Situated within a stone’s throw from Richard Branson’s swish and spanking new Virgin Mega-Store, Alfred the hatmaker stands out more than the odd kilometre or two because of its faded 1930s facia and fittings – evidently the last time a single centime was spent on the shop.
Most Montpellierains charge past it, charming though it be, unaware that its run-down olde-worlde appearance belies a traumatic war time past associated with the systematic persecution of the city’s Jewish population which might well have begun in the south of France but ended at the gates of Auschwitz.
"My father’s name was Haïm," affirms Guy Benyoumoff, the shop’s energetic 70-year-old owner, "and his family had fled from the Kiev pogroms at the end of the 19th century. They were lured to France because of the famous slogan associated with the Republic – liberty, fraternity and equality.
"My father was born in Marseille but moved to Montpellier where he established this shop in 1931. But when the Germans arrived almost exactly 10 years later we found ourselves at the sharp end of discrimination once again."
In fact Jews were established in Montpellier when the city was officially established in 985 CE, long before the German nation itself. When the traveller-writer Benjamin of Tudela visited in 1160, there was a functioning rabbinate, synagogue and cemetery in the area around present-day Rue Barralerie, the heart of the ancient Jewish quarter.
A few centuries later no less a figure than Nostradamus (born Michel de Nostredame, the son of Jewish parents but forced by the Inquisition to convert to Catholicism) attended the city’s famous medical school, the oldest in Europe. Not that such a long and distinguished pedigree was of much use to Haïm Benyoumoff when the Germans came-a-knocking on his shop door.
Aware that the Jews of Montpellier were being rounded up and taken off to Drancy, an unfinished housing estate in the suburbs of Paris which served a staging post en route to Auschwitz, Haïm Benyoumoff whisked his wife and two children off to the remote department of the Aveyron where the family laid low for the remainder of the occupation.
And in one of the many contradictions of the Occupation years, who was it who took it upon himself to hide and provide false identities for the Benyoumoffs? Why, none other than the Petainist Mayor of the tiny village of Casagnes Beghones who might well have believed in right-wing notions of ‘la patrie’ but would have no truck with any anti-Semitic measure of any kind.
"I was very happy in the Aveyron," Guy Benyoumoff recalls, "but it was only towards the end of the war that my father informed me that I was Jewish. Neither of my parents had been observant at home and, aware of the growing danger to Jews in the thirties, they took it upon themselves to make no reference whatsoever to our religion and roots.
"This came as something of a shock to me, I have to say, because by this time I was more familiar with Mass than any Jewish rituals."
Outraged that his shop in the historic rue de la Loge had been taken over and allocated to a collaborator from the nearby department of the Aude, Haïm Benyoumoff could not prevent himself from returning to Montpellier on one occasion to see for himself precisely what was going on.
Besides, he was anxious to gather up a few possessions from the family’s apartment situated just behind Montpellier’s central station. He had no idea in so doing that his one afternoon in Montpellier would almost cost him his life – for on the way down from his apartment he crossed paths with two gentleman on the way up to the top floor. Their mission? Unsuccessful in this instance – to round up the Benyoumoffs and the other Jewish residents of that particular block.
The next time Haïm Benyoumoff would return to the city it would be as a member of the French resistance. His self-imposed brief? To take a few moments off during the process of liberating the city to physically evict one Francois Coulet, the retired and collaborating colonel was had taken it upon himself to run a hat shop by the name of Alfred.
He might not have had much time for his Jewish identity, both pre and post war, but Guy Benyoumoff went IDB (in daddy’s business) nevertheless, running the shop as from 1979 after his father’s death. He has been in the rue de la Loge ever since. And unlike others who used the trauma of occupation to re-examine notions of religion and identity, Guy Benyoumoff continued on precisely as he was in the pre-war years – at arm’s length from the community.
"I don’t even like to speak about being Jewish," he admits, "maybe because there are painful associations tucked away in my subconscious, I don’t know. What I do know is that several cousins were deported and that others died in the camps.
"Nevertheless, I would be less than honest were I to tell you that I feel indifferent towards the community, I don’t participate in Jewish life down here in any way shape or form. It doesn’t interest me. I would never deny the fact that I am Jewish, I just don’t live it out in practical terms. For me God is the same for Jews and Catholics alike. In fact I made sure that my son wasn’t circumcised because I didn’t want him ever to be at risk as I was when hiding in the Aveyron."
He might never have crossed paths with a mohel, true, but Bruno Benyoumoff (Guy’s son) clearly has his own notions of identity – since he goes out of his way to wear a Star of David in and around Montpellier, despite the sometimes-tense atmosphere in the city between Muslims and Jews post September 11.
Which prompts one to wonder, of course, what Alfred would have made of that? Alfred? That would be Alfred Benyoumoff, of course – Bruno’s great uncle who was killed in the First World War. Alfred Benyoumoff who sacrificed his life for the land of liberty, fraternity and equality – la France.