police, she was admitted to the gloomy wards of the Maison Blanche–a kind of Bellevue.
Ruth was released a few weeks later, by which time I had decided to return to the States. I was still a student, I had no money, I was afraid of Ruth and her misery and, looking for an excuse, I felt I was needed back in New York by my American girl. Ruth’s one real friend, George, had been in the Czech wing of the Royal Air Force during the war. They had lived near each other in Prague but hadn’t met until Paris. George was smitten with her. Because he had some money and was older than Richard and me, he decided to take responsibility for her–although Ruth was not happy that he was a liquor salesman rather than an artist, poet or intellectual.
I returned to the States, Richard to the Sorbonne. A few months later George sent a postcard from Montreux, telling me that he and Ruth were having a good time on vacation, that she was better and often asked about me. Rueful and guilt-ridden, I never replied.
Over the course of the next twenty years I saw Ruth in New York twice. She had married George, moved to Toronto and had two children. The first time I saw her again, I had warned my wife that Ruth might be a bit strange or upsetting, but the visit was a success. Ruth was quite composed, very much the vivacious bourgeois lady. The second time, a few years later, I met her at the Plaza for a tense drink. She seemed lost and confused.
In 1977 my wife and I visited Richard and his wife in their Montmartre apartment. He told me that Ruth had committed suicide in 1972. I was shocked but not surprised–Richard said that even in Prague before the war Ruth was somewhat unstable. Then Richard and I looked at a copy of the photograph commissioned for her father shortly after her release from Theresienstadt. It was a strange moment. The picture showed a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl almost exactly the age Anne Frank would have been had she lived. (The Anne Frank story had not, of course, been available in English or French until after Ruth’s Paris breakdown.) I realized that while Philip Roth in his novel The Ghost Writer had only imagined an Anne Frank who survived, we had the uncanny feeling that we had actually seen her with our own eyes, spoken to her, felt her presence, read her poems.
Every September my wife and I visit Paris and stay at a hotel across the street from La Belle Ferronnière, a cafe where Ruth, Richard and I sometimes stopped for an especially good cognac. Like so much of the city, the cafe hasn’t changed at all in the past half century.