A letter from Auschwitz

These stamps are affixed to one of the most moving artifacts I hold: a letter, dated February 23, 1945, written by Professor Henri Limousin, a French prisoner, following his liberation from Auschwitz. It was passed down my family. Here is my translation:

Dear Sir:

I have the pleasure to inform you that I have been recently liberated by the Russian army, following dramatic adventures, which I hope to be able to tell you in person soon, since we have been promised a prompt repatriation. My health is now improving, thanks to a substantial diet and better moral conditions. I hope you and your family are in good health, and that life has returned to its normal course in Clermont. I would be happy to have some news from you. 

Very truly yours.

H. Limousin, Inmate No. 200213

Freed from Auschwitz Camp, Upper Silesia, c/o the French Embassy in Moscow, via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This is it: a single sheet of paper, stamped and addressed on the back, no envelope. Think of its journey: from the barracks of Auschwitz to the French Embassy in Moscow, and then on to Auvergne. How I wish I knew of the “dramatic adventures” Limousin wanted to recount. A member of the Resistance and a professor at the medical school of the University of Clermont-Ferrand, in Auvergne, he had been arrested in March 1944.

I found an echo of his Auschwitz experience in the Nuremberg Trial archives by way of the testimony of Dr. Franz Blaha, a Czech physician prisoner and the camp’s chief pathologist. Professor Limousin told him that, out of his transport of approximately 2,000 persons, 800 died en route during the 12-day journey from France, bodies discarded along the way. That was 12 days in the heat without anything to drink. The train arrived at Auschwitz with 500 corpses on board. That left approximately 700 survivors, most of whom died shortly afterwards.

Dr. Blaha remembered this transport well, because he was ordered by the SS to perform autopsies on the French transport victims, and found that they had died of asphyxiation and dehydration. This autopsy request followed inquiries from the Red Cross about this transport’s high death toll (yes, the Red Cross monitored such atrocities) and the SS contended that the deportees had simply fought in the cattle cars and killed each other. As Blaha recalled, detailed reports followed such inquiries, and nothing ever changed.

Blaha also remembered that Professor Limousin arrived “in very poor condition.” Somehow he pulled through and was chosen by Blaha to become his assistant. Both men survived and Blaha went on to testify at Nuremberg about the “medical experiments” performed by SS doctors in the camps. Professor Limousin died in 1966, having survived 21 years after his liberation.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum posts a video of Dr. Blaha’s testimony at the Nuremberg Trial (in German).

The passage of time gives us all the more reason to treasure the testimony of Auschwitz eyewitnesses – and great writers – Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi. Claude Lanzmann’s harrowing 9-hour documentary Shoah is a must-watch. Listen to the dead…


I love Nancy Bilyeau’s novels and needed a fast read to distract me from thoughts that had been weighing me down during this Advent season. So, I purchased THE GHOST OF MADISON AVENUE.

A fast read it was (it’s a novella) but one that will stay with me. In ten chapters, Bilyeau weaves many threads: New York during the Gilded Age, the wonders of the Morgan Library, the barely met but ever present J. P. Morgan himself, the close-knit and diverse Irish-American community, family ties that bind, hurt and heal, and twin stories of love lost. Of course, as the title indicates, this is also a ghost story. But here the supernatural, as in the Sister Joanna trilogy, guides the arc of the story without veering into horror tricks.

We meet Helen O’Neill, a middle-aged widow and denizen of the Bronx. She has never recovered from the untimely death of her husband but finds some solace in the embrace of her upwardly mobile family, and her own professional achievements. She has just been hired by Belle da Costa Greene, Morgan’s fascinating librarian, to tend to the treasures of his collection. Because Helen has a gift with ancient artifacts. A gift best described by ancestral Irish lore. Certainly a gift that has allowed her to rise from kitchen hand to unofficial conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Maybe the same gift that makes her notice an oddly dressed young woman on Madison Avenue.

As with every great read, the turning of the last page opens more doors. I now want to return to the Morgan Library to look at it with a new eye. I also want to learn more about J. P. Morgan and his librarian, Belle da Costa Greene. Yes, she is a historical character.

THE GHOST OF MADISON AVENUE helps us refocus on the true meaning of the season, on our loved ones, present and departed, how much we miss those we lost, and how we wish their ghostly presence would watch over us through the trials of life.


The Salon of the Grand Couvert at Versailles: the room where Marie-Antoinette did not have dinner

Another Versailles update: the Salon of the Grand Couvert has been restored to its past splendor, as part of the ongoing refurbishment of the entire palace.

Versailles, the Salon du Grand Couvert, by Didier Rykner

The Salon of the Grand Couvert is part of the Queen’s Grand Apartment. Couvert means place setting in French, and this is the room where the royal couple had dinner. The King and Queen sat on armchairs, facing the audience. Duchesses had the privilege of sitting on a row of stools arranged in a semi-circle a few feet in front of the table. Further away stoo the rest of the courtiers and the public, for anyone decently dressed was admitted to the palace.

The Marquise de La Tour du Pin, who was a lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette during the very last years of the Ancien Régime, attended these occasions (more…)

Marie Antoinette a la rose by Vigee Lebrun

Marie-Antoinette and Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun: the Queen and the painter

Without Louise-Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun’s many portraits of Marie-Antoinette, our mental image of the Queen would be different, so iconic have these paintings become. All the more reason to look into the relationship between the two ladies. And what better way to do so than return to Madame Lebrun’s Memoirs?

It was in the year 1779, she writes, that I painted the Queen for the first time; she was then in the heyday of her youth and beauty [she was twenty four]. Marie-Antoinette was tall and admirably built, being somewhat stout, but not excessively so. Her arms were superb, her hands small and perfectly formed, and her feet charming. She had the best gait of any woman in France, carrying her head erect with a dignity that marked her as the Queen in the midst of her whole Court, her majestic mien (more…)

Marie Antoinette van Meytens

Marie Antoinette’s unsung legacy to French food: the croissant

If you watched Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, you know that the Queen liked to be surrounded by pyramids of gorgeous pastries and followed a strict macaroon-and-champagne diet. Or did she?

Marie Antoinette van Meytens

Well, according to contemporary accounts, not at all. The etiquette required the King and Queen to take some of their meals in public, in front of the courtiers and visitors. Anyone decently dressed was admitted in Versailles, and many came to the Palace to watch the royal couple eat.

The Marquise de La Tour du Pin, who was a lady-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette, attended those occasions. She notes in her Memoirs that “the King ate with a hearty appetite, but the Queen did not remove her gloves, nor did she unfold her napkin, in which she was very ill-advised.”

Marie Antoinette porcelain cup

Marie-Antoinette literally did not touch her food (more…)