David P. Boder Interviews Jean Kahn; August 21, 1946; Paris, France

  • David Boder: [In English] Now, will you speak in English? And if you can't, you speak in French. All right. I will ask you the questions in English and you can answer them. [aside] All right. I am here at the home of Admiral Kahn, in the presence of three generations. There's the grandfather, the father of Mrs. Kahn, who spoke to us before, and the Admiral, his wife and here now with me on the sofa is his young son. Now tell me, what's your name?
  • Jean Kahn: Jean.
  • David Boder: Your name is John. John what?
  • Jean Kahn: Jean Kahn.
  • David Boder: John Kahn. And how old are you, John?
  • Jean Kahn: I am fifteen now.
  • David Boder: You are fifteen.
  • Jean Kahn: Yes.
  • David Boder: Now, that's nice English. And any time you are looking for words, just speak French. You are now fifteen. And how old were you when the war started?
  • Jean Kahn: It was in 1940.
  • David Boder: So how old were you?
  • Jean Kahn: I was ten.
  • David Boder: You were ten, yes. Now, start talking French. And tell me what do you remember about the start of the war. Go ahead in French.
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] Well, first of all, I saw a lot of people running in the streets, looking for news, because on the radio, a lot of the announcers, not knowing themselves what was happening, had turned the radio broadcasts over to music programming and songs. The first thing I saw in the morning when I woke up was busloads of troops who were going to the front through the north near SedanThe German invaders broke the French defense lines near Sedan in northeastern France (Ardennes department). In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, Sedan was the scene of a disastrous French military defeat.1 and everyone was panicked, huddling around the radio.
  • David Boder: [In English] Now tell me. What month was it? Were you in school then? What month was it when the war started?
  • Marcelle Kahn: [In French] [Interpreter intervenes] What month was it?
  • David Boder: [In English] Do you remember?
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] It was June. In June.
  • David Boder: [In English] Were you in school then?
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] Yes, I was in school, in the Lorient Secondary School [high school].
  • David Boder: [In English] And what did you think about the war? What did you think it would be? Did you like it?
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] I didn't think that it would last very long.
  • David Boder: [In English] Uh huh. Now, tell me what then happened?
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] Well, we had to escape from the Germans who had succeeded in making a breakthrough in the East, and at the time, we didn't think that they were going to advance quickly. And so, starting on June 18, 1940, we were forced to travel throughout France, from the North to the South and the East, to arrive in Marseille.The Kahns joined the great throngs of refugees fleeing south in the wake of the German invasion.2
  • David Boder: [In French] Good. Who was with you in Marseille?
  • Jean Kahn: [In English] My grandfather, my mother and my brother.
  • David Boder: And where was your father?
  • Jean Kahn: He was at the war.
  • David Boder: Your father was in the war. All right. Now, what happened then in Marseille? Speak French.
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] [conversation with interpreter] I was in Marseille when I heard that the Armistice had been signed.On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany near Compiègne in the same railway car where Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander of Allied forces in France in World War I, had handed his armistice terms to the defeated Germans in November 1918.3
  • David Boder: [In English] All right. And where did you go from Marseille? Tell me. [aside to someone else: "It was a great pleasure and thank you very much."]
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] [conversation with interpreter] In Marseille, it was December, 1942, when we heard a radio message from London, a message that we had arranged with my father at the time of his departure: The canary has arrived safe and sound and he's waiting for his little ones. This was the signal that we were waiting for, in order to go and be reunited with him.The German occupation of southern France a month earlier had placed the Kahn family in additional danger.4 In October 1943, we took the train to Perpignan,Perpignan is located not far from the Spanish border and the Mediterranean, some forty miles south of Narbonne in the area of France known as Roussillon, the French part of Catalonia.5 and from there we did all our research and preparations for all the difficulties we would have in crossing the border. And at the end of October, 1943, we took the train, without the papers required to cross into the "forbidden zone" along the Spanish border.The Germans assumed direct control of the German border from the Vichy government beginning in April 1943. The authority of French police forces in this area was suspended in the special frontier zone they established. This is most probably what Jean refers to when he speaks about the "forbidden zone."6 And . . . my brother and I looked for a way through various little villages up in the mountains.
  • David Boder: [In French] And your mother?
  • David Boder: [In English] And where was your mother?
