The real story of my parents’ courtship was hidden in plain sight — under layers and layers of stuff. By the time we moved my mother across the country into assisted living, their house had become a tangled mess of official documents and priceless family heirlooms buried within a detritus of useless papers, empty pill bottles, and broken gadgets. We scrambled to salvage the scattered heirlooms and as we searched for desperately needed documents. I would look at the heirlooms later, but we needed the pink slip to sell an unregistered car and my late father’s military record to apply for VA survivor benefits to patch together support for my mother’s remaining years. I found his discharge papers, lost in a fire, on the Ancestry website. Once there, I was hooked — drawn into an intoxicating tease of records and facts about my own origins.
I first met my mother’s family in 1960, when we visited them in Algeria. But while this gave me awareness of their being in another country, my four-year-old memory was much better at retaining wanting spaghetti for breakfast on an ocean liner than all the French-speaking relatives I met in a short space of time.
The story of how my parents courted emerged in pieces over the years. My most memorable moment was after our house was burglarized about ten years later. The thieves were foiled and we recovered everything including a small wooden box that my father kept atop his dresser. When we got it back after fingerprinting, my mother jokingly remarked, “Oh, they would have enjoyed that!” I learned then the box contained love letters she had written to my father during the late 1940s. So an attempted burglary was what first piqued my interest about how my father, a young man from Pennsylvania managed to hook up with my mother, a young woman from Oran, Algeria.
Many years later, after bringing the box of letters to California with my mother and many heirloom photographs, my curiosity about the letters grew. As I dug into Ancestry, my parents’ story began to come to life. And the letters would come to play a pivotal role in my understanding their story and raise unresolved mysteries I regret not investigating while my parents were alive.
My father, Raymond Clarence Griesemer, was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1918 into a Pennsylvania Deutsche (not Dutch) family which had lived there for many generations. Early on, he took an interest in history and languages and was a choirister. Both slight and studious, he pursued degrees in German, Latin, and English at Muhlenberg College with aspirations of becoming a teacher.
My mother, Juliette Rose Enkaoua, was born in Oran, Algeria in 1923, the eldest daughter in a large orthodox Sephardic Jewish family. At age 15, after she lost her mother to tuberculosis, her father pulled her out of school to care for her siblings, cutting short her formal education.World War II brought them together. In 1942, my father enlisted in the Army and arrived in Algeria the following year after the Allies landed in North Africa through Operation Torch. The Army realized my father’s proficiency with German would be valuable for dealing with Rommel’s troops that had surrendered that year.
My father was assigned to an administrative division in Oran, Algeria, tasked with translating and interpreting for the Army faced with over 100,000 German-speaking prisoners of war. During that time, my mother was working as a waitress at la Maison du Colon d’Oran, used during the war as a canteen for American and British service men. It was there that they first met.
My father was completely smitten by her — not surprising when you see how beautiful she was in her youth. He pursued a friendship with her, walking her home after her shifts. I assume they fell in love, but can barely imagine how they dealt with such a relationship in the midst of the uncertainties of a terrible war.
Surely, they must have expected resistance from their families. As a member of an Orthodox Jewish family that proudly traces its lineage back to a revered Rabbi from 14th Century Spain, she must have been schooled in marrying within the faith. Raised in a reformed Protestant congregation in a community with little knowledge, if any, of orthodox Judaism, he must have at least wondered how she would fit into his world.
When the Army reassigned my father in 1945, my parents began corresponding. The army moved him through Egypt, Italy, Switzerland, and France and by late that year, he returned home. They continued corresponding for five years.
After my father made arduous arrangements for her to immigrate to the United States, my mother boarded the RMS Queen Mary in Cherbourg, France. She arrived in New York City on January 25th, 1950 and they married in Allentown, Pennsylvania on February 8th that year. Two years later, my brother was born and I arrived in 1956.
My parents firmly ensconced themselves in the post-war vision of the American Dream, not likely anticipating the national turmoil that would follow in the 1960s, or the old-world prejudices still embedded in American culture. What I believe was the key to what held them together throughout their marriage I found in the letters she wrote to him. Letters that survived because they were treasured, contained in a box that my father always accorded a place of honor on his dresser.
When we moved my mother from New Jersey to assisted living near us in California, I began questioning her about heirloom pictures. Her memory was failing, and within a year she lamented that she thought she’d been married to the man in their wedding photo, but couldn’t remember him. We created an annotated album of photos in an attempt to help her navigate her failing memory. But she forbade me from looking at the box of letters.
In retrospect, I regret never thinking to ask her exactly how or when my father proposed to her. During her last year of life, she wanting to throw out the letters. Thankfully, my wife Sheryl convinced her to wait and surreptitiously absconded with them to avoid their destruction.
