Je suis libre!

Eiffel Tower and statue, Paris, France
Behind the Eiffel Tower, Paris | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Claude Wainstain is a sneaky man. He not only captivated me and Todd with his passionate storytelling, he had his wife Jacqueline hold us captive with a homemade dinner followed by fresh walnuts, French cheeses, toasted fava beans, pudding, and Nespresso coffee. Even if Claude’s stories had bored us—which they didn’t—our full stomachs would have prevented us from getting up from our seats at his kitchen table in St. Mandé, on the edge of Paris.

During our feast, Claude broke out a copy of his book, Judéopostale, in which he has collected stories of serendipity, coincidence, red tape, spirituality, and religion. His stories are far more interesting than you’d expect considering that each one is based on a Jewish-themed postage stamp.

Claude’s best story is personal, as all great stories are.

Claude the storyteller, St. Mande, Paris
Claude the storyteller, St. Mande, Paris | Photo by Lauren Girardin

The best story isn’t about a stamp, however – it’s about a letter. A single sheet of notepaper covered in handwriting that, even in French, I can see was written by someone more excited and happy than I’ve ever been in my life. As Claude translates the letter to English for us, his finger follows each line.

The letter begins boldly and joyously: “Jes su libre!!!”

It is the first words that Claude’s father wrote after being released from Auschwitz. Sent to his fiancée, the letter is full of hope—hope that she’s alive, that she’s waiting for him, and that she’s never stopped believing that he lived while so many others had been killed in the concentration camps. Since the fiancée becomes Claude’s mother, the story has a happy ending.

Throughout the telling of his father’s survival and his family’s beginnings, Claude’s wife Jacqueline sits with us at the kitchen table, wordlessly cracking fresh walnuts and smiling. She’s heard Claude tell this story many times before – but this time, as with each time the story is retold, the audience has not.