From Away: The Experiences of Gisèle Baroukel Miller in Waterville
by Hannah Dhonau ’14 (January 2011)
Gisèle Baroukel Miller was just 25 years old when she arrived in Waterville, Maine, as the war bride of Howard Miller. There she found a place drastically different from her native Algeria in both climate and customs. Gisèle’s integration into the Jewish community of Waterville was not overnight, but it was made much easier by her ability to capitalize on her strengths in this new place. She found the commonalities. Rather than let the differences in culture separate her, Gisèle celebrated those commonalities in such a way that she is remembered as a beloved member of the Jewish community of Waterville.
Wendy Miller, Gisèle’s daughter, tells the story of how her mother and father met while Howard was stationed in Oran, Algeria, during World War II:
My father was working in an office through the American Army stationed in Oran, Algeria. My mother’s cousin, Henriette, was looking for a job. My mom went with Henriette to try to get a job, but my mother didn’t want a job for herself. She wanted to help her cousin get a job, but her English was much better than her cousin Henriette’s. My dad was the person who interviewed, and my dad being who he was, and my mom being who she was, my father said pretty quickly, “What about you? You’re a beautiful young woman, and your English is excellent.” I’m sure he was flirting with her because she was really gorgeous… She said, “Oh no, no, no, no! This is for my cousin. I already have a job.” He said, “What do you do?” She said, “I have a job with an officer.”
When her original job offer fell through, Gisèle approached Howard again to ask if there was still a position open for her. He ended up hiring her as an interpreter for the office where he worked. Wendy, reflecting on her mother and father’s early relationship, says, “I think my father would say he felt love at first sight, is what I think he would say, because he always thought she was absolutely the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.” With that same intention and love, Howard wrote letter upon letter to his mother, Frieda Miller, asking for her permission to wed Gisèle before the end of the war. Frieda was dead-set against the idea; she wanted her son to wait until after the war, when things would be calmer. Howard knew the possible risks of waiting until the war was over such as Gisèle not being allowed entry to the U.S. much later. All his concerns pour out in his letters to Frieda. In one he says, “Love isn’t something you that you can put on a shelf until after the war!”
After months of Howard’s letters containing little more than, “Please, mother dear and grandpa, say that I have your permission!” Frieda consented. Howard and Gisèle wed in June of 1944, and by November they were expecting their first child. Their life was one of routine while in Oran: each day Howard went to work, Gisèle called him at some point in the day, then dinner with her family at night. Life continued this way until word came in February that Howard would be transferred to Casablanca. Gisèle laments in one of her letters to Frieda that, although Howard had been in Oran for almost two years, he would be away when she needed him most. After several months without being able to see one another, Howard returned on furlough to Oran in April for the birth of his daughter, Sara Helyette Miller. Gisèle’s letters to Frieda during this period are mainly focused on the adjustment of life as a (temporary) single mother.
Frieda always called Gisèle “daughter” not “daughter-in-law,” as her own child, in their letters. This simple gesture of recognizing Gisèle as her own, even after all the pleading on Howard’s part to gain her permission to marry before the end of the war, shows a great deal of both compassion and hospitality on Frieda’s part.
Not nine months after Sara’s birth, Gisèle and her daughter were on their way to America via the Pittsburgh Seam.
Coming to Waterville
Gisèle was raised as a Sephardic Jew: those whose ancestry comes from Spain, Portugal, the Middle East, and North Africa. Howard was raised as an Ashkenazi Jew: those whose ancestry comes from Germany, France, Eastern Europe, and Russia. The differences between these two types of Judaism are of a far lesser degree than the different denominations of Christianity. The main points are varying geography of ancestors and different traditional foods. The varying cuisine is never more pronounced than on Passover: Ashkenazi Jews are forbidden from consuming any sort of chametz food items, while Sephardic Jews are permitted to eat such things as rice and corn during the holiday.
When Wendy Miller went to Algeria in her mid-30s, she was finally able to gain a deeper understanding of who her mother was: Algerian and Mainer, Ashkenazi and Sephardic.
My dad said that his grandfather was always testing her to find out if she really was Jewish. It was so different than Ashkenaz families. She didn’t speak Yiddish; she spoke Ladino. The foods were different. They were always trying to figure out who she was. The point of this is, when I traveled, I was able to meet some North African Jewish people, who were not my family. I was able to meet some North African Arabic families. I was able to meet some European, French-Algerian families, or women. I started to be able to disentangle the threads. I think if you grow up second generation, which is what I am—my mother was born in another country, my older sister was born in another country, but I was born here. I didn’t know how to separate out these various threads, and then I got there, and I got home and went, “Oh my God, Mom, I learned a million things: about the way the Jewish quarter looks in relation to the Arabic quarter.” I found a lot of commonality and similarity in these two cultures.
Gisèle, over time, became an honorary Ashkenazi Jew in the community, most notably by becoming the head of the synagogue’s kitchen. Her involvement in the cooking was so great that today still everyone knows the kitchen as “Gisèle’s Kitchen,” even those who never knew Gisèle herself.