In 2017, at age 93, my mother died. My brother had predeceased her six months earlier, leaving a wake of hardships for his family including a void in place of a remembrance of his life. Determined to give my mother a memorial service to honor her long life, I assembled a video tribute to her and my father for her memorial service. To do so, I dug into the old photos, artifacts, documents, and the long-forbidden box of letters.
About this time, I spoke with my aunt, my mother’s sister, and she related how my father visited their home in Oran and asked my grandfather for her hand in marriage. This was a piece of my parents’ story I had never heard before. The fact that my grandfather, a patriarch in an orthodox Jewish family, would agree to a marriage between his eldest daughter and a Protestant young man in the 1940s surprised me. But I ignored my puzzlement because I had a memorial service tribute to complete.
I began with the heirloom photos, using them as the framework to piece together a chronological narrative of her life set to her favorite French songs. I included several photos that she had enclosed in her letters – powerful reminders of the love they shared. I began to gain insight into the meaningfulness of their expressions in the photos, taken with no pretenses, just the love that comes through from knowing who will see it. Most moving of all is the portrait taken of them on their wedding day. You can see it in their faces. They had survived the war, reunited after five years, and were brimming with hope and joy for a new life together in the United States.
But genealogy, like history, is not a “one-and-done” effort. The more you dig, the more you uncover new evidence that challenges old assumptions and family myths. After the memorial service, I began to transcribe my mother’s letters. One of them blew away my aunt’s surprising story of my father going to my grandfather in Algeria to ask him for my mother’s hand in marriage. In a 1948 letter, three years into their correspondence, my mother writes:
“Yes, I would like to go to America, but do you want me to go? And what will your family think about me because you and I must be married. I think this is possible if you want to and give me instruction, tell me what I must do.”
Two months later, she responds to his next letter:
“I’m glad to know that you want to marry me. I will be a very good wife for you, my darling.”
My aunt’s story had to be apocryphal. The letters clearly document their plan to marry emerged in their correspondence, in letters he wrote from Allentown after the war, not in a proposal in Oran. Whether my aunt’s memory was faulty or the story was one my mother fabricated and told her I will never know.
Reading through the letters, I began to understand why my mother didn’t want me to see them. She gushed over him and would have been embarrassed. But I felt her later desire to destroy them was misplaced. What son or daughter of parents so devoted to each other would not feel anything but warmth to read their mother’s extravagant love for their father? They are now, for me, not only a personal treasure, but a valuable original source for family genealogy.
In January of 2017, the memorial service was over but I couldn’t stop digging. I was understanding for the first time who my parents really were as young people. I could see the arc of their amazing story. They were young in a time when prejudice and intolerance were rampant and institutionally supported. They met, fell in love, and committed to marrying each other surely knowing they would face resistance to their union, not only from society, but from their own families.
Growing up, I witnessed myself subtle antisemitism from some of my father’s family. And my mother told me how some in her family pressured her to return to orthodox Halakha law. Yet, my parents faced and overcame these forces that could have divided them. But, how? I found answers by delving into my grandparents’ stories.
My maternal grandfather, Samuel, the patriarch of my mother’s family and father of my uncle, a rabbi, carried the surname marking him descended from the holy Tzaddik, Rabbi Ephraim Enkaoua, still revered to this day. Despite his lineage, my grandfather did something highly unorthodox. He gave his blessing to his eldest daughter to marry a man from outside the Jewish faith, thousands of miles away. Why did he do this? I’ve looked for hints in his life story.
Samuel Enkaoua worked as an accountant for the French government in Algeria as a civil servant after having served in their army. After France fell to the Nazi invasion in 1940, French occupied Algeria became governed by the French Vichy government, now recognized as playing a role in the Holocaust.
I discovered that in the two years leading up to the American liberation of Morocco and Algeria in 1942, the Vichy government in Algeria was drawing up lists of Jews to be deported to concentration camps. As a civil servant, my grandfather must have been aware of it. He also must have known that the American occupation would end French Vichy control of the country but open Algeria to an uncertain future.
When the Americans eventually left after the war, centuries of ethnic and religious animosity would erupt into violence. When in 1961 the Algerian Revolution broke out, my mother’s family, descendants of refugees of the Spanish Inquisition, fled for their lives to France, becoming refugees themselves.
In the late 1940s, could my grandfather have welcomed any opportunity for his children to escape? It wouldn’t be the first time parents sent children away to safety. We’re familiar with the heartbreak and hope of the Kindertransport, the train that rescued Jewish children from Nazi controlled territories leaving their parents to perish in the concentration camps.
I also wonder if my grandfather felt remorse for pulling my mother out of school to care for the family after his wife’s untimely death. My aunts and uncles all finished their formal education. My mother did not. Could this deprivation been a factor in allowing her to leave? One thing is clear. He knew that she wanted to marry my father and wrote to the pastor of my father’s church during the years my parents were corresponding. He wanted to know, as one religious man to another, if my father was a righteous man. It suggests to me that he was prepared to agree to his daughter marrying a Christian if vouched for by another man of faith.
