Two Stories, Many Names

Skokie_Village_Hall.jpg

By Gripper – Own work, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6891503

Back in the seventies, when I worked for a small import firm just outside of Chicago, my boss was an immigrant of ambiguous accent. I’ll call him “Ervin Shoen”; he once told me he had long ago stopped using his real name and I have little interest in researching the truth of his story. He would be in his late nineties, now, at any rate. In all likelihood, he’s long dead.

Mr. Shoen lived a couple of suburbs north of our warehouse in Lincolnwood. One day, he told me that he always bypassed the intervening town of Skokie on his way home, that he wouldn’t stop there for any reason. When I asked why, he shrugged. I had just started at the company so didn’t pursue it, turning instead to whatever it was that had brought me into his office.

My desk was right outside his door. My responsibilities included domestic traffic and inventory control and he was the only person higher up who understood what I was doing. The owners of the company were salesmen; they expected Mr. Shoen to make good on the deals they created. A spare man in his fifties or early sixties, he wore a trim beard around the underside of his jaw. His most common response to anything anyone said was, “Mmm.” Only in private would he say much more.

This was about the time the Nazis were trying to march in Skokie, where more than 15% of the residents were Holocaust survivors. On the day the march was supposed to finally take place (it fizzled), he muttered, “I want nothing to do with them.” At first, I thought he meant the Nazis. “No, they’re just fools. I mean the survivors.”

Shocked, I did not respond. I had assumed that Mr. Shoen was Jewish—which, indeed, he was—and I could not fathom why he would avoid camp victims. Once more, we moved on to other topics, but he must have noted my reaction.

He invited me to dinner at his house soon after. I drove up to Winnetka on 94, wondering, as I passed Skokie, what I would learn that evening. Mr. Shoen, I found out, had ex-wives but none at the moment. He was a good cook, if a little eclectic, and he loved to drink Pernod after dinner. We sat over a bottle, smoking his Gauloises cigarettes and discussing the problem of the day’s work, a container suddenly held up in the port of Seattle by the Department of Agriculture, a delay for fumigation looming.

That topic exhausted, he asked me about my background. There wasn’t much to say. “Mmm,” he responded. Then:

“I was born in Germany, you know… or you might have guessed.” I told him I hadn’t, that his accent seemed less German than, well, I didn’t know what.

“That’s because I was born and raised in Trier. We spoke Yiddish at home, and Luxembourgish. Trier is close to Luxembourg and many there speak it. Of course, I also spoke German and French, was comfortable moving between any of these languages.

“My parents saw what was happening in Germany—this was in the mid-thirties. They advised me to get out, to get another nationality. So, I joined the French Foreign Legion, abandoning my birth name but not my religion. A mistake, it turned out. I was in Morocco when Paris fell. I had already hidden my German nationality on joining the Legion, passing for a Luxembourger, but was eventually interred for a time when a concentration camp was established there.” He stopped for a moment, pouring us each more of the licoricey liqueur, something I had never before tasted. “I eventually escaped, though, and made my way across the Mediterranean to Marseilles. That was in 1943. Claiming to be a Frenchman—that’s when I lost my second name and my religion—I made my way north until I was able to find someone in the Resistance. I worked with them until the end of the war.” He chuckled. “I became a translator for the Germans. My biggest scare was when one of the officers asked me how I had come to speak German so well. I thought they suspected me, but he was just trying to compliment me.”

This wasn’t the first time I had heard such a story. My father’s college roommate had also been a spy in France. I still believed that everyone who had been in ‘the war’ had astonishing tales to tell. My father’s reticence about his own experience had taught me never to ask about them but to assume everyone had them. Let them come out; don’t pry.

“After the war, the OSS set me up with another new identity and put me to work for another organization where I dealt with displaced people, helping organize resettlement. I hated it but did it because I was promised entry to the US if I managed a couple of years of it.

“You know,” he said, after a time—and I will never forget this, it shocked me so, “most of those who survived the camps were the worst of those who went in. The best all died.” He stopped and looked at me for a moment. “This is not something that can be said, but I know, for I had to deal with them after.”

