The doorman bustles about the Hotel Lutetia’s revolving wooden door ensuring it twirls as effortlessly as it did when it first welcomed guests in 1910. This iconic Parisian landmark was once a favorite of Ernest Hemingway and Samuel Beckett as well as France’s most prestigious writers, politicians, and publishers.
But in the summer of 1945, the Lutetia had some unlikely guests—20,000 emaciated, ragged survivors of the 160,000 Jews, socialists, communists, and members of the resistance deported from France during WWII stepped into the lobby. They were greeted by a blast of white powder—DDT—to kill the lice that infested them. Photographs show survivors with sunken eyes and emaciated faces still dressed in their striped prison garb drinking water from silver cups and eating crusts of bread in the hotel dining room.
One of them was a 25-year-old Polish born Jew, Jacques Goldzstein, who had moved to Paris with his parents as a baby. He weighed just 32 kilograms and was extremely ill, but like every returnee he was subjected not just to medical checks but a police interview, designed to weed out collaborators posing as survivors. It was during that interview that he discovered the “miracle of the Lutetia” when officials told him his wife had survived the camps and passed through the hotel just a week before.
In the elegant corridor between the restaurant and the bar, the survivors studied notice boards, brought in from Boulevard Raspail, that were covered in photos left by the families of the missing in their life “before,” smiling, at weddings or on holiday. If someone was looking for them, a relative had survived. But could they identify any of the faces? Joseph Bialot, a Jew from Belleville, who was just 18 years old when he was deported to Auschwitz, looked at the pictures in wonder as “the photos exhibited were of normal people with chubby faces, with hair, and we only recalled empty faces and shaved heads.”
An endless stream of trucks and buses drove just over a mile from the Gare d’Orsay ferrying almost 500 survivors a day. Although the closest hotel was the luxurious Crillon, Gen. de Gaulle considered it too ostentatious. The owners of the nearby Le Bon Marché department store had built the Lutetia to put up the provincial bourgeoisie on shopping trips. It suited de Gaulle’s taste and he had spent his honeymoon there. He handed the hotel over to the Red Cross.
Marguerite Duras caught the feverous atmosphere as the survivors returned in her novel La Douleur. When her husband, Robert Antelme, a member of the resistance, finally came home, she was so shocked by his appearance she collapsed. It took Duras until 1985 to write the story down.
Most Parisians also pushed the drama that had unfolded at the Lutetia to the back of their minds and then forgot it altogether until in 2005 Pierre Assouline, wrote the novel Lutetia, set in the period. All of the city’s hotels were requisitioned by the Germans but “if they remember anything about the Lutetia it is that the hotel was occupied by the Gestapo,” said Assouline, “but even this is a false memory as it was in fact taken over by the Abwehr who were not so bad.”
“The survivors returned from hell,” Assouline explained, “and when they were given a room many found themselves alone for the first time in years and could not sleep in the bed after years of deprivation.” The writer Charlotte Delbo had been deported to Auschwitz in 1943. Now alone, despair overwhelmed her, “I had dreamed of freedom during the whole deportation. That was freedom, that intolerable loneliness, that room, that fatigue.”
Today a room in the Lutetia can cost up to $14,000 and Assouline is fearful that story may again be forgotten. The hotel reopened in 2018, after a four-year restoration project, and although Assouline was consulted by the hotel’s Israeli owners on how to preserve its character, they ignored his request to commemorate the survivors’ return inside the hotel.
Relatives and friends were only allowed inside the Lutetia once it was established that their loved one had returned. Yves Jouffa was one of the lucky ones, “The deportees were lying on the ground, real corpses,” he later recalled. “I tried to recognize among them my friend. All of a sudden, I saw one of those corpses watching me. It was him, unrecognizable.”
Outside on Boulevard Raspail a young Arab woman in tight white trousers and heels wheels a tiny matching white suitcase toward her chauffeur. Behind her a small plaque reminds those passersby who care to look up of those “who regained their liberty” here adding, “Their joy cannot efface the anguish and the pain of the families of the thousands of disappeared who waited in vain for their own in this place.” In 1945, on this exact spot, hundreds gathered day and night.
Although she was frightened of crowds, 15-year-old Huguette Müller came nearly every afternoon hoping to find her mother, Edith. She waited patiently underneath the chestnut trees. At the time she had no idea that her mother had traveled to Auschwitz on the 61st of the 74 convoys that left from France and had little understanding of what had happened in there.
Roger Perelman, one of 43 survivors of convoy 61, stepped down from the bus in front of the Lutetia in June. He may have walked right past the teenager, who was too shy to speak to the survivors. Others ran up and grabbed their sleeves. Perelman remembered, “When the convoy of buses arrived with their ghostly cargo, the conversation stopped. The survivors passed by a wall of silent sadness.” Once inside the hotel, he was fed and given a jacket and trousers. He did not linger and soon stepped back out onto the street to start a new life. He would become a well-known pediatrician. As he passed the crowd, he had no idea how to respond to their questions, unable to explain what he had been through. He left without saying a word.
Huguette Müller had last seen her mother in Nice, on a warm September morning in 1943. They had lived there safely under the Italian occupation but when Italy dropped out of the war Alois Brunner and his SS guards descended on the Riviera. Fresh from destroying the Jewish community of Thessaloniki, Brunner was intent on rounding up Jews like the Müllers.
Edith Müller had fled Berlin in 1933 with her estranged husband and two daughters, and although the family had become French citizens in 1938, she sensed danger. The family had hidden their Jewish identity, but their ID cards still said that she and her daughter had been born in Berlin. For Brunner’s men it was enough for them to simply suspect someone was Jewish to have them deported. Over breakfast Edith told her daughter before she left for school that she was going to get false papers.