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] And my mother was waiting in Perpignan for the results of our investigation. Children didn't need special papers to enter the forbidden zone. And we were both under the age of 17 at the time and we could cross the German police barriers fairly easily where they were checking other person's papers. When we saw how impossible it was, since everyone refused to help us, even the guides who had been questioned were totally without any ideas as to what we could do, we returned to Perpignan, having decided to go it alone, without a guide, with no one's help. My brother bought a compass and an administrative road map of the area, and around noon, we left Perpignan for a small town called Osseja, located at.. what was the altitude? Located at 1200 meters above sea level. We had of course not succeeded in obtaining any papers giving us permission to be in the forbidden zone, and nevertheless, in the village of Osseja, we were already in the forbidden zone. Consequently, at any checkpoint, the Germans could have discovered that we were without papers and stop us from going any further. This didn't happen, fortunately, but coming out of the train station at Osseja, we saw two German agents who were checking papers for entrance into the forbidden zone. We stayed a few moments near the train tracks, and when we saw the two agents leave, we crossed through the train station and came out. We left behind two rather heavy backpacks and a suitcase, at the luggage checkroom, so that we would be less encumbered to look around, take a last look and explore the area.
  • David Boder: And then?
  • Jean Kahn: And then we left . . . following a route that was vaguely indicated to us by some people in that same little village. We started our climb towards the end of the afternoon, and the rain was falling, turning the ground into clumps of slush. We were sinking into the mud, dragging our feet, sliding. We were exhausted and not making any progress. [Question off mic from interpreter] We didn't dare take out the map, for fear it would become soaked and useless. From time to time, we looked at the compass to see if we were going in the right direction, and we would hear the German police dogs. We didn't know if they were tracking us or someone else, but we kept quiet so as to be missed by them. My brother, nevertheless, drove us on and pushed us as best as he could, because both my mother and I were more tired than he. Ultimately, he was the one who boosted the morale of the three of us, and who kept us on the right path with his compass. Coming out of the village, we saw a German barracks . . . where customs agents were housed, and we saw their big police dogs that were used to track people who tried to cross the border. Finally, after having walked for about 5 hours, we suddenly came upon train tracks at the bottom of a valley and we saw a little train station that looked very similar to our French train stations, and we wondered if we were already in Spain and not in France anymore. It was beginning to get dark and we didn't dare show ourselves and ask directions, or even approach the train station. Coming down from the mountain, we came up to a . . . what is that called? An embankment.In this case, the embankment was a raised structure to support the railroad tracks.7 An embankment, and we had to cross under a tunnel, to go around the tracks and we finally made our way down to a highway that seemed like a major road, despite the fact that there wasn't much traffic. Finally, we approached the train station and we saw some writing [an inscription] that didn't seem to be French. It was [Filbas?], the equivalent of [biffure?] in Spanish.Possibly bifurcation, which meant railroad junction.8 And then, little by little, we cautiously approached the train station and we heard some girls singing. They were not singing in French, but in Spanish. They ran off, a bit frightened, to find their father. Their father understood right away. Many people helped us, wiped our feet, gave us something to eat in this little train station. And the next morning—they obviously had given us their beds for the night—the next morning, we left very early to go to the province of Barcelona, which we were told was less dangerous, and from there, we couldn't be sent back to France.The province of Barcelona is located further south with its major city, the great Mediterranean seaport of Barcelona.9 Starting at dawn, we had most likely walked all morning and a good part of the afternoon, and we were going to take a bus in a little village which was still up in the mountains, when we saw two Carabineros [in Spanish: customs officers], dressed in khaki uniforms with yellow belts and [rain?] hats. They came towards us, to ask for identification, documentation [in Spanish?] and we obviously had none to give them. They made us go to a hotel, the whole hotel having been requisitioned by them, and that's where the interrogation began, and where we were frisked. The interrogation lasted all afternoon. They would ask a question from time to time, show us some papers, confiscated everything we had. They collected everything we had in our pockets that we had tried unsuccessfully to hide from them. And finally, in the evening, they brought us a very copious dinner . . . for the modest price of 25,000 Francs, which was what they confiscated from us during the interrogation. At night, they put us in a room with bars on the windows, and before going to bed, they took our shoes.Obviously, so that the family would not attempt to escape. However, it does not appear that the Spanish authorities treated the Kahn family differently even though they were Jews. Indeed, there was no special discriminatory policy against Jewish refugees.10
  • David Boder: [In English] Were you all together?
