He grew up in Warsaw, but the streets of France had a major impact on the life of Aron Gridiger.

Born on 14 June 1910, Aron was the youngest of three children. His older brother, Max, and sister, Eve, were twins. Their parents had their own business in Warsaw, selling buttons and thread to tailors. They were hard working, but poor. By all accounts, Aron had a normal childhood - if growing up a Jew in pre-war Poland could be regarded as normal.

When he was about 19, Aron managed to cross the Polish border and make his way west to France. Several years later, in 1938, Max migrated to Australia, where he survived the war. His twin sister and their parents did not.



On the streets of Nancy, a French university city, Aron met Giselle, the young Polish woman who was to be his wife and my mother.

Giselle Sternbach was born on 1 June 1910 in Stryj, Poland. After completing high school, she wanted to continue her studies at university and become a dentist. However, for a Jewish woman living in Poland in the late 1920s, this was impossible. Giselle’s father decided she should study in France. He arranged for her to enrol at the Université de Nancy. In the summer of 1930, at 20 years of age, Giselle said goodbye to her family and embarked on her solitary journey. She travelled by train with only a small sum of money and no knowledge of French at all.

When she arrived in Nancy, tired and emotionally drained from her journey, she found accommodation near the station. To her horror, she soon discovered she was staying in a brothel. She left the next morning with suitcase in hand. Nearby, a group of students had gathered on the street. She overheard them speaking Polish and Hebrew. Giselle was alone in France, she missed her family, and she was frightened. She sought the group’s help and was quickly made welcome.

Aron Gridiger was a member of the group. He was introduced to Giselle as Adek. Visiting from Paris, Giselle recalls that he had finished his studies, graduated in engineering, and was working in Paris as a cinematographic engineer. He had a girlfriend who was studying at the university, so he visited Nancy regularly, and was at ease on its streets.

The group was strong. They ate together, went to the movies, studied, argued about the politics of Europe, and enjoyed life in a similar way to young students everywhere. All were determined to complete their studies before returning home. Giselle was accepted as one of them immediately. Her friendship with Aron gradually developed.

Aron and Max in Warsaw


Giselle finished her studies in 1935. When she received a letter from her sister, Ruzia, telling her that their mother had died, Giselle decided to return home to Poland. However, back home she wanted to work as a dentist, but her degree was not recognised by the Polish authorities. She wrote to Aron in Paris, letting him know that she was returning to France, and asking him to find her accommodation. Still working in Paris, he arranged for Giselle to rent a room in the same apartment block. Giselle managed to get some work too. Aron and Giselle grew closer as they spent more time together. They walked or rode their bicycles through the streets of Paris.

Aron in Paris (1938)

Aron told Giselle little of his earlier life in Poland. She knows nothing about his parents, and cannot remember when he finished his studies or how he came to work for the Laks brothers in Paris.

When war broke out, Aron and Giselle were in Paris. Aron joined the French Foreign Legion. He was sent to Africa, but his unit did not stay there and he returned to Paris. When the Germans invaded Paris, Giselle fled by car to Lyon with the manager of the hotel where she was living. She then travelled to Nice.

Aron found Giselle in Nice and was able to secure work with the Laks brothers ,who had opened a branch of their business in Nice. Aron serviced their cinematographic equipment and used the studio for photographic sessions. Photographs of Giselle’s hands appeared in advertisements. Aware of danger, they lived carefully. As Giselle had blonde hair, she was able to move around Nice more freely than Aron.

When the Laks brothers required Aron to visit one of their customers, they would call the local bakery. Giselle would receive the details of the job when she bought bread, and would pass the information on to Aron.

On 25 January 1944, I was born. My parents named me Roland Errol - Roland because it was a French name, and Errol because it was English.

About four weeks after I was born, a message was received from Henri Laks that my father was required to attend to a customer’s needs. My mother recalls my father’s getting dressed in the morning in time to catch an early tram to the office. They ate breakfast together. She walked him to the tram station as usual, pushing me in the pram. It was a fine morning and they talked as they walked. Urging my father to be careful, my mother pushed the pram along the streets of Nice.

Without warning, the fine weather vanished and a storm blew up. Aron told Giselle to go home so we wouldn’t get drenched. He told her when he would be back, and she promised to meet him at the tram station. My mother headed home, not suspecting that she would never speak to her husband again. At the end of the day she went with me to the station to meet Aron. For hours, she waited in vain. As each tram stopped, she frantically searched for Aron. He did not return.

Giselle found out later that while walking to the tram that morning, Aron had been arrested. She believes he was working for the Polish Resistance and that an informer caused him to be arrested. Perhaps his false papers were defective, or he had documents from the Resistance in his possession, or his facial appearance or circumcision led to his arrest. We will never know.

Giselle enlisted the help of Irene Laks, who discovered that Aron had been arrested and was being held in a prison in Nice. He and the other prisoners were to be transported to Drancy. Irene learned that Drancy was a labour camp, and Aron would be there for only a short period. She told Giselle, and advised her to pack some clothes for Aron in a small suitcase.

The streets of France produced one final devastating image that would haunt Giselle for the rest of her life.

My mother managed to find out when Aron was due to leave the police station to board the train to Drancy. She went with me to the train station and lined up with all the waiting relatives and friends of the prisoners. Standing in deathly silence, they watched as their loved ones were forced to march towards the station. My mother turned 90 this year, yet every day she sees Aron walking on the street towards the train, carrying his little suitcase.

Like other families, we received a postcard from Aron from Drancy. Written in Polish in tiny cursive script, the message from Aron told my mother not to worry. The card remains one of my mother’s few possessions from that time.

After the war, my mother and I made a new life in Sydney. She worked hard and struggled. In time we enjoyed a high standard of living. My mother had come to Australia hoping that Aron would find his brother, Max, who had arrived in Sydney before the war. She waited and cried. She never re-married and suffered.


While I was growing up in Australia, Giselle was unable to talk to me about her life in Poland or France. Whenever I asked about my father, she would cry. No young boy wants to see his mother cry, so my questions remained unasked. As I grew older, France was never on the itinerary for overseas travel.

However, when I turned 50, I told my mother that I wanted to travel to France, and she agreed to accompany me. Our journey commenced in Paris. We were last there in August 1948, when I was 4 years old and Giselle was 38.


Now she was 84. We travelled to Nice and found the house where I was born, and the apartment building where she and Aron had lived.

Our pilgrimage led to the railway station where Giselle had last glimpsed Aron. Her memory of the station and the prisoners was sharp, but time had blurred the recollection. The station seemed much larger than she remembered. The surrounding area did not seem the same at all. Even the road and footpath seemed different. Just where did she stand when she saw him walk by?

The questions were many as we stood lost in thought on the streets of France.

Roland Gridiger
(Sydney – Australie)

Aron et ses parents