From rescuer, Berkeley survivor learned the power of metaphor

When Odette Meyers was a young girl, the concierge of her Paris apartment building saved her and her mother from being deported by the Nazis. Pushing the pair into a broom closet, the concierge ordered them to stay silent as soldiers rounded up the neighborhood's Jews.

She then shuttled Meyers off to a train station and to refuge in the French countryside.

But Madame Marie Chotel saved the young Meyers' life in other, more subtle, ways as well. A fiercely independent seamstress with an unfettered imagination, Chotel had in the years before the war declared herself Meyers' godmother, offering the child metaphors that stayed with her during the stressful and sometimes confusing years spent hidden in a remote and conservative Catholic village.

During their time together Chotel had remarked often, for example, that "the heart is like an apartment," recalls Meyers, a Berkeley resident whose recently published memoir details the pair's profound relationship. "If it's clean and pleasant and you have food and drink for guests and flowers on the table, people will want to come and stay there.

"But if it's messy and you don't have anything for guests, people won't want to come in."

That favorite metaphor, which the seamstress evoked whenever Meyers misbehaved, "really put me on the path to reverie and poetry," says Meyers.

The author, 62, has taught French literature at various colleges, including U.C. Berkeley. "It helped me look inside and have an inner life and deal with the invisible."

The ability to imagine proved extremely helpful to Meyers during the war, a fact she recalls in the graceful and literate "Doors to Madame Marie," which has taken more than a decade to compose.

Living among Catholic peasants who treasured statues of the Virgin Mary, Meyers was able to superimpose images of her beloved Madame Marie — whose name was the same as the Madonna's — onto the icons.

"I was able in my child's mind to put her inside the statue, so I felt protected," she says. "Everywhere I felt protected."

But while "Doors to Madame Marie" recounts the war years in detail, it also chronicles the years following the war: Meyers' return from the countryside to Paris; her struggles with the Jewish identity she hid while posing as a Catholic child; her subsequent immigration to America with her parents, Polish immigrants who moved to Paris before the war.

In this country, she met and married the late Bert Meyers, an American lyric poet who taught her that a poet's work is both to lament and to praise.

Meyers' memoir aims to do both.

"In the book, I was able to lament for my cousins, the children who were taken away," says the author, who lost many relatives in the gas chambers. "I was then able to praise the people who acted so decently."

In the book, which touches on the broader historical context of French anti-Semitism, Meyers eschews generalizations, hesitating to offer a simple answer for what motivated some French citizens to risk their lives to rescue Jews while others collaborated with the Nazis.

She does know, however, that from Madame Marie and others like her, she learned "a sense of connection with the world at large, with others."

Meyers, in fact, is living that legacy of community involvement. She is president of Tikvah, a support and advocacy group for local survivors, and a board member of Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay. She also co-founded Yaldei HaShoah, a support group for survivors who were children up to age 18 during the war.

"Doors to Madame Marie," she says, is a further attempt to make the specific voices of the Shoah heard.

"It is very, very important for people to pay attention to the very personalized, individualized stories," she says. "Otherwise we dehumanize. We kill again."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.