The Return
Juif - the Yellow Star of David
Juif - the Yellow Star of David

When the rains came, she walked in the streets of the old town, looking for a taxi driver who would take her back in time. 

These were the late summer rains for which French farmers wait to irrigate their crops and fatten the grapes on the vine one last time before they are harvested and crushed into the white Apremont wine that is crisp, flinty and unpretentious, like the people who make it. 

But for Betty hurrying along the cold, windy streets of Chambery the rains were delaying her return to the little village of scattered homesteads, high up in the mountains of Savoie, where she had hidden so many years ago, to become a child of the land, transferred and transformed from her urban infancy in the bleak northern town where she was to have been taken away to be killed in the German concentration camps. 

She had never been back since; and she had never forgotten.  The village was her real home, which she had been forced to leave, but to which she would take her own children, and their children, long after the most important moments of her life, when the world was at war and she was the predators' prey. 

Now she was anxious, in spite of herself. The children were still too young to hear her story, the world was indifferent and unwilling, and she was not ready.  
Waiting for a taxi in the rain gave her time to contemplate and savor the welcome she would receive, the firm embrace of the old farmer she loved, the affectionate, plump warmth of his wife, the sweet, fragrant smell of the house, the mouth-watering aroma of the fresh black country bread and the soft, ripe goat's cheese.

The taxi driver, who knew she was running late after taking the wrong train from Paris, would not go all the way up into the village, no matter how important the woman's mission.  Late in the afternoon of a misty Savoyard autumn, he refused to take the long route around the lake in the torrential rain and climb up the narrow, steep country road into the village. But he could, since she was so persistent, be tempted to try the new highway, still closed officially to traffic where a long underpass had been cut into the side of the mountain.

He had never gone through the unfinished tunnel before; and if he did she would have to walk on alone in the mud, rain and mist, and scramble up the steep slope of the hill.  For her, the journey could not wait for the weather to improve, and for him her story and the urgency of the hour were only as relevant as the fare he would collect when it was all over.

Setting out from Chambery, a pleasant old market town when the weather is good and in the winter when the skiers come for the snow on the mountains, they drove over the bridge at Candle and swung on to the A41 autoroute for la Motte Servolex, past Gojat to St Alban de Montbel where the new tunnel was under construction.  If he could get through, her village was an easy but awkward climb on foot up the hill. But it meant defying the no-entry signs, after the builders had gone home for the day, with a real risk of the freshly plastered walls crumbling or of the unpaved road surface subsiding.

Approaching the gaping black mouth of the tunnel, his daring and defiance aroused now by the challenge more than the fare, he picked up speed as his headlights picked out the exposed water pipes and the damp, forbidding walls.  Conscious of their folly but knowing there was no way back now, Betty gripped her seat, and stared apprehensively at the driver and the rough sides of the tunnel, which would open to the public only when all those dangers they were defying had been removed.

In the dark, as the car drove on, she remembered how she and Jacques had arrived in the village 30 years before, escaping the German death machine that had deported her mother and Michel to the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Now, on her return, she was again taking risks.

The muffled roar of the car engine reverberating off the damp walls, the light bream reflecting in the dirty puddles on the rough ground, a diffuse sense of fear and expectation. And, then, as they edged forward - a sudden inundation of water, like a great aqueous avalanche, flooding the tunnel on both sides.

With her father and brother she had run away from the Germans by water, on a canal.   And now she was going back to her hiding place through a vast tunnel of water. In her mind's eye she saw the newspaper story about an Israeli tourist drowned in a French flood for no good reason. She worried for her husband and children, and wondered why she had not paid the taxi driver more money and talked him into taking the longer, but safer route to the village.

The flash flood forced the car off course, the driver swerved, cursed and with his foot pressed hard on the accelerator swept hesitatingly into the water obstacle.  And then, when the water had arched up to splash the windows of the car, blinding them temporarily, it was all over. They were through the dark, watery underpass. And in the overcast twilight, as the car pulled up at the side of the road, she recognized the outline of the village in the mist.

Stepping out, she paid the driver and stumbled with her umbrella and little overnight valise up to a barbed wire fence.   Crossing it, one cautious leg after the other, she thought of the fenced gate at Auschwitz through which her mother and baby brother had passed for the last time, to face the final selection.

And she remembered how she herself had arrived here, for the first time, in September, 1942, at the modest home of Victor and Josephine Guicherd, a farming couple with a rare sense of courage, compassion and humility.

Clambering up the slope, she spotted familiar sights in the distance, the old church and a farmer's house, where she stopped to ask for help.   The woman at the door pointing the way had a face she remembered from her distant childhood.  At the junction of two paths, at a signpost in the form of a great stone cross, she knew she would soon be home. 

And there it was.  The old house.  The big wooden barn was still there. The chicken coop was still intact.  The fields were still green.  The cows were grazing in the pasture.

And, at the door of the new home they had built alongside her own safe haven Victor and Josephine Guicherd stood and wept.  Betty, who had arrived there 30 years before under a false identity, stood and wept.  The umbrella in her hand dripped its own tears.  The skies opened up as Victor took her by the hand and led her into the house, gently slipping off her sodden town shoes and placing them in the kitchen oven to dry, as he had done so often in the past.

And in that warm little kitchen, over a glass of strong eau de vie, the old farmer's favorite "canon," they talked of a story which for them was an obvious act of love and humanity, but which for her and her brother, Jacques, meant life, safety and survival.