Mimi looked in phone books whenever she traveled. Langberg, Mimi’s maiden name of German origin, was an unusual enough surname to assume anyone who shared it was kin. In March of 1982, my then 37-year-old grandma traveled out of the U.S. for the second time in her life to vacation in Paris with my grandpa. As my grandpa showered, Mimi flipped through the hotel phonebook. She didn’t think she would actually find someone who shared her last name—and when she did, she paused. She knew that the two, Jacques and Venezia Langberg, were likely a couple and that she would have to speak to them in French if she dialed their number. Her nerves kept her from calling. She ripped the page out and tucked it into her suitcase.
Months later, in July, Mimi rediscovered the phonebook page while cleaning. Instead of calling, she figured she’d write a letter—that way she could piece together what she wanted to say more clearly, saving the embarrassment of a classroom-crafted French accent. In her letter, she described what her grandfather, the last adult in her family to live in eastern Poland, did for a living, the exact town he came from, and when he left for the U.S. Three weeks later, Mimi got an envelope in the mail containing two letters, one from Venezia, who signed her name as Veny, and the other from Jacques. The letters reaffirmed Mimi’s suspicion that they were, in fact, kin—Jacques’s family hailed from the same part of Poland as her family. After exchanging a few more letters, they planned to meet at a hotel in Normandy, where Mimi already had a trip planned and Jacques and Veny owned a house.
There was a letter written by Jacques awaiting Mimi in the hotel when she checked in. I don’t know what Normandy is like now, much less what it was like in the early 80s, but I imagine that the Parisian vacationers she passed were much more stylish in not only garb but also language than anyone from her hometown of Queens, New York. Having not spoken French since college 20 years earlier, Mimi managed to get by with only a small dose of confusion. At this point, she did not know what either Jacques or Veny looked like, what they sounded like, or where in the hotel she should find them. All she knew was what was contained in a letter written from Paris, that Jacques shared her unusual maiden name. But when she saw him, she knew. Before even saying a word, the two of them were overwrought with emotion, crying on the floor of the hotel. When she looked at his face, she saw the faces of all the men in her family. I believe this because I have seen pictures of Jacques and, even through the dilution of generations, my face also resembles his.
I don’t remember the first time that Mimi told me the story of Jacques and Veny. If I didn’t know any better, I would think I was born knowing their story. Millions of stories like theirs, due to one unfortunate turn, were taken to the grave. If history were to run its course again, it’s unlikely that their story would exist. The odds that even one of them would survive were low, so the odds that both of them would survive were miniscule. Jacques and Veny’s story, Mimi says, can take many forms depending on to whom it’s being told. It’s a survival story, it’s a testament to Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, which is the idea of meaning as a survival mechanism, it’s a love story, it’s a historical artifact.
Jacques and Veny met at the Drancy internment camp in 1942, where they were both inmates. The structure was being built by the French as a military barrack for the war, but the round, multistoried stadium-like structure wasn’t finished in time. It was located in a suburb northeast of Paris. When the Nazis occupied Paris, Drancy functioned as a place for them to hold prisoners, mostly Jews, before sending them to an extermination camp. Mimi said they described the conditions as being somewhere between the ghettos and the concentration camps. Jacques and Veny only overlapped at Drancy for less than six months, but in that time, managed to fall deeply in love.
When Jacques was initially arrested in late 1940, it was because he was a part of the French underground resistance; the Nazis had no idea that he was Jewish. In the resistance, Jacques worked on transmitting radio messages and claimed to have never slept in the same bed twice during the nine months between the Nazi invasion of Paris and his arrest. He was first imprisoned in the Palais de Justice, where they knew him by his resistance pseudonym, Roger Colon. Jacques told Mimi stories of being tortured by the Gestapo, who would beat his back and feet to the point of scarring to get information about the resistance. Mimi likes to point out that Jacques never revealed a thing to the Gestapo and that for the rest of his life, he continued to stand up straight despite the pain in his back and feet.
