Marrano by Peter Barnett
August 6, 2012Posted by on
How many times have I gazed at his sketches and read his letters I muse, fifty, one hundred, more? Sometimes smiling, sometimes quietly weeping, sometimes doing both, afraid that failing in this ritual would eventually lead to all memories of Abraham fading. Perhaps this visit to Abraham’s favourite Café is really a pilgrimage? There’s L’église Saint Germain des Prés, just as Abraham sketched it and the cartoon clearly shows a view of …
My recognition of the scenes around me are interrupted by someone excitedly calling, “Señor Hubsch! Señor Hubsch!” A waiter is trotting towards me, his face a beaming smile, his arms outstretched, finally embracing me as he might a returning son. Stepping back his face assumes a sad expression, there are tears in eyes as he places his hands on my shoulders: “Señor Hubsch, I never expected to see you again, they took so many and so few have returned. I’m so sorry, so sorry,” almost whispering, “Where is Mademoiselle Rebecca?” Confused, I don’t answer. He breaks my silence, saying in a consolatory manner: “Never mind Señor Hubsch, you’re back and look, your favourite table is free. Please – come and sit down while I bring your café.” Leading me to the table, he pulls out a chair for me and sits me down, briefly patting my shoulder before vanishing back into the restaurant.
It takes a while for me to realise that the waiter must Hubert and he thinks I am Abraham. Abraham wrote often about coming here for a café and a waiter named Hubert who was so attentive, yet respected his privacy as wrote his letters or sketched the scenes around him. Sat here, I sadly contemplate Abraham’s sketch of L’église Saint Germain des Prés and can’t hold back the tears any longer – they fill my eyes – blurring a vision of Paris seen through the eyes of my brother.
I remember when we both graduated from Universidad Autónoma Gabriel René Moreno in 1938. Mama always insisting on using the full title; never tiring of telling everyone that her twin sons were students at the best university in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, if not Bolivia. Abraham and I planned to go and live in Paris when we graduated – the artist and the writer – but agreed that one of us had to stay with Mama for a while longer. So we tossed a coin to decide who would go first and Abraham won. When he told Mama about going to Paris she became distraught of course, we were both expecting that, expressing her concern with: “But we are Marrano, how can you go to Europe at such a time if the stories are true?”
“Mama!” we reproached her as one voice.
“Abraham is a Catholic Mama and besides it’s Paris,” I said.
Abraham quickly following with: “What possible harm can I come to studying art in Paris Mama”?
“We are Marrano” she muttered, in quiet despair, “They will know, they always know.” She was right of course. We are a good Catholic family yet proud of our Marrano family name, perhaps too proud. Every Friday we lit the candles on the menorah that our ancestors had secreted out of Portugal so many years ago. But there’s no arrogance. We’re proud of a Marrano heritage that identifies us as one of the first settlers from the old world. We keep our family name to honour that, and to defy the fears passed down through generations of conversos along with the menorah. Mama heaved deep sigh of resignation, “I know you want to go as well Miguel.”
“No Mama,” I lied, “I’m going to stay and complete my Masters Degree.” Recognising the lie but knowing the sacrifice we were making in the hope of placating her, she simply muttered again, “We are Marrano,” adding, “no good can ever come from going back there.” She uttered the word ‘there’ with such contempt, as if the inquisition that pursued our ancestors to this ‘new world’, driving us high into the Andes, was lying in wait in the ‘old world’. She stood for a moment in silence, just looking at us both, her expression impassive, her eyes revealing the hurt. Suddenly she crossed herself: “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti – Amen,” as if exorcising some demon that now possessed her two sons. Then, turning her back on us, she left. We could hear her weeping inconsolably in the bedroom.
Hubert appears beside the table, a café in one hand and a neatly folded vicuña scarf in the other. He carefully places the café in front of me: “Forgive me Señor Hubsch, such a mistake, I should have realised that you are Señor Miguel. Your brother Señor Abraham mentioned you often, with great affection. He was looking forward to you joining him, but the war, such bad things happened….” He stops in mid sentence and begins to apologise once more.
I interrupt him: “Stop – please – Hubert; it’s me who should apologise. I should have recognised you when you called me Señor Hubsch – it is Hubert isn’t it?” He nods and sees me staring at the scarf. It looks like the one Mama gave to Abraham on the day he left home. The most expensive scarf she could find in Santa Cruz. Saying goodbye, she put the scarf around his neck and fussed with it until she could no longer pretend it needed her attention and had to let go. Hubert places it on the table, obviously giving it to me. I protest: “No – please – Hubert. If Abraham gave it to you then it’s yours.”
