How hard do you figure it is to be great at any one thing?
I mean, how hard is it to become a great painter? It would take a lifetime.
How about horse breeder? Probably another lifetime.
Or how about getting elected mayor of your hometown? (I couldn’t be elected dog catcher, even if all my constituents were cats.)
Oh, I know: how about saving war refugees in the face of a race-based genocidal campaign conducted by an all-powerful maniac controlling a psychopathic military and a truly terrifying army of quisling bullyboys?
I found someone who was great at all those things, when being great at just one would have been the accomplishment of a lifetime. Instead of being great at just one of those things, this man saved lives of helpless refugees and made my own life possible.
His name was Paul Mirat. He was an illustrator and a painter — and his art is still in high demand. I am thankful that one of his oil paintings hangs on a wall in my office.
He owned and trained prize-winning thoroughbred horses. He was a leading agronomist. He trained American forces in trench warfare before they set sail for WWI.
And that was before he became mayor of his home town and truly distinguished himself in the eyes of eternity: He convinced his fellow citizens to hide thousands of refugees, mostly Jews, saving them from death in French and Nazi concentration camps. In the face of the Gestapo no less. Meillon, a town of 600 inhabitants, hid close to 2,000 people.
My father was one of the people saved by Paul Mirat. But I didn’t learn this from my father — at least not directly. I learned about it thanks to some photos I found in an old metal box my mother saved, and thanks to his grandson, also Paul Mirat, who has generously shared his grandfather’s story with me. He has also been traveling the world to share the story of Meillon’s role during WWII.
The story of how I learned about Paul Mirat is at the heart of my memoir, The Silk Factory: Finding the Threads of My Family’s True Holocaust Story, to be published in June by Amsterdam Publishers.
As the title of the memoir suggests, my family owned a silk factory before the Nazi government made that impossible. But to my surprise, the factory still exists, and my memoir centers on my journey to visit my father’s home town in Bavaria, and the factory itself, and on how I’ve come to terms with the war and everything that followed.
Perversely, I was inspired in large part by Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Everything is Illuminated, for which I have developed a deep and burning hatred. Despite the brilliant writing it displays, Foer’s work gets everything important wrong. What it illuminates is Foer’s unearned bitterness and bile. People are more complex and, thankfully, more enlightened, than his snide exercise in self-importance would have us think.
Make no mistake — I had a horrible time in Ansbach, and I believe my family has suffered — not just during the war, but in subsequent generations as well. We became worse people in some ways. I am a far angrier, more short-tempered, more intolerant person than I would like to be, and that my children deserve, and part of that is the result of the Holocaust. This is something I also discuss in the memoir.
When we think about greatness, we tend to think in terms of top-ten lists, of whose name sits on top of lists, and of how dominant this person was in their times. We see this mostly in sports, but also in painting, literature, politics, saintliness — you name it. The greatest philosophers compared themselves to their predecessors, peers, and followers, and sought to dominate them all. Who was influenced by whom is the preferred parlor game of the liberal arts.
Being great at something is very hard. I’ve tried very hard at just one thing, and am no one’s idea of great. Good, very good even — but not great.
Paul Mirat was great. At many things. Some more important than others. But none more than at showing the greatness of the face of humanity. It is the face of courage, rectitude, and humanity.
His grandson Paul Mirat is kindness incarnate, generous with his time and his kitchen, fiercely proud of his region and the history of the Bearn. He welcomed me and my son and showed us where my father lived for at least part of his incarceration — in the man’s own house. He fried us up some pork chops and fed us delicious local peaches for dessert. He walked us around town, introduced us to people who had lived through that time, he showed us documents no one had seen before.
Paul Mirat has gotten busy burnishing the reputation of Meillon; our visit seems to have sparked in him a need to shine a light on what happened in Meillon during WWII, to talk about what most people would rather simply forget. Paul, a former communications executive for the city of Pau, is a great communicator. He understands what makes people pay attention. He is garrulous and fabulous. But not a fabulist and not a propagandizer, he is simply a great truth-sharing storyteller.
Paul Mirat was great. Paul Mirat is great. Long live Paul Mirat!