A Pilgrimage to Rivesaltes

This article first appeared in the Philadelphia Jewish Voice.

Likely you know that on July 16-17, 1942 the French police rounded up 13,000 Parisian Jews of all ages, they were held near the Eiffel Tower and then deported to Auschwitz. 18 hours ago JTA reported reported 60% of college age French people, and 42% of the French general public are unaware of the deportation of Parisian Jews and the role of the French police during the Holocaust. Many Vichy

French policies and practices imitated those of the German Third Reich; they even sought to revive some imagined "French race." JTA also reports that yesterday, the Boy Scouts of America reaffirmed their policy of tolerating neither gay scouts nor gay scouting leaders. And a desperate homeless Israeli set himself afire, the Vatican again abuses and conquests, a great dark fire is building; this is not only a time of personal endarkening. Even so, this piece will be an affirmation of the Shmei Rabbah - Great Name.

My teacher, Reb Zalman, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was imprisoned at the work camp called Rivesaltes. Numerous Rivesaltes prisoners died of the work, treatment and residential conditions, including Jews, métèques (immigrants from North Africa), Tsingales (Roma/Gypsies), Freemasons, Communists, children, and "others," such as homosexuals and those mentally ill or disabled. Rivesaltes was used from early-on to imprison young Spanish freedom fighters. Between six and seven thousand exiles from Spain were murdered in the Mauthausen concentration camp. When the German occupation advanced, the Vichy government and its local workers ensured efficient transport of those interned there to death camps, including a great many Jews. One of the several roadside Rivesaltes monuments reads: "Only the rare person survived." Even so, this piece will be an affirmation of the Shmei Rabbah.

Upon hearing we would be on a teaching tour in Europe earlier this year, Reb Zalman, who essentially survived because of proper emigration papers, asked us for a ritual to be done in memory of the young Spanish freedom fighters. He suggested this be in the river under an aqueduct where the Rivesaltes prison guards would sometimes let him wash. We did so. I have tried to write about this pilgrimage to Rivesaltes so many times since then, sending one early attempt to Reb Zalman with a few photos for documentation, not usually one to be at a loss for words... in view of the 70th anniversary of "all this," and the scenes of atrocities from the Middle East and beyond, it's time to try again; to write this as it came to be, an affirmation of the Shmei Rabbah.


Ironically, Rivesaltes is within the land of the original Kabbalists, not far from the charming walled city of Pezanne where "Ghetto" is honestly emblazoned above the small street sign Rue des Juifs (Jew Street). A municipal plaque explains that a mikveh was once located in the cul-de-sac where we stood and that "for their safety" the Jews were locked into the Ghetto each night.

A short drive and we are in beautiful Perpignan. Unabashed signage relates that monks supervised the lives of "converted Jews who lived in the houses on the square." Fartiq, my mother would have said in YIddish at this point, "nothing more" did the municipality signage offer by way of clarification.

The castles and walled towns of Southern France are fairytale beautiful despite the horrors that occurred in every period within, around and beyond. Before arriving at Rivesaltes, we stayed with a friend, a Dutch Reform priest friend married to a woman who was a "hidden Jewish child" during the war. Their lovely walled, artist-filled, village of Minerva sits at the intersection of two gorges. The signage at the gorges? "On this spot" were numerous Cathars burned at the stake as part of the Catholic Church's completely successful annihilation of a Christian variant in Southern France. The Cathar heresy? Dedication to living modestly, helping the poor, telling no lies...and not following orders of those differently inclined.

Reb Zalman asked us to create a memorial ritual for the Spanish Freedom fighters at the bridge or Roman aqueduct "where they sometimes took us to wash." It is unclear whether the camp itself can be found though a friend has given us directions taken from a book about all the internment camps.  So we follow what we think is the correct river, seemingly forever; it is only a mud river bed in most places. No Rivesaltes Camp appears. But suddenly--there! A billboard for some nice-looking Rivesaltes Condos, how odd. We ask two men walking along the road for the bridge and the camp, they guide us to what they are sure is the spot.

"Non-no," says an old man smoking on the embankment, he points to the highway, "nord--north." Why, I ask him, were the young Spanish men interned and murdered en masse? The Shoah story, I know. Their story made less sense to me. He was quick to reply, and in decent English: The Allies feared these young men would take down Franco's government and institute socialism; Franco had put down the socialist revolution of 1934."

Soon the lush terrain of wine country is no more. We move beyond the river, searching rotary after rotary (traffic circles) outside the town until, flanked by 16 wheelers heading to Spain, we reach a scorched barren arid plain with vast sharply peaked mountains beyond barely visible through roiling waves of heat. A camp - there! Flags flying.