When Müller came home for lunch her mother was not home. “I didn’t have a key, so I went to the movies,” Müller, now Huguette Carleton, recalled. “When I came back again she still wasn’t in but as it was still summer and a window was open, I climbed in.” She did not hear the police who hammered on the door when they came to arrest her in the middle of the night.
“In the morning the neighbors told me what had happened. I am deaf now and I have always been hard of hearing so I suppose it was lucky. If I had heard it I would have opened the door,” she recounted in her elegant San Francisco home. She went straight to the station to buy a train ticket for Paris to join her father.
The silver coffee set that once belonged to her mother sat in pride of place on her sideboard. She showed it to my husband, her nephew, and three of our five children. It was a family reunion in which the key player was missing but it was nevertheless a happy moment. There was a sense of achievement that masks the dark story of convoy 61 that lies hidden in archives in Paris thousands of miles away and only now at the age of 92 would Müller finally discover details of her mother’s final days.
On Oct. 5, Edith Müller arrived in Paris’ northeastern industrial suburbs a million miles from the elegance of the Left Bank. Before the war she had lived in the smart district of Neuilly. The wife of a successful film producer, she had more than likely wined and dined at the Lutetia. She was now to spend a month in Drancy, the antechamber of Auschwitz, a half-built housing estate surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers.
Drancy is the symbol of the Shoah in France. Yet, in reality it still remains a million miles from the Lutetia. A monument was put up in 1974 and was joined in 1988 by a cattle car, the same year my oldest son, Edith’s grandson, was born. It has been vandalized on numerous occasions.
Behind the memorials is a grimy public housing estate. After the war the local council finished the building work and have carried out few repairs since. For over 500 people, the majority immigrants from Africa, mostly young and old, nearly all single, it is home. For most it is one step up from the street.
Karen Taieb has spent 25 years at the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris investigating the Nazi and French government paperwork that details how 76,000 French Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
A yellowing piece of paper shows that when Müller arrived at Drancy she was carrying with her 1,864 francs. The money, an average amount, Taieb said, was immediately confiscated. Müller would have been handed a receipt for the amount in zlotys and told to reclaim the sum on arrival in Poland.
Her registration card shows she was assigned to live with 50 other people in stairwell 10, room 1. Today the 300-square-foot studios are considered too small for families. In 1943, they had no windows or doors. The index cards were written out by prisoners, Taieb explained, who were at that time digging an escape tunnel. “They were caught and sent on convoy 62. The person who wrote this card most probably died in Auschwitz,” she said. Another one of the doomed scribes has crossed out 10.1 and written 9.2. “This is the room where she would have spent the night before the deportation,” Taieb told me.
Perelman described in his memoirs how before dawn on Oct. 28, 1943, the prisoners were gathered in the courtyard. Brunner, the commandant, announced they were being transported for work and would be reunited with their families before they were then loaded onto buses.
When I key Gare de Bobigny into the GPS I am expecting to find a modern station with a small plaque. To my surprise I am instructed to park on a busy main road next to some derelict but inhabited caravans surrounded by empty cans and excrement. A few meters farther along on the bridge over the wide expanse of railway lines, a series of plaques describe how 22,453 Jews were deported to Auschwitz from here between 1943 and 1944. Below the bridge is the original stationhouse built in 1928, its doors bricked up and windows boarded.
In 2016, the Bobigny town council announced a $2.6 million renovation project to transform the site into a memorial. An appeal was made for $500,000 in private donations but only $32,000 was raised. The project is on hold.
Assouline explained that it is hard for the local councils to justify spending this money. “There are many Muslims. It is not a problem with foreigners, as France is a republic and we have a tradition of integration, but some of the values of Islam resist this and refuse to adapt to the republic,” he said, adding that many Muslim school children refuse to listen when the Holocaust is taught in school. “The people who live there are immigrants and this is not their story. They don’t want to know,” he added. Radicalization is also an issue. Samy Amimour, a local bus driver and Muslim of Algerian origin, joined the Islamic State in Syria in 2013. In 2015, he took part in the attack on the Bataclan nightclub in Paris. Nor is the Jewish community interested, he said, as “it is predominantly Sephardi from North Africa, like me, and this is also not their story, in the way it is yours.”
Museums can sanitize history. Bobigny is bleak and raw. Convoy 61 pulled away from its now crumbling tracks at 10:30 a.m. It took three days and nights to reach Auschwitz. Brunner organized the deportation lists by name, date, and place of birth and profession. The prisoners were loaded onto the buses and into the cattle cars in alphabetical order. Each cattle car had 50 passengers. Taieb handed me a copy along with the dispatch documents signed by Brunner, his signature is small and cramped. From it I can work out that Edith Müller traveled in the 13th car. With her were five school children roughly the age of her daughter Huguette, a magazine seller from Livorno, a judge born in Istanbul, and a woman called Dora, who in some twist of fate had been born in 1883 in Oswiecim, the town next to the Auschwitz extermination camp. The youngest in the group was curly haired 4-year-old Arlette Orestein.
The convoy arrived at night. As the doors opened searchlights shone into their faces and the steam engine made a continual shrieking whistle. Only three men were selected to work but none survived. Everyone else in wagon 13 was gassed within hours.
By late summer 1945, it was clear Edith Müller was not coming home. Huguette’s father took her to the banks of the Seine where he threw the Iron Cross he had been awarded for fighting in the German army in WWI into its muddy waters. He then left for San Francisco, the farthest place he could find from Europe that would offer him a new life. A year later he sent for his daughter.
Rosie Whitehouse is the author of The People on the Beach: Journeys to Freedom After the Holocaust.