Growing up, I had known camp survivors, and had been taught to look at them with a kind of awe. None of us was in a position to judge them and none of us did. Nor should Mr. Shoen, I thought but said nothing. He saw my consternation, however, paused, and held up a finger.

“I know what the camps were like. Remember, I was interred in Morocco. And I saw some of the camps and worked closely with those just out of them. They did not change just because they were now free of the Nazis.”

Mr. Shoen went on to tell me about teaching himself English and coming to the United States himself—with another new name. He had found it easy to get work for he was meticulous and quite good with figures—I knew that, for he was the only person at the firm who could look over my shoulder and ask intelligent questions about the sheets of numbers that generally covered my desk. He explained that he had taken on this last identity because so many of the refugees he had worked with had come to hate him. He had been forced to make hard decisions, shuffling some off here and others there, often refusing requests. I have no idea whether that was true or not; it sounded a little too vain to me. Who, after all, would care, once they were in America?

As I drove home that night, I contrasted Mr. Shoen to that college roommate of my father’s, Mike Taylor (not, as they say, his real name–and not, below, his real business). I had met him a couple of times, the first two or three when he visited the States on business, the last in Paris, where he lived. He was shorter than my father with darker hair, a bigger laugh and a much more dominating presence. Dad obviously loved him and relaxed more in his presence than with anyone else.

Michel Tailleur had been the oldest child of a French Jewish family who ran a business making coffee pots, of all things. His parents had sent him to boarding school in New England. He had graduated in 1939, but had not returned immediately. After the invasion of Poland in September, his father advised that it would be best to stay away. With rare foresight, he believed that France would be unable to stand up against Germany.

He made a deal with his son. Michel would join the US Army, giving him status as an American. His father would then sell him the business for a dollar, making the firm US-owned, protected, should the Germans march into Paris—which they did, of course, the next spring. In the Army, Michel anglicized his name, becoming the Mike Taylor I would know growing up. Because the business was American-owned, the Germans let it pretty much alone over their first year in Paris. By the time the United States entered the war at the end of 1941, they had apparently forgotten all about it and allowed it to run for the duration. I guess they needed coffee pots, too.

Sometime in 1942, the US Army, in its wisdom, realized that this Private Taylor spoke French like a Frenchman. He was immediately pulled from whatever unit he was then serving in and given special training for work behind enemy lines as part of the preparation for what would become Operation Overlord, the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. In early 1944, he was inserted into an operation in a French town some hours from Paris with instructions to gather information on German troop movement, which he did.

In August, while the Allied troops were moving slowly toward Paris, he had an American captain’s uniform and two lieutenant’s uniforms dropped to him. On the 24th, after dressing two Frenchmen in the lieutenant’s uniforms and giving them some gum to chew (all Americans, the stereotype had it, chewed gum), he put on the captain’s uniform and, under a flag of truce, approached the commander of an armored brigade stationed nearby, the two “lieutenants” mute at his side.

He told the general that Allied troops were already in Paris and that he was there to effect the surrender of the brigade. None of them knew for sure, of course, if any of this were true, but caution led the general to accept “Captain” Taylor’s terms and turn the brigade around to head to the capital. Leading the “captured” brigade in a German military automobile, Mike stalled their movement as best he could, not sure that he might not beat the Allies to Paris. This had all happened faster than he had planned. The brigade arrived in the city, in fact, early on the morning of the 25th, just some few short hours after Leclerc’s French armored division entered and liberated it.

Mike returned to the States after the war and attended Kenyon College with my father, keeping his Americanized name. Only when his father died in 1950 did he return to Paris and his old identity, taking over the reins of the family business that he had returned to his father five years earlier.

My father always believed that Mike never severed his ties with the OSS, serving its successor, the CIA, until he died in an automobile accident in the early seventies. He did know that Mike kept at least two passports, one in his French name and one in his American. My father always suspected there were others.

Ervin Shoen and Mike Taylor. Whoever they were, they were two parts of the American experience of the twentieth century, two of the stories of the country, for better or worse. I know little enough of the truth behind either.

But I do believe in stories.

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