Marseille, France: an unexpected encounter with my ancestors

It was a most unlikely excursion and looking back on that curious afternoon, I really don’t know what possessed me. We had been in Marseille for four days already, and were enjoying the warm sunshine of the early Spring. Marseille panoramaThe city wasn’t an obvious choice for city dwellers who like to escape to the country, but flights from London were cheap, its location by the Mediterranean very appealing, and there was plenty to occupy us. The only connection to the city that I knew of was that my uncle had worked there once, had had his first job there in fact, many years before. Patrick had warm memories of the city, her bouillabaisse and pizzas, and of his lodgings in a guesthouse in Endoume close to the old port.

My son J and I also grew very fond of Marseille during our short stay there. Her ancient port Marseille porthas transformed itself into a modern marina in the core of the old city, and on the quayside, the daily fish market brought out local restaurateurs sourcing the freshest of ingredients for delicious fish soups and stews. J and I are gourmets at heart, and we both admired the skill of the fishermen gutting and filleting their catch for the crowds. We strolled in the old city, took the little tourist train up to Notre-Dame de la Garde for its splendid views, and boarded a boat to see the regions’s Calanques, the spectacular inlets like fjords which are characteristic of that stretch of the coastline. One day, we got the train out to Arles and had its famous Roman amphitheatre all to ourselves. We could be gladiators, charioteers or even its modern day equivalent, the bull fighter, to our hearts’ delight. When we weren’t cooking for ourselves in our super bedroom with a micro kitchen attached, we sought out the best of the simple but excellent North African cuisine which you can find in the city.

Then on that last day…. Marseille J …. I sought out the city’s Holocaust Museum (its Mémorial des Camps de la Mort). My son was 12, and I suppose I thought it was time he started to hear and see for himself the eyewitness accounts of the Nazi occupation, and the transportation of the Jews of Marseille to the concentration and extermination camps. This, after all, was the history of my mother’s side of the family, although her family were not themselves from Marseille. Frankly, I made a mistake that day. The museum was on the dark and dusty side, and no great efforts had been made to communicate the message to a younger audience. So, while my son sat in the cool with Harry Potter, I made a quick circuit of the upstairs gallery.

Imagine my utter amazement when, as I scanned the images on the display boards, I caught sight of the smiling faces of my beloved Tante Monique and Oncle Jacques. My heart stopped for a moment.

Jacques Pulver, left, and Monique Pulver, 2nd right

Jacques Pulver, left, and Monique Pulver, 2nd right

Both my great aunt and great uncle had survived the war, though many from the family had not, and they had been a fixed and always welcoming presence throughout my childhood. Jacques and Monique Pulver had been very active in the French Jewish Resistance during the war, specifically in the scout movement called the Eclaireurs Israélites de France. They had worked hard to get Jews out of France into safer countries, securing false identities for them, and sheltering them in a farm in the mountains. Much later, Jacques established a memorial in Israel for the Jewish Resistance and I think this photo was taken because these women were two of those whose stories were celebrated. Of all the places that I might have expected to see the actions of my ancestors recorded, this was the very least expected. Paris, yes. Jerusalem, yes. But Marseille? What drew me into that concrete blockhouse that afternoon in April 2011? Could my family have been calling to us from the other side of the grave?

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5 comments

  1. Best wishes for the coming year!

    1. Thank you! And the same to you…

  2. Yes, that fish market is really something!

    I haven’t been to Arles yet, but I would love to see sites with Van Gogh history there.

    That is incredible about your finding in the museum. Wow. I can’t imagine how you must have felt. Thanks for sharing that story.

    1. It was an extraordinary moment, you’re right. I was straight on the phone back home, as you can imagine! Happy new year!

  3. […] I shared my birthday with my great Oncle Jacques. […]

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