The girls and boys in the room were just a little older than Victor Perahia was when he was finally freed in 1945, his body wracked with tuberculosis and typhus, his mind anguished by the suffering and death he had seen. After 40 years of self-imposed silence, he now returns time and again to bear witness at Drancy, the transit center from where the French government deported tens of thousands of Jews into the hands of Nazis.
“From the day of my arrest to the day of my liberation, I will tell you my story,” Perahia said. He sat with his back to the window overlooking the Drancy housing project, where he spent 21 months. It was the last place in France his father and grandfather saw before they were loaded into a train bound for the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
The students from a middle school in nearby Livry Gargan held their breaths, their eyes fixed on Perahia’s lined face.
Perahia spoke to the students last week amid a series of events to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Surveys in recent years, including one released this year, show young people in France and elsewhere in Europe increasingly question the scale of the Holocaust , although outright denial is rare.
Perahia told the students he was 9 when six German soldiers stomped upstairs to the family apartment in the coastal town of Saint-Nazaire. They kept him hostage while his mother ran to fetch his father, who demanded to know what was happening.
“We are here for a simple identity check. You will follow us, along with your wife and your child, and in 48 hours, you will be home again,” the officer told his father.
The lie was revealed two days later. They were in a detention camp near the city of Tours when still more German officers separated men from women and children, Perahia told the teens, his voice steady.
The room fell utterly silent as he spoke.
“My father looked me deep in the eyes, as if he felt that it was going to be a difficult moment to live through. Because maybe he thought that it would be the last time that we would see each other.” Perahia paused briefly. “I’ll tell you right away, that was the last time I saw my father… Because he was deported in convoy Number 8.”
Convoy Number 8, like nearly all the convoys from Drancy, was bound for Auschwitz. The students from Livry Gargan — a town about 7 kilometers (4 miles) away — by then already had learned from their history teacher, Valérie Maloberti, that the vast majority of the 57,977 people deported from Drancy perished at the Nazi death camp.
But here before them was a man for whom this was not history but bitter memory. He told them about the children he had known, the teens who took care of babies whose parents were deported, before they themselves were gathered up and told they would join their families. He described what they experienced, nearly minute by minute, after they arrived on the platform at Auschwitz, where German soldiers greeted them with dogs and shouts, where they were told they were going to take a shower and instead walked into a gas chamber. And where every last one of them died.
“I who knew them, I who loved these children, I always talk about them with a lot of emotion, and I talk about them freely because it feels like when I talk about them again, it brings them back to life a little,” he said.
By now, Malaberti’s students were wiping tears from red eyes, thinking of their parents, their siblings, themselves being loaded into livestock cars from the French national railway like the one they could see through the window. Perahia and his mother barely survived the Bergen Belsen labor camp and were liberated by Russian soldiers on their way to Berlin.
“When we returned home, we thought we would reconnect with the past, rediscover an identity deeply altered by three years in the camps. But no one was waiting for us. We were confronted with an incredulous society, incapable of understanding us,” he said. “So for decades we did not speak. I personally could not speak for 40 years, not even to my family, not even to my children, who had questions that I could not answer.” he said.
Finally, he decided that he owed it to his family and to the future to speak.
In the French equivalent of ninth grade, classes spend about eight hours on World War II, which includes around two hours devoted to the Holocaust, Maloberti said. But visiting Drancy is different.
“It seems unreal to them. So there it is, it’s true, it really existed,” she said. “The numbers are there. The buildings, the documents are there. I have never had a student who denied the information once we gave it.”
But what Perahia was after was something more powerful than just teaching the truth. An atheist, he has visited Auschwitz repeatedly to intone the Jewish prayer for the dead for his father and grandfather who died there.
And for the children listening to him on this day, organized jointly by the Drancy memorial and the Jewish umbrella organization CRIF, it seemed he had succeeded in leaving something behind.
“Victor Perahia will leave a mark. That’s the thing that will leave a mark, what I will tell my family, my children, if I have any. This will surely stay with me the rest of my life,” said Iness Boubaajat-Lebreton.
By now, the light was fading but Perahia said he would join the class outside. More than two dozen teens surrounded him, slowing their pace to his as they walked toward the buildings where he had spent almost two years of his life, before being deported to Bergen Belsen.
The transit camp buildings were converted into apartments almost immediately after the war for people whose homes had been bombed. This troubled some of the students, but not Perahia.
“After all you have survived, all you have gone through, are you happy?” came one of the final questions of the day.
“I am happy,” Perahia said. “But it is a little late.”