This article was originally published in the April 2017 Princeton Echo.
Alexandre Ripp only spent three years in the ominous shadows of Nazi Germany but if he had been able to tell his story, what a heart-rending and dramatic story it would be.
Separated from his father, who went into hiding on the assumption that the Nazis were only rounding up able-bodied men, Alexandre, his mother, and grandmother remained in their apartment in German-occupied Paris in 1942. Then French soldiers — under orders from their German commanders — came knocking at their door on July 16, 1942, they were taken as well. After detention in a holding camp in Drancy, Alexandre was taken by bus on September 2 at 6 a.m. to Le Bourget-Drancy railroad terminal outside Paris. By then probably separated from both his mother and grandmother, Alexandre was herded onto a train known as Convoy 27. On September 4 the train arrived at its final destination, Auschwitz. According to documents that were part of the Nazis’ meticulous records, the fate of Alexandre and the 1,015 other Jews crammed onto the train was quickly sealed: “Gassed immediately.”
Alexandre Ripp would never have been able to tell his story because his three years living in the Nazi inferno were his only years — he was just three years old when he took that final train ride. But Alexandre’s survivors included his first cousin, Victor Ripp, born within a year of Alexandre and fortunate enough to be part of a family who had managed to find its way out of France in early 1941 and into a new life in America, where he never forgot his lost cousin.
Victor Ripp, who became a professor of comparative literature at Cornell and the University of Virginia and now lives in Princeton, has told Alexandre’s story in his newest book, “Hell’s Traces — One Murder, Two Families, Thirty-Five Holocaust Memorials,” just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He will read from and discuss his work at Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street, Tuesday, April 25, at 6 p.m.
The genesis for Ripp’s book was a visit he made in 2013 to Berlin’s Jewish Museum to see an exhibit called Berlin Transit, about the influx of Russian Jews into Berlin in the 1920s. “The Kahans, my family on my mother’s side,” Ripp writes in his book, “had been a wealthy and philanthropically active emigre family in that city, which made them a good exemplar of the exhibit’s theme. Two rooms were devoted to the Kahans.”
The exhibit and the rest of the museum caused Ripp to come to a personal observation:
“The Kahan family in Berlin, several generations’ worth, numbered some 30 people, and without exception they escaped the Final Solution. When Hitler came to power, most moved to Palestine; others went westward, eventually to the United States. They had found their way through the first corridor, but my cousin Alexandre had been forced into the second. His mother, both grandmothers, three granduncles, a grandaunt, and three of his cousins also died in the Holocaust. And while the Kahans got a commemorative exhibit, the Ripps who were killed by the Nazis didn’t even have a grave.”
As the cousin and his family was being caught in the Nazi web, Ripp the author, his older brother, and parents made their way to the United States on one of the few ocean liners still making that crossing in 1941, the Portuguese Serpa Pinto. The family made its way to the not-yet-chic upper west side of Manhattan. There Ripp’s parents forged a new life. His father ran a variety of small businesses; his mother, who had never had to work outside the home in the good days in the old country, took a job at a chocolate factory.
Victor Ripp ended up at the Bronx High School of Science, where he played basketball on a team that never threatened the school’s academic reputation. Improbably, he continued playing basketball at Cornell, where he majored in comparative literature. He earned his Ph.D. in Slavic languages at Columbia. After teaching at Cornell and UVA he moved to central New Jersey in 1982, when his wife, Nancy Kanach, began work at Princeton University. She is now dean of international programs at the university.
Ripp has written three other nonfiction books — “Turgenev’s Russia,” “Pizza in Pushkin Square,” and “Moscow to Main Street” — and also published fiction in the Antioch Review and Ontario Review. He has also taught in Princeton’s academic writing program.
How Victor Ripp and his cousin ended up in such different places is a puzzle that probably never will be solved. Ripp speculates that the Kahan side of the family may have had a distance from the country in which they lived that his cousin Alexandre’s family did not.
The Kahans “were in the life of Germany but not of the life. And that turned out to be just the right perspective from which to see how events were unfolding. They had a feel for the society in which they lived” — a feel that the cousin’s family “fatally lacked.”
It was not an easy environment to decipher. Ripp himself was confused when he walked into the midst of one of the Holocaust memorials he visited in the Bavarian quarter of Paris.
“As I turned a corner, I noticed a two-by-three-foot sign affixed to a lamppost at a height of fifteen feet or so. I almost missed it, it was so unobtrusive. On one side there was a pictogram of a chalked hopscotch game. On the reverse side, a line of text. Arischen und nichtarischen Kindern wird das Spielen miteinander untersagt (Aryan and non-Aryan children are forbidden from playing together). On the next street, another sign, this one with a pictogram of swimming trunks. On the reverse side again some text: Jews can no longer use Berlin pools. On the alert now, I noticed the signs more frequently. A pictogram of a chessboard and the sentence Jews are not permitted in the National Chess Association. A pictogram of a piece of music notation and the sentence Jews are expelled from all choral groups.
“This was, I too slowly realized, the memorial I had come to see. If it was odd to find a memorial dispersed throughout a neighborhood instead of standing in one spot, the arrangement nevertheless made sense. The intervals between the signs mirrored the step-by-step corruption of a nation’s soul that culminated in the view that murdering Jews was acceptable.”
The designers of this memorial wanted to show the gradual tightening of the Nazi noose on the Jewish community. As the designers told Ripp: “We wanted to make visible the conditions which led in an insidiously logical way to the destruction of the Jewish inhabitants.”
Ripp was left with a nagging question. “Yes, the Nazis had gone about their nasty business with a cold logic, tightening the vise by degrees. But what, I wondered, about the other term in the equation? Not the victimizers but the victims. Darkness fell gradually — was it so hard to see that the clock was ticking and that it soon would be too late?”