A smile and a star

A thick fog had descended on Paris, blotting out the high rooftops and making an eerie nonsense of the straight, lucid boulevards and the subtle little streets and alleys. I stood on a corner, holding a loaf of French bread I'd bought for my breakfast and singing quietly and bravely to myself. I was very lost.

Always it has helped me to sing in dismal moments, lifting the spirits out of their heaps and collapses. And just then it looked as if Paris, too, was trying to help me. A light, rosy and warm, suddenly went on in one of the shops up the street.

Groping my way there, I peered in the glass of the front door. It was a little yarn shop, and a short, wide-skirted figure was shuffling about, patting her many colors of yarn as if to wake them up, and sometimes stooping with great effort to retrieve one from the floor. I rapped on the glass. The face of a very old woman, all lace-like with wrinkles, turned toward me, her eyes blinking at the blur.

''Excuse me, madame,'' I said, hoping she spoke English. ''Could you help me, please? I'm lost.''

She opened the foor, brushing the fog away with reproving little sweeps of her hand as if it were a cobweb that should have known better than to impose itself between her and her customers. She started when she saw me clearly, and her eyes grew very large with something like disbelief. I noticed that there were bread crumbs in my beard, and that one of my shoelaces had come undone as if to deny having any part in my troubles, and I was afraid that my appearance scandalized the old woman. But then, here eyes softening to a kind of wonder, she gestured for me to come inside.

There, before I could say a word, she asked, ''Do you believe in ghosts, young man?''

''Ghosts? No, not really.''

''But you should. You are one yourself.''

I smiled. ''Madame exaggerates a little, I think. I'm only lost, not departed.''

''A moment, please,'' she said, excusing herself, then disappeared through a bead curtain at the back of the shop. I tied my shoelace and scooped the crumbs from my beard and then put them in my pocket. I thought perhaps she'd gone to get a picture of some dearly remembered person I looked like, and so out of respect I should tidy up. But when she returned she was holding a patch of yellow cloth in her hand. To my astonishment, I recognized the Star of David.

She sat down on a bench by the door and motioned for me please to sit beside her. It was as if I weren't really lost; as if, unbeknownst to myself, I'd kept a foggy rendezvous with her and the yellow star. She began to tell me a story.

It was the time of the German Occupation of Paris. She was then what she was now, an old woman and a shopkeeper. The difference was that, like all her people , she wore the yellow star on her coat.

One Thursday in July, 1942, a terrible calamity befell the Jews of Paris. A great roundup for deportation took place that day. The Vichy police went all over the city, taking Jews from their homes, off the streets, wherever they could be found.

She herself was taken from her shop but miraculously, a few moments later, escaped in the confusion and hid in a doorway. When the police were gone she just started walking as fast as she could up the street. She didn't know where to go. She had no one to hide her. Panic-stricken, she didn't even think to tear the yellow star from her coat.

There was a young man, a street sweeper with his broom and cart, working nearby. When he saw her star he did something she never forgot. He smiled at her. Nothing more; just smiled. Perhaps he had seen what was being done to the Jews that day, and the smile was his way of telling her that in his eyes she was still a human being. A smile, a look, there are moments when they are all that matter, when they tell you that you have at least one person on your side.

That smile gave her the courage to think. She removed the star from her coat and then took refuge in a church. A priest helped her, and in time she escaped to Switzerland. After the war she searched for the young man to thank him for saving her life. But she never found him. Perhaps like many Frenchmen, he'd been deported to Germany for forced labor. Few returned.

It was he whose ''ghost'' I was. I had, unlike him, a beard, but the face, the eyes, were the same; big, good eyes, almost (the old woman said) the eyes of a girl.

We stood. For a moment I wanted to tell her that we were of the same people, the same star she'd taken from her coat and kept, surely, in memory of the other young man. But I was afraid to differ from him in point of faith as well as beard, for it was our closeness that she prized, so I simply thanked her for giving me a great happiness. Always I had wished that I could have been there to help those who were in such peril, and now I knew that something of me was. Giving me a kiss on the cheek, she took me to the door and showed me the way to my hotel. We said good-bye.

The fog was beginning to thin, and I could see the first patch of the blue above Paris that was waiting with such impatience to unfold in all its glory. A grateful joy took me, and my heart soared.

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