Rony Alfandary discusses the background to his new book, Postmemory, Psychoanalysis and Holocaust Ghosts: the Salonica Cohen family and trauma across generations (Routledge, 2021)
How does one process a postmemory tale of the remembrance of events taking place more than twenty years before I was born, yet having a continuing impact upon the way I view the world, history and myself?
Simultaneously, this book is the story of my search to understand how the events of the Holocaust have left an indelible mark upon my own as well as that of my generation, second and third generation of Holocaust survivors, trying to make sense of the most profound period in modern times that still shapes today’s world.
During 2021, I put the final touches to my book about the collection of hundreds of letters, photographs, postcards and other artifacts belonging to the Salonica Cohen family. The collection was based upon the triangular exchange of letters between Rita Cohen Parenti (1903-1986) in Palestine, Leon (1901-1942) and Isaac Cohen (1898-1942) in Paris, and the rest of the Cohen family in Salonica [Thessaloniki]. Almost all members of the Cohen family, more than thirty adults and children, perished in Auschwitz. The only survivor was my grandmother, Rita Cohen Parenti, who immigrated to Palestine in 1934 where she and her husband raised five children, begetting in turn fourteen grandchildren and twenty-eight great grandchildren to date.
The book’s publication recalled the Hebrew proverb: finished but not completed (Tam ve-lo-nishlam). Beyond the fact that the book’s scope precluded an exhaustive and comprehensive study of a correspondence that survived its authors, and despite my honouring my grandmother’s command to remember her murdered family, my own deep wish to put my preoccupation with the Holocaust aside was not satisfied. I hoped that once the book was published I could return to other interests in my life. But despite doing just that, I remained haunted by the memory of my own family in particular and that dark period in the history of humankind in general.
Hence the title. I believe that once you realise that a postmemory lives within and in a sense, dominates you, you will be always guided towards postmemorial work. In other words, once you have begun searching for your lost relatives, knowing well that they are not to be found, the search itself will become a driving force in your life.
When does a postmemory come into existence? Here, a psychoanalytic approach is useful. I suggest that there must be some external stimulus in the shape of an artifact, whether a photograph, letter, film, or even a remembrance of a story once told, an encounter with a significant other, becoming a testimony to a life lived before one’s time. That testimony is elaborated and begins to become one’s own memory, i.e. a postmemory, sending its psychic roots into the individual’s own history. The link formed between that external stimulus, an echo of someone else’s experience, and the internal representation, which is intrinsic to one’s being, creates a web of relations and associations, a matrix of meanings and possibilities, engaging one in the search.
It is not an ordinary search that one can easily abandon if it does not immediately yield satisfactory results. Rather, it is an obsessive search that becomes a target in itself, leaving its subject matter somewhat in the shadow. A search that outsiders view with a slight worry lest you become consumed by it and dedicate to it unreasonable amounts of time, emotional and mental energy and sometimes even considerable resources.
Four key figures feature in the letters: Leon Cohen in Paris, who received the majority of letters, his older brother Isaac, their sister Ines in Salonica, and their sister Rita in Tel Aviv. The paterfamilias, Shabtai Cohen, a wealthy Salonica merchant, died at a relatively young age sometime after 1917 (no exact date available). This would also explain Isaac and Leon’s move to Paris in search of financial security and stability. Rachelle, the widow, relied upon her children’s support.
The letters’ physical state is often quite poor as the box went through serious physical mishaps as it was subjected to at least two floods, while the family lived in a small neighbourhood called Sova, located in the Ayalon Wadi in South Tel-Aviv during the 1930s, soon after they arrived in Palestine from Salonica.
When the box was opened, there as one particular address that captured the eye, the Paris address from which the last letters were sent: 5 Rue le Goff. Through hard work, perseverance and good luck, they found a lead in a photograph of Leon and Bondy in a publication by Serge Klarsfeld (b. 1935). The search led to Mireille Florent Saül from Paris, Bondy’s surviving niece.
