The Washington Post Sunday
Holocaust experience shared in book, films
In the early 1970s, the Parisian hairdresser Joseph Joffo, at the time a stylist to French political leaders including François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac as well as film stars such as JeanPaul Belmondo and Alain Delon, decided to write about his dramatic childhood as a Jew during the Nazi occupation.
He did it, he said, for his children and grandchildren, to “leave a testimony” about the era in history when 6 million Jews, among them his father, were murdered by the Nazis. The manuscript appeared at a time when postwar French generations were growing up with little knowledge of the collaboration by many countrymen in the Holocaust.
Mr. Joffo’s memoirs, jotted by hand on school notepaper, “were to be just a family thing, to exorcise those terrible years,” as he once put it. But a friend persuaded him to share the story with publishers.
He endured a dozen rejections before the book, “Un Sac de Billes” (“A Bag of Marbles”), was released by a small publishing house in 1973. The account of Joseph’s odyssey across France with his brother Maurice as they evaded the Nazis became an international sensation. It sold more than 20 million copies in 18 languages and is now taught in French schools to inform children about the dangers of racism and antiSemitism.
The book was adapted into two movies of the same title, the first in 1975, directed by Jacques Doillon to much acclaim, and the second last year, directed by French Canadian filmmaker Christian Duguay to mixed critical reaction.
Mr. Joffo died Dec. 6 at 87 in a hospital in Saint-Laurent-du-Var near his retirement home in Cannes on the French Riviera. His son Franck Joffo announced the death to the French news agency Agence France-Presse without specifying the cause.
Joseph Joffo was born in Paris on April 2, 1931, and grew up in the Montmartre quarter of the capital, where his favorite pastime was playing marbles.
Both parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father, Roman, ran a popular hair salon, Joffo, below their apartment. His mother, the former Anna Markoff, was a violinist.
“Montmartre was a melting pot of Jewish refugees from Poland, Romania and Germany itself,” Mr. Joffo recalled in a 1998 interview with Le Parisien newspaper. “They all had one thing in common: they spoke Yiddish and all had the same desire to create a better world.” Many, including his father, would later be rounded up and taken to Nazi extermination camps.
The youngest of seven children, Joseph had just turned 9 when Adolf Hitler sent his forces into France in 1940. Hearing of Hitler’s attacks on Jews in Germany, Roman Joffo sensed the danger that was coming. He had already sent two of his older sons, Henri and Albert, to Menton on the Mediterranean coast of France near Monte Carlo. The town was in Vichy France, not militarily occupied by the Nazis but run by a collaborative French regime.
In 1942, the Nazi occupiers ordered Jews to wear a yellow star patch carrying the word Juif. “I was a kid like any other — with marbles, games, clouts on the ear, lessons to learn. Now all of a sudden they stick a few square inches of cloth on me, and I turn into a Jew,” Mr. Joffo later wrote in his book.
Increasingly concerned for his children’s safety, Roman Joffo gave 11-year-old Joseph and 13-year-old Maurice 5,000 francs each (about $50 at the time) and told them to flee. Before he left, Joseph traded his yellow patch to a curious Gentile friend in exchange for a bag of marbles — hence the book’s title.
Roman Joffo told his two boys to make their way south by foot, bus or train to link up with their brothers in Menton. “Un Sac de Billes” recounts that journey.
Joseph and Maurice traveled through fields and forests and waded across rivers to evade checkpoints run by Nazi troops or collaborative French gendarmes. They never forgot what their father had told them — “never tell anyone you’re Jews.”
Once, as dramatically portrayed in Duguay’s 2017 film, Roman roughly slapped Joseph many times, demanding of him, “You’re a Jew, aren’t you?”
“No, I’m not a Jew, I’m not a Jew,” Joseph repeated before his father embraced him.
Roman was trying to prepare his sons for how the Gestapo were likely to treat them if they were caught and interrogated.
During their trek, the boys often found shelter in farmhouses, pretending they were orphans. French resistance fighters helped them on their way.
But with Allies having landed in North Africa in 1942 and in Sicily in 1943, Hitler ordered his troops in France to crack down on the resistance, communists and Jews.
Meanwhile, Roman and Anna had been arrested. They were eventually released through the intervention of Roman’s influential clients and fled south to Nice, where Joseph and Maurice had arrived safely.
But there, Roman was again arrested by the Gestapo. In November 1943, he was deported to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp in German-occupied Poland. The family never heard from him again. Anna, for reasons unknown, was freed and survived the war. also
Joseph and Maurice were also later detained by the Gestapo. Using what they later called their carefully thought-out lies, they claimed they were Catholic. A sympathetic priest backed their story and furnished fake baptismal certificates.
For a while, the boys split up, Maurice working as a baker for a Nice hotel and Joseph taken in by a Nazi-collaborating librarian who did not know that Joseph, calling himself Jo Jo, was Jewish.
After the liberation of Paris in August 1944, Joseph and Maurice returned home to be reunited with their mother and siblings.
The four brothers honored their father’s memory by continuing his hairdressing business in Paris, expanding the operation to create a 12-salon chain. To this day, their main salon, Joffo on Paris’s Rue Saint-Lazare, owned by Maurice, now 89, is frequented by celebrities from France and beyond.
In addition to “A Bag of Marbles,” Mr. Joffo wrote books including “Anna and Her Orchestra” (1975), about his mother as a young woman, and “Baby Foot” (1977), about his adolescence in postwar Paris. Survivors include his wife, Brigitte; three children; and a brother and sister.
Maurice Joffo, a former art and jewelry dealer who splits his time between France and Brazil, was convicted in Paris in 1986 for “fencing” allegedly stolen jewelry and melted-down gold ingots, and he was sentenced to five years in prison with a fine of 7 million francs.
In court, his brother Joseph said the goods belonged to Maurice, who had learned to save and hoard during the Nazi occupation and the postwar years. After his release, Maurice published an autobiography titled “Pour Quelques Billes de Plus?” (“For a Few Marbles More?”).