Growing up in France

Bagnolet, France

Bagnolet is part of the Eastern suburbs of Paris, France.

Leo Michel Abrami (originally Leo’s last name was Abramowski) was born on November 10, 1931 in France. Leo lived with his brother, Robert, his mother, Anna and grandmother, Carlotta or “Lotta”. Leo’s parents had divorced when he was one and half years old and his grandfather had died in 1940. The family lived in Bagnolet, which was a suburb near the center of Paris. (Abrami, 1). All of his family had been born in France, except for his grandparents, who were natives of Latvia. His grandfather, Leib Abramowski, volunteered to serve in the French army during World War I. (Abrami, 2) Since Leo’s parents got divorced when he was younger there is not a lot of information about his father. The only information that Leo describes about his father is stated, “She had met my father while on vacation in Nice, on the French Riviera, where he had been invited to give a cello recital at the main synagogue on the occasion of its formal rededication.” (Abrami, 3)

Bagnolet is an eastern suburb of Paris, France and is only located a little more than three miles from the center of Paris. (Abrami, USC Shoah) Leo’s family lived in a two-story brick building that his zeide (grandfather) had built for his family. At the time that Nazis invaded France, in 1940, Leo’s mother was working as a sales clerk in a fashionable clothing store that his cousins owned and operated. (Abrami, 4) Leo went to public school during the day and on Monday’s his mother would take him to Fleishmann Beth Ha-Midrash, a small Jewish academy and synagogue, where he would have lessons on Judaism and learn the Torah. (Abrami, 4)

By the 1930s, France was experience a change in the climate and a concern for their neighboring country of Germany. A new political party was taking over the government, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the shorter version is Nazis). This new political organization was run by Adolph Hitler, who eventually became the chancellor of Germany. For France, it was 1938 when everything started to change and the tension was rising for the Jews, who were being put in the spotlight. (Marrus and Paxton, 58) The German army invaded Austria, in an Anschluss, in March of 1938 and there was the event in Germany called Kristallnacht, which saw an influx of Jewish immigrants to France. (Marrus and Paxton, 36)

Marrus and Paxton describe the situation in France in the 1930s by stating, “In the 1930s, under the Third Republic, tolerant and cosmopolitan France had been a haven for thousands of refugees, many of them Jewish, who fled from Germany and eastern Europe, from fascist Italy, and from the battleground of the Spanish civil war.” (Marrus and Paxton, xi) The strain that the refugees were putting on France was announced, “The Ministry of the Interior announced in late October its program of “decongestion” for the Paris region: refugees could no longer go to Paris. Border surveillance was tightened, “to assure definitively,” …” (Marrus and Paxton, 63) Luckily, for Leo and his family they were natives of France and this did not affect them.

As the years went on, there became an increase in pressure that Germany might invade France and indeed the German army crossed the French border in May of 1940. As the war started to break out in France and Germany invaded any refugees were arrested and sent to special centers that were located throughout France. (Jews, 21) The authorities could not deal with the German invasion and the number of immigrants that were in the country. “At the time of the debacle (the June 1940 collapse), they were led away to internment camps in the south, either the ones that were already in place, or the ones at Le Vernet and Rieucros, which had been specially planned for taking in "foreigners who were considered to be suspects because of their nationality or a threat to public order." (Poznanski, 21) Leo was subject to some of the discrimination that was happening because he was Jewish. One of Leo’s classmates told him, “VAS-T-EN, SALE JUIF et retourne dans ton pays!-yelled one of my classmates. “Go back to your own country, dirty Jew.” (Abrami, 1)

With all of the tension in Paris because of the German invasion and the discrimination that her boys were hearing, Leo’s mother decided to send them to summer camp on the island of Oléron. While Leo attended summer camp, France was being controlled by the German government because the French government fled the country for England. (Abrami, 23) With the French government fleeing to England a new system was put in place described as, “Three fifths of the country were occupied by the German army; and a new French regime camped temporarily in the southern hill resort town of Vichy; administered unoccupied France under the terms of an armistice negotiated with the victor.” (Marrus and Paxton, xii) Paris was changing and it would not be the same for Leo when he returned from summer camp.