Returning from the Fair by Nicolae Grigorescu
Returning from the Fair by Nicolae Grigorescu

Romanian Roots

This story only makes sense if you remember that the French language and French culture were more central to world civilization 130 years or so ago: if an educated Russian arrived in Cairo in 1890, for instance, he would make contacts in French. My family’s history spans several countries, but the language was always French. Although I am closer to my mother than to my father, I feel more like a descendant from my father’s side. That is because my paternal grandmother was a good talker. She told us stories from her girlhood that had retained their freshness. Of course, she didn’t tell us everything, and I needed to look elsewhere to fill in some missing sections.

In late 1881, delegates from Jewish communities in Romania gathered to organize and fund the migration of 100 families to Palestine. Palestine was at the time a backwater in the overextended Ottoman Empire, which sprawled from today’s Turkey to today’s Yemen. Among the families selected were Herman (Armand) Pascal, his wife Sophie née Yalkowitz, and their children. Armand Pascal was a lawyer from Bacau, so knowledgeable about things Jewish that he was nicknamed “the walking dictionary.”

Armand and Sophie were the grandparents of both my grandmother and my grandfather. One of Armand and Sophie’s five children was my great-grandfather Peretz Pascal. Their daughter Berthe was my great-grandmother. Peretz was eleven when his family sailed from the Danube port of Galati in late 1882. The ship, carrying 26 families, was the “Iris.” Diarist David Yudelevitz recalled Herman during the crossing as a great orator and his wife as a young woman with eyes reflecting warmth and discretion.

The “Iris” passengers disembarked near Haifa, which was at the time an Arab village. The settlers, including Herman and Sophie Pascal, founded a small farming community called Zamarin on a hill nearby. The early days of the settlers, most of whom had no farming experience, were ominous. Soon the immigrants found themselves on the brink of starvation. Herman Pascal sent cables to several Jewish organizations, including the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris, asking for help.

The Grand Rabbi of France got wind of the imperiled settlement and pleaded with wealthy Baron Edmond de Rothschild for financial assistance to benefit the Romanians settlers of Zamarin. The Baron consented to extend financial assistance and farming tutorship to the colonists until such time as they could provide for their own living. He sent administrators and agronomists to jumpstart a long-term agricultural and educational project. This was an enormous endeavor, and a momentous one as well: its very success eventually paved the way which led to the creation of the state of Israel. Desolate Zamarin became prosperous Zichron-Jacob, and today Zichron-Jacob is a fashionable wine tourism destination.

Herman Pascal did not live to see his dream becoming a reality. Shortly after sending his desperate appeal, he was the victim of an intestinal occlusion and died in Haifa following emergency surgery performed by a ship’s surgeon. The Jewish Committee offered to fund Sophie’s return to Romania, but she preferred honoring her husband’s wish that their children be raised in the Land of Israel.

 

Old Petah-Tikvah
Old Petah-Tikvah

Early Colonial Days

Considering how historically significant the earliest Jewish colonies in Palestine were, there is little documentation about them, no major bestselling novel, no epic romantic movie. I believe I know why not: Unlike the story of the Mayflower and Plymouth rock, the legend of the Rothschild planters starts with a little white lie, but one with tragic consequences. Palestine was described by early Zionist spinners as “Une terre sans peuple pour un peuple sans terre,” a beautiful phrase albeit not a truthful one. The Jews of the world had no country of their own, that much is true, but Palestine was not an empty wasteland before their arrival: by 1880, there were 400,000 inhabitants in Palestine, only about 24,000 of which were Jewish.

Sophie and her 5 children remained in Palestine. Sophie was not allotted any land, but she operated a grocery store in Zichron-Jacob. After attending school in Haifa, her son Peretz received a scholarship from the Baron to study horticulture in France. Upon his return, he became agronomist and overseer of Bat Shelomo, another colony established in 1888 on land purchased by the Baron de Rothschild, only a short horse ride away from Zichron-Jacob.

Peretz was a sunny man, full of energy, and a friend to all. As sometimes happens, this golden man married a stormy and difficult woman. Marie (Miriam) Rokach was the daughter of a notable early proto-Zionist, Elazar Rokach, who had made several journeys to Romania in the 1880s (from his home in Palestine) trying to gather interest in a “return” of Romanian Jews to the Promised Land. Elazar was dead by the time Peretz started courting his daughter Marie. Elazar’s widow, the midwife Frieda Rokach, disapproved of the handsome, blond and blue-eyed Peretz, who had already a reputation as a ladies’man. No matter. On a beautiful day, Peretz and his mother Sophie absconded with Marie while Frieda was delivering a baby, and hurried to the Haifa rabbi for a quick wedding.

Brilliant and lovable Peretz was very successful in his field. Soon he was in charge of plantations in Rosh Pina and Yesod Hamaala, two more colonies under Rothschild supervision. As the manager responsible for the development of agriculture in upper Galilee, he had the opportunity to develop friendships with Arabs and foster respect between Arabs and Jews. In 1896, he was sent to Spain to learn the techniques of raisin manufacturing.

