The very title of this autobiography reveals Victor Brombert’s ability to play with words. It refers both to fleeting ideas that occurred to him as he was writing his memoirs of his youth, adolescence, and early adulthood and to the simple fact that he has always enjoyed traveling by train. The subtitle of his autobiography reminds his readers that he did not have citizenship in any country until he became an American citizen in 1943 as he was completing his military training in the U.S. Army. Just as trains go from one country to another, so also Victor Brombert had to travel regularly by train because there was no real permanence or stability in his life until his honorable discharge from the American army in late 1945. Before his birth, his Jewish parents left Russia by train for Leipzig, Germany. Shortly after the Nazis attained power in Germany, his parents quickly understood that the Nazis intended to persecute Jews and they moved to Paris. Because of his father’s ownership of an import and export company, his family frequently traveled around Europe, but they remained “stateless” people until their arrival in the United States in 1941 as political and religious refugees. Brombert conveys very well to his readers that whenever he traveled on slow-moving trains, he had the time to try to make sense of the outside world that he observed from the window. He indicates that, even today, he still prefers traveling by train so that he can have an opportunity to reflect on the mysterious nature of visual reality.
This very personal memoir is much more than a traditional autobiography designed to describe the author’s intellectual and moral development. Victor Brombert helps his readers understand the curious mixture of self-deception and fear that he and other French youths experienced as Europe was moving inexorably toward war during the second half of the 1930’s. Although he was raised in a rather wealthy family in Paris and felt that he was part of French culture, others made him understand that he was different from them.
First of all, French was his third language. His mother tongue was German, but his grandmother insisted that he also learn Russian from an early age. His family moved to France while Victor was in middle school, and it was a struggle for him to compete with fellow students who were native speakers of French. Second, he is Jewish and his father conveyed to his son the reality of French anti-Semitism. His father explained to him that although the French government pretended that all people were equal, in reality, many French people hated or barely tolerated Jews. His father helped the young Victor realize that although anti-Semitism was rarely expressed overtly in the upper-middle- class 16th arrondissement in Paris where they lived, it was nevertheless a reality that Victor would have to deal with. At first, Victor, like many adolescents, did not believe his father, but eventually he came to understand the truth of his father’s teaching. Several times when his family traveled to elegant resorts in Europe, he heard customers in restaurants make very disparaging remarks about Jews, and one day a bully called him “a dirty Jew” (“un sale Juif”) at the prestigious high school that he attended in Paris. In hindsight, he came to understand that fathers of some of his classmates would later become active and enthusiastic collaborators with the Nazis who occupied France from 1940 until 1944.
Victor Brombert conveys very well to his readers the immense fear felt by French Jews as war with Germany approached. One of the most touching scenes in this memoir is his description of his 1939 summer fling with a slighter older adolescent named Danielle Wolf, whom he called Dany. He spent that summer in Normandy with his mother because his father believed that the situation in Paris was becoming intolerable for Jews. By then the Nazis had already invaded Austria and had annexed the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. War was imminent and expressions of anti-Semitism were almost daily events in Victor’s life. He recalls that he, Dany, and other teenagers organized an amateur jazz performance in a local town. Shortly thereafter he learned that many local residents had denounced this playing of “un- French” and “Jewish” music, which should not be tolerated. These racists stated quite clearly that France should no longer permit the presence of Jews. Years later, Victor Brombert understood his inability to recognize true anti-Semites. That summer he had a girlfriend named Corinne,...
(The entire section is 1850 words.)