illustration by Avi Katz
We passed him as we trudged up an earthen path in search of a Bronze Age site north of Montpellier in southern France. He had wispy hair and the soft contours of a man grandchildren love to cling to, but the steady stride of a good walker. Giving us a sideways glance, he walked past us under the oak branches that roofed the trail. But when my daughter, Mizmor, crouched down and exclaimed, in Hebrew, about a patch of wild thyme, he turned back in his tracks.
“So you, too, are seeking your roots?”
Mizmor and I looked at each other and the other members of our party.
“We came to see the ancient village,” I said.
“Oh yes. Down there. You’re just two minutes away. But it’s closed.”
“Closed? But I thought it’s just some ruins out in the open.”
“No, no, they have an exhibit there, and a reconstructed homestead. It’s fenced off. But you can look in from outside.”
Mizmor said she was disappointed.
“You are seeking your roots? I am Sabag. Perhaps you remember me?”
“Roots? In a Bronze Age village?” I asked.
“I am Sabag,” he said again hopefully. “From Tunis. You, too, are Tunisian?”
“Not by a long shot,” I said.
His face fell.
“I came here to visit the chateau,” he said, waving a hand in the direction of the wall that ran along the path.
The wall enclosed the expansive grounds of a huge country house. After turning off the road, we had parked our car close to a gate in the wall, through which we’d seen a manicured lawn and the carefully tended shrubbery of Le Chateau de Cambous. According to my guidebook, it is a 16th-century castle built by an ultra-Catholic noble, Antoine de Cambous, during France’s wars of religion. For his fierce opposition to the Protestants, King Henry III rewarded him with the estate in the midst of the rebellious Protestant countryside of Languedoc.
The stranger hadn’t quite given up finding a long-lost friend. “I am Sabag,” he repeated. “From Aliyat Hanoar.” Aliyat Hanoar, or Youth Aliya, I knew, was a program that had taken young Jews from their home countries, prepared them for life in the Jewish state, and then brought them to Israel.
Sensing our puzzlement, he explained.
“We came from Tunisia. We were children. Families were convinced to send their children to Israel because there was no future in Tunisia. They were especially afraid for the girls, who might be abducted or raped. With the girls they usually sent an older brother to watch over her. We sailed to Marseilles and from there they took us to this chateau. Aliyat Hanoar rented it and used it as a camp to prepare us for life in Israel. There were hundreds of us here, for months at a time. Then we went to Israel. Now I came back to see it.”
“Aliyat Hanoar ran an overnight camp for hundreds of teenagers at a French chateau?” I asked in astonishment.
He shrugged. “I thought maybe you also came to seek your roots. The ancient site is just over there.” And he trudged on.
The path ended at the fence encircling the ancient village. Walking alongside, we saw the excavated floors of stone houses and, further back, a house that had been rebuilt according to the archeologists’ best guesses as to what the structures here had looked like. There were also stone benches arranged in an open triangle, where a guide or counselor could tell fidgety youngsters about what we know and don’t know about the Bronze Age people who lived here. The explanatory sign site was set just far back enough to be unreadable from outside the fence.
On my own side of the Mediterranean I could have offered my companions a bit of knowledge about 5,000 year-old civilizations, but here I was confronted with the remains of a community that had thrived even before this land was called Gaul by the Romans. Were they Celts, I wondered aloud to Mizmor? Those fierce warriors whose indefatigable spirit the Romans could not help but admiring? The ones who cut off their enemies’ heads and displayed them on poles around their villages? (A week later, at a museum, we’d see real skulls found at Celtic sites displayed on poles in glass cases. There we’d also learn that the Celtic custom was relatively restrained compared to that of the Iberians, who hung the severed heads of their adversaries from their belts.)
Mizmor had in the meantime discovered blackberry bushes growing along the fence and we feasted until we had picked all the fruit in reach.
“I wonder why he came alone,” I asked Mizmor as we headed back to our car. “Isn’t that kind of strange?”
Mizmor agreed that he seemed lonely. I thought that we might see him again and that I’d ask him to tell us more about his life at the castle. But he was nowhere in sight.
Instead of getting back on the asphalt, we decided to take a dirt road that branched off behind the chateau’s wall. Trees taller than any we are used to at home stood sentry on either side. A few minutes later we came upon a solitary homestead on the right side of the path, an old house and a converted barn separated by a garden boasting ripe tomatoes of several varieties.
Between the garden and the barn two figures squatted on the ground. My first impression was that we had come across a pair of Gallic women sifting through the roots and leaves they had gathered that morning. But when we parked our car alongside we saw they were washing pottery. We admired the tomatoes and the intricately painted and decorated ceramics. One of the women motioned us to follow her into the barn, where we discovered a large display room full of pots and dishes in exuberant geometrical patterns and styles. But there were also huge and disconcerting fired clay sculptures, a crocodile, a wolf, and a bull, looking like ancient totems housing the spirits of this patch of Mediterranean foothills – Iberians, Gauls, Greeks, Romans, Franks, Catholics, Protestants, Jews.
I later learned that many of the region’s Protestants, the descendants of those who survived the brutal swords of Antoine and his knights, had hidden Jews under the Vichy regime and saved them from being shipped to death camps. I also found, on the web, an evocation of the Zionist camp at the castle, posted a couple years ago by one Charles Bar Tov-Sherlo.
“The castle’s interior was almost completely lined with marble,” he quotes his sister as saying. And his brother spoke of the French and North African counselors who organized their activities. “Every day we’d go on a walk to see the ruins scattered around the area, and sometimes we’d encounter archaeologists carrying out excavations at all sorts of sites. At the castle itself there was a large central hall in which they’d sometimes turn on a black-and-white television. In the center of the hall was a fireplace to heat the huge room.… The atmosphere in the castle was Jewish, but outside the castle and in the surroundings the ambiance of the approaching Christian holiday prevailed.” Another of his sisters said that the young people there composed a song, “Les Amoureux dans le Chateau de Cambous.” So there were lovers there, too.
Antoine did not keep the castle in the family for long. His son died heirless and the estate passed from hand to hand. In 1983 the French government declared it a historic monument, noting in particular the great room with its fireplace and painted ceiling. It’s now owned by an English couple who have divided it into vacation apartments.
On YouTube I discovered a silent newsreel of Eleanor Roosevelt arriving at the chateau in 1955. American and Israeli flags fly at the entrance, over a plaque proclaiming the castle to be the “Herbert H. Lehman Home, Youth Aliya, American Joint Distribution Committee.” The former US first lady sits with a group of grade school boys, her arms crossed and hands holding the palms of two of them. They are listening intently. She must be telling these North African kids, soon to be Israelis, a story in French. Even as the boys press together to hear the great woman, one of them looks lonely. Perhaps it is Sabag.