Eventually, in 1897, Peretz resigned from his positions in Baron de Rothschild’s organizations and settled down in Petah Tikvah, a citrus-growing center which is now a prosperous developing town. Peretz was as popular as ever, with the Jewish establishment, with the Arabs, and with the ladies. His wife Marie had by now gained a reputation as a holy terror. In 1905, Peretz Pascal, along with his brother in law Meir Applebaum and his wife’s uncle Shimon Rokach established the largest orange grove in Palestine, the 150 acres Bakharia. It sounds tiny by Southern California standards, but Bakharia was twenty times the size of the average local orange grove.

 

Pencil Studies by Camille Pissarro
Pencil Studies by Camille Pissarro

The Next Generation

Peretz and Marie had three daughters, Laurette, Blanche and Betty. Those were wondrous days. Petah Tikvah was a cross between a shtetl and a hacienda. Blanche, my grandmother, told me about waiting for new Debussy Victrola records from Paris to arrive on the stagecoach. She also remembered deadly snakes and devastating locusts.

Sophie’s daughter Berthe – Peretz’ sister – studied in Paris and became a teacher upon her return. She married Jacob Hazan, the financial officer of the local administration. Having just gone through childbirth, Berthe remained with her mother Sophie in Zichron-Jacob when Jacob was nominated as the administrator of the Rosh Pina colony. When Berthe finally rejoined her husband in Rosh Pina, she discovered that Jacob had carried an affair with a married schoolteacher there. A huge scandal erupted, covered in lurid detail by the Hebrew language newspaper Havatzelet. Berthe forgave her husband, and they both fled the country to start new lives in Cairo, which was the largest and most advanced city in the whole region at the time, and a multicultural hub as well.

Jacob Hazan noticed that dry cleaning, still a modern invention then, had not reached Cairo. Jacob traveled to Lyon in France, a silk manufacturing center – therefore a dry cleaning center – and purchased some dry cleaning machines. He also hired knowledgeable French staff and opened the “Teinturerie Centrale” in Cairo, with pickup and drop-off locations cleverly distributed throughout the city. The Teinturerie was a huge success. Jacob and Sophie lived in luxury until Jacob overextended himself and lost the business following a failed stock market maneuver.

Jacob’s next venture was a French language bookstore, and this too was a success. Jacob’s two sons were bitten by the book bug. Émile, the oldest, became the owner of a renowned Parisian bookstore specialized in equestriana, catering to the thoroughbred beau monde. Peretz’ other son, Fernand Hazan, started a publishing house also located in Paris.

What led my grandfather Fernand Hazan to become a Parisian – as opposed to staying in Egypt or returning to his grandmother and his large family in Palestine – is uncertain. His relationship with his father Jacob was deeply strained whereas he considered his mother Berthe a saintly victim. Fernand, whom everyone called Nano, initially went to Paris to study at La Sorbonne. He never returned to Cairo.

The later years of Berthe and Jacob were not discussed in my family, and I never did find out about their ultimate destiny – although I knew four of their children: my grandfather and his variously eccentric siblings. By the time I was mature enough to be interested in our common roots, my great uncles and aunts were dead and I had lost contact with their progeny. Some of the early Jewish settler families in Palestine are today’s old money in Israel. But destiny had other plans for my family.

Back in Petah-Tikvah, Peretz and Marie’s daughter Blanche, my grandmother, married a Mr. Heifetz while still a teen. Soon thereafter, Peretz and Marie’s oldest daughter Laurette, who was high strung and brilliant, got up from the dinner table, went into the next room, and shot herself dead. When my grandmother talked to me about her sister Laurette, it was always with the greatest admiration. Laurette had been a role model for her.

It is only recently, after my grandmother’s death, that I found out that Mr. Heifetz had been Laurette’s fiancé before he married Blanche. This raises the possibility that Heifetz fooled around with his spirited young sister-in-law to be, resulting in a shotgun wedding – except that the shotgun was eventually used by the bride’s sister to end her own misery. My grandmother and Mr. Heifetz had a son, my doomed nameless uncle of whom no one spoke in front of me

Peretz Pascal found himself in the common yet stressful situation of a successful and popular man with an untenable home life. He found solace from his fraught household with his Hebrew language teacher, a young beauty named Rahel Ichilow. Peretz did not divorce his wife but built a small house on his his farm, where he spent his last days with Rahel, who was an “other woman” of the old fashioned brand, utterly devoted and with no ambition to break Peretz’ family.

Predictably, it did not take much time for Blanche’s marriage to turn sour, but first, let’s take one last glimpse at Palestine. After the first world war, the League of Nations divided the defunct Ottoman Empire between the victors. Palestine became a British mandated territory, designated as a national home for Jews. The local Arabs, justly fearing dispossession, started violent pogroms against the Jewish settlers. In May 1921 notably, fifty year old Peretz Pascal saved Petah Tikvah, which was under attack, by riding on horseback for hours to alert the British Military Command.

Some time in the 1920s, Blanche, her mother Marie, and poor Baby X left behind unhappy marriages and a country in turmoil. They set their sights on Paris of course. Peretz Pascal stayed behind with his faithful Rahel who took care of him until the end of his colorful life, and barely survived him.