“Señor Hubsch, your brother asked me to keep it safe for him, it’s such a fine scarf. I always expected Señor Abraham to return for it, bringing Mademoiselle Rebecca with him. I’m sure he knew that if he didn’t return you would eventually come here. Please Señor Hubsch – take it – it’s meant for you. Look – see what’s wrapped inside it.” I carefully unfold the scarf to reveal a Bolivian passport, Abraham’s. “See Señor Hubsch, it is meant for you.”
I stare blankly at the passport. With this passport Abraham would never have been taken. I turn and stare at Hubert, wondering why Abraham would do such a thing. “Señor Hubsch, your brother must have known what was going to happen. There were many rumours and he would never leave Mademoiselle Rebecca.” Picking up the scarf he places it around my neck: “There, just like the old days Señor Hubsch.” Have I become Abraham once more? His eyes become watery and I’m afraid that if he cries, then so will I.
To distract us both, I show Hubert Abraham’s sketch. “Look Hubert, here’s a sketch of L’eglise Saint Germain des Prés, exactly as we see it now. And here, you must see this cartoon drawn by Abraham.” The cartoon shows two star crossed lovers sitting at a table outside Les Deux Magots. Gazing into each others eyes, they are obviously cocooned in love. A cello case placed on a chair between them is made to look like a benign duenna – I’m sure it’s meant to be Mama. Sitting beneath the table, looking equally star struck, is a small spaniel watching the two lovers. It has tiny hearts popping all around it. I point to the background where a waiter is scurrying towards the table, a tray with two café held high above his shoulder, the tray balanced in one hand, the two café look very precarious. “Look Hubert, isn’t that you?”
“Ah,” Hubert sighs, “I remember that day so well.” He pauses to dab his eyes once more and then points to the dog sitting under the table: “It was Mimi who brought them together. She came scampering up to the table one day and sat at Señor Abraham’s feet. Shortly after Mademoiselle Rebecca appeared carrying the cello, looking somewhat dishevelled and rather annoyed. I think she had to chase after Mimi. I can’t remember ever seeing her before that day. Dishevelled or not, she was beautiful Señor Hubsch – even for Paris – so beautiful.” He pauses dreamily as if reliving the moment, “Helen here in Paris.”
Abraham wrote all about Rebecca in his letters, especially about their first meeting. How she had stood on the sidewalk and called for Mimi. Mimi just looked at her refusing to move, making her walk up to the table. She scolded Mimi and then smiled at him, “I’m sorry Monsieur Mimi has never behaved like this before.” Looking fondly at Mimi, she burst out laughing saying, “What is this Mimi – love at first sight?” How it was his heart that was popping as if it were pumping Champagne.
Hubert finishes telling me his version of a story I already knew by heart: “Such a fine man your brother Señor Hubsch. They made such a beautiful couple – so in love. Señor and Señora Hubsch must have been distraught when Señor Abraham didn’t return.”
I find myself talking to Hubert as I would to a close family friend, telling him that even though Abraham had always put good news in his letters to Mama, when there was no more news from Abraham after July 1942, it was as if she knew what had happened. She never asked me what I knew but always reproached me with: “I told you both, we are Marrano – he shouldn’t have gone.” I knew she wasn’t blaming me but I was only one where there should have been two. When the war in Europe ended and we still hadn’t received any news of Abraham, she took this as confirmation of what she already believed. Taking to her bed she simply died. The doctor said she had lost the will to live. Despite his bravura displays of machismo, Papa grieved as much as Mama over Abraham. Mama passing away finally broke him and Papa died.
“Such a bad time Señor Hubsch. I don’t think Señor Abraham expected such a thing to happen, especially as Mademoiselle Rebecca was a French citizen. I did really expect them to return one day, but I’m afraid…” Lost for words, he gestures with an emotional, ‘Désolé‘. Placing his hand on my shoulder adds: “Please – stay – sit here a while longer. I will bring a fresh café,” and with that he left me alone once more with my thoughts.
After Papa had died I sold the family business and came to live in Paris, searching for news of Abraham. Sitting here three years after the end of the war, my worst fears are being realized. I was sure that if they had come back they would return to this Café. Now, I can only assume that Abraham sacrificed his life to be with Rebecca and they were both taken that July.