After 18 months at the Palais de Justice, Jacques overheard other inmates saying that all the current inmates were going to be executed to make room for the next round of prisoners. Jacques knew that the Nazi police would not waste a bullet on a Jew. He knew that if these people knew his real name, Jacques Langberg, an undeniably Jewish name, he would not be executed, not by bullet, not in that prison. I don’t know whom technically he told, or whether he needed to convince them it was the truth, but I cannot help but laugh at the thought of Nazi faces transitioning from stoic to horrified as the news of his real name and Jewish identity spread. Jacques turned out to be right. He was taken to Drancy, where the Nazis figured he would be taken to a concentration camp for a more fitting and economical death. This could be one of the only instances in the entire war when being Jewish actually saved someone's life.
In Drancy, Jacques received special privileges from the Nazi guards in return for help with radios. Jacques gained enough trust from the guards that they actually let him leave the camp every so often. On these excursions out into Nazi-occupied Paris, Jacques had two missions. The first was to report back to the Free France resistance members on anything he learned from the guards at Drancy. The second was to pick up goods, usually perfumes, for Veny, who was taken to Drancy under very different circumstances.
Veny grew up in the theater world of Paris since her father was an accountant for many of the city’s most famous actors and actresses. The people in theater were not only very wealthy, but also actively resistant to the Nazi occupation. Because of this, Veny was able to avoid arrest until 1942, two years after the Nazis bypassed the Maginot line and captured Paris. She was tall with long black hair and sharp cheekbones. She was always considered very beautiful and had found her way into modelling. In the late 30s, she was the first Jew to ever walk as a runway model for Lanvin—I’d never heard of it, but Mimi says the brand was and still is “one of the most famous French designer brands.” Veny was at a party wearing a black evening gown, black spiked heels, and a fur wrap when the Gestapo barged through the door to arrest everyone there.
Veny had been in Drancy for about 6 months, and Jacques about a month less, when it was announced that all inmates would be shipped farther east. The Germans were systematically moving Jews out of the camp and deporting them to concentration camps. Most inmates would wind up at Auschwitz-Birkenau, including Veny. Mimi didn’t mention whether they knew where they were going when they were loaded like cattle into trains. I hope, for sanity's sake, that they were clueless about the horrors they were about to be subjected to. I hope that the rumors of gas chambers and starvation had not spread to the Drancy inmates as they made their way towards an inevitable fate.
Jacques was one of the last inmates to leave Drancy and instead of being shipped by train, he was taken by truck with two other inmates. The three of them were placed in the back, with a driver and two guards up front. The truck they were in was part of a convoy heading to Germany. Details about the two other men have never been included in the story, although I am confident that Jacques remembered their faces and names for the rest of his life. It could be that Jacques wanted to forget about what happened next. I imagine the three Jewish men consulting with one another by way of slight movements to prevent any suspicion from the Nazi drivers. Although the three of them must have all spoken French, any speaking would have been silenced by the Nazis in front of them. Jacques omits the graphic details as he tells Mimi the story, and suddenly he and his comrades are near a town called Nancy wearing the uniforms of strangled Nazis. It must have been in a single moment of negligence, when neither the driver nor the guards were paying attention, that the three inmates lunged forward, intent on killing, each with their own battle against the breath of their oppressor.
The next morning, Jacques, a Jew in Nazi uniform, directed traffic in the town of Nancy as the other trucks in the convoy continued onwards to the German Reich. Through his interactions hovering around radios with Nazi guards in Drancy, he’d grown accustomed to speaking German with them and figured directing traffic would be an inconspicuous job. The Nazi convoy continued through Nancy, leaving Jacques and his comrades behind.
Jacques was in the clear—he had avoided being sent to a concentration camp. He managed to link up with the French resistance in the area and eventually with the American front. Through strokes of wit and luck, Jacques had again managed to avoid certain death. Though he had escaped, Veny was arriving at Auschwitz.