 

12 rue Cassini
12 rue Cassini, Paris XIVème

Paris

In Paris, Blanche enrolled at La Sorbonne as a history major. She got her first cousin Fernand Hazan to tutor her. Fernand had graduated with two majors, history and agronomy. The lessons must have been quite instructive, and soon first cousins Blanche and Fernand, my grandparents, were married. Marie lived with them until she died in 1965, and I dimly remember her as a tyrannical presence.

With a French blue-blooded partner, the Viscount of Brion, my grandfather Fernand Hazan started a publishing house, the Éditions de Cluny. Their specialty was fresh translations of foreign classics, from Little Princess to War and Peace. Blanche and Fernand became French citizens in the 1930s. They had two children, my father Eric and my aunt Viviane. Sadly, they lost my nameless uncle to measles at the age of 15.

Then life turned upside-down. The Germans invaded Paris. My grandparents fled South, first to Marseille, where they were temporarily sheltered by Fernand’s sister Gaby Ferrat and her husband. Ironically, my father remembers those perilous days with great fondness: “We ate junk, we laughed with my cousins, we went to bed late without washing first.” My father also felt closer to his parents during that period than later during peacetime.

From Marseille, my grandparents moved to nearby Antibes. There, my grandfather and Henry Van Raay, a gentile German friend who had married a Jewess, started an ersatz candy factory. They made candy out of dates, raisins and such. Through a rather ordinary mix of luck and wits, they survived the holocaust. Meanwhile, in Paris, the “noble” partner and his wicked mother stole my grandparents’ share of the publishing house. After their return to Paris, however, my grandparents won the first lawsuit of its kind against the former partner who had appropriated the publishing house.

Following the war, my grandparents Blanche and Fernand Hazan, remained in France. They were French to the core, as only expats can be. I can still see them reading the news about Israel in Le Monde, between two worlds. Blanche and Fernand were Zionists with a difference: their Zion was the City of Lights. They were typical educated and assimilated French Jews, signing checks to fund trees and hospitals in Israel with one hand while eating a sandwich au jambon with the other. They never “passed” however, never claimed to be what they were not, or not to be what they were. They talked about old Palestine and contemporary Israel a lot, about the holocaust once in a while – when asked – and never about religious matters.

They were passionate about French politics. Even in their old age, their position was radical chic: there was much talk about The Left while munching on pricy fromages and exquisite petits fours.

Their son, my father Eric Hazan, was always interested in politics and history, but Fernand coerced him in pursuing medical studies. Not devoid of humor, Blanche and Fernand could laugh about the Jewish “Mein Sohn, der Doktor” complex. My father was a gifted neonatal heart surgeon for many years. Terribly uncomfortable with teaching-hospital politics, he was relieved when an opportunity to switch careers presented itself as his parents retired.

Having raised her children, Blanche helped Fernand who had become a successful publisher of art postcards, posters and dictionaries. Modern painting was Blanche’s passion, especially the American abstract expressionists. She was a very demanding person, yet she gave a lot too. When you were with her, she certainly gave you her whole attention. Every day she had a guest or two over for lunch, and one daily cigarette with her coffee, while cracking nuts or peeling tangerines for us kids. Being loved by her was a paradox: like being smothered at the top of the world.

One Summer, in 1979 to be exact, I started working with Blanche and Fernand at the publishing house. We had a blast together and soon, we all had the fanciful idea that I, an ignorant kid, could take over the musty publishing house. All went well for a little while, then I realized they would never let go of the control. That is when I decided, abruptly and irrevocably, to leave France and move to the U.S. Although I was my grandparents’ favorite, we had an awful row when I moved 5,000 miles away. We soon grew close again, and they took a great interest in my California and Pennsylvania adventures, even through failing health.

After a while, my father abandoned his career as a surgeon to help his parents with the moribund publishing house. He helped them step down (he had to change the locks!) and brought the company some of its old luster back before selling it to a French conglomerate.

Like his grandfather Peretz, my father is a good friend of the Arabs. He is very active in leftist politics and Palestinian causes. He has many enemies, and wonderful friends too like the controversial but respected Israeli columnist Amira Hass. Today, at an age when many men think of golf or their aching joints, my father operates an edgy political press, La Fabrique. Before their deaths, my father’s parents were shocked by his political opinions in favor of the oppressed Palestinians, and my grandfather took his son’s beliefs as a personal affront. I wish my grandfather were alive today (he would have turned 100 in 2006). With the situation in Israel ever more inextricable, I like to believe that Fernand would see some of Eric’s politics as an expression of love for the land of his ancestors and the contrasting people that the land fed.

When I think of the future, I hope I will have some grandchildren too (but not too soon). Will they stay in Pennsylvania and grow deep roots, or will they be bitten by the bug of change? Since the days of Herman Pascal in the 1880s, only my father has not changed nationality: this strong and audacious man lives and works minutes from where he was born.

As for me, all I need is a little nudge, and I’m outta here. At the end of a long day, I come home, drop my coat and announce: “everyone pack! We’re leaving right now for Perú.”

My wife’s reaction is unvaried: “First, empty the dishwasher.”