My paternal grandmother, Esther Rahn, raised in a family descended from generations of Protestant Christians, faced welcoming a Jewish daughter-in-law into the family. This likely never happened before in her lifetime, and she undoubtedly endured “chattering” from family members about the Jewish girl her son wanted to marry. Yet, when my mother arrived, she showed her extraordinary kindness. After my parents married and settled in the heart of Pennsylvania Deutsche country, my grandmother supported her – even defended her against the “chatter.” Why did she do this? Again, I see hints in her life story.
When you do genealogical research, you can only get so far on records alone. Sooner or later, you have to reach out to people in the family. When I spoke with my first cousin about our family at length recently, she graciously recounted conversations she had with our mutual grandmother, conversations I suspect women in a family have each other but not with sons. My grandmother told her that the biggest personal regret of her life was not accepting my grandfather’s marriage proposal sooner against the wishes of her parents. Rejected, my grandfather left for travels in the Pacific, a fact that I verified in a passenger manifest of the S.S. Lurline. “Remember those stereoscope cards of Pacific natives that were in her house?” she asked me. “Well, that’s where they came from.” I remembered the curious cards in my grandmother’s home, and their presence suddenly became clear.
Apparently when he returned from the islands, he asked again. This time she accepted and they married in 1918. I have wonderful photos of them as a young couple and several of her with my father as an infant. She radiates happiness in these photos, expressions I don’t remember seeing years later. They had two children, my father and my uncle. Then, tragically, my grandfather contracted Tuberculous only four years into their marriage and died in 1922. Had she married him sooner, they would have had more years together. It’s even conceivable that the course of their lives might have prevented him from getting the dread disease. Anyone who has lost a beloved spouse would surely ask this question.
My grandmother never remarried and when the U.S. entered World War II, my father, her eldest son named for her late husband, went off to war. I can only image the profound relief she must have felt when he safely returned home. Knowing my father, it wouldn’t have been long before she found out how smitten he was with a young woman he met overseas and wanted to marry. I found among the heirloom photographs a framed portrait of my mother as a young woman, looking very much like a movie star. My father kept this framed portrait present and visible on his dresser, right next to the box of letters. There was also a smaller print sent as a gift to my grandmother, enclosured in one of the letters. The inscription read:
Once I discovered this, I realized that the framed portrait held meaning for my father beyond a reminder of the beautiful woman he married. Her image must have been a symbol of my grandmother’s acceptance of the woman he loved.
Until the end of her life, my mother often spoke of my grandmother with endearment in her voice. I now wonder if my grandmother’s heartbreaking experience of losing her beloved husband so early in life gave her empathy and a desire to champion my mother against the family naysayers? Could she have recognized in the disapproving family chatter pig-headed prejudices that fueled her biggest regret?
In mulling these questions amidst a dive into historical and genealogical records, I’ve come to see my parents’ story as a testament to the power of love, commitment and perseverance. That they endured almost six years apart is a testament to their commitment. But I sense something more. My parents mostly wrote from their respective homes, she in the presence of my grandfather and he in the company of my grandmother. Both of my grandparents must have witnessed first-hand the depth of my parents’ love for each other. Did that help them overcome centuries of old-world prejudices?
Ultimately, my grandparents’ acceptance and support of my parents constituted acts of love that inspire me as much as my parents’ commitment and perseverance do. My grandfather’s support made it possible for my mother to come to America to find her happiness and fulfill my father’s heart’s desire. My grandmother’s acts of kindness and unconditional love allowed my parents to find happiness together in America for 60 years—in a happy marriage which gave me and my brother a stable and loving home.
In the years after my parents’ marriage, my grandparents’ support of their union never waned and grew stronger over the years. I’ve also come to see the Christian Cross and Star of David my mother wore around her neck in new ways. For years, I regarded these symbols as an ecumenical recognition of faith, the one she came from and the one she went to without rejecting her past.
After my journey, I see the necklace as depicting my parents’ story of love that connected two families from very different cultures, who otherwise never would have considered being joined. I continue to honor that connection by wearing two watch fobs with ancient symbols. One is a silver filigree Hamsa hand, an ancient symbol common in Sephardic culture, which my mother wore as a charm. The other is the Huguenot Cross, from which my father’s family was originally descended. They are my heritage and reminders of my parents’ amazing story.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to author and expert editor Sheryl Ruzek for her help with editing, to Debbi Gould for her generosity in discussing our family with me, and to Michelle Habib and Alfred Enkaoua for providing me with important history of the Enkaoua family.
Note from the author: Stories on family genealogy are “living stories.” They may develop as the family genealogist uncovers more details through research.
© 2022 Jim Griesemer, all rights reserved.