Become a member
Follow us:

My earliest memory of racism - part three

Words: Anahita Diba

Photos: Rafael Yaghobzadeh

Follow us:

Nine people – one born in every decade from the 1920s to the 2000s – recount the first moment they became aware of racism. This is the final part in a three-part series.

In the first part of our series of photo portraits on people’s earliest experiences of racism, we heard accounts of discrimination from neighbours, school friends and roommates. In the second part we focused on how racism is intertwined with power, and is often unspoken. In this third and final part, we hear from three retired citizens from around Paris, all from very different ethnic backgrounds. What was their experience then? And now? Have things improved?


Ginette Kolinka, 95, Auschwitz survivor

As a young child, I never suffered from racism or antisemitism. I wasn’t aware of it. It was only during the occupation in World War II that Jews were forced to stand out. I wore the yellow star without a problem. You had to show you were a Jew? Fine. I showed it with pride. It was in 1940, I was 15 years old, and I was studying at a private school for typing and stenography in Paris. No one said anything when I arrived in class, people acted as though they didn’t see the star.

Back then, Jews had to respect a curfew, we had to be home by 8.30pm, and in the subway we could only get in the last car. We weren’t allowed to go to the movies, the library, university, or practice sports. I remember not being allowed to swim, but I cheated sometimes and went without wearing my star. If I’d been discovered, it would have been a problem for me and my family.

“The Gestapo lined them up and made them pull down their pants. They were circumcised; proof to them that they were Jews”

Ginette Kolinka

In the free zone, where we lived between 1942 and 1944, we stopped wearing our star. We didn’t register as Jews in the census but as orthodox Christians of Russian origin: the Cherkasky family. We thought everyone believed us until we got turned in. We never found out who told on us.

March 13, 1944 was a day I will never forget. It was almost springtime, I was 19 and working at the open-air market on the battlements of Avignon, with my sisters and cousin. On my lunch break that day I went home and found the Gestapo in our house. “You are Jews,” they said. “We are here to arrest you.” “No, we’re not Jews,” I replied. When we’d crossed the dividing line between occupied and free France, in 1942, they had also asked us that question and we had denied being Jews; they had kept us for several days in Angoulême, then let us go – we didn’t have a foreign accent, we had fake IDs and we were women. So I thought it would be the same this time, but now they had my father, my 12-year-old brother and my 14-year-old cousin. The Gestapo lined them up and made them pull down their pants. They were circumcised; proof to them that they were Jews.

We were arrested and forced into their Citroën Traction Avants, but it was done without brutality. There was a young militiaman in one of the cars, I had seen him at the market, smiling at us, and I thought he would go back and arrest my sisters and cousin too. But he didn’t. They had four of us, it was enough.

We didn’t speak in the car. We knew that they would be sending us to labour camps. I imagined hard labour, in a farm or a factory. I didn’t feel anything, not even fear. We spent a night in jail in Avignon, then two weeks in the Baumettes prison in Marseille. It was there we got separated; my dad was put in a cell and I was put in a room with other women. Then we were sent to Drancy. Up until the deportation, we were treated reasonably well, we weren’t resistants, so were spared any torture. On April 13 we were taken to Birkenau-Auschwitz. I was in convoy number 71, there were about 1,500 people in that train.

On the day of her arrest, Ginette was working at a market in Avignon and when she went home for lunch, she found the Gestapo there waiting for her.

One of the last Auschwitz survivors in France, Ginette Kolinka was 19 when she was taken to Nazi Germany’s largest concentration camp.

People always ask what the worst thing was about the camps. Impossible to say because everything was horrendous. We were in the hands of heinous, inhumane people who ran out of ways of killing us. There was mud, dirt, constant screaming. I was lucky in that I came back, others weren’t so lucky. When I got back, the sound of people speaking German horrified me; I blamed them all. I have no hatred any more, I have changed.

I have friends who lived through the mass arrest of Jews in Paris in July 1942, the Rafle du Vel’ d’Hiv’. They say they remember how people just looked on, apparently indifferent, as they were rounded up, like it was some kind of show. And today it’s the same. In the subway I see policemen stopping black people, and Arabs, while they let well-dressed thugs walk freely because they look “French”. I don’t intervene because, like most of us, I’m a coward. I should speak up, ask them, “Why are you doing this?” But I don’t, even though inside it hurts.

