travelers-tales

By Yefim Somin

Seventeenth Annual Solas Award Bronze winner in the Men’s Travel category

(a version of this essay was originally published at YefimSomin.com)

My cousin Suzanne left Russia for France in the early 1970s, when only a few managed to emigrate. Little communication was possible across the Iron Curtain, but one thing stuck in my memory: there is a place in Paris, she wrote, where the name of our common relative is on a memorial wall. Almost 30 years later I am taking my teenage son on a grand tour of Paris. Metro Picpus is in the outer 12th arrondissement, far from the tourist crowds, but that’s where we are heading one day.

A sign next to the subway station points to the Hôpital Rothschild just a few steps away. It’s a recently finished tall glass-and-concrete building with potted palms in front of the entrance. Walking through the gate we see the old low-rise original hospital structures built of red brick. The one with an arched gate and the sign Direction (Administration) is our destination. Halfway through the arch, on either side of the door leading to the headquarters, are two plaques with names. They list members of the hospital staff arrested during the German occupation, 1940 – 1945, and never heard from again.

The last name on the plaque is “WILINSKI Rachel.”

When young Rosa Vilenskaya, soon to become Rachel Wilinski, arrived in Paris from St. Petersburg in 1906, the new complex of Hôpital Rothschild had just been completed. Edmond de Rothschild, son of the founder of the French branch of the fabled German-Jewish dynasty and grandson of the patriarch Mayer Amschel Rothschild, spared no expense. Handsome red-brick pavilions designed by Lucien Bechmann implemented all the most modern ideas of urban planning, technology, and medicine. The buildings were separated by green space, both to create a healthy environment and to prevent transmission of infections. The equipment included such marvels as the latest heating system, high-pressure vats for sterilization, antiseptic operating rooms, and airy wards.

Rosa with her husband, a fellow socialist revolutionary, was fleeing the crackdown against radicals in the wake of the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905. Her first job in Paris was at an orphanage funded by the Rothschilds. Soon she transferred to their hospital after receiving a keepsake brooch from the Baroness Rothschild herself, along with a card “to remember her by.” In her letter back home, Rosa – a committed Bolshevik and later one of the early members of the French Communist Party – gushed that the Rothschilds are such wonderful fellows, filling Paris with homeless shelters, kosher kitchens, and medical facilities, all while keeping the giving hand hidden. The latter nuance made the charity acceptable to her, even though the very word “charity” was anathema to the true believers in the dogma of another German Jew, Karl Marx.

Immigrants never had it easy in France. Rosa, now Rachel, was highly educated and quickly attained a supervisor position in the nursing department, where many resented being bossed around by a “savage” from Russia. Rachel understood.

“They have a point,” she wrote in a letter back home, “it’s their republic after all.”

Her husband soon returned to Russia and became an honored “Old Bolshevik,” as those who joined the Party before the 1917 Revolution were known. He was lucky enough to die of natural causes and be the only relative of ours to have the honor of being buried in the Kremlin wall. Most of those Old Bolsheviks who outlived him were shot or sent to rot in the vast continent of the Gulag during the Stalin years. Rachel remained to fight for the glorious socialist future of France. She visited Leningrad once, in the early 1930s, and made a big impression on her teenage niece, Lina. The visitor from France brought an exotic treat, olives, and invited her niece to come with her to Paris. Lina decided to stay, and Rachel returned to France alone to face her fate.

After the fall of France in 1940, she joined the resistance, but in 1942 she was arrested and delivered to the assembly point at Pithiviers near Paris. She was listed as Inmate No. 19 in Barracks 10. On September 21, Untersturmführer (signature unclear) reported to Obersturmbahnführer Eichmann in Berlin that transport train number 901/35, under the command of Stabsfeldwebel Ringel, with a total of 1000 Jews had departed Pithiviers at 6:15 am in the direction of Auschwitz. Rachel Wilinski was a passenger on that train. We learned this thanks to the meticulous accounting by the Third Reich and to my cousin Suzanne, who found the relevant documentation at the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine, a Jewish history archive in the heart of Paris.

We enter the building of the Direction and go up to the second floor. A very business-like woman briskly passes us but stops to ask if she could help. I say that we are looking for somebody in charge of  “l’histoire de l’hôpital.”

“My great-aunt is listed on the memorial plaque outside the office,” I explain.

The woman suggests that we should get a book on the history of the hospital and gives a brief command to somebody at the desk, who rushes to hand us a copy of just such a book. The woman offers to help with other questions later, by email, and gives us her business card which reads, “Mme. Elisabeth de Larochlambert, Directrice.” This is the head of the whole hospital. The book contains the story of the Rothschild’s charitable empire, construction of the hospital campus and its centuries of service, including the difficult German occupation years.

Rosa’s niece who stayed in Russia, my mother, survived the German siege of Leningrad, emigrated to join us in Boston 50 years later, and lived to hear the story of our visit to the Hôpital Rothschild in 2001. We tell her about our pilgrimage and show the pictures.

“Why didn’t you go to France when Aunt Rosa invited you?” I ask. “Was it already very hard to leave the Soviet Union?”

“It was getting harder,” she says. “But also, I was still a young girl who liked my friends and did not understand much about the world, thinking I was living in the best possible country. Who knew then how history would turn out? It would have never occurred to me that I could reach this age, especially during the war. Had I gone with Rosa, none of us would be here.”

She smiles, “But I did like the olives.”

***

Appendix. Materials used in the story.

Chronique d’un hôpital pas comme les autres, ROTHSCHILD (1743 – 1999), Directeur de la publication Elisabeth de Larochelambert

A letter to St.Petersburg  from Rosa Vilenskaya (née Sivoshinskaya), 1907

Comité International de la Croix-Rouge, Extrait de documents, 6 janvier 1961

Sicherheit-Dienst (SD), Nachrichten-Übermittlung, 21. Sep. 1942

 

BIO

Yefim Somin came to the US as a refugee from the Soviet Union in 1979. After completing his career in computer science, he became an actor on stage and screen. He is a published translator having translated poetry from ten languages. His rule for travel is to know the language of the country of his destination. Part of his immigration memoir was published by HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

His personal website is: www.yefimsomin.com

His IMDB page is www.imdb.me/yefimsomin