A Question of Identity

Throughout my story[1], I make statements in which I address my personal relationship with France. Sometimes I’m furious and angry; sometimes it’s wistful and sometimes yearning. But I always write with a feeling of closeness, like that towards a relative about whom I have mixed emotions.

Until I began researching and writing my story, I did not fully realize that these allusions are a search for my identity. It’s perhaps analogous to a person who was adopted by a loving family, but has an irrepressible need to discover who his or her birth parents were and to connect with them. Without that connection, there is an empty space in the psyche.

Yet, my immigration passport did not identify me as a French citizen. I may have been aware of that fact at some level, but if it had entered my consciousness it was at a suppressed level.  If I had thought too much about my citizenship or lack thereof it might have felt like a rejection.

I did not travel to the States on a French passport. Why not, you might ask. One could deduce that I did not meet the conditions for French citizenship.  But if I wasn’t French, what was I? The document I traveled on was functionally a passport, but for a stateless person. It had no country name on it, only an annotation stating: Nationalité: origine polonaise. This boy without a country was not bothered by this at the beginning. He was probably even unaware of it – after all, at twelve years old, who thinks about these things?

An adult does.

My “passport” slept for many years in a tiny suitcase I carried with me on my transatlantic voyage. That little suitcase held some of my most precious possessions – letters between me and my siblings after the war and an original “comic” book that my brother had drawn for me. I rediscovered that tiny suitcase sometime in later high school, or possibly early in college, when I was looking for those letters because I had a school assignment to write a paper (in those days we called it a composition).  I don’t remember the teacher’s instructions on the subject matter of the paper, but it seems part of me wanted to tell a bit of my own story, but only a very safe one. I chose to write on our ocean trip from France to the USA, which at that point in time was still relatively fresh in my mind. It was more of an adventure story than a personal one.

While looking for those letters I stumbled on the “passport”. But this time it troubled me. I wanted to have been French, officially, because it was my identity, even if I didn’t think of it that way at the time, and even if I was equally proud to be an American. In high school, some of my classmates would call me Frenchy, and I would shudder slightly internally at the thought that I could be an impostor. Until I started writing this memoir, the question of identity didn’t fully rise in my consciousness. But looking back on my early years in the States, I realize how important “identity” is, by which I mean with whom or to what do we feel emotionally connected.

After I had been in the States for a few years, and fluent in the language but not the culture, I frequently heard people referring to others – something like “Oh, he’s Irish”, or “She’s Italian”.  That puzzled me. Aren’t all these people Americans, I wondered? Perhaps thinking along those lines was more common in New York, which was a real melting pot. But people who had been in the States for generations also often referred to themselves that way. Identity is more than citizenship. It’s a DNA chain that passes values, attitudes, food choices and traditions from ancestors in foreign lands. Nowadays, it seems relatively common to hyphenate[2] one’s roots, e.g., Polish American.

In the France of my youth, I had never heard people hyphenate their identities. I did not think much about this hyphenated identity, until much more recently, and then I wondered when this hyphenation began. It turns out that it was used as an epithet in the years 1890 to 1920 because, to those in power then, (Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson) it implied a divided loyalty, and in times of war, which way would those loyalties turn? And we know what those suspicions did to American citizens of Japanese ancestry in WWII and to others whose roots were in the lands of the enemy. But apparently, that viewpoint seemed to have eroded after WWII, at least in the Brooklyn of my youth, and a hyphenated identity seems now to be regarded as proclaiming being American but taking pride in one’s heritage. I must say, though, that Franco American does not seem to be a common hyphenation, except on a can of spaghetti.

These musings have led me to realize why I had wanted to be “real” French. This is who I was, and to a considerable extent still am. It’s an overstatement to say that “Frenchness” is part of my family’s heritage. But in the relatively short time I lived in France, I somehow absorbed many of the values and outlook. Even though these “roots” were not ancient, they had already taken hold by the time I left.

So, in my quest for “identity” I started researching citizenship laws in general, but French and Polish ones in particular. In many countries, citizenship laws do not remain static, influenced by the mood and politics of the day. In France, a most liberal citizenship law was passed in 1927. It shortened the residency requirement to three years, instead of the ten it had been. My parents, who married in Paris in 1927, would have been eligible by 1930 or ’31, or later, but they never became citizens – a fact that clutches at my heart because, had they become citizens, they would have had a much better chance of survival. Why did they not become citizens? That question haunts me.