I tell young people to watch out when they use the word “the”, as in “the Arabs,” “the Jews,” “the Chinese”. The “the” means there is just one uniform category, but there are good and bad people in any group, also among Jews. As soon as you say, “I don’t like these people, or those people,” I say, “watch out, you’ve already got one foot in Auschwitz” .


Aboudou Cissokho, 84, retired

In 1958 I was 21 and worked in a gas cylinder factory in Le Havre – my first job in France. I had just arrived from Golmy, Senegal and was hired on the spot as I passed the factory. The foreman introduced me as Mr. Cissokho to two other workers, Michel and Henri. We shook hands. It was a tough job – eight hours a day, with ovens firing at 900 degrees Celsius. Henri, who showed me how the oven worked, was a sweet guy, with quiet manners. Michel, in his fifties, was a huge man of Polish origin, much bigger and taller than me. He was a union leader.

“In the history of slavery, we talk a lot about what the Europeans and Americans did, but have totally forgotten about what the Arab people did, and what black nobility and royalty did to their own people”

Aboudou Cissokho

On my second day at work Michel said, “Hey, bamboula, make sure you watch the oven, I have to see the boss.” And he left for a meeting. From then on, he never used my name Aboudou, it was always “bamboula“. I thought, I can’t get angry, so I laughed. I wasn’t really hurt because to me he wasn’t an intelligent man. But I needed to find something to make him stop, to make him understand this wasn’t right.

I didn’t talk about it, but Henri had heard him say it and told me to forget about it. But I didn’t. After a couple of days, I found a solution. Back then, they called Arabs and pieds-noirs, “bougnoules”. So each time I saw Michel, I called him, “tank bougnoule”. For about ten days, we played that game; he called me “bamboula”, I called him “tank bougnoule”. He finally asked someone what it meant. I expected him to get angry, but he didn’t, he just stopped calling me “bamboula” and that was the end of it.

Racism is everywhere. Everyone is racist. In Renault factories in 1963, there were fights between Arabs and black people; the Arabs used to say there were too many blacks. In the history of slavery, we talk a lot about what the Europeans and Americans did, but have totally forgotten about what the Arab people did, and what black nobility and royalty did to their own people.

Originally from Senegal, Aboudou Cissokho has come across racism everywhere since arriving in France as a young man. But he is not one to let it happen without saying anything.

Aboudou’s first job in France was at a gas cylinder factory in Le Havre. It is here that he first experienced racism.

In Paris, where I worked as a bodyguard and security guard, I experienced racism on many occasions. Nothing really important, except one day in the 80s. I was sitting on bus number 60 to Gambetta and a woman passenger in her sixties was insulting a black woman. “Look how she’s dressed, dirty black, go back to your bushes, Négresse,” that sort of thing. The woman was so ashamed she got off the bus. I wondered what to do without shouting or making a fuss. So I went and sat next to her. Turning to me she said, “Look at this gorilla. Go back to your trees!” I didn’t say anything but when she got to her stop I told her: “Lady, you can’t get out, don’t worry, we will go to the police station and we’ll explain what you just said.” At the end of the line the bus driver and a manager came over to me and said, “Listen, she’s old, if you file a complaint she’ll be sentenced. Just let it go.” I said fine. Instead I walked up to her, opened her mouth wide and spat in it. I told her: “That’s what a gorilla does. That’ll teach you to insult black people.”

Today, things haven’t changed. Now, it’s even worse. Whether black or white, people can’t stand each other anymore. Before we would accept the other, we would laugh and joke with one another. Now we don’t respect each other anymore, we don’t talk to each other anymore, we don’t know each other anymore. But we are all the same.

During my time, there weren’t many demonstrations. Racism existed before we did, and it will continue when we’re gone. Whatever you do, it won’t change anything. The more you march, the worse it will be. The more you protest, the less you will achieve. What you want, what you ask for, you won’t get. And the anger will only increase.