In the following years, three boxes were found containing hundreds of letters, photographs, postcards, telegrams and many objects, all testifying to the exchange of letters between Tel-Aviv, Salonica and Paris between the years 1923 to 1942, when the last letter received indicated that all but one of the Cohen’s siblings died in Auschwitz.
The first letters that Leon received and kept during the twenties describe a young man working as an accountant, first in Paris, then in Marseilles and later back in Paris. After considerable initial difficulties, including a failed business venture with his brother, he did well and remained in business as a freelance accountant during those economically turbulent years. He maintained close ties with friends from Salonica, who also served as both a social and professional network. Like many at that time, he was an émigré, finding a home away from home within the Greek immigrant community in Paris, which was a very cosmopolitan, cultured, and lively city during the “roaring twenties” and thirties. Some of these letters are very jovial, showing strong friendly connections between young men who enjoy their years as popular single men, seeking fun in their personal lives and promotion in their professional ones.
Later, in the mid-1930s, Leon married Bondy Saül, from a family of Salonica Jews, who had immigrated to France, an occasion for much celebration and greetings. The letters from that period describe domestic happiness as well as longing for the families back home. Leon hopes that his brothers, sister and mother will join him in Paris. He even hopes for his sister in Palestine to come and join him with her family, even though he acknowledges that the life they have made in the growing Jewish community there binds them to that remote land. In reality, after he left Salonica in 1925, Leon Cohen never again saw his Salonica family nor his sister in Palestine.
Once married, Leon and Bondy seemed to lead a relatively comfortable family life in Paris. Dozens of postcards from their trips in France attest to that. In many photographs, one sees them enjoying the countryside, the sea and friendly encounters. Soon, they have two young children, Benjamin (1935), and Rachelle (1939).
Many of the letters Leon received were from his older brother, Isaac, and his Christian wife, Martha. Isaac is much of a mystery. No one really knows what he did for a living. He was involved in various commercial activities, including attempts at starting a restaurant. Some activities involved export and import. He did, however, not fare well in business, was often in debt, and, more than once, escaping debtors. On more than one occasion, he had to leave Paris or at least to pretend that he was leaving to avoid them. The couple had no children, at least while the correspondence was taking place. Isaac seldom wrote letters that did not contain requests for financial assistance. His brothers, sisters and mother often reproached him for not keeping in touch. He seemed to vacillate between excesses: either deep in sombre moods, prepared to sell his wife’s dowry to rescue himself, or enjoying apparent success, taking lavish holidays in France and sending postcards from his tours. His whereabouts during the war or the question of what actually happened to him remain unresolved to this day. Numerous archival and online searches, including Beate and Serge Klarsfeld’s book Le mémorial de la déportation des juifs de France,documenting lists of Jews taken from France to concentration camps, revealed no evidence of his fate. An attempt to gather information was also made through the French Commission for the Compensation of Victims of Spoliation Resulting from the Anti-Semitic Legislation in Force during the Occupation,a governmental agency established by the French President Jacques Chirac in 2000, which so far has not yielded results.
Ines Cohen Matarasso
Ines is portrayed as the loving, benevolent and caring elder sister. Married to Moise Matarasso, she was the mother of three children and Rachelle Cohen’s main source of comfort in the difficult years. She remained near her mother, taking her into her household. She led a stable family life and was the backbone of the Cohen family in Salonica. Leon turned to her when in need. Isaac the maverick shied away, fearing her disapproval. It was with her that Rita conducted the most moving exchanges through letters. Like her mother and sister, she dealt with increasingly difficult health issues, just as the economic situation in Salonica worsened. In her letters, she appears as an honest and direct woman, stern but empathic when she realised that it was expected of her. In the letters she wrote to her brother in Paris and her sister in Tel-Aviv, she always tried to keep them updated with family developments. Apart from informing them of her children’s achievements, such as academic success or reaching Bar-Mitzva age, she was always concerned with her younger brothers’ future. The main goal, common to many Jewish families, was to see them marry into good families as well as having lucrative jobs allowing them to provide for their future wives and children. Ines, her husband and his parents and siblings, as well as their three children, were sent to the concentration camps like the vast majority of Salonica Jewry in 1943. No trace was found of their burial place.
