Born on August 3, 1933, in the 3ème arrondissement of Paris, Nathan Spiewak spent his summer vacations at camps for Jewish children. He played and sang Jewish songs with the other children. Camp was a place for playing and laughter before the war. When camp was over, he would return home to his family’s 3rd floor apartment on 13 rue Beaumarchais near La Bastille and attend school near Place des Vosges. As he got older, he started to go on vacation with his parents, Rywka and David Spiewak, at their house that they rented in the country. His parents were Polish immigrants who moved to Paris and joined the workforce. Rywka was a seamstress who made women’s dresses and David made gloves for truck drivers. Nathan was very close with his father, with whom he shared his love of movies. They would go to the movie theater together and spend over 5 hours watching back-to-back films on Saturday’s. Nathan’s favorite was Gunga Din. He did not experience anti-semitism until he put on the star.
Germany invaded France in May 1940, but Nathan did not truly feel the effects of anti-semitism until 1942 when the order was put in place for all Jewish citizens to wear the yellow star on the left side of their coats. All of a sudden, new constraints were put on Nathan’s life. He was no longer allowed to eat in restaurants, go to the movies with his father, or stay out past 8:00pm. He had to sit in the last train car and eat “ersatz,” or things made as substitutes for real food, when the rationing system was put in place for products like sugar, meat, bread, milk, and wine. He realized how serious the restrictions were when his father beat him with a belt after he stayed out past 8:30pm one night. It physically and emotionally pained his father to do this, but it made Nathan realize the severity of the situation, that he had put the whole family in danger. He was 7 or 8 years old at the time.
On July 16, 1942, two French policemen and one German soldier showed up at Nathan’s door to arrest his family. Nathan and his mother were captured in the Vél’ D’Hiv roundup along with about 13,000 other women and children. His father was not there that night because he had begun sleeping at work in his office, since he was nervous of arrests. His mother was able to quickly pack bread and salami in his suitcase so that he had food. They shared this food with others during the five days that they stayed until their father was able to liberate them, presumably by paying someone a lot of money. During those five days, he remembers entertaining himself by running up and down the steps. He also remembers the putrid smell of the Vél’ D’Hiv with the filled up toilets. This stuck in his memory.
After they were allowed to leave the Vél’ D’Hiv, their life returned to somewhat normal. His father went back to work and moved back into his home as he did not think they would be arrested again. Three months later, two French police officers and two German soldiers knocked on their door at 8:00am. They did not call it an arrest but they were “transferring them to be with their own kind”. He remembers the police leaving them alone to pack up their stuff. His father hid some jewelry at the bottom of the cellar, which they managed to recover after the war. The police walked them for blocks and while walking his mother tripped and yelled at Nathan to run away. They had arranged a safe place for him to go in case something bad happened, so Nathan ran to the Altmans who looked after him. They made him hide alone in a closet. He cried a lot during those days missing his parents.
Nathan’s cousins Céline and Jack eventually picked him up from the Altmans where they gave him a new name, Jean Norman, and took off the Jewish star from his clothes. They pressed him to tell them where the jewelry was hidden but he never told them. They then took him on the journey to Nice where they sedated him and he lived in Nice with his cousins. While there, he would steal some money from his family and attended a Catholic school. He escaped from the school multiple times because he hated it. This was the time right before the Americans invaded Sicily.
Once the Americans invaded Sicily, his cousin Claire Gardner (née Letterman) wanted to move to Italy with her boyfriend Bernard. They took Nathan with them and never planned on returning to France. They walked across the mountains to Italy and when they entered they found a little town where many Jews lived. One of the town bakers took Nathan in and he began to live with his family. One day Claire came to pick him up for a picnic. As they were eating, they saw German tanks pulling in and rounding up Jews. They were stopped by a Nazi, but Nathan was able to pass as Italian by pretending to not speak French. They decided to return to France on this day. The baker wanted Nathan to stay with his family, but Claire said no.
On the way to France, they were starving and cold. However, they bumped into smugglers who were coincidentally helping Jews to cross out of Italy back to France. When they returned to France, Nathan lived with his uncle until he could find him residence in the countryside with a non-Jewish family. Claire returned to Italy in order to reunite with Bernard. Both of them were captured. Nathan was placed in the home of Monsieur and Madame Labour, active members of the French resistance. They pretended that Nathan was their nephew whenever someone inquired about him. There, Nathan worked on the farm, made bread, and went to Church. Although the war was going around him, his life on the farm was quite peaceful. He never saw the Labours after the war.
After the War
When the war ended, Nathan’s uncle Aaron Spiewak picked him up from the Labours’ home. The Labours and Nathan had developed a very deep connection, and when he left it felt like he was losing his parents again. They stayed in Rouen for 2-3 weeks, then Nathan was taken back to Paris where he moved back into the apartment his family had owned prior to the war. He did not attend school and waited to see if his parents were alive. At this time, Nathan developed a condition where at night he would wet the bed and his Uncle would get extremely mad at him.
One day, Nathan and his cousins were playing outside when a woman walked by and embraced his aunt. Nathan noticed how heavy she was, but did not recognize her. After a while, he suddenly realizes that it was his own mother and they embraced. After his mother’s return they would look in the newspaper everyday for his father’s return. Then one night, as he walked to the bathroom, he saw a man there in a prison uniform. He did not know who the man was or why he was in his house, but then he realized that it was his father and embraced him. His father was wearing a harness because he had been shot in the arm. Nathan remembers the look of pity that his father received whenever he was out in public. Women would come up to him to kiss him and people would stand up for him in the metro.
After his family had been reunited, his parents began preparing to leave France. They felt that France had betrayed them and they hated speaking or even hearing French. They went back to speaking only their mother tongues of Yiddish or Polish. They tried to get papers to the United States but there was a five year waitlist, so in 1946 they stopped in New York for two weeks before immigrating to Cuba.
The family settled in Havana and Nathan began to attend Jewish school there. He was able to make a decent life. While in Cuba, Nathan joined many different youth groups such as HaShomer, he went to the beach with friends, worked at a jewelry store and he was the first to have a girlfriend, Marta Levine. He never spoke about his experiences of the war.
Two years later, his father was sick with hemorrhoids due to all that he had gone through during the war. His father stayed in the hospital for a year and died in 1948. In 1951, he and his mother immigrated to the United States where he immediately started working in a jewelry store and for his aunt.
They then went back to Cuba for a few months, but they realized that Cuba no longer felt like home to them so they returned to the US. Nathan worked as a toy picker at Pensick and Gordon. In 1952, he was drafted. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was not supposed to be drafted given his circumstances of being the only child of his parents. Nathan was trained for four months and then was stationed in Japan for seventeen months. While in Japan, he met a woman and told his mother he was going to marry her. She told him to come back to the US and think about it. He later found out the woman married his sergeant.
He eventually met his wife Linda and they live in Agoura Hills. They have three children David z''l, Michael, and Steven.
"I started to cry looking at the photos. Our apartment was on the left 3rd floor on the righ side of the stairs . Out side the gate n he letf there was a restaurant where my mother used to get food and on the right was a store that sold office supplies.The gate is different and in the court there was no plants or anything.I am still crying please send me the photos that you took of the apartments."
Email from Nathan Spiewak to Caroline Weiss on January 6, 2020
By Caroline Weiss and Daphne Wiredu