The suitcase is a universal symbol of travel, but for Kitty Morse of Vista, a petite valise (French for small suitcase) that once belonged to her great-grandparents became so much more.
For three years, the tattered suitcase sat on her closet shelf, unopened. But once the lid was lifted, the petite valise sent the renowned food writer on a journey to highly emotional places and, eventually, to France.
The contents included a diary written by her maternal great-grandfather, Prosper Levy; a book of recipes that belonged to her great-grandmother Blanche Levy-Neymarck; and family photos, letters and documents.
Prosper’s diary, written between May 1940 and New Year’s Eve 1940, chronicled life in Nancy in German-occupied northeastern France.
A secular Jew, Prosper initially did not take seriously the German mandate to register, thinking that, as a decorated military physician and loyal Frenchman, he was in little danger. His decision to comply changed Morse’s family history.
Morse also found documentation that Blanche and her older daughter and husband, Anny and Fernand Cerf, were listed as passengers in wagon No. 70 of the train that took them to Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps.
Prosper died of dementia in a hospital near Nancy.
Morse places these compelling discoveries, her ancestors’ stories and her great-grandmother’s recipes in her latest book, “Bitter Sweet: A Wartime Journal and Heirloom Recipes from Occupied France.”
Morse’s late husband, Owen, strongly encouraged her to write the book.
“He said this was a story that had to be told,” she said.
And further impetus came from Holocaust survivor and speaker Marion Turski, who declared on C-SPAN: “We can never remain indifferent.”
Owen, who died in January as the book was being printed, did much of the historical research and took all of the exquisite photography featured in the recipe section.
Morse is here today only because her grandmother, Prosper and Blanche’s younger daughter, Suzanne, moved in 1922 to Marrakesh, Morocco, with her new husband. Suzanne gave birth to Morse’s mother, Nicole, who was brought up in Morocco. Morse was born in Casablanca and grew up in a bilingual home.
“I spoke French with my mother and English with my (British) father,” Morse said. “I came to the United States on holiday when I was 14 and I knew instantly I belonged here.”
In May, Morse traveled to northeastern France, “where hardly any tourists go,” to learn about her mother’s family in the towns where they lived, worked and vacationed. The trip, made with her niece from Victoria, British Columbia, had both bright and somber moments.
In Châlons-en-Champagne, Morse saw two former homes of her great-grandparents and the hospital (now a girls’ high school) where her great-grandfather practiced during World War I; visited the synagogue to view the heavy silver menorah donated by her great-great-uncle in 1863; sat in the same chair in the mayor’s office as Blanche must have when she got married more than 100 years ago; viewed a new plaque honoring Châlons’ fallen unknown, World War II American soldiers; and visited ancestral tombs where she sprinkled some of her mother’s ashes.
“In Rosières-aux-Salines, I was invited to lay flowers at the base of the newly erected plaque naming Jewish residents who died in the Holocaust, and also, on the tomb of the Grandoeury sisters, the ladies who sheltered Proper and Blanche during the German bombing of Nancy,” Morse said.
“The new occupant of the Grandoeury house let us in the garden and showed us the entrance to the tunnel where they hid. The whole episode sent shivers down my spine.”
Morse also gave a well-attended presentation on “Bitter Sweet” at the Châlons public library and was interviewed on television and radio.
In Rosières, Morse, escorted by the mayor, saw the grand home of her great aunt and uncle, now converted to apartments, and the new street sign in the Jewish Quarter commemorating the kidnapping of the Jews on June 8, 1943.
In nearby Ecrouves, she drove to the Nazi holding camp (now a minimum-security prison) where French authorities held her ancestors until they were sent to the main camp of Drancy and from there, Auschwitz.
“The most awful moment was reading the letter that Blanche wrote to her friend talking about conditions at Ecrouves,” Morse said. “I realized the date coincided with the day she was taken to Drancy.”
To order a signed copy of “Bitter Sweet,” visit www.kittymorse.com. Unsigned copies are available from Amazon or can be ordered by any bookstore.