Throughout my memoir, I allude, explicitly or implicitly, to the unpredictability of life, an idea that does not seem to want to rest. I conjure up different scenarios on what might have been, but for a butterfly in the wrong place. I was lucky to live. But is a boy who lost his parents at the age of five lucky?

While my thoughts about identity were coalescing, a related thought process was forming, initially at a less conscious level, but triggered by the same impulse. It was about my parents. And now at a conscious level, I realize a parallel: they had left their country of birth (Poland) to live in another country, and I have done the same. Of course, the circumstances are quite different. But their decisions and their fate affected mine in multiple ways that have to do with identity: their identity.

Did they feel Polish, or did they want to become French, and if so, why didn’t they? My siblings believe they wanted to become French. They were upright individuals, with children already fully French. My sister thinks there may have been a “wealth” test, but if there were, that couldn’t have been the obstacle. After all, between 1927 and 1930, 170,000 foreigners acquired French nationality through naturalization, and they couldn’t all have been of means. If my parents had survived, my entire life would likely have been different. Or would it? I’m allowing a dream: that after the war they would have immigrated to the US, with their children, of course, and settled in Brooklyn near my mother’s oldest brother, Sam, who had immigrated long before the war. And the rest of my life could have been just as I’ve described it, save for a few obvious modifications!

The question here, is could they have become naturalized French citizens? I can find no plausible explanation why not. If they had become naturalized, they would have at least have had the opportunity to travel somewhat freely and possibly avoided arrest. The round-up of Jews in Paris, on July 16, 1942, targeted foreign Jews. Why not all Jews? Because Vichy had made a deal with the Nazis. The Nazis were short-handed for this kind of civilian operation and agreed to arrest only Foreign Jews. In return they would not target French Jews, although that immunity would not have lasted indefinitely. If the earlier round-ups in 1941 had not convinced my parents of the imminent danger, the rafle of July 16 surely would have convinced them, and one would think they would have attempted to secure themselves and their children.

French citizenship law generally operates under one or another of two principles: Jus soli (Latin for right of soil), and jus sanguinis (right of blood). The latter automatically confers citizenship to a child born to at least one parent who was born in France or who is a French citizen. Obviously, this couldn’t apply to us because neither of our parents was born in France nor were French citizens.

However, French citizenship was possible under Jus soli. A child born on French soil to foreign parents could become a citizen at eighteen or younger, under certain conditions, primarily residency for a certain number of years. Both my siblings became citizens, although it’s not clear under which conditions. My sister recalls going to the passport office a couple of years before our departure with her birth certificate and being granted a passport virtually on the spot. Why did she need a passport at that time? She had received an invitation to visit a well-to-do family in England, part of a “charitable” gesture towards war orphans. My brother, too, obtained a passport for foreign travel, as a member of a traveling chorale from the maison d’enfants that was making a tour in Switzerland. Both my siblings had French passports when we immigrated. As I read the law, I would have become a French citizen had I remained in France until I was eighteen, which of course did not happen.

Recall that my French travel document had a notation “origine polonaise,” which implied some legal connection that could have led to citizenship. That status is not one I would have sought, because I did not have an emotional connection to Poland, even if my parents were Polish. Perhaps I would have felt differently if my parents had survived. But then, would I have written a memoir? If so, it would have been in French. Anyway, the idea (of Polish citizenship) intrigued me. There is little on the internet that I could find on this subject, although it appears that offspring of Polish citizens can become Polish citizens, no matter where they are born. How this process could have proceeded I have been unable to uncover and I did not pursue it.

All these musings lead me to this. I have long been a citizen of the USA, but perhaps I can take some measure of satisfaction from the flags of the USA and France. Color me the red, white, and blue of Old Glory and the bleu, blanc, rouge of the Tricolore (the French flag, blue, white, red), a different juxtaposition of the same colors. So, I suppose I can say I’m a red-white-and blue-blooded Franco American.

[1] Survival in Nazi-Occupied France and Making a Life in America, Tree of Life Books, Stockton, NJ, 2019

[2] However, it appears that now there is a “politically correct” way to write such a compound identity, which is without the hyphen!

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