Van Huy Nguyen, 67, retired

I was born in Dalat, Vietnam, in 1953, during the Indochina war. From 1981 I made constant attempts to leave my country and on the 27th attempt I finally succeeded. In April 1983 I boarded a French boat that took us to Hong Kong; we were flown to France in August, first to Roissy, then to a transit centre in Créteil and eventually to Besançon.

At the time, “racism” was a foreign word to me, we didn’t talk about it. But we were aware we were different. So we always tried to stay dignified in order not to be mistreated. We Asians have a code of honour: whatever we do, we must never lose face, lose our honour, the honour of Asia.

“For young people like my daughter Victoire, who is 19, a human being is a human being, all people are equal, there is no difference”

Van Huy Nguyen

My first impression when I arrived in Besançon was not exactly of racism, but of a sort of contempt; the French regarded Asians as an underdeveloped people. They had seen images of boat people, starving and living in misery.

I learned French quickly, started looking for a job, and applied for a position in the marketing department of the watch manufacturer Montres Dodane. I was hired as a product manager, had nice colleagues who were surprised at how well educated I was, speaking English and French. It was all going well.

In 1984, the boss took me to a watch fair in Bâle, Switzerland, along with the company’s salesman, Jacques, who was five or six years older than me, tall, blond with blue eyes, very handsome. My job was to prepare the watches and put them on display in our booth. Before long, some salesmen from Singapore started talking to me in English, showing interest in our watches. Jacques interrupted, asking why I was talking to, “those Chinese”. I told him they wanted to buy 100 watches, which was a lot! Jacques tried to push me aside so he could finalise the deal. “I’m the salesman, not you,” he said. The boss told him off: “Let Van Huy be, he’s a good seller”.

When Van Huy was sent to a watch fair in Switzerland as an assistant, he ended up selling 1,000 watches. Yet he was told that he couldn’t represent the company abroad as a salesman.

Van Huy Nguyen learned French quickly, but was aware that as an Asian, he was always seen as “different”.

Altogether I sold about 1,000 watches to different Asian clients. When the fair ended,  I asked to be promoted as a salesman, I was obviously qualified. But Jacques said, “No way, you’re not French, it’s not for you. An Asian cannot represent a French company abroad, it has to be a Frenchman”. He talked in a gentle way, it didn’t feel like racism, so I just thought, “whatever”. I did ask the boss for a bonus, for all the watches I had sold, but it never happened. And Jacques stopped me attending other fairs abroad.

I worked at Montres Dodane until 1986; they needed me because I was a hard worker. At the time, any racism there was felt like something positive. The boss used to say: “Van Huy can do anything, just ask him”. When we had to update our computer data, outside working hours, he asked me to do it and paid me overtime. I was fine with it. But he never promoted me, never sent me abroad again. I was turning in profits for the company but Jacques would get commissions and I wouldn’t. So I decided to train myself in foreign trade and I quit. Now that I think about Jacques, I realise he was racist.

In the 1980s and 1990s, nobody talked about racism much, but when a foreigner arrived in France, it was generally believed that the French were superior. This difference still exists, but there is less mistreatment; the way people think has changed. For young people like my daughter Victoire, who is 19, a human being is a human being, all people are equal, there is no difference.

We support marches against racism, but only if they are peaceful. I don’t like people who destroy property or don’t respect the law. There are usually no Asians in the demonstrations because we don’t want to be involved in violent actions. We don’t participate because we’re worried about our dignity, we’re worried we would lose face, for all the community.

For young generations who were born in France, who are French with an Asian appearance, it’s hard. They get upset when they face racism or injustice. But for us, first generation immigrants, we don’t bother. If there is contempt, I just tell them why do you care? Show them how superior you are through your skills and qualities. We have a different philosophy. You can’t change your appearance anyway.

The photographer Rafael Yaghobzadeh comes from a cosmopolitan family with Egyptian, Lebanese, Armenian, Assyrian and Iranian origins. He recently documented the protests against racial injustice in Paris and was impressed by the crowd of thousands of young people who gathered hand-in-hand for a better society.

In this portrait project, Rafael photographed not only the people who told their stories, but also ordinary objects that symbolise the stories.


Deep South by Paul Theroux

We dive into Paul Theroux’s book ‘Deep South’, plus a Q&A with the author himself.