TheGats­by­girlandtheFran­cores­cue

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Anne Sebba

BAR­BARA SOLOMON, 86 and still writ­ing, re­mem­bers clearly how as a teenager she drove across France to Spain in a dar­ing bid to res­cue two young stu­dents held pris­oner in one of Franco’s most bru­tal hard labour camps. She and her friend, Bar­bara Mailer, sis­ter of the not yet more fa­mous Nor­man, had agreed to try and free the two boys, “which sounds ab­surd now as you are writ­ing it down,” Solomon told me when I met her in her New York apart­ment.

“But I had an ad­ven­tur­ous tem­per­a­ment, they didn’t know any­body and when Nor­man told us he had a car and a plan but it needed Bar­bara and me to par­tic­i­pate, we agreed. He thought two young girls would have a bet­ter chance of cross­ing the bor­der through the moun­tains be­cause we looked too young, too Amer­i­can to be sus­pi­cious.”

She re­calls many de­tails of the 1948 res­cue. Also in the car was a young Span­ish stu­dent ac­tivist, Paco Benet, whose fa­ther had been killed, who knew the coun­try well and spoke French as well as Span­ish. His brother Juan Benet, be­came one of Spain’s best known nov­el­ists.

“We had pre-ar­ranged a meet­ing place. Ni­co­las (son of the his­to­rian Clau­dio Sanchez-Al­bornoz, pres­i­dent of the Span­ish repub­lic-in-ex­ile) and fel­low pris­oner, Manuel La­mana, had been some­how sent a mes­sage telling them to be last in line at the end of the day and that a car would be wait­ing for them. It helped that they were in reg­u­lar clothes be­cause Franco was too poor to put his pris­on­ers in a uni­form,” she re­calls.

But when I ask her how they ac­tu­ally picked them up and how she, not yet 20, kept her cool while she was wait­ing and then drove them away at speed, she ad­mits: “That’s the mo­ment Bar­bara and I have both per­ma­nently blanked out, the mo­ment Paco walked around the cor­ner be­fore the three of them jumped into the car and I drove off south.

“I re­mem­ber how des­per­ately hun­gry the boys were. The mo­ment we neared a restau­rant, we had to stop for a gi­gan­tic meal. We were lucky that the po­lice didn’t think we’d be go­ing south and wasted time track­ing them down in the im­me­di­ate area… so we got away.”

By the time the group reached Barcelona, Paco Benet and Bar­bara Probst had fallen in love. Bar­bara was beau­ti­ful as well as clever and well-read. She de­scribes Paco as tall with very blond hair, in­tense dark eyes and very brainy.

“Clearly we were too young for all of this,” Bar­bara says wist­fully, “as we wanted to go on the roller­coaster in Barcelona and kept say­ing to each other ‘one day we’ll come back when the fight­ing is over.’” In­stead, they re­turned to Paris where Bar­bara en­rolled at the Sor­bonne and started liv­ing with Benet.

Her life in 1948 Paris re­volved, for the next four years, around a group of dis­si­dent Span­ish stu­dents in ex­ile, try­ing to en­sure that the world heard the story she had learned first-hand. Ni­co­las and Manuel had been forced to work as slave labour­ers in Franco’s prison at the Valle de los Cai­dos (Val­ley of the Fallen), con­struct­ing the vast mon­u­ment that was to be Franco’s tomb. Escapes were ex­tremely rare and there were still ex­e­cu­tions by fir­ing squad long af­ter the war was over.

“No­body wanted to know about the strug­gle to end Franco’s dic­ta­tor­ship af­ter World War Two had ended. It seemed as if ev­ery­one had had enough of tor­ture and con­cen­tra­tion camps. The Span­ish drama was a non­story.” But she bad­gered var­i­ous ed­i­tors into tak­ing her sto­ries and soon found she had be­come a jour­nal­ist. “Be­cause they kept say­ing, oh, it’s that girl again.”

In 2008 Bar­bara Probst Solomon be­came the first Amer­i­can and the sec­ond woman to be awarded Spain’s top jour­nal­ism award, the Fran­cisco Cere­cedo Prize.

Bar­bara Probst grew up in a priv­i­leged Jewish cos­mopoli­tan fam­ily in a mag­nif­i­cent house in West­port, Con­necti­cut. They were neigh­bours of Gatsby, or at least the man she be­lieves was F Scott Fitzger­ald’s model for Gatsby. Fitzger­ald spent six months in the area in 1920 and schol­ars are now agreed that the man­sion and grounds, near the Probst home, were the model for the Gatsby man­sion.

BOTH PAR­ENTS were highly cul­tured in­tel­lec­tu­als whose lives had been dam­aged by World War One. Bar­bara’s fa­ther, Anthony Probst, a lawyer, had started his ca­reer as Woodrow Wil­son’s cam­paign man­ager but had then served as a pri­vate in the US army and had been so badly gassed in the trenches near Amiens that he spent three years re­cov­er­ing in a US army hospi­tal in France. Bar­bara was drawn to France from child­hood, ini­tially in an at­tempt to un­der­stand more of what her fa­ther had suf­fered.

Her fa­ther, whose fam­ily was Aus­trian — the nov­el­ist Joseph Roth was a cousin — was tor­mented by the no­tion that he might have killed people who were rel­a­tives.

