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Growing up in times of upheaval

Dec 5, 2022 | Feature stories | 1 comment

Older folks such as myself find themselves looking back in time, over many years full of events, personal and historical milestones, and all sorts of memories from “those days.” For me, such reflections started in 1948/49, when my parents and I would return for a few months each year to France—to Paris, where we lived for the first three years of my life. My mother, American born, was a concert violinist with a burgeoning career in France before World War II. In 1935, she married a French-Romanian cellist who worked as an attorney in France.

In 1939, clouds of war were gathering on the near horizon. The French were reinforcing their famous Maginot Line to guard against possible German invasion, and the Nazis were ratcheting up their drumbeat of dominion over the other nations of Europe. Many people were beginning to leave France from fear of being caught in the coming maelstrom; some went to Great Britain, but many wanted to get farther away, the United States being the primary goal for most. Immigration to America was overwhelmed by the many thousands of applications, but Mom, being an American citizen, could bypass all that, as could her accompanying family members. As an extra precaution, in 1937 she had the foresight to have my birth registered at the U.S. Consulate in Paris; this gave me an American birth certificate from the get-go! (I still have that original document.)

And so, shortly before the Germans executed their invasion of France in 1940, we left the Continent for Britain. From there, it was on to the U.S. aboard the small Cunard liner “Georgic.” Not long after we left, the German Wehrmacht bypassed the Maginot Line entirely, striking through the Ardennes Forest, which the aged and somewhat fossilized French General Staff considered impassable. Meanwhile, borders were wide open to the north of the fortified defenses, giving the Nazis the chance to gobble up Belgium and Holland on the way. The Germans simply rolled into Paris through the French heartland as if they were on a Sunday drive in the country.

By then, we were in New York City, in a small apartment in the West 60s in Manhattan, which I actually still remember, though I was only three at the time. Dad had to learn English, and refused to accept help from Mother’s family, who, while French in origin, had established roots in the U.S. many years before. Among my earliest memories are those involving my parents’ many friends from Europe, who had the wisdom to believe Hitler would invade France and the Low Countries, and the foresight to flee to America. Like my folks, they were mostly classical music people and artists.

A fascinating aside: while Dad was finding work that took advantage of his multilingual abilities, he volunteered for the State Department’s efforts to broadcast news to Europe via shortwave radio. In those days, long before satellites and the internet, shortwave broadcasting was a major source of news, newspaper subscriptions from overseas being subject to delay along with mail service. Every country, it seems, had shortwave. The BBC was beaming news into occupied Europe on a 24/7 basis, and by 1940 the U.S. was catching up as well—all this despite German radio jamming! I forget what American shortwave broadcasting was called, but back in those days nearly every home in Europe had a radio with shortwave as well as long wave, providing standard broadcast media in addition to regular AM radio. Not so in the U.S., where shortwave broadcasting was not a thing. I recall Dad going to work in government radio studios at midnight every night for a shift of several hours during the war, broadcasting news and commentary in French, German, and Romanian, since he was fluent in all three. All that on top of his day job.

Curiously enough, both my mother and father came from “mixed marriages,” the men born Christian, the women Jewish. Some close aunts and uncles were one or the other; I recall one French Catholic aunt—who was a friend, as it happened, of Archbishop (later Cardinal) Spellman—being quite insistent that I be baptized in St. Patrick’s cathedral. And so I was. (Believe it or not, I still have the exact memory of the Priest dousing me with holy water!) My pre-kindergarten and early elementary school years were spent in a French school in New York, École Française du Saint-Esprit, and after that, for the later elementary, junior and high school grades, I attended the Lycée Français. Upon completing “seconde,” equivalent to American senior high school, I was admitted to Columbia University at age 16. I had been accepted two years earlier, but school officials thought that 14 was too young, so I had to wait out a soporific year in a local New York high school. My first year at Columbia, however, was very exciting, as I was in contact with many bright and high-achieving students and professors. I felt a bit overwhelmed by the level of sophistication and achievement around me, but I plugged away, making uneven progress, doing alright in some subjects and not very well in others. Curiously, the authorities allowed me to continue, young as I was, surrounded in class by many Korean War vets who were much older.

I progressed through college, adapting to the surrounding environment while pursuing a history major. In my junior year, I spent a semester at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where I read European history. For my senior thesis, I did a paper on the history of ocean navigation from the European “discovery” of America to the exploration and settlement periods. My interest lay mainly in how the European navigators made repeated ocean crossings to specific destinations in the Americas by means of hand-drawn “portolan charts”—painstakingly drawn sketches of the coastlines by navigators and mapmakers—that proved amazingly close to today’s accurate maps and charts. These early charts included straight lines from one point to another called “rhumb lines,” which navigators were expected to travel along without deviating, holding one particular compass course for weeks or perhaps months on end. These charts, many of which survive in museums, would show various rhumb lines from one European port to specific American destinations, each line showing its compass course in degrees, enabling sailors to make the same ocean crossings again and again.

Fast forward to present-day America, where the emergence of Donald Trump and his possible return as a presidential candidate in ’24, speaks to the cupidity and gullibility of a surprisingly large segment of the American voting public. In many cases, sadly, this large number of voters represent those without much in the way of higher education. I don’t mean this in a superior or snobbish sense; it’s just that if one has to go to work early in life and forego the time spent for college/university education, gaining a more comprehensive worldview can be difficult. It becomes easier, then, to fall for the pseudo-magnetic narcissism of someone like Trump, who has the strange appeal of a Mafia chieftain. Someone should produce a scene in which Trump plays Don Corleone in the scene where actor Abe Vigoda pays homage by kissing the crime-boss’ hand! Can anyone imagine Trump refusing such a gesture? Can anyone imagine a presidential candidate advocating the termination of the Constitution for the sake of his political career, as was reported this morning on the national news?

Yves Albert Feder

1 Comment

  1. yves-albert

    America today: Between Scylla and Charybdis… the constant tug of war between two disparate poles, each strongly held. It seems that most chances of progress will forever be slaughtered by the inexorable atavism of the republicans. Any understanding of mutual needs will be gone. Let the serfs have their allotment of grain and hay, and leave us to the wanton lute strut amidst the spoils of our plunder, the sublime comfort of our yachts, penthouse duplex apartments, mansions in Connecticut and Flaw-ri-duh, and so on….


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