Post­card of Roth­schild Hos­pi­tal, 1900s

There are sto­ries buried by his­to­ry, secrets, silence. The sto­ry of Paris’s Roth­schild Foun­da­tion is one such sto­ry. Its hos­pi­tal, orphan­age, and old people’s home were com­man­deered as a prison for Jews dur­ing the Ger­man Occu­pa­tion of France and Vichy’s rule. Colette Brull-Ulmann’s mem­oir, Through the Morgue Door, first pub­lished in France in 2017, and now avail­able in Eng­lish, final­ly breaks that silence.

In 2020, Colette allowed me and my dear col­league, Mar­garet Sin­clair, to trans­late her book. It gave us agency dur­ing our pan­dem­ic iso­la­tion, and it brought me even clos­er to the author who was my friend. Sure­ly there are back­sto­ries about authors and the trans­la­tors they entrust with their work. This is mine.

Back in the ear­ly 2000s, a col­league at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty told me about Pic­pus Ceme­tery, a pri­vate ceme­tery on the grounds of a con­vent in Paris’s 12th arrondisse­ment. Buried there are the remains of the Mar­quis de Lafayette, his fam­i­ly, oth­er nobles, and, in a com­mon grave, the head­less bod­ies of 1,306 French men and women guil­lotined in the mur­der­ous Reign of Ter­ror. Every Fourth of July, the Amer­i­can ambas­sador to France vis­its, accom­pa­nied by a small mil­i­tary band. The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner” and The Mar­seil­laise” are played, and a new Amer­i­can flag is plant­ed along­side the grave of this French hero of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion. All this piqued my colleague’s inter­est, where­upon she applied for grants and obtained per­mis­sion to make the doc­u­men­tary Pic­pus:, Walled Gar­den of Mem­o­ry.

In the course of film­ing, she walked over to the Roth­schild Hos­pi­tal, which hap­pens to be locat­ed next to the ceme­tery, and asked to shoot from the van­tage point of its rooftop. It was dur­ing this serendip­i­tous vis­it that the hos­pi­tal direc­tor told her that Jews were incar­cer­at­ed there dur­ing the Ger­man Occu­pa­tion. A sprawl­ing prison for Jews right in the mid­dle of Paris – and no one knew. She showed her the admis­sions reg­is­ters for 1942 through 1944 which, unlike oth­ers stored in the Pub­lic Hos­pi­tals of Paris archives, had sim­ply been dumped and for­got­ten on a dusty clos­et floor in one of Rothschild’s few remain­ing orig­i­nal pavilions.

Upon her return to North­west­ern, my col­league asked me if I would be will­ing to research the Roth­schild Hos­pi­tal for an online archive doc­u­ment­ing both the ceme­tery and the hos­pi­tal. She came to the right per­son: my doc­tor­al the­sis had been on Elie Wiesel, in addi­tion to French I had taught Holo­caust fic­tion, and I was the daugh­ter of a sur­vivor whose moth­er and sis­ter had been deport­ed from France. That is how I became involved in unrav­el­ing this shame­ful sto­ry, and some would say I have been sin­gu­lar­ly focused ever since.

But how was I to research an unknown sto­ry? From my office in Evanston, I began as one would imag­ine: by googling. A men­tion here, a men­tion there. I found some names, some address­es. Par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful was the Paris online tele­phone book. I wrote let­ters, and every­one respond­ed. I con­tact­ed his­to­ri­an Serge Klars­feld, who had pros­e­cut­ed French and Ger­man war crim­i­nals, and met with him on my first research trip to Paris, in Jan­u­ary 2004: he was kind, help­ful, lent me his files, but had reser­va­tions about the impor­tance of the sto­ry. It was, after all, a small story.

I con­tin­ued my search in the Jew­ish book­stores in the Marais. Per­haps sur­vivors had writ­ten their sto­ries; per­haps they spoke of Roth­schild. I found a book by Bruno Halioua, a doc­tor and his­to­ri­an who had writ­ten Blous­es Blanch­es, Etoile Jaune (White Jack­ets, Yel­low Star), a his­to­ry of the French med­ical pro­fes­sion and its prej­u­dices against Jew­ish doc­tors before and dur­ing the war. In it was a chap­ter on Roth­schild, the only hos­pi­tal in Paris where Jew­ish doc­tors were allowed to prac­tice and Jew­ish patients could go for treat­ment after 1941. I wrote Halioua to request an inter­view. He tele­phoned me at North­west­ern and agreed, then told me that the per­son I absolute­ly had to talk to was Colette Brull-Ulmann. As a young med­ical intern, she had par­tic­i­pat­ed in coura­geous acts of resis­tance, wit­nessed roundups, and smug­gled young Jew­ish chil­dren to safe­ty. I wrote her and we met some months lat­er. I video­taped her twice: once at her home, once at the hos­pi­tal. A friend­ship fol­lowed, and I’d vis­it her when­ev­er I was lucky enough to return to Paris.

The last time I saw Colette, it was the sum­mer of 2015. We man­aged to spend a few after­noons togeth­er. She was nine­ty-four years old. She walked with a cane but was the same spir­it­ed, feisty woman I had come to admire. In some won­der­ful way, we had become fam­i­ly. For my hus­band and me, she cooked a very French three-course lunch. Time had not dulled her amaz­ing­ly sharp mind and she still spoke an ele­gant Eng­lish with a slight British accent (my hus­band did not speak French). We talked about fam­i­ly, lit­er­a­ture (Dick­ens), and the world of art that filled her apart­ment – the art she and her beloved hus­band, Jacques, had spent a life­time col­lect­ing. The harp she so reviles in her mem­oir stood proud in her salon. She played for us, and it was beautiful.

In May 2021, Colette’s son emailed to tell me she had died. At 101 years old, it was not unex­pect­ed. Colette enjoyed a cer­tain celebri­ty in her declin­ing years, some­thing she nev­er sought nor desired. For her wartime resis­tance, Pres­i­dent Macron award­ed her the Légion d’honneur. In pub­lic, she nev­er stopped telling the sto­ry she had tried so hard to for­get. For her, as for many sur­vivors late in life, speak­ing had become an imper­a­tive. Her mem­oir was cho­sen for book clubs; she was fea­tured in a doc­u­men­tary, on tele­vi­sion, and in news­pa­per and mag­a­zine arti­cles. Through­out all of this, Colette remained gra­cious, opti­mistic, out­spo­ken, accessible. 

And so it was that the seem­ing­ly small but dif­fi­cult task of pen­e­trat­ing the wall of silence that was Roth­schild dur­ing the war has giv­en me years of reward­ing work: research in Paris, Wash­ing­ton, New York, and Los Ange­les; inter­views with sur­vivors and their fam­i­lies; cor­re­spon­dence with Holo­caust vic­tims’ fam­i­lies; and now, a book trans­la­tion, and, with it, sweet mem­o­ries of an unfor­get­table friend­ship with a tru­ly amaz­ing woman.