  • Jean Kahn: Yes, we were all together in the room.
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] And so, they took our shoes, and the next morning, they knocked and woke us up and proceeded with a more detailed interrogation.
  • David Boder: [aside, unintelligible]
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] The next day, we were taken out of this room and sent to Barcelona to the headquarters of the Spanish police. We didn't even stay five minutes. We were taken to the police station, then again to the hotel where we had spent the previous two nights and finally, two carabineros took us to prison in Barcelona. There, we had another brief interrogation, and then we were thrown into jail, a little like animals, in big cages in the basement of the Barcelona Prefecture. The next day, miraculously, we got out and managed to join a convoy going to North Africa and to finally take us into the free zone. We reached Casablanca after two days, and we finally learned on the boat to Casablanca that my father was in Algiers.Jean does not explain why the family was "miraculously" let out to join the convoy sailing for North Africa and to the city of Casablanca, the principal port of Morocco, located on the North African Atlantic seaboard. Morocco was then under French control.11 And so, by the end of the week, once we got past the difficulties of the journey from Casablanca to Algiers, we were reunited with my father.By the time the Kahns arrived in North Africa, the Allies had driven the Axis powers and their Vichy French allies out of the region including Algeria. The French North African colonies were under the rule of the Free French government headed by General Charles De Gaulle.12
  • David Boder: [In English] Well, were you afraid during this whole trip?
  • Jean Kahn: A little bit, yes, but I really didn't know the danger we could . . .
  • David Boder: . . . that you were in.
  • Jean Kahn: Yes.
  • David Boder: You didn't know the danger.
  • Jean Kahn: Yes.
  • David Boder: What were you afraid of?
  • Jean Kahn: Of being arrested by the Germans, in the mountains.
  • David Boder: Yes. What month were you in the mountains? What month was it?
  • Jean Kahn: October.
  • David Boder: Was it cold in the mountains?
  • Jean Kahn: Not really cold, but the rain . . .
  • David Boder: It was raining.
  • Jean Kahn: Yes.
  • David Boder: Did you have good clothes?
  • Jean Kahn: No, we didn't have good clothes. Only very bad shoes.
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] And our clothes were falling apart, our socks torn by brambles and soaked in mud. And all we had to eat was a kilo of sugar [cubes] which melted in our pockets, and a flask of rum.
  • David Boder: [In English] Oh, did you drink rum?
  • Jean Kahn: No, I didn't drink rum. Only with a piece of sugar.
  • David Boder: [laughing] Now, where did you get from Spain then? From Spain you came where?
  • Jean Kahn: In North Africa.
  • David Boder: To North Africa. All right. And when did you see your father again?
  • Jean Kahn: Just a month after our departure.
  • David Boder: From Marseille.
  • Jean Kahn: From Perpignan, from France.
  • David Boder: Just a month after your departure from Perpignan, you saw your father.
  • Jean Kahn: Yes.
  • David Boder: Well, did he look well?
  • Jean Kahn: Yes, just a little bit tired.
  • David Boder: Well, and then what were you doing in Africa?
  • Jean Kahn: I went to school there with all the little Arabs.
  • David Boder: Little Arabs.
  • Jean Kahn: Yes.
  • David Boder: And did you learn French or Arabian?He means Arabic.13 What did you learn?
  • Jean Kahn: I learned French, yes.
  • David Boder: You studied in French.
  • Jean Kahn: Yes.
  • David Boder: All right. And are you now in school?
  • Jean Kahn: Yes.
  • David Boder: In what grade are you?
  • Jean Kahn: I'm in the second degree.
  • David Boder: Is that the lycée?The French secondary school that prepares students to take the college entrance examination.14
  • Jean Kahn: Lycée, yes.
  • David Boder: So how many years do you need to be through?
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] Four years?
  • Jean Kahn: [In English] Three years.
  • David Boder: Three years more, and then you will be . . .
  • Jean Kahn: Three years of lycée.
  • David Boder: Yes. And what will you do after that? What do you want to study?
  • Jean Kahn: I don't know.
  • David Boder: You don't know. Well, that is good. You are young. Do you want to be an Admiral?
