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The ghosts of war

Two kilometres from my door is a hamlet I drive through going to the village.

It's one street and a turn. A church, a mayor, a clutch of people and just a few children. The old school, facing church and cemetery, is a substantial building and although now a house, reminds us of how lusty life once was here.

I've seen old photos of children posing between wars in smocked, unsmiling lines in front of that house. Perhaps 20, 30 or more. There is a local book documenting in black and white the lost way of life in the once vibrant La Lomagne.

And without fail, there is always one child whose face is a blur as he or she grew restless before the photographer emerged from his black veil. They are the ones who intrigue me as I catch a glimpse of a mischievous smile in the turn, annoyed I can't quite make out the full features.

The others seem solemn little souls who have little interest in life beyond the family smallholding or farm.

Toulouse, 45 kilometres away, might as well be across a wide ocean filled with sea serpents and fearsome whirlpools to drag them down. (I know this from octogenarian neighbours who barely acknowledge the existence of our major city, occasionally admitting to having tried it once.)

The teachers, in buttoned-to-the-neck blouses, hair pulled into no-nonsense buns, have heavy black brows and clasped hands over full skirts. They are serenely secure in their awesome authority.

In other photographs the priest, wearing his black biretta, hovers to one side, as if mindful of the division between church and state.

I often pore over these vignettes searching for the face in the window, the curled cat at the door, the soured old woman scowling from her corner. Somehow these non-poseurs hint at the reality.

With the help of Genevieve's old father I have built in my head a story of his companions from his school in another hamlet.

Built a rural tale of hard lives more endured than enjoyed, apart from the handful of fetes in the year.

I've sought out and encouraged the memories, sadly aware of how selective they are and further hampered by our mutual foreignness.

As you know, the war years here fascinate and baffle me as I seek to get beyond the silence of the Vichy years and the impact on French life today.

The few books available appear not to delve into the truth of La France Profonde; defeated by a refusal of the people to address what is both mundane and horrifying.

This morning though I drove through my local hamlet for the umpteenth time, but in a drive far different than all before.

I drove slowly looking at each house, each farmhouse before and just beyond and wondered, which one was his.

Herbert Klinger was barely 12 years old when he was taken from here and deported to Auschwitz and the gas chambers.

All around me children were rounded up. Three here, two there, 56 in Toulouse itself. Moissac, Auvillar, Beaumont - all my neighbouring towns and villages.

Seventy-six thousand Jews were deported between July 1942 and August 1944. More than 11,400 of them were children.

Many, it must be said also, were saved, hidden by decent men and women, defying orders to "turn in your Jews".

But numbers overwhelm, particularly those of us with only historical knowledge.

Which is why a French historian and a former Holocaust documenter and Nazi hunter, Serge Klarsfeld created a interactive map for an exhibition this week. It shows every place in France, however tiny, where children were taken by their own countrymen and lists them by name and age.

The youngest I found was one-year-old Claire Fridman who along with two-year-old Annie Dirnfield was among the Toulousians ripped from mothers' arms.

With a click of a mouse they appear, to remind us they once lived among us. Klarsfeld put it simply: "It took place where people lived. Where people still live."

Here the past is not another country. Echoes continue to reverberate.

As the map was released so was news that many buildings in Toulouse, including synagogues, had been daubed with swastikas.

Photos appear online of grinning creatures doing the quenelle, the reverse heil salute, in front of Holocaust memorials, including Auschwitz.

Anti-Semitic attacks are escalating as the disaffected seek a scapegoat for all woes. Last month a demo in Paris against President Hollande's economic policies turned into an ugly screamed demand to "get the Jews out".

It is little wonder if coming up to the elections, many of the country's estimated 500,000 Jews watch the march of the Front National and find no comfort in Le Pen's assertion that the party has changed.

For me it's been crystallised in thoughts of little Herbert Klinger who once walked my country lanes with no fear of the future.

I like to think he's the mischievous imp in the photos, the restless soul who couldn't stand still; the blur in the perfect line-up.

Had he lived he would have been 83; like many around here. Does he haunt them as he now haunts me?

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Families

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