It is the summer of 1996, and I am graced with three grant-funded weeks in Paris. Mindful of my mission, I spend most of my time trying to narrow down a dissertation topic. But I am in Paris, after all.
Something remains constant whether I’m at work or at play. Struggling against those rebellious Rs and other sounds that, as I hear them gargle from my throat, nearly convince me that I need a French speech therapist, I repeat the same sentence. I assure everyone—librarians, cashiers, family friends—that despite my awful accent, je comprends mieux que je parle. I understand their language better than I speak it. They can trust me with their instructions. Replies. Confidences.
Je comprends mieux que je parle is what I say to an archivist one afternoon, when, just after lunch, I cross the Seine. Destination: a visit to the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine (CDJC), where I hope to explore the stories of French-Jewish emigrés—and would-be emigrés—who left for the United States before they could become one of the 76,000 deportees to be sent from France to places east. It isn’t the first time that I’ve visited the CDJC, which is housed within a complex that memorializes the Holocaust’s victims. But it is my first purposeful research trip there.
The wary archivist, sufficiently comforted by my statement that je comprends mieux que je parle, goes ahead and pulls the records I’ve requested. She sets the files and papers on a table and leaves me to them.
In walks a woman my grandmother’s age. Or perhaps even older. Another, younger woman holds her arm. The younger woman speaks with the archivist. Quietly.
I listen. At some point, I look up, too. I can’t hear everything. Just enough.
Her little brother.
When, many minutes later, the archivist returns with a single paper and holds it out to them, she says how sorry she is. About what happened to the old woman’s little brother all those years ago.
My teeth clench. The old woman looks around. Beseeching something, and finding only me—my eyes—to fasten on.
I gaze back at her and I think, So this is what “grief-stricken” looks like.
Fifteen years later, that image of the old woman’s face will remain clearer to me than any other aspect of the episode. But that day, I write nothing. I say nothing. I hope that in those silent seconds, the old woman sees that somehow, I understand the profound devastation of this moment we’ve so unintentionally shared better—far better—than I could ever say.