  • Jean Kahn: No. In fact, Jean Kahn became a physician who specialized in cardiology.15
  • David Boder: No? [laughing] You don't want to go to sea? Well, and now, do you feel good at school? Do you have a lot of friends?
  • Jean Kahn: Yes. A lot of friends. I had a lot of friends in England.
  • David Boder: Oh? Where were you in England?
  • Jean Kahn: At the French Lycée of London.After a year’s study in Algiers, Jean was apparently sent to study in the French Lycée of London.16
  • David Boder: At the French Lycée of London. Well, uh huh. Did you speak there more French or did you speak English there?
  • Jean Kahn: I spoke much French.
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Jean Kahn: And some English in the evening.
  • David Boder: What subjects are you taking in school? Are you taking Latin?
  • Jean Kahn: Latin.
  • David Boder: Yes.
  • Jean Kahn: And math.
  • David Boder: Mathematics.
  • Jean Kahn: Mathematics.
  • David Boder: What do you have in mathematics now? [aside to interpreter] Algebra, geometry?
  • Jean Kahn: [In French] Geometry and algebra.
  • David Boder: [In English] Uh huh. And you take French literature?
  • Jean Kahn: French literature, history, geography, physics.
  • David Boder: Physics.
  • Jean Kahn: Chemistry.
  • David Boder: Do you have much to study when you go to school?
  • Jean Kahn: Yes, I have much. Too much!
  • David Boder: Too much. Well, John, you are an awfully good boy, and it was really a pleasure to have met you. And I think you told us a good story. And I think the children there, if we translate it, will have a lot of fun in listening to your story. We will translate it into English and have another little boy read it for us, make a record. Will you write to me sometimes?
  • Jean Kahn: Yes. Certainly.
  • David Boder: All right. I'll write you a letter, then you will know my address. And then if I can, we make another wireBoder is referring to another recording of the interview.17 and we send you one and then when you have a machine, then you can listen to it.
  • Jean Kahn: Thank you.
  • David Boder: Well, it was awfully good . . . [ends abruptly]
  1. The German invaders broke the French defense lines near Sedan in northeastern France (Ardennes department). In 1870, during the Franco-Prussian war, Sedan was the scene of a disastrous French military defeat.
  2. The Kahns joined the great throngs of refugees fleeing south in the wake of the German invasion.
  3. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany near Compiègne in the same railway car where Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander of Allied forces in France in World War I, had handed his armistice terms to the defeated Germans in November 1918.
  4. The German occupation of southern France a month earlier had placed the Kahn family in additional danger.
  5. Perpignan is located not far from the Spanish border and the Mediterranean, some forty miles south of Narbonne in the area of France known as Roussillon, the French part of Catalonia.
  6. The Germans assumed direct control of the German border from the Vichy government beginning in April 1943. The authority of French police forces in this area was suspended in the special frontier zone they established. This is most probably what Jean refers to when he speaks about the "forbidden zone."
  7. In this case, the embankment was a raised structure to support the railroad tracks.
  8. Possibly bifurcation, which meant railroad junction.
  9. The province of Barcelona is located further south with its major city, the great Mediterranean seaport of Barcelona.
  10. Obviously, so that the family would not attempt to escape. However, it does not appear that the Spanish authorities treated the Kahn family differently even though they were Jews. Indeed, there was no special discriminatory policy against Jewish refugees.
  11. Jean does not explain why the family was "miraculously" let out to join the convoy sailing for North Africa and to the city of Casablanca, the principal port of Morocco, located on the North African Atlantic seaboard. Morocco was then under French control.
  12. By the time the Kahns arrived in North Africa, the Allies had driven the Axis powers and their Vichy French allies out of the region including Algeria. The French North African colonies were under the rule of the Free French government headed by General Charles De Gaulle.
  13. He means Arabic.
  14. The French secondary school that prepares students to take the college entrance examination.
  15. In fact, Jean Kahn became a physician who specialized in cardiology.
  16. After a year’s study in Algiers, Jean was apparently sent to study in the French Lycée of London.
  17. Boder is referring to another recording of the interview.
  • Contributors to this text:
  • Transcription : Deborah Joyce
  • English Translation : Deborah Joyce
  • Footnotes : Elliot Lefkovitz