Veny was housed in barracks with all the other French women in Auschwitz. She told Mimi that every morning, she saw Josef Mengele, the man responsible for much of the human experimentation done by the Nazis. Mengele’s presence made Veny’s blood run cold. He was incredibly handsome and his shoes were always shined. My own blood runs cold as I think about freshly shined leather shoes tapping loose wooden barrack floors, tired Jewish eyes watching him, confused by simultaneous feelings of attraction and horror.
Veny was tasked with moving quarried stone in wheelbarrows, which was later crushed and made into gravel—apparently, the Nazis needed it to make roads. The work was hard and heavy and left her with a bad back for the rest of her life. The sleek and beautiful Veny who used to strut across Parisian runways was reduced to a 60-pound skeleton. Surviving in Auschwitz for over a year sucked all of the marrow from her body; so weary that it could not even sustain the hair on her head. But she had made friends with two of the other French women in her barrack and the three of them kept each other going. They would share stories of past lovers and brighter times, of future lovers and lifestyles. I imagine Veny told them of her Drancy romance with Jacques and that the other two envied Veny’s fresh memories of being loved. One friend was named Georgiette, who Mimi met later in life and described as a blonde carbon copy of Veny. Georgiette told Mimi that Veny always managed to have a song to sing and that she was the force that kept her and the other friend afloat.
As the Red Army approached Poland from the east and commenced their Vistula-Oder Offensive, German Schutzstaffel officers were ordered to vacate Auschwitz in mid-January of 1945. Those prisoners who could still walk were forced to march from Poland towards the interior of the German Reich through winter snow and freezing temperatures with torn uniforms, no shoes, and emaciated bodies. The ability to walk put Veny and her two friends in the minority. The three French women walked one in front of the other, going step by step, trying hard not to wobble in their stride. At the march’s onset, Schutzstaffel officers closely patrolled the line of marching prisoners and anyone who fell behind or could not continue were promptly shot. As the march progressed, the weather worsened. Prisoners would fall from the line and, instead of shooting them, the SS would let them freeze to death.
Mimi does not know exactly when in January Veny’s part of Auschwitz started marching, but it was in March of the same year when Veny could no longer go on. One day, as they were marching, Veny collapsed and rolled down a snow-covered hill onto an adjacent field. Surely, the chances of freezing or starving to death were hopelessly high. The other two women still followed. I don’t know why. Maybe they figured Veny had a plan, although it’s more likely that they figured there was no way of marching on without her. The three of them laid at the bottom of the hill, bodies covered by snow, as the thousands of other prisoners continued marching west, away from the Russian front, further into the German Reich. Although death was surely not far, it must have been a relief to no longer be a prisoner. If they died, it would not have been by the hand of the Schutzstaffel.
Most stories end here. There must have been thousands of people on that very march that died in the same act that Veny and her friends survived. Veny’s story did not end because they were able to crawl to a farmhouse in the distance. I cannot help but think that there was someone with an alternate story with no farmhouse. This person had a lover in mind as they laid there in the snow but saw no escape from death. Love, as a driving force in Veny’s circumstance, was met by an equal amount of luck.
Veny and her friends stayed in the farmhouse unnoticed for a few nights. One day, the German farmer discovered them hiding there, hungry and shivering, and screamed at them to leave. It’s a familiar story. The farmer refused to provide shelter to Jews out of fear of being persecuted himself. The wife of the man who was at the door, however, protested against her husband and offered the women the hospitality they needed. She took care of the women for almost two weeks, at which point the Russian front approached the farmhouse. The Russians would have surely killed the German farmers had the couple not shown clemency to the French women.
The women were taken to West Berlin, where Veny said they recovered in a hospital for about a year. An American doctor took care of Veny throughout her time there and after she was rehabilitated, just before she left to go back to Paris, the two had a brief affair. For Veny, the affair was a way of dignifying her existence again. She had spent every day of the last two years finding a will to live. In Drancy, all autonomy and most of what was beautiful in life had been taken away from her. While there, she still had the gifts Jacques would bring her and his consuming love for her, which reflected back to Veny as signs of her own worth. When the two were separated, she was left to the subhuman conditions of the concentration camp, where she saw her hair and teeth fall out. The only constant about her body during that time were the numbers tattooed on her left arm by the Nazis. I struggle to imagine the emotion that coursed through her body when she first saw her reflection in that West Berlin hospital. The last time she saw herself in a mirror was likely on the evening she was arrested, in an evening gown and spiked heels, looking like the runway model that she was. An affair was an affirmation that she was still that same person, who had not only survived, but could still be as sexy, independent, and passionate as she once was.
