Winter Steelhead and Auschwitz

Winter Steelhead  and Auschwitz.

Mid February, I went steelhead fishing.  Just a few afternoon hours on a close-to-civilization river.  I fished alone.  The water was too low.  The river, however, was gorgeous.  I knew that a fly guide had walked his clients through the run before I got there, coaching them to swing their flies through every sweet spot I would fish.  I managed to make a few far-bank casts and hoped that a big red-striped buck was tucked under the brush waiting to slurp my Intruder.  I even slid my finest Violet/purple two-tone MOAL Leech through the run, after resting it for a half hour.

I learned about the local river visitors by observing streamside debris:  they drink Coors Light, Bush Beer, Red Bull, and follow current events (apparently the talent search for Ms. Nude Oregon is in progress).

My flies swung well.  My mends stayed intact.  My casts – well – were casts.  No rods broken this trip.  No grabs.  No pulls, tugs, yanks, or any sign of anything responding to my fly, save a willow stick that failed to trigger even a hint of adrenaline when it stopped my swing.

I walked by two beaver ponds in a river-braid and watched juveniles feeding on the surface just before dark.  I wondered if they were coho, steelhead, or even cutthroat.  Young fish able to find shelter in winter ponds gives hope for future runs of wild fish.

I hurried past NO TRESPASSING OR ELSE signs, hoping that my local friend really did have the landowner’s OK to OK my being there.

The next morning, I was sitting in a coffee shop, trying to write a journal entry about the previous day’s fishing.  Not much to write about an unremarkable day.  Fishing wise anyway.

So there I was, when an elderly gentleman asked if he could join me for coffee.  Sure, I said, noting that he was using a walker.  The barista came over and asked Serge if he wanted his usual, and he did.  I was sketching salmon at the time.  He said some nice things about my art, not knowing anything at all about Chinook.

Uncharacteristically, I asked his age.  Ninety-three.  His accent was vaguely French.  I told him about my friend, Frank Moore, who was a teenager in Europe and the Normandy Invasion.  His eyes fixed mine.

Serge is Jewish.  At the age of about twelve, he was taken to a Nazi military police station, in the same hotel that housed the Gestapo.  He was identified as a Jew.  The officer he faced behind a desk happened to be a customer at the Barber Shop where Serge worked.  Jews were not allowed to attend school, so Serge worked at the Barber Shop, lathering customer’s faces in preparation for the Barber’s straight razor.  The officer recognized the young boy, of course, lectured him, and told him to get out.  If he had been delivered to the Gestapo side of the Hotel, or if another Officer had been on duty, he would have been sent to Auschwitz.

Months later, a knock came on the door of his family’s home.  They knew who it was and what it meant.  Serge kissed his mother goodbye for the last time, ran upstairs and quietly escaped to the roof of their home.  Three stories above ground, he hung silently from the edge of the roof, until he “gave up,” and fell to the ground.  Not a scratch.  No injuries.

Serge ran away.  He was given shelter by the French Resistance.  He moved around from house to house, village to village, until France was liberated.  Members of the French Resistance, the families who gave shelter to people like Serge, took terrible risks.  As a fourteen-year-old, Serge carried a Thompson Machine gun.  I asked if he ever shot anyone.  “No,” he said, “the gun was for protection,” but he was never in a situation where he needed to use it.

Serge’s parents died in Auschwitz.  He never saw or heard from them after the knock at the door.

Serge told me he could still see the face of the man who had likely turned his family over to the Gestapo – couldn’t remember the man’s name, but could still see his face.  His family knew the knock would come someday.  I didn’t ask why they hadn’t fled before that day.

It was customary for the Nazis to invite neighbors to loot the homes of Jewish families when they were taken away to Concentration Camps.  It was clear that they were not ever coming home again.  Forty years after the war ended, Serge and his wife, a Catholic, not that it matters, returned to France and visited their neighbors, still living in the same house after so many years.  Serge told me that he recognized a painting “of a beautiful lady” that had belonged to his family – now hanging in his neighbors house.

Serge said nothing at the time, only whispered to his wife that he wanted to leave.  “I’m too old to travel now,” he told me.  “I had a stroke last year and can barely walk now.”  “But if I could ever go back there again, this time I would say something to them about the painting.”

Serge talked about the French who worked with the Nazis, the collaborators.  No wonder the term “collaboration” has a bad taste in the context of environmental protection negotiations.  He told me that the French “took care” of the Nazis and the Nazi collaborators when France was liberated by the Americans.  He told me that the Americans took prisoners.  The French did not.  “You mean they killed them all,” I asked?  “Not all,” he said.  It depended on the crimes they committed.  But the French, basically, took no prisoners, and many Nazis and Nazi collaborators were killed.  Serge was very matter-of-fact telling me this.

We sat there some time, talking.  Serge managed the Hilton Hotel in Portland.  “Steve” Spielberg interviewed him researching the movie Saving Private Ryan.  He has seven grandchildren.  A replica of the “beautiful lady” painting once hung in the Spaghetti Factory restaurant in Portland.  He bought it from the owner, and the painting now hangs in Serge’s apartment.

Eventually, we parted.  Walking out of the coffee shop, I handed three-bucks to the homeless man I had walked past for a year.  He has two shopping carts to carry his stuff; a fishing rod crammed in corner of each cart.  “What’s your name,” I asked.  My conversation with Serge left me feeling very brave, very brave indeed.  “Dilly,” he answered.  “Did you ever fish much?’ I asked the question I had been wanting to ask for a year, but never uttered.

“Oh sure,” Dilly answered.  “One time I caught 60 trout in an hour; my buddy caught 59.”  “We were up at Lolo, with the Boy Scouts.”  “One time we got ice from a snow bank and packed out 512 trout.”

“You take care of yourself,” I said to Dilly, feeling very sad all of a sudden.

Off I went with my life.  No Auschwitz.  No shopping carts.

Wonder when I’ll be able to go fishing again?


8 thoughts on “Winter Steelhead and Auschwitz

  1. We Oregonians must live the most sheltered, easy lives of any humans in history. Our environment is so overwhelmingly benevolent I can’t help but wonder whether Mother Nature will strike some balance. Until that day, I’m going to appreciate all the benefits of being a modern Oregonian…with a fly rod.

  2. Nothing to add, but if I don’t then it might seem that no one has read or understood. Everyone should read and study this time in history. Those who do not understand are destined to repeat.

    You are good guy, Jay. I hope our paths cross.

    Thanks for looking after the good folks at Caddisfly. Young Nate particularly is a good friend and a good guy.

    1. Rick: Thank you for reading past the “no, I didn’t catch any steelhead again” part to get to the really important spirit of this story. I see men in their late eighties and early nineties who survived WW II, the Concentration Camps, Korea, and the Great Depression slipping into oblivion. Ordinary men — and heroes — at the same time. Many people have no comprehension of what they have seen and done. Let us all remember, and respect the sacrifices they have made to pave the way for our lives. JN

      1. Jay, great piece, well written, thank you. After a failed attempt to work with a local fire district I’m back trying to re-learn my cast and how in the heck I can nab a stelhead out of the Okanogan River, Thanks again I’ll be back. Skip

      2. SKIP. Glad you found some insight in this piece. Best wishes on your back and back-cast, and steelhead.


    1. Chris: as much as I love fly fishing, rivers, and salmon, it is amazing when I get my head wrapped around other aspects of life and other people’s life experiences. It makes my own down-days seem trivial (most of the time). Thanks for your kind words. JN

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