A  young soldier with peach fuzz over his lip halts our entry with his inquiry. "Mais non, ce n'est pas Rivesaltes. Ici, nous avons beaucoup de personnes indésirables. Il... nouveau camp; pas Rivesaltes." This is not Rivsaltes. Here we have many undesirables (North African refugees/infiltrators. I see them sitting under a grove of trees, sipping from water bottles.) "Les conditions sont très différentes ici. - Conditions are very different here...hmm...Rivesaltes, ma famille a travaillé à Rivesaltes pour un temps très long--terrible. -- My family worked at Rivesaltes -- it was terrible. "Je suis désolé mais c'est vrai, ils l'ont fait le travail pour le camp --I am sorry, but it's true. They did work for the camp."

We continue through the rotaries to - is that - a - windmill farm? The huge installation as far as the eye can see looms higher than those we know in the states, and at its foot, a small sign: Rivesaltes Museum. It takes us a few stunned moments to look across the "highway", and there are the monuments with hearts drawn from the abundant white gravel -- the word zachor, "remember" inside of one heart; and desiccated flowers left by those who pause to remember or try to understand. Wind gusts toss burning sand at us that quickly leeches dry our skin, lips and eyes. I can't help but cringe at Reb Zalman baking in this hell. Wreathes have been laid, each perfectly dried to pallor, flaking away bit by bit.

After adding our own gravel memorial thoughts, we turn and wonder does the museum sign arrow point down the deep sandy road that runs in front of the windmill farm? Despite fearing entrapment in the sand, our water supply down to a few ounces, we decide to persist, thinking we might not easily find this spot again. About twenty minutes along, another tiny Musee sign obscured by scrub points across the way. We drive through taller scrub and then, there it is. The camp itself is the Musee -- broken open crude concrete prison bunks, many graffittied, and rows of roofless privies--waves of heat rising from the fractured baking decay- for as far as the eye can see - shattered bunks and privy rows.

Barry and I walk among the concrete fragments very separately, in silence. I was among those who took depositions of Holocaust survivors and Allied soldiers; storied ghosts are re-triggered to scrape their nails along the surface of my soul. In-woven are thoughts about Reb Zalman being imprisoned in here in the heat.

An engine sound startles and is fear-filling in this utter isolation. An unmarked white van -- there, parking. Who? Why? A man and a reluctant girl pulled by the wrist emerge and head toward a section in the other direction. Does she need help? Who would knowingly come here in this heat?

They haven't seen us. We stalk them quietly. Rounding a corner we see them 30 feet away, beside the remains of a wooden hall. They spot us and turn away so as to not intersect paths. Worried for the girl, I call out a greeting as we hasten toward them. They turn away from us, Barry shouts to wait, and then they do pause until we catch up.

"Pourquoi êtes vous ici? Why are you here?" We demand. The man answers in French, roughly meaning: "We live in a nearby village. My grandfather worked as a Vichy prisoner guard and others in the family served Vichy policies enthusiastically. I want my daughter to understand this sin. She and her friends often make war humor; sometimes I catch them in burnt Jew humor. I have brought her to make here aware there is nothing funny here."

"Papa says the school presents the matter improperly, that they wash over hard truths. So he brings me here. I so did not want to come."

"She must," he says, "understand our family's shame in this matter. We were several French police in our family. I tell you the job of police is to defend all the people of the land, not entrap them, send them to work camps and escort them to  be murdered." He is literally tearing at his hair in distress, scraping his arms with his nails. Old scabs and scars abound.  "Cesser - stop!" She implores him and assures: "I and my friends will never do such things. Nous sommes civilisés--We are civilized people." Silence.

The father stares at his daughter and finally spits out: "Civilisée est une illusion - Civilized is an illusion. People act like animals to each other; it takes so little pressure for this to happen. Did you know I was in a gang in my youth? No? We have more to talk about than this." 

The father turns to ask me, hinting: "Are you leaving? Where will you go from here?" In my simple French I explain: "My teacher, now a wise rabbi, was a prisoner in this camp. We two - me and my husband, we are also Jews. Those young Spanish freedom fighters mentioned on the sign, were murdered by the thousands; they were the ages of your daughter and my two sons. My teacher bids us to do some ritual for them, to look beyond the Jewish experience." The young girl's eyes go wide at this, her posture changes from truculent to pensive. We all fall silent.

The father suddenly raises his fist and face rather to heaven and turns towards me: "Je suis un homme laïc, mais vous pouvez dire à Dieu pour moi que je expier les actions de ma famille, eh?- I am a secular man, but you can tell God for me that I atone the acts of my family, eh?" Silence.

He turns to hug his daughter, " You know, I am proud of what you say. Eh? At the very least we must try not to be like them."

The daughter's only rejoinder is: "Il fait trop chaud. - It's too hot."

