Yiddishkeit in Provence
My memories of Provence are classic American tourist. I witnessed fascinating vistas extending across the Luberon valley from not-quite-ready-to-bloom lavender fields to ochre cliffs or white limestone hills sprinkled with high society’s second homes. If I wasn’t nibbling saucisson on a picnic, sampling aromatic fromage at the weekend market, or sipping local wine in a village café, I was experiencing a culinary shock-n-awe at a Michelin starred restaurant.
Yet, I had a profound experience that was the furthest thing from typical. I was lucky enough to stay at my friend’s hillside home which could only be reached by four-wheel drive. The stone farmhouse was tucked behind tall trees and couldn’t be seen from the road nor from the one neighbor’s home. History tells that this remote abode was once used by the French Resistance during WWII.
One afternoon we skipped over to visit the neighbors at La Petite Blaque. The late owner Yvette’s granddaughter toured me around the property. There were a series of buildings that oddly connected to each other over decades of expansion. One structure had a kitchen with an indoor well. I peered over it and spied an old wooden wagon wheel with a piece of paper taped to it. There were three Hebrew letters written on it. I asked our hostess Chloe what it meant. She didn’t know and had never seen the paper until I pointed it out.
So, I emailed my Rabbi and he said the word was kesher, meaning knot or connection. Sometimes it even means rainbow. I was fascinated by my discovery and started to research whether it had any connection to the résistants of Luberon. I wondered if it was a code word used in the underground.
I discovered that during the war there were young Jewish women known as kashariyot, from the Hebrew word kesher. They passed as Poles and risked their lives in German-occupied Eastern Europe connecting with Jews across the ghettos. Their missions included bringing news of the outside world and smuggling weapons, money, medical supplies, secret documents, forged identity cards and even Jews in and out of the ghettos. They were the connectors and because of their efforts to mobilize others and to spread the news of mass murders, these fearless heroes were the heart of the Jewish resistance.
Rozka Korczak, a leader of the Jewish underground in Vilna wrote about when Tosia Altman, one of the most famous kashariyot from Warsaw arrived in December 1941:
It was like a blessing of freedom.
Just the information that she came.
It spread among the people. …
As if there were no ghetto. …
As if there was no death around.
As if we were not in this terrible war.
A beam of love.
A beam of light.
As I started to write this story on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) I couldn’t help but think about Ukraine. I wonder about their resistance and their call for heroes. I can’t believe their tomorrow looks like the horror of WWII.
May they be blessed with freedom, peace, and light. - Tara Riceberg