When she got back to Paris, Veny was taken to the Hotel Lutetia. Hotel Lutetia was used as a repatriation center and became the main processing location for concentration camp returnees. There were lists there of all of the returnees and their current addresses, with designated workers who helped people reconnect with their loved ones. That’s how she knew that Jacques had made it out alive. It had been nearly three years since they last saw each other in Drancy when Veny showed up at his door. When he let her into the apartment, she discovered that Jacques was living with another woman. For good reason, Jacques was certain that Veny died in Auschwitz. I know nothing about the woman he was living with because she quickly became irrelevant. In no time, Veny, in typical Veny fashion, had Jacques wrapped around her finger again and convinced him to leave the woman he was with.
Jacques and Veny spent the rest of their lives together in Paris. In 1962, they bought a single-bedroom apartment in the 16th arrondissement that would be the only home they ever owned, with the exception of a vacation home in Normandy. The two of them went on to become successful in their respective pursuits. Jacques partnered with his brother, who also survived the war and was living in Zurich, and began working in the wine trading business. The two brothers represented wineries from Burgundy and distributed their wine all around Europe. Veny, on the other hand, ventured into the world of entertainment. With the money Jacques made in wine, she opened up a club in Paris called Novy, which Mimi says was the most popular club in the entire city at one point. In their apartment, Veny kept hundreds of pictures from the nightclub. There were pictures of Veny and Jacques with politicians, movie stars, and musicians. Out of all the names Mimi mentioned, I recognized Frank Sinatra, the Rothschilds, Kirk Douglas, and Gregory Peck.
While Veny and Jacques both had family who survived the war, they considered Mimi their closest relative. Veny was so malnourished by the time she left Auschwitz that she could never bear children. Mimi spoke on the phone virtually every night with Veny, who knew no English, which is how Mimi became fluent in French. Mimi would visit them in Paris at least once a year with my grandpa. In addition to becoming the heir to the Paris apartment that they lived in, Mimi became the heir to Jacques and Veny’s story. At 72, Mimi is still sharp. There are many great stories, but it takes a storyteller like her for them to be passed on. I wonder if Jacques and Veny imagined Mimi retelling their experiences when they recounted their lives over the many years that they knew her. It is my intention with this piece to prevent the passing of time and aging of generations from eroding Jacques and Veny’s story.
Thirty years after she met Jacques and Veny in that Normandy hotel, Mimi went to Paris one last time. This time, the apartment was silent, there was no food cooking or stories being told. Mimi was there to put the apartment up for sale. Veny had died a few weeks earlier, outliving Jacques by 10 years. What was left in their home was what they had accumulated over their lives. The two never threw anything away and kept most of their valuables hidden. Veny’s evening gowns overflowed in the closets, her jewelry filled the drawers. Pictures of the nightclub were stacked in different areas of the dusted-over living room. Mimi was set on this being her final goodbye. For returning to Paris would be too painful without them there. Whatever she took would be the artifacts she’d remember them by. She walked out only with a few pieces of jewelry, a nightgown or two for my cousins, and Jacques’s two watches. Mimi gave me one of these watches, and I wear it occasionally. In fact, I am wearing it as I write this. It has a sleek, gold face that sits flat on my wrist and a thin black leather strap that is only tight enough when I use the last hole. I never got to meet Jacques, but I am in awe of him. We think his father and Mimi’s grandfather were first cousins, but there’s no way of knowing. When I wear his watch, I am reminded of his life and the unlikeliness of his story, of Veny’s life and her story, and all the serendipity that lead to it being passed to me.
Lights Out Issue | May 2019