My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross
And the Meaning of Truth
Our True Family Hero...
On the eve of my first trip to Europe in 1953, Papa warned me that under no circumstances was I ever to ask our cousin Imre Somogy, a French citizen living in Paris, what he did during the war. I naturally agreed, though I had no idea why he imposed this condition. After all, the war had been horrendous beyond words, and there could be all sorts of reasons why Papa asked this of me. Anyway, I was too excited to think very much about itafter all, not only would I finally be in Europe, but more importantly I would at last, at the age of 21, be on my own for the very first time in my life.
At that time there was an enormous mystique about Americans who lived the expatriate life in ParisHemingway, Gertrude Stein, Harry's Bar, and so on--but I was less than impressed. I already spoke French fluently, and all on my own I had already become something of a culture snob. I was totally smitten by the operas of Mozart and Rossini, and I had decided that I loved the sound of Italian, which I could almost but not quite understand, even more than I cared for French. So together with my teachers at Bard College, it was decided that I would spend three summer months taking the well-known immersion Corso Medio at the Università Italiana per Stranieri (foreigners) in Perugia, followed by a hiatus for travel of about two months, and then enroll in further Italian courses at the University of Florence during the late autumn and early winter. This would bring me back to the US in time for the Spring semester at Bard.
I should add that I had another reason for preferring Italy to France: I didn't want members of the family checking up on my activities and reporting back to Papa, which would have happened if I had chosen Paris.
My journey took me by train to Montreal, where I boarded a student boat bound for Le Havre: I found it every bit as exciting as I had hoped, though I encountered a few problems. I had a small metallic cabin to myself and could have had a love affair with an older but willing French lady, but the ship was taking a cold, damp northern route, and three days out I found myself suffering a variety of muscular aches and breathing problems, a real romance killer.
My wheezing diminished as we sailed further south and finally all but vanished by the time we reached France, but by now it was too late. We finally disembarked, and in the company of several French-speaking shipboard friends I set about exploring Paris. I suppose we did some of the usual things for Paris-stricken visitors of the time, which included a visit to what was at that time a remarkably inexpensive boite featuring apache dancers. Naturally I also checked in with my cousin Imre, who went by his French name of Aiméry, and I was amazed by how cordially his family welcomed me, probably because until that time I really hadn't experienced much of a family beyond my father and mother, though with Phyllis & Tony on the sidelines in postwar New York.
This was the Paris of dreams, the one more recently re-evoked even in French films like Amélie. Aiméry ran a small art publishing house from the ground floor of a three-story building in Rue de Seine. Typically enough, he and his family lived in the upper stories of the same building, not just Imre but his wife and two children: Robert close to my own 21 years and his six-year old sister Marie-Claude. His wife was particularly pleased by my visit since I spoke Frenchunlike Papa, who whenever he visited would leave her feeling bored and left out in a never-ending sea of Hungarian between the two men. I enjoyed at least three dinners with them during my ten days in Paris, and on close to my last day I was invited to attend Marie-Claude's Distribution des Prix at her school, the French end-of-year festival held for the students each spring. We watched patiently and, as it seemed, endlessly, while the members of each class came forward and danced typical children's variations on historic and cultural themes, frequently featuring imagined American Indian scenes.
My friendship with Robert Somogy, almost my exact contemporary, got off to a rough start. He asked me what I was studying, and I replied European and American literature. He focused the full force of alleged French wit in his rejoinder: "Est-ce qu'il y a vraiment une telle chose comme la litérature Americaine?" (Is there truly such a thing as American literature?) His father was shocked and immediately came to my defense, mentioning Hemingway and Mark Twain. The last I heard of Robert, he had emigrated to Canada and later the US to study the major world culture of that era, electronics.
But Robert's question sprang directly from the spirit of the times in Europe. Just a decade earlier the continent had come close to committing suicide, vast sections of major cities had been reduced to rubble, and the scars were still visible in Parisian streets. But what was perhaps most unbearable in continental eyes was this: Europeans, whom everyone knew were culturally superior beings, had suffered the ultimate humiliation of being saved from themselves by a people they regarded as mere barbarians, lower-class misfits who had been given no choice but to leave Europe during earlier centuries.
In other words, Americans. And when I arrived in 1953, eight years after the end of World War II, Europeans had launched themselves into yet another ideological storm system. It was the height of the cold war, signs and posters all over Paris read "The Rosenbergs Are Innocent, Eisenhower Assassin," and many assumed that both France and Italy would soon follow the example of Eastern Europe and join the communist camp.
I never askedand hence never learnedexactly what it was Imre had done during the war. I would later try to imagine what it had been like by watching soul-searing films like Jean-Pierre Melville's L'Armée des Ombres. If this is what his life was like, I can readily see why Papa warned me against asking him for details. Being something of a romantic, I prefer to think of Imre as the real-life equivalent of "Victor Laszlo," the underground agent who escapes to America in the film Casablanca. Except Imre didn't escape to America, he remained in Europe, joined the Résistance, and kept fighting. He survived, and he stayed alive for a long time after that. Here's a brief obituary from the Times that tells only part of the story:
Art Book Publisher, 94
Published: January 10, 1992
Aiméry Somogy, a publisher of art books, died on Dec. 29 at the Ambroise-Paré hospital outside Paris. He was 94 years old.
No cause of death was given by his family, who announced his death today.
Mr. Somogy was born in Hungary in 1897 and went to Paris in 1925. He founded his publishing house in 1937. Among his early successes was Hitler Told Me, a German refugee's tale of persecution under the Nazis. The book was a best seller until the Germans invaded France in 1940, when it was banned and Mr. Somogy's publishing operation was shut down.
After the war, Mr. Somogy published Arthur Koestler's Spartacus. Recent Somogy publications include the monographs of many famous artists, art dictionaries and encyclopedias.
What is of course left out is that Imre was forced to go underground in order to survive. No doubt many other details are also left out. Perhaps time enough remains so that one day I may learn the rest of the story.
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