On June 25th of 1930, Amalie turned eighteen and lived with her parents near the Saint-Lizier Cathedral in a house overlooking the Salat river in France. One year later, she would go to the Spanish side of the Pyrenees to become a teacher of children, change her name to Amala, and marry a sheep farmer who lived high on a mountain and had a bent toward philosophy.
Amalie had always been an unpredictable child her father would say of his beloved daughter—smart, impetuous, and often unruly. She was always driven to follow her whims —no matter the consequence.
Amalie’s father had not purchased the lavish house on the river and could never have done so on his meager salary as a public schoolteacher. The home had been his family for nearly 100 years. It dated to a great-great uncle from the Tobelem family who had been a wealthy merchant in Morocco. This uncle had purchased the house when he moved from Morocco to France in the 1850’s. When he died childless, the house passed through generations of Tobelems until it was inherited by Amalie’s father who was then a single man teaching in a Moroccan public school in Casa Blanca. Upon receiving the house as his inheritance, Amalie’s father moved to France to claim it, but only after first securing a humble teaching position in Saint-Lizier so he could afford the taxes on the house and buy necessities. When people asked him how had acquired his wealth, he told them he had sold a lucrative business in Morocco. He bathed in the status that the home conferred upon him and his family.
On her birthday, Amalie sat at her learned father’s desk in his library. Behind her was a wall of his many books extending to the ceiling. Many more tomes gathered mildew in the basement and others were covered in dust in the attic. Most were in French, but some were in English, German, and Arabic. Her father always said that if times became difficult, he would start a bookstore. Though her taste in literature was broad, she had a secret place in the attic where she sneaked inside and indulged in forbidden books. Each volume in her special collection contained vivid, spicy depictions of lascivious lovers, fornicators, and adulterers in flagrante delicto. She relished the fact that the subjects were irresistibly forbidden.
In the dining room adjacent to the study, her maman and père, Hana and Hillel Tobelem, were quarrelling about politics behind a closed door. The weakened third Republic of France was under threat from the conservative New Right. The revanchist movement had grown skilled at fearmongering over the Great Depression, the threat of communism, foreign immigration, and the self-inflicted scandals that had roiled the feckless left-leaning government. The New Right claimed they had a cure for the country’s ills. France, they said, needed nothing less than an iron fisted authoritarian government to quickly right the ship. Many in France were beginning to agree.
It was not that Hillel and Hana were on opposite sides of the political divide—both leaned liberal. True, they were not pleased with the performance of their current progressive government. But it was better than what the New Right proffered. No, their argument was over Hana’s right to vote—or, rather, her lack of that right.
“Mamour,” began Hana, knowing that calling him sweetheart would nudge him off balance. “The issue is whether we have enough votes to prevail. We do not. Why? It is very simple my husband. Half the population cannot cast a vote. And by that, I mean women—women like me.” Hillel squirmed in his chair at her words. “The election is but two years away,” she added. “And these strutting authoritarians clamoring for a new King or a fresh dictator may well sweep themselves into government unless something is done,” she urged as her hands contorted into small fists in her lap. “You know what will happen then. We will need to flee France.”
“Hana, Hana,” Hillel replied throwing his hands above his head in exasperation. “This is an old argument we seem never to put to bed. There are good reasons for women not to vote. And things are not so dire that we need to run away and leave our lovely home just because of some noisy politics.”
“Name the reasons women should not have the right to vote Metuka,” this time using the Hebrew word for sweetie as a cudgel. Sometimes she wished she knew Ladino so she could arm herself with more endearments to use as weapons against Hillel. But though she was born to Sephardic parents, they had left Morocco before she was born. So, she grew up speaking French in Saint-Lizier. Lately she had learned a smattering of Yiddish from an Ashkenazi woman whom she knew in town. But she never learned Ladino like Hillel who grew up in Morocco or Amalie who learned it from her father as a child.
Hillel knew that listing his specific reasons for denying women’s suffrage as she had requested would only empower her. He had learned to parry this strategy of hers of dividing up the issues in an argument and then conquering each isolated one as if they were abandoned soldiers. That approach allowed her to pick apart his logic for each point he was reckless enough to name. Thus, deflection was the better course for Hillel. “Not again Hana. You know where this will lead— bad feelings, cold dinners, sitting in silence, and separate beds for a week. Please, not tonight.”
Amalie pressed her ear against the door of the study to overhear better. She did not know why she enjoyed eavesdropping on her parents. She knew it was disobedient, disrespectful, and wrong but that only made it tantalizing. Her devoted père had raised her to be worldly, womanly, and free thinking. Universal education had been the norm for Jewish girls in Morocco since 1860. So, by tutoring Amalie in the arts and sciences, he was merely following tradition. It was assumed. In Hillel’s mind, her education also earned her the right to vote. Beyond that right, he also wanted her to have equal rights in employment. After all, even in chaotic Spain on the other side of the mountains, one party was poised to grant women those very rights with their upcoming election in June of 1931. It was only a year away.
But Hillel dared not confide his aspirations for Amalie to Hana. His wife was of his world, not the future world that Amalie would inherit. Granting equality to Hana now would give her power just as his power waned with age. And such a shift in his patriarchal birthright would disturb the equilibrium of their marriage. That was more than he could tolerate. Let sleeping dogs lie.
Despite his outward dismissal of his wife’s concerns, he secretly agreed that Hanna was correct to worry about the upcoming vote in France. The strength of the liberal coalition that had safeguarded their rights from Christian zealots, revanchist monarchists, and sinister politicians bellowing for dictatorial power was weakening. What the republic needed now was a fresh infusion of liberal votes to add to what they had in-hand. Women might provide those needed votes, if only they had the franchise. But Hillel convinced himself into believing that the authoritarian threat was not that serious. He had heard such blustering before. Nothing too drastic needed to be done much less give women the right to vote or flee France. Silly, he thought dismissively. Besides, that would mean leaving their home by the river, and that he would not do.