Her mother, Frances Kurke Probst, was an artist who of­ten trav­elled to Eng­land, study­ing and meet­ing fel­low artists. Bar­bara and her el­der brother, Mark, were brought up by a Ger­man nanny, Hebe, an un­usual woman who was the daugh­ter of a Marx­ist and of­ten spoke to her young charges about Hitler’s rise to power and the dan­gers of the nascent Nazi Party.

It was not a typ­i­cal New York up­bring­ing. “We were cul­tur­ally Jewish but not re­li­gious and also we were …” here she breaks off. “I have never said this be­fore, but we were ex­traor­di­nar­ily rich. It wasn’t some­thing one ever men­tioned. It was not po­lite.

“France was the place I al­ways wanted to go. I spoke French and was ob­sessed by Paris.” She de­scribes her­self as a rest­less high school kid who ini­tially hatched a plan to go abroad at 17, much to her par­ents’ ini­tial hor­ror. Her par­ents were re­laxed about their daugh­ter’s ed­u­ca­tion (too lax, the school had com­plained) and even­tu­ally they agreed with her de­ci­sion to move to Europe rather than go­ing to col­lege.

BUT THEY per­suaded her to wait a year or two and to travel abroad with her mother. On the ship go­ing over Probst’s mother started chat­ting to an­other mother and daugh­ter duo, Mrs Mailer and Bar­bara. It was a year be­fore pub­li­ca­tion of The Naked and the Dead, the con­tro­ver­sial war novel which was to make her son’s name, but Mrs Mailer car­ried a copy with her and gave it to Frances Probst to read dur­ing the voy­age. When the liner docked at Cher­bourg, Mrs Probst con­grat­u­lated Nor­man, wait­ing at the quay­side to greet his mother, and asked him to look af­ter her daugh­ter in Paris. “She was the only woman who ever en­trusted her young daugh­ter to my care,” Mailer quipped later.

Nor­man and his wife Bea had an apart­ment in Paris near the Lux­em­bourg Gar­dens and it was there that Bar­bara Probst was in­tro­duced to a stim­u­lat­ing mix­ture of artists and in­tel­lec­tu­als. Most of the ex­iled Span­ish dis­si­dents were, she says, not Com­mu­nists, but an­ar­chists and so­cial­ists, to­tally at odds with the Com­mu­nists, and there­fore ex­posed in France at the time which could not place them.

Liv­ing in Paris in 1948 was harsh for most of the pop­u­la­tion, with short­ages of milk, cheese and but­ter, and ex­tremely cold. Probst was cush­ioned be­cause her par­ents, be­liev­ing it was morally wrong for a for­eigner to come in and de­prive the na­tive pop­u­la­tion who had suf­fered so much al­ready, sent her food parcels. Her mother also came over oc­ca­sion­ally to take Bar­bara on ex­pen­sive clothes-buy­ing sprees. Paco’s mother did the same for him. “Paco and I were the best-dressed stu­dents in town. In fact, his fam­ily was just like mine in so many ways,” she says.

One of the mo­ti­vat­ing fac­tors in un­der­tak­ing the Span­ish res­cue had been an acute aware­ness once she ar­rived in Paris that no one had been there for the Jews in France. “My mother had sev­eral French rel­a­tives who had per­ished in Auschwitz. Only one, cousin Leah, had sur­vived in hid­ing. I knew I did not want to look back and think no one had been there for these kids. That was very im­por­tant for me. That’s why I couldn’t refuse.”

Benet, al­though not Jewish, felt sim­i­larly, see­ing Spain as an iso­lated coun­try be­hind Franco’s iron cur­tain. He did not want his gen­er­a­tion to go down in his­tory as hav­ing done noth­ing. Af­ter the res­cue Benet and Probst started a small un­der­ground jour­nal to­gether. Called Penin­sula, it was smug­gled out across the Pyre­nees into Spain in an at­tempt to fight the per­va­sive Com­mu­nist and Fas­cist pro­pa­ganda. Its motto was “Nei­ther Franco nor Stalin.” They com­mis­sioned Juan Benet, Paco’s brother, who be­came one of Spain’s great­est writ­ers, to con­trib­ute a short story to the mag­a­zine.

Af­ter five years to­gether Bar­bara and Paco broke up. Paco be­came a distin­guished an­thro­pol­o­gist but was killed in 1966 while on an an­thro­po­log­i­cal dig ex­plor­ing Be­douin habits when his Jeep crashed in the desert. Bar­bara stud­ied at Columbia, mar­ried law pro­fes­sor Harold Solomon, who died in 1967, and wrote a steady stream of nov­els, es­says and mem­oirs. They had two daugh­ters, Carla and Maria, and she now has a clutch of grand­chil­dren.

She never shed her love of and con­cern for France and in 1987, while cov­er­ing the trial of Klaus Barbie, the Nazi Butcher of Lyons, called one of her old friends from 1948 Paris for some back­ground. “And as he talked I sensed in his pauses his ex­cite­ment as he evoked those times.”

It’s an ex­cite­ment I am only too aware of. This thor­oughly Amer­i­can woman, who has won many awards for her writ­ing and her ac­tivism had a world view in­formed by the war, a war in which 40 mil­lion people died. Paris was the place where she first learned to re­spond to that hor­ror and do some­thing about it. Anne Sebba is writ­ing a book about Paris through women’s eyes be­tween 1939 and 1949

PHOTO: AP

Two young girls hide from Franco’s forces dur­ing the Civil War and be­low, Bar­bara Probst in the 1940s

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