The Goldman Affair 1976

Interview With Alter Goldman by Wladimir Rabi

Source: Supplement to Les Temps Modernes, number 353, December 1976;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2007.

This is how the father expresses himself despite his allergy to “putting himself to the forefront.” Modest, soberness, nobility concerning the vow. What can also be seen here is the psychological climate of a generation of Jewish immigrants: the work ethic, the desire to be rooted and for normalization, the struggle for social justice, the fight against Nazism, and finally the indelible mark of Auschwitz.

The interview took place January 19, 1976 in Montrouge.

‘You really find my case interesting?’

It’s really Pierre who is in question and not me. But here’s some information. I was born in 1909 in Lublin. I didn’t know my father, who died when I was six months old. At fifteen, in 1925, I left Poland. Alone. At fifteen I was no longer a child, I already had four years of activism behind me. I belonged to the Jewish section of the Communist Party. You know that the Bund, which was the great Jewish socialist party in Poland, split in 1921 between the socialist and communist tendencies. Why did I leave Poland? For the sole reason that I couldn’t bear having to fight to have the same rights as others. I couldn’t bear discrimination. And so I left, clandestinely, of course. I worked for six months in Germany, and then I arrived in France. Why France? For me France was Victor Hugo, 1793, the French Revolution. Ever since I was thirteen I regretted not having lived through that period. And there were thousands of people like me. What did I work at? I was a tailor. But I was disgusted with the trades that were considered Jewish. I wanted to work at the trade of a true proletarian. When I arrived clandestinely in France I got myself hired as a miner, yes, a miner, in Brittany, at Tremison in the iron and silver mines. I wanted to become a true proletarian. I worked there for a year. And then I went back to Paris to work as a mechanic at a clothing factory. I was paid piece wages and I earned twice as much. That’s why I left the mines. But we were all fascinated with the proletarian, with heavy industry. Becoming like the others, working like the others, having the same rights as the others. And also renouncing the Jewish trades: tailors, shopkeepers, and even intellectuals. When I was twenty, still being a minor, I asked my mother to send me, via the French Consulate, a naturalization authorization. I still remember what the police superintendent said to me when I presented my request. He said (since I was athletic): we can take him; he’ll make a good soldier.”

At an organization called YASK [Jewish workers Sports Club] I played almost all sports: basketball, track and field, and rugby in a French club (FSGT). I entered the army early in 1930 and I served in the Chasseurs d’Afrique. I wanted to see the world and I also wanted to ride horses. Here, too, I wanted to be like the others. So I was a horseman and a good horseman. I once read in my file: “excellent horseman but undisciplined.” The YASK club was a progressive sports club. But you know, I never could stand party discipline. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 I was with my club’s basketball team in Barcelona. Many of my comrades took part n the International Brigades as part of the Botwin Company. But not me. The reason was probably because of the Moscow Trials in ‘35. I couldn’t comprehend that men I’d admired had become objects of hatred and that I henceforth had to hate them. The Moscow Trials overwhelmed me. This is why from that time I held myself apart, all the while preserving my youthful aspirations.

I was mobilized in 1939 and I served during the war in the Third DLM. I was demobilized in 1940 and returned to Paris. I stayed there a few months and then I went to the Southern Zone, to Lyon. In ‘42 a comrade from YASK brought me into the resistance. The Jewish resistance was in an embryonic state but at least it was a beginning. And the combat began in 1942. Later, in ‘43, the organization was in a more organized state, within the framework of the Main d’Oeuvre Immigrée (MOI) which worked with the FTP. There were several action sections: press, propaganda, solidarity, anti-German work, combat. I was charged with military work and the organization of combat groups. It was in this way that I met the woman who was to be Pierre’s mother. She was the organization’s secretary for the region of Lyon. She was a militant. After the liberation she was called “The Jewish Passionaria.” 1944 was a terrible and difficult year in Lyon. There were attacks every day. For every one of us death could arrive at any moment. She said, “I want to have a child.” And when she became pregnant she said “I want to have this child no matter what.” What reason could there be for such conduct? To be sure, there was in her the conviction of fighting in this way against the death that threatened all of us at that time. But in my opinion there was also the fact that this militant, who had always lived the life of a militant, wanted to be a woman in all meanings of the term. Pierre was born in a hospital in Lyon and was registered under a false name on June 22, 1944. And then with the death of the leader of the resistance in Grenoble she was called on to replace him in Grenoble and she went there with Pierre. The child was thus sent from wet nurse to wet nurse until he was five. His mother was a professional militant. As for me, politically I was more guarded. I didn’t want to participate in the life of a party.