Sometimes he reflected honestly on how important the house was to his sense of self. In Africa, he once saw hunters catching monkeys. They drilled a small hole into a gourd and then filled it with fruit and nuts. The hole was just large enough for a monkey’s open hand to squeeze through. But when the monkey closes his hand over a fistful of the fruit inside, the hole is too small to pull it back out. Even as the frightening shadow of the hunter hangs over his head, he won’t let go. That is, you, Hillel. It was a thought he allowed himself to think but never to say out loud.
Amalie soon bored of listening to the quarrel and pulled her ear away from the door. But their argument reminded her of her own worries. She was a devoted reader of The Saint-Lizier Voix over coffee every morning at her favorite boulangerie. From her reading of the paper, she knew the dangers lurking on the horizon.
The global depression of 1929 was bruising all of Europe—not just France and the United States. And with the financial turmoil, the political tides were flowing away from liberal democracy and toward the empty promises of dictators. Germany was now enamored with a fascist named Hitler. That man, she read, was growing bolder month by month encouraged by his gullible adherents who believed his every lie. Frighteningly, he based his rising influence on demagoguery over old grievances for perceived wrongs even when the wrongs were based on falsehoods. He fear-mongered over the threat of communists, socialists, Jews, Gypsies, and railed at the reparations forced on Germany by the Allied Powers after the war to end all wars.
More alarmingly, he spoke of lebensraum—living space that he wanted to wrest from other countries for Germany’s use—perhaps even France she worried. After all, France had taken Alsace-Lorraine from them as part of the Treaty of Versailles. Maybe, she worried, he would offer to his aggrieved countrymen, that Germany should take it back.
And just that morning, Amalie read in the Voix that Hitler had announced— with no basis in fact —that Germany had never really lost the war to end all wars on the field. Instead, victory had been snatched from Germany by dark forces claiming defeat from within. Dolchstosslegende, he called it: a stab in the back she read. She knew it was false, but it did not seem to matter because enough Germans did believe it. “Hitler said it was true,” they said. And that was enough. Believe only me, he urged. My critics in the newspapers lie, he claimed. “Lügenpresse,“ he called it. The lying press. He was fashioning himself into a cult leader who could do no wrong and whose militant adherents would topple the government by force at his whim.
In the same Voix edition was an article on Italy where the news was similar. A dictator had led Italy for almost a decade. Worse, his grip on power was flourishing under a fresh banner of making Rome real again through fascism. Even in the Americas—the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, fascists, communists, socialists, and pro-Nazi groups were a rising threat amid increased political tensions over the Great Depression. This was the world that, as her father said, she would inherit—a dangerous world that seemed to be spinning out of control. Where, she wondered, can I be free and safe?
On the Continent, only Spain of the major countries seemed to be on a liberal path. Its monarchy was in retreat and the dictatorship it had supported had already failed by the time Hanna and Hillel were having their tiff in 1930. Now there was talk of a people’s government in Spain. It was being called the Second Republic. In it, women were being promised equal rights to men. Other liberal freedoms would prevail. Old religious yokes would be tossed. It sounded wonderful to Amala even if it was not yet the law. That required a vote and a new constitution.
But the darker reality in Spain was mixed. Though the prospect of a fresh new government was energizing a downtrodden left, it was panicking the powerful on the right. There was no guarantee that the Popular Front, the coalition supporting a Second Republic, would ever be voted into power. On the right, Catholics and Monarchists yearned for a return to the old ways. Frighteningly, they were bulwarked by their armed civilian militias called the Requetés who sported blood red berets. Wealthy landowners and industrialists had much to lose if socialism and, god forbid, communism was voted in under the proposed Second Republic. They vehemently opposed it.
The military craved order and threatened to step in if the new government was not to their liking. They already had a history of coups. Meanwhile, fascists and falangists thirsted for naked authoritarian power to crush the liberal trend. They had the support of despots like Hitler and Mussolini. Yet despite the risks to the lofty goals of the Second Republic ever being realized, eighteen-year-old Amalie feared even more for her future in France which was toying with its own retreat into darkness. Even worse, it shared a border with an egocentric leader who was eager for land, thirsted for revenge for past wrongs, and hungered for retribution.
So, Amalie turned her attention to the land across the Pyrenees. The Popular Front, which was pushing for a liberal Second Republic, was already busy discussing a new constitution. It promised free speech and suffrage for women. So as France fretted with its future, and Germany rattled its rapidly growing stock of sabers, Amalie dreamed of a life on the other side of the Pyrenees and rooted for the Second Republic to come into being with all its promises.
A year later, as Hitler’s and Mussolini’s military might grew, Amalie answered an advertisement in the Voix for a schoolteacher to come to a small village in the Spanish Pyrenees called Zegama nestled in the Basque Country. “You are too young to leave our beautiful house on the river,” protested her doting father.
But the school promised a small salary, room and board, a beautiful view of the Aizkorri Massif, a taste of adult freedom, and a chance to vote. Even better, it was high in the Pyrenees and too remote, she hoped, for armies to trouble with. The advertisement read: “Teacher wanted in Zegama Spain in the Shadow of Aizkorri ” Perhaps on the mountain, I will be safe from madmen?
Fours years later, Amalie married a shepherd and lived high on the mountain when news came that the Spanish Civil War had broken out on the foothills below.