"Bonne chance (good luck), Madame, monsieur."  They walk off hand-in-hand. What kind of gang, I wonder.
We ask a lineman working on the windmills to tilt us toward a river. "Left, left and right." It must be an inside joke, why do all directions given by French people seem the same in this country? He, too, instantly confesses his family worked at the camp, taking my hand as he does, with imploring eyes. What to say? I bless him and those of his town and family with an ever-expanding capacity for kindness. "Oui. Vraiment." "Yes. Truly."

We are blessed to leave the ever-sand-entrapping road and heated pauses and pushes, as one steers and the other of us alternately shoves, and we reach tarmac. Some ways along appears a military training camp, open-gated for a visitors day. Maybe this is it?! There we inquire of a young officer-in-training who does not think there is any safe place to enter the river and asks why we seek it. When we explain our mission, he too, says his family were engaged by the Vichy government and worked at the camp, adding, "I am sorry if you had family perhaps die or work there. Such an unforgivable thing." What is the purpose of this camp? "Detainment of North African refugees/infiltrators, depending how you see it."  He points the way to a river and "the arch," which he thinks is what remains of the aqueduct or bridge Reb Zalman so clearly recalled.

Drained from heat and emotion, out of drinking water and no shop in sight, we soon find ourselves driving along steeply banked dikes. Finally, indeed near an arching bridge across the river, we park. This is a marshy portion of river, with a low eroded river bank of mud and water pooled only in the riverbed center. Young sun bathers abound, and a few elder fisherman.

I undress down to a bath suit. Barry takes my clothes and settles on the river bank with camera in hand. Gingerly stepping on reeds, I find it difficult to walk in the rich, black, thick mud that threatens to swallow all that has weight. Easily hundreds, perhaps thousands of silent frogs arise at my tread, all bulging eyes, their bodies immersed to stay wet and cool. I continue past their evident niche, toward reflective water. The fishermen and Barry call out, frantically motioning for me to return to the shore.

No, this ritual must be more than a mud bath. I wave to those rising in concern on the shore that it's ok; though not really so sure. 

Half way across, the water is about eight inches deep, blessedly clear, soothing and cool against the relentless sun and now blistering skin. My soul breaks through before thought arises: "Holy One, please, though I have no merit for your attention, sil vous plait, faites attention (pay attention), and with bitterness, I call out: Shema Adonai!"

Instead of the rage I'd been carrying along with the Kaddish of Reb Levi Yitzchok since the camp, as I began lifting and splashing the river water upward, a river of gratitude came flowing instead --for Reb Zalman's survival. And more, for my precious father's survival, albeit disabled for life, as an Allied soldier. Yes, dear God, such gratitude for all who helped effect liberation, and for all those persecuted and war-deluded aggressors on all sides who attained the awesome, improbable gift of survival."

Suddenly frogs grab my foreground, as one kicks off against my left leg, and an involuntary "ick" response leads me to slip and touch others, and so begins a sinking flailing, until a few staggers lead to a bit of surprisingly accessible bedrock. Floating frogs now pop into view and begin to flicker like holograms as I peer at their faces in a trembly disbelief...hauntingly empty dark eyed, sharp thin noses, dark hair and unpruned gaunt bearded Spaniard twenty-somethings, frogs, Spaniards, frogs...Daring stares. Yearning stares. Vacant stares. Blinking stares. Tears are streaming down my face at their lost youth and the unbearability of retroactive impotence.

A blessing arises unbidden: "May your souls be blessed to break free of this place, of the torment and memories of the horrors you experienced. If souls do return or travel to new destinies or realms beyond this life, may you know and create joy, kindness and peace." Splashing handfuls of chessed- lovingkindness, up and over the alternating faces and as they dive, only to resurface as I become still and....

...know Love...different to any form ever in my life. A Love that slakes all possible pain and thirst - a Love inside of everything suddenly palpable, flowing in my every cell.

There in the water, the interpenetrated knowing yields ... joy?! What is that? I hear Reb Zalman praying Reb Levi Yitzhok's Dudele for us. Du?


Mailoh du, matoh du. Mizroch du, mayrov du,  dorem du, Tzofen du,

Du du, du du, DU!! du du du, du, du, DU DU DU!!!, DU DU DU!!!

I dance and sing it slipping about in the river and an up-rushing of relieved souls join in.

This intimate Love pours through all form, space, song is love, light is love, water is love, mud is love... much as water frees the sometimes lingering soul during taharah...the released up-rushing souls spin in the Love and even seem to pass through my molecular body in their dance of ascent...


Finally, a soft breeze on wet skin beckons me back from the inter-loving, amazing reciprocity of the Dudele. Y'hei shmei rabba m'vorach.

Barry beckons from the river bank, holding a water bottle aloft. Someone has been kind.