By Paul Halas
On my very infrequent visits to Paris, passing Drancy Station on the RER suburban line between Orly Airport and Paris is always a poignant experience. My Uncle Ladis – Ladislaw – spent some time there during World War Two.
In 1966, as a seventeen year old, I had a heavy crush on a girl at my boarding school. It was not to be. Her family, part of a rich Persian dynasty, took a dim view of her consorting with anyone from the wrong milieu – especially someone with my family background. She was promptly whisked away to Paris to continue her studies. Naturally I wanted to follow.
This was the deal: pass my French O’ Level re-take and I’d be allowed to spend the summer holidays with my relatives in Paris – which is how I came to enjoy the hospitality of Uncle Ladis and Aunt Henriette.
The romance? No sooner had I set foot in Paris than my paramour was bundled onwards to New York, where she eventually married a banker. I stayed for another seven weeks, and my broken heart was quickly filed away under life’s rich pageant.
My father’s family was Hungarian. There were seven Halasz brothers. My father was the youngest and Ladis the oldest of the clutch – the only two to emigrate. Four of them survived WW2, but not without some astonishing survival stories, as I was to learn.
Ladis had three things going against him during WW2. He was Jewish, he belonged to the Communist Resistance, and he was captured.
When I stayed with Ladis and Henriette they lived in a small flat in the working class district of Goncourt, a melting pot of Jews, North Africans and native Parisians. Henriette made the couple a meagre living by assembling plastic flowers, whereas Ladis did little more than run errands for l’Humanite, the Communist newspaper.
During my stay Ladis took me all around Paris, to various museums, to the Humanite offices, to the Fete de l’Humanite, a great celebration of the Left, famed for its mergeuz sausages, and to various sites where the French Resistance had been active during the war. Ladis had three things going against him during WW2. He was Jewish, he belonged to the Communist Resistance, and he was captured.
Drancy achieved notoriety as a transit camp for Jews, before they were taken onwards to the extermination camps. But before that it was a detention camp, a repository for undesirables of all
descriptions. For a while Ladis survived there by trading cigarettes for the almost non-existant food rations. At length, however, it was his turn to be interrogated by the Gestapo. He was left for dead, with smashed-up hands and feet, and a badly broken jaw. The details of how he got out of there are sketchy, but Henriette corroborated that the Resistance managed to spring him, and she was one of their helpers.
The couple were successfully hidden until Liberation. Ladis was never the same afterwards. He’d suffered brain damage, he was clumsy, his walk was a hobble, and his crooked jaw made understanding him difficult, especially for a seventeen year old who’d just passed his O Level. His main, and frequently only topic of conversation, was the Communist Party. But he was well liked by all, and very affectionately indulged by all his comrades at l’Humanite.
My weeks chez les Halasz in Paris laid the foundations for my lifelong affection for Paris and for France – warts and all. And during the war the Halaszes experienced both the very worst and the very best of humanity.
As a footnote, a couple of years after my stay Ladis was awarded the Legion d’Honneur for his efforts and tribulations during the war. He point blank refused to shake DeGaulle by the hand, but was more than happy to accept the very generous pension that came with it. Henriette never had to put together another plastic flower.
Paul Halas’s escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.