Bernard Mednicki committed an act so horrific he repressed it for forty-five years. Then I interviewed him and asked him one perfect question.
Bernard Flees Nazis, Buries a Secret
Bernard Mednicki was a Belgian Jew who fled to France with his wife and two children when the Nazis invaded in 1940. In France, they assumed a Christian identity and settled in Volvic, a small town in the mountainous southern region. There, a chance encounter with a prominent Nazi collaborator forced Bernard to confess his Jewish roots.
What happened next led directly to his becoming part of the Maquis, the French resistance. While there, he committed a crime so unspeakable, he buried it in his memory and never spoke of it again. It silently taunted him.
Bernard Refutes a Myth
I met Bernard at a scholarly conference on the Jewish resistance of World War II. Most of the participants were there on the strength of research papers we had submitted and that had been accepted. Bernard was there to tell stories about life in the resistance.
He was living proof to me that the mythology of the Jews all going to their fates “like lambs to the slaughter” had been a lie. I followed him around throughout the conference. I took notes on every story he told and recorded his mannerisms. We exchanged addresses. That summer, I visited him at his home in Philadelphia and he asked me to write his life story.
The interview took place at my home in Ann Arbor, where he came with his second wife, Minnie. I asked, “Where does your story begin?”
Bernard was the ideal interview subject. He began answering my question and barely stopped for six straight ninety-minute sessions that I recorded on my cassette player. “And that’s my story,” he concluded.
I asked few questions during that time. Mostly, I took notes. I wrote questions to ask him later. I wanted him to give me the broader story without interruptions.
Over the next six sessions, I asked him the questions I had compiled during the first six sessions. Essentially, he told me his life story twice.
The Perfect Question Comes to Me
But it was during the eleventh session when Bernard had his breakthrough.
He was recalling for me the time he slit another man’s throat.
That wasn’t the memory he was repressing.
“I preferred grenades,” he said. “You toss it and turn around. It explodes. Maybe someone dies, a mother’s son. Maybe you missed. You don’t know. But killing one-on-one, that you know.”
Immediately after, I reasoned, he’d have been numb from shock. But back at camp, sitting by the campfire with his comrades under the moonlit sky, the real Bernard would emerge.
A question came to me suddenly: “What did you do that night?”
“I don’t remember!” he exclaimed. He shook his finger at me.
His anger was unexpected. Or was that anger? I wasn’t sure. Should I ask another question? I pondered my alternatives as I struggled to embrace the silence.
Then suddenly he exclaimed, “Ah, yes, I remember.” He buried his face in his hands and sobbed freely as he relieved his memory. When he was done, he said, “If I could I would get drunk but I want now to finish my story. When it is finished, I’ll say goodbye and go to join my ancestors.”
Bernard Finds Peace
That incident happened at the tail end of two weeks of intensive interviewing. Every night to get to sleep, Bernard had taken a sleeping pill. Every morning, he was the first one up. This night, he took no sleeping pill for the first time. The next morning, he was sleeping soundly when I awoke.
We had one final session to wrap up loose ends. When I sent Bernard the final manuscript six months later, he photocopied it a dozen times and gave copies to family members. Shortly after that, his family moved him into an assisted living facility where he died, at peace with his past, ready to join his ancestors.
The Perfect Question Brings Closure
Over the years since he arrived in Philadelphia, Bernard had spoken often to crowds old and young about how he and his family had survived the Holocaust.
But his talks always followed the same format: 40 minutes of surface storytelling, 20 minutes of Q-A, My questions cut through the surface.
Then I asked him one perfect question. His story combines drama with humor. Treat yourself to your copy here.
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Ken Wachsberger is a book coach, author, and editor. His latest book is You’ve Got the Time: How to Write and Publish That Book in You. He tells Bernard’s whole story in Never Be Afraid: A Belgian Jew in the French Resistance. For book coaching, editing, and speaking, email Ken at [email protected].