For me, with the end of my military activity I wanted to return to normal life. We lived apart. But when in 1947 she had to return to Poland I rose up. I didn’t want Pierre to go to an anti-Semitic country like Poland. At that time he was with his mother, and I literally kidnapped him. He lived with my sister.

When I got married in 1949 Pierre lived with us and we regularized his identity papers at the town hall. He didn’t cause us any problems between the ages of five and 13. He lived with us, with his half-brothers and sister in the same way as them and surrounded with the same affection. He was a scout from seven to 13 with the Eclaireurs de France. His problems only began later. He went to various high schools: Voltaire, Michelet, Evreux, Compiegne, Chauny. At high school he was either the first or the last, according to whether he loved or hated the subject. So he was the last in math, but first in history and French. When he went to the Sorbonne he only came home irregularly, but he always had his room in the house. We knew he was gifted, a friend told us so. But he refused any kind of work that didn’t completely suit him. I don’t want to put my finger in the gears,” he’s say. Naturally we suffered from this. I belonged to a generation whose only goal was to find a regular and steady work. At a certain moment I said to him: Pierre, you’ve got to stabilize yourself, do your military service; this’ll allow you to think about things for a while. He said yes. He canceled his postponement and received his orders to report to Nancy. But he never went to Nancy. I understood when I read his book. I said to him at Fresnes prison: “Pierre, I learned to know you by reading your book; I didn’t know you.’ He answered: “Me neither, I didn’t know myself. I learned to know myself by writing this book.” How did he come to be fascinated with the resistance to such a degree? I hardly ever spoke to him about it. But every year, during his vacations, he went to his mother in Poland. His mother, and even more many of his mother’s friends, who’d lived and fought in France, recalled the events of the war they’d participated in. They also spoke of Auschwitz. And how could you not speak of this in Poland? It’s in this way that he little by little became haunted by this experience that he didn’t live.

His hatred of anti-Semitism was such that in Warsaw he would he would show off in public places that he was holding a Yiddish newspaper, though he didn’t know Yiddish. He would have discussions with his brothers. I had always said to my children: if you’re called a dirty Jew you know what you have to do. One day one of them (Pierre wasn’t around) came home saying he’d been insulted by an anti-Semite. “And you didn’t fight him?” “There were ten of them,” his brother said. “You still should have responded.” And this is just the way Pierre was. And yet, as a child, he was fearful, no doubt because of his having been passed from wet nurse to wet nurse. After that, as far as concerns his life, I only know what he says in his book. He wrote to me from Venezuela in September 1969 he wrote me, and Debray quotes this letter, “It was necessary for me to be part of a collectivity whose goal – which I have freely integrated – I totally share in order for me to measure how true it is that for 24 years I have been ignorant of life in common, of the existence and of relations with others. You were right. I had to humbly learn the severe discipline of this type of existence.” He wrote to me from Venezuela and he concluded in this way: “See you soon; I’ll be a man and we’ll be happy.” Be a man, as we said, “a mensch.” This reminded me of a letter he wrote November 12, 1962: “I accept full responsibility for all I did from 10/1/55 – 10/19/62.” In ‘55 he was 11 and in ‘62 he was 18... We didn’t see him again until the end of November 1969, when he returned from Venezuela. He came to the house for my birthday. And in April ‘70, when I saw his name mentioned in the press I thought his passport had been stolen. The next day I saw his photo in the newspapers, and it was horrible. But I always believed in his innocence. He never fought with anyone weaker than him. And when he fought, it was always with his fists.

A journalist from “France Soir” came to see me at the time. He told me that he himself couldn’t believe in Pierre’s guilt. He had never seen a murderer capable of committing a hold-up with his face uncovered the day after a murder for this was a total psychological impossibility. He added that his being recognized was of no value since most of the witnesses had seen his picture in the newspaper before the line-up. When the affair began I thought my neighbors would turn away from me. But people had confidence in me. No one ever said anything to me. This is France. When I decided to go see Pierre at Fresnes I just asked him:” Is it you or isn’t you?” He answered, “It wasn’t me.” Later he also swore on the memory of the dead of Auschwitz. But I didn’t lend any importance to this vow. I’m against any vows. A vow adds nothing. A man’s word is enough.”