Rita Cohen Parenti
The fourth figure, Rita, my grandmother, was the fifth child. She was an independent woman who worked as a teacher in the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Salonica. She did not marry in haste, but only at age thirty, quite unusual for a woman in those times and usually attributed to having disqualifying characteristics. That was apparently not the case with her. She refused to compromise and had been in a relationship with a colleague at school, which her family did not approve of. She was eventually married off to Samuel Parenti, introduced to her by her beloved brother Benjamin who knew him through their mutual work at the Theodor Herzl Association in Salonica. The two were married in 1930. Rita became pregnant soon after and gave birth to their first of five children, Esther, in 1932. From the outset, Samuel stated that he wished to immigrate to Palestine, and despite Rita’s reluctance, the young couple and their child (Rita was also pregnant with their second child) made their way by boat to Jaffa in 1933. As the letters sent to Salonica from Tel-Aviv in the following years showed, those were very hard times. Rita gave birth to four more children, including twins, and had to live at a much lower standard of living to her accustomed one. Like many immigrants, Samuel took on menial work and could not continue his original occupation as a journalist. Eventually, he managed to open a stall at the Carmel Market in Tel-Aviv and was able to provide for his children, all of whom acquired a respectable profession, married and had children through his support. The two maintained a humble way of life but provided a safe and loving home for their five children during the difficult pre-state years in Israel, going through many riots that preceded the State’s establishment. Not a Zionist, Rita often regretted the move but was torn by the knowledge that, otherwise, her fate would have been that of her siblings’ – death in the concentration camps. After she parted from her mother, sister and brothers in 1933, she never saw them again. That was her constant sorrow, projected onto future generations, a sorrow that had developed into my sense of being a living monument for all she had lost. A memory of her loss had developed into my postmemory.
The final letter
The last letter in the collection was sent to Bondy’s sister, Rosette. It is dated November 16th 1942 and needs no explanation.
Denise Ertzlichoff to Paul and Rosette Paris, Wednesday, November 16th 1942 …
…. So when Mlle Froment (The concierge) came to tell me the dreadful news, how they were all arrested, your poor sister, your brother-in-law, the two little ones, your dear parents, your sister Suzanne, I could not believe in such a terrible misfortune. Is it possible such things can be done, taking young men away is one thing, we are at war, but women, poor little children and elderly people, it is too horrible, especially in the way the concierge from 5 rue Le Goff described it, it is unthinkable and so appalling, your poor sister crashing down on the floorboards with eyes of dread, I am so worried about her health and above all little Benjamin and little Elaine, if they had at least been left with you, or with me, I would have taken care of them and I
am sure she would have felt easier knowing them to be safe. I was told that the friend across from them got a letter in November telling him they were at Drancy,
but were going away that very evening to where they did not know. Maybe you have some news as I heard you were left free though 1 cannot believe this arrest is about religion, I suppose it is to do with them being Turkish citizens, as I read in the papers about Turkey siding with England and Russia. They should have gone away early in November for I know many who are safe and well in Lyon and Marseille….
Final (?) Thoughts
After long deliberation among Rita’s descendants, the collection was handed over to Yad Vashem in early 2020. It was almost like putting it to rest, a kind of a collective burial rite. The lingering hope that something else might be found was also put to rest.
A postmemorial story is never over. The memories passed down to us, second, third and fourth generation, whether directly through stories of those who survived, the letters of those who didn’t, or through unconscious inter-generational transmission of indigestible psychic content, continue to grow.
We are doomed, or blessed, to live under the shadow, or illumination, of those past experiences of the Holocaust which remain beyond expression and comprehension. And yet, they will also continue to guide, motivate, and command us onwards in our journey to make better sense of what had happened in the past so that we can attempt to better shape our present lives.