In 1984 when the Eurotunnel was a mere vision between Maggie Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterand, those long, boring five-hour drives from Paris back home to London were only endured with Gilbert Montagne’s Liberté blasting out from my little bronze mini Innocenti. “On vas s’aimer, ou l’amour est beau….oh oh oh oh” would blast from the speakers until I reached the misty Hoverport in Calais.
This was the song we’d play, amongst others – after a hard day’s work in the Sentier (fashion manufacturing district). We’d gather at Le Pastel – a restaurant/piano bar just off the Boulevard Sebastapol -and sing along with the pianist to all of Gilbert’s songs.
The restaurant was crammed with first-generation, successful Jewish immigrants from North Africa who had gone from rags to riches manufacturing in the fashion business. Blind singer Gilbert Montagne was their hero. His lively songs summed up the dreams of this generation.
I had always thought that Gilbert Montagne was a philosemitic Frenchman with not a drop of Jewish blood in his veins. But I read recently that he had gone to live in Israel with his current wife – a Jewess. I was mystified – how did Gilbert come to such a momentous decision? It turned out that Gilbert himself had made a startling discovery which changed his life.
His mother, Jeanne Kalfon, was Jewish from Algeria. She was the second wife of a Catholic Frenchman she had met in 1935. During those dark years of the Second World War, she had taken on the identity of Gilbert’s father’s first wife – Jeanne Pobel. She learnt everything she could about Jeanne Pobel, what village she came from, the genealogy of her family going back several generations, in case the SS came to interrogate her. It was thus that Jeanne Kalfon survived WWII.
Gilbert Montagne himself assumed that his father’s first wife, Jeanne Pobel, had died. But some five years ago, on the off-chance, he tried to trace her through Directory Inquiries. Miraculously, the operator came up with her telephone number. He was thus able to meet the woman who had saved his natural mother’s life. Montagne wrote a book telling his extraordinary story: ‘Je savais que c’etait toi’.
Montagne has fully embraced his Jewish identity and has played at concerts in Israel. An increasingly antisemitic climate in France has pushed 8,000 Jews to make aliya to Israel. Montagne and Enrico Macias are two popular celebrities who have also made the move.
Now a 2nd generation of French Jews is slowly moving en masse to set up home in North London due to a declining French economy and rising anti-semitism. Their parents could hardly speak English – other than a few chat up lines – but their children are bilingual and enjoying London life.
But a nostalgie for Paris is in their blood, and not fully assimilated in London, they are bringing Gilbert Montagne to London next week – along with the French chief rabbi Haim Korsia for a charity concert in Central London.
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Michelle Huberman is the Creative Director of Harif and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org