The Rafle du Vél’ d’Hiv is common knowledge here in Paris, finding people willing to talk about this roundup of Paris Jews is difficult. Despite my fears that any records on the Vél’ d’Hiv roundup would lead me to Drancy or – worse still – Auschwitz, I know I must continue my search. Alone with my grief, not having to tell Mama and Papa what I know is little comfort. How can I live amongst the people who allowed this to happen? How can I move on with my life if I stay here in Paris? I’m here alone, when there should be two – no – three of us.
My despondent thoughts are broken by a large hound lolloping towards me, its long hair flouncing wildly and its long ears flapping up and down at each lollop, as if it is trying to fly. Stopping abruptly beside my chair it sits on its haunches, panting heavily with its tongue hanging out the side of its mouth. It seems to be grinning at me. The hound and I stare at each other, me perplexed and the hound – well – just grinning at me. Then I see her approaching the table: “Isa! Isa! Isadora! You naughty girl, what are doing running off like that!” The hound ignores her, it simply keeps grinning at me. She gives up scolding the hound and looks at me apologetically: “Monsieur I’m so sorry, I don’t know what has come over Isadora she doesn’t normally behave like this.”
I feel a fool, sitting transfixed, staring at her, muttered to myself: “How many Helens can there be in Paris?”
“Pardon Monsieur?” Her question breaks my trance; my senses restored I scramble to my feet knocking my chair over, making me feel even more gauche, imagining that every eye must now be watching the scene being played out.
“Please – excuse me Ma…,” I begin to falter.
“Mademoiselle Mendes!” Hubert greets her, once more standing beside the table, this time carrying a tray with two café.
I follow Hubert’s lead: “Mademoiselle.” Wanting to keep repeating ‘mademoiselle’, to savour the joy of her being ‘mademoiselle’ but continue with as much bravura as I can muster: “Please excuse me Mademoiselle, Hubert made a remark earlier and I was wondering how many Helens there are in Paris.”
Hubert puts the two café on the table and moves to pick up my chair. Laughingly she asks: “Hubert, what have you been telling this gentleman?”
Placing the chair behind me, Hubert returns to the table: “Mademoiselle Mendes, if you can’t find Helen in Paris where can you find her?” Before she can reply he adds: “Perhaps Mademoiselle would like to sit here? I’m sure Señor Hubsch won’t mind and he has a magnificent sketch of L’église Saint Germain des Prés that’s worthy of your appraisal. You really must see it.”
I quickly add: “Please Mademoiselle Mendes – please do sit down – I ‘m sure Isadora insists on it and won’t move to another table.”
“Well Señor Hubsch, if Isadora insists that we share the table then I can’t refuse”. She offers me her hand, “I am Maria, Maria Mendes.”
I gently take her hand, my lips barely brush her skin yet I feel sure the contact has struck me dumb. Bereft of any machismo, unable to conjure up any bravura, I manage to say, “Miguel, Señor Miguel Hubsch.”
Hubert holds her chair while she sits down, smiling she asks: “Is there really a sketch of Saint Germain des Prés?” As if this chance encounter is not ‘by chance’.
I show her Abraham’s sketch, afraid that if she sees Hubert’s expression she might think there is a conspiracy: “The sketch is real Mademoiselle Mendes, see here it is.”
Silently, she studies it in some detail before exclaiming, “But this really is magnificent Señor Hubsch! Are you the artist? I saw you at the Louvre this morning gazing at Jacques-Louis David’s ‘The Courtship of Paris and Helen.’ I was intrigued, you seemed to make such an intimate connection with the painting, it was obviously a very personal viewing, not one to be shared.”
I tell her about Abraham and show her his cartoon ‘The Courtship in Paris of Helen’. She looks excitedly around us, “Why that’s here as well, it’s this table – two lovers sitting at this table! Look there’s Hubert and look, look at the dog, how sweet, the dog’s in love.” She leans towards me sharing the cartoon as if I had never seen it before, her closeness making me blush. “The allusion is so clever.”
Is she teasing me? I can barely whisper “The dog is Mimi” .
“Mimi,” she murmurs to herself, “what a sweet name Miguel.” When she says Miguel – the way she says it – my heart begins popping. Just like Mimi’s. “I think everyone here is in love Miguel,” flashing me a glance that suggests she isn’t talking about the cartoon.
She searches the tables for any sign of Hubert, I’m sure she is going to tease him too but he has disappeared once more. Smiling, she returns her gaze to me: “Perhaps you’re not an artist Miguel but you have a talent to bewitch. Isadora is sitting there looking as lovelorn as Mimi. I’ve never know her behave like she did today.” She playfully pats Isadora’s head, “It must be love at first sight.”
Captivated by her gaze, I’m the enchanted one. “I’m sure it is Maria.”
© Peter Barnett