A Long Century

St. Petersburg - Paris -Auschwitz

Now also at the Travelers’ Tales site as a Solas Award winner

A Long Century

My cousin Suzanne left Russia for France in the early 1970’s, when only few managed to emigrate. Little communication was possible across the Iron Curtain, but one thing stuck in my memory: there is a place in Paris, she wrote, where the name of our common relative is on a memorial wall. Almost 30 years later I am taking my teenage son on a grand tour of Paris. Metro Picpus is in the outer 12th arrondissement, far from the tourist crowds, but that’s where we are heading one day. A sign next to the subway station points to the Hôpital Rothschild just a few steps away. It’s a recently finished tall glass-and-concrete building with potted palms in front of the entrance. Walking through the gate we quickly found the old low-rise original structures built of red brick. The one with an arched gate and the sign Direction was our destination. Halfway through the arch (the old entrance), on either side of the door leading to the seat of power, were two plaques with names. They listed members of the hospital staff arrested and never heard from again. The dates at the top were 1940 – 1945. The last name on the plaque was WILINSKI Rachel.

When young Rosa Vilenskaya arrived in Paris from St.Petersburg around 1906, the new complex of Hôpital Rothschild had just been completed. Edmond de Rothschild, son of the founder of the French branch of the family and grandson of the patriarch Mayer Amschel, spared no expense. Handsome red-brick pavilions designed by Lucien Bechmann implemented all the most modern ideas of urban planning, technology, and medicine. The buildings were separated by green space, both to create a healthy environment and to prevent transmission of infections. The equipment included such marvels as the latest heating system, high-pressure vats for sterilization, antiseptic operating rooms, and airy wards.

Rosa was fleeing the backlash against radicals in the wake of the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905. Her first job in Paris was with an orphanage supported by the Rothschilds. Soon she transferred to the hospital after receiving a keepsake brooch from the Baroness Rothschild herself, along with a card “to remember her by.” In her letter back home, Rosa – a committed Bolshevik, soon to become one of the first members of the French Communist Party – gushes that the Rothschilds are such wonderful fellows, filling Paris with homeless shelters, kosher kitchens and medical facilities, all while hiding the giving hand. The latter nuance makes the charity acceptable to her, even though the very word “charity” is anathema to true believers in the dogma of another German Jew, Karl Marx.

Immigrants never had it easy in France. Rosa, now Rachel, is highly educated and quickly attains a supervisor position in the nursing department, where many resent being bossed around by a “savage” from Russia. Rachel understands. “They have a point,” she writes, “it’s their republic after all.” Her husband soon returns to Russia and becomes an honored “Old Bolshevik.” He is lucky to die in good time and become the only relative to be buried in the Kremlin wall, before his likes were shot or sent to rot in the vast continent of the Gulag. Rosa stays and fights for the bright socialist future of France. She visits Leningrad once, in the early 30’s, and makes a big impression on her teenage niece, Lina. The guest from France brings an exotic treat, olives, and invites the niece to come with her to Paris. This does not come to pass, and Rachel returns to France alone to face her fate.

After the fall of France, she joins the resistance, but in 1942 is arrested and delivered to the assembly point at Pithiviers near Paris. She is listed as Inmate No 19 in Barracks 10. On September 21, Untersturmführer (signature unclear) reports to Obersturmbahnführer Eichmann in Berlin that transport train number 901/35 with a total of 1000 Jews under the command of Stabsfeldwebel Ringel has departed Pithiviers at 6:15 am in the direction of Auschwitz. Rachel Wilinski (née Simonchinki, according to the documents) was a passenger.

The young niece of Rosa Sivoshinskaya survives the German siege of Leningrad, moves to Boston 50 years later, and lives to hear the story of her son’s and grandson’s visit to Hôpital Rothschild in 2001.

We enter the building of the Direction and go up to the second floor. A very business-like woman briskly passes us but stops to ask if she could help. I explain that we are looking for somebody in charge of “l’histoire de l’hôpital.” The woman suggests that we should get a book on the history of the hospital and gives a brief command to somebody at the desk, who rushes to give us a copy of just such a book. I add that my great-aunt’s name is on the memorial plaque on the building of the Direction. The woman offers to help with other questions later, through email, and gives us her business card which says “Elisabeth de LAROCHELAMBERT, Directrice.”

The following materials were used in the above story:

Chronique d’un hôpital pas comme les autres, ROTHSCHILD (1743 – 1999), Directeur de la publication Elisabeth de Larochelambert

A letter to St.Petersburg  from Rosa Sivoshinskaya, 1907 (approximate date)

Comite International de la Croix-Rouge, Extrat de documents, 6 janvier 1961

Sicherheit-Dienst (SD), Nachrichten-Übermittlung, 21. Sep. 1942