Several years ago, a physician from southern France contacted me. His granddaughter had taken ill with a disease that baffled the physicians there. He called after reading several of my articles on disorders of the autonomic nervous system.
His granddaughter’s symptoms seemed to match those I had described, and he asked me if I could help. I readily agreed, and for many months, I collaborated with the child’s French physicians by telephone and by fax, directing their diagnostic testing.
At last we came to a diagnosis, and I prescribed a course of therapy. During the next several weeks, the child made a seemingly miraculous recovery. Her grandparents expressed their heartfelt thanks and told me to let them know should I ever come to France.
In the summer of 1996, I was invited to speak at a large international scientific meeting that was held in Nice, France. I sent word to the physician I had helped years before. Upon my arrival at the hotel, I received a message to contact him. I called him, and we arranged a night to meet for dinner.
On the appointed day, we met and then drove north to his home in the beautiful southern French countryside. It was humbling to learn his home was older than the United States. During the drive he told me that his wife had metastatic breast cancer and was not well, but she insisted upon meeting me. When introduced to her, I saw that despite her severe illness, she was still a beautiful woman with a noble bearing.
I was thereafter treated to one of the most wonderful meals I have ever eaten, complemented by the most exquisite of wines. After dinner, we sat in a seventeenth-century salon, sipping cognac and chatting. Our conversation must have seemed odd to the young man and woman who served us because it came out in a free-flowing mixture of English, French and Spanish.
After a time the woman asked, “My husband tells me you are Jewish, no?” “Yes,” I said, “I am a Jew.” They asked me to tell them about Judaism, especially the holidays. I did my best to explain and was astounded by how little they knew of Judaism. She seemed to be particularly interested in Hannukah.
Once I had finished answering her questions, she suddenly looked me in the eye and said, “I have something I want to give to you.” She disappeared and returned several moments later with a package wrapped in cloth. She sat, her tired eyes looking into mine, and she began to speak slowly.
“When I was a little girl of eight years, during the Second World War, the authorities came to our village to round up all the Jews. My best friend at that time was a girl of my age named Jeanette. One morning when I came to play, I saw her family being forced at gunpoint into a truck. I ran home and told my mother what had happened and asked where Jeanette was going. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘Jeanette will be back soon.’
I ran back to Jeanette’s house only to find that she was gone and that the other villagers were looting her home of valuables, except for the Judaic items, which were thrown into the street. As I approached, I saw an item from her house lying in the dirt. I picked it up and recognized it as an object that Jeanette and her family would light around Christmas time. In my little girl’s mind I said, ‘I will take this home and keep it for Jeanette until she comes back,’ but she and her family never returned.”
She paused and took a slow sip of brandy. “Since that time I have kept it. I hid it from my parents and didn’t tell a soul of its existence. Indeed, over the last fifty years the only person who knew of it was my husband. When I found out what really happened to the Jews, and how many of the people I knew had collaborated with the Nazis, I could not bear to look at it. Yet I kept it, hidden, waiting for something, although I wasn’t sure what. Now I know what I was waiting for. It was you, a Jew, who helped cure our granddaughter, and it is to you I entrust this.”
Her trembling hands set the package on my lap. I slowly unwrapped the cloth from around it. Inside was a menorah, but one unlike any I had seen before. Made of solid brass, it had eight cups for holding oil and wicks and a ninth cup centered above the others. It had a ring attached to the top, and the woman mentioned that she remembered that Jeanette’s family would hang it in the hallway of their home. It looked quite old to me; later, several people told me that it is probably at least one hundred years old. As I held it and thought about what it represented, I began to cry. All I could manage to say was a garbled “merci.”
As I left, her last words to me were “Il faudra voir la lumière encore une fois” – it should once again see light. I later learned that she died less than one month after our meeting. This Hannukah, the menorah will once again see light. And as I and my family light it, we will say a special prayer in honor of those whose memories it represents. We will not let its lights go out again.
J. P. G.