Gisèle’s most notable contribution to the food at the synagogue was her role in the Latke Brigade: each Hanukah, women would gather in the synagogue kitchen to make “more potato pancakes than anyone would ever want to see or eat today” according to Wendy. Within ten years of moving to Waterville, Gisèle became the head of the effort. But how did someone completely unfamiliar with Ashkenazi food practices grow to be the authority on holiday meals? Gisèle’s daughters, Wendy and Julie, propose that this was not a result of their mother’s immediate prowess with Ashkenazi cooking, but rather a sign of her willingness to contribute towards a common good. Being quite the cook, Gisèle could capitalize on that skill in order to earn the respect of the other women. Wendy recalls a conversation with Paula Lunder the December after Gisèle died in which Paula pointed out that “this is the first time in forty years that your mother isn’t making the latkes in the synagogue.” Gisèle found her niche in helping in the synagogue, and through that was able to broaden her involvement in the community.
Living with the Levines
Perhaps the most important factor in Gisèle’s integration into the Jewish community of Waterville was the family into which she married. The Levine family was the most well-known Jewish family in Waterville at that time. William and Sarah Levine built a legacy for their family in Waterville, due in part to the success of their clothing store. Opened in 1891, Levine’s store was a major draw on Main Street; it was in constant operation for over one hundred years. Gisèle, once her three daughters were school age, would sometimes act as something like a greeter in the store; she was there more for the socializing than anything, though Gisèle did help start a women’s section of the store. Having this landmark in the family made it near impossible for a family member to do anything without notice.
Julie Miller-Soros on her mother’s marrying into the Levines:
But as far as in the community, I think by marrying a Levine, one of the founders of the synagogue and stuff there—just by marrying a Levine, probably made it easier and gave her respect in the Jewish community that may have taken years to gain. And she didn’t have to because she just followed in my grandmother’s footsteps, continuing the clubs and whatever they did.
When Gisèle and Howard arrived back in Waterville in 1945, Gisèle encountered quite the extended family: Frieda Miller, Howard’s mother; Ludy and Pacy Levine, Howard’s uncles; Evelyn and Bibby, Howard’s aunts; as well as additional spouses to the Levines. With all of this family already in place, it wasn’t hard for Waterville Jews to relate Gisèle to at least one person he or she knew. This familiarity with the Levine/Miller family allowed Gisèle to bypass the otherwise awkward encounters of trying to figure out how she was related to others in Waterville.
Despite the advantages of having extended family in place, there were some challenges in the cultural differences between Sephardic Gisèle and the Ashkenazi Levines. Sara Miller Arnon, Gisèle and Howard’s eldest daughter, tells the story of how her great-grandfather would test Gisèle’s “Jewishness”:
She always told the story how when she first came to the house, it was not a very global community in 1945, so immigrants from Russia, Poland, who had made their way to Maine, only knew a certain Jewish lifestyle and certain Jewish foods. So my great-grandfather could not imagine that Jews lived in North Africa. So he would quiz her on her knowledge, the quiz was certainly always about food. And of course the food of North Africa was very different from the food of Russia and Poland. So no, she couldn’t make any of the foods that he was talking about and she had never tasted any of them. So she had a hard enough time just proving that she was Jewish!
This is quite remarkable: Gisèle goes from having no idea of the foods William Levine described to heading the Latke Brigade. Eventually, William was satisfied with her answers and demeanor enough to accept his grand-daughter-in-law as a true part of the family, and a fellow Jew.
Shared Traits Across Cultures
When Wendy Miller went on her six-month trip to Algeria to discover more about her mother’s heritage, one of the discoveries she made was that of the incredibly hospitable nature of the people of North Africa.
What I saw when I was there was not at all the culture that my parents had grown up with: the European culture wasn’t there; the Jewish culture wasn’t there. What I saw was an incredible sense of hospitality, and what it meant to be hospitable. Hospitality is a very big dynamic there. You’re brought into the home; you’re taken to the baths; you’re introduced to the family. It’s a very, very strong cultural value. My mother had the Spanish and the Jewish contribution to that, as well as the North African sort of way of doing that. What I’ve come to realize is the Levines also had a very, very strong sense of community and how you create and how you give to community and how community gives back to you. Having gone to North Africa, I could see how my mother fit in so well.
These shared sentiments across the lines of Ashkenazi/Sephardic or Algerian/American no doubt helped Gisèle better fit into her new family and community. Gisèle’s ease in coming into the community shows that being a gracious and kind person, by showing a hospitable nature, is far more important than having the exact same religious background.
Gisèle as Activist
Gisèle worked passionately to help change antisemitic legislation around Maine during her lifetime. Julie never really understood the antisemitic nature of some of Maine’s coastal towns until she tried to get a job in Bar Harbor: she was denied employment while all of her Catholic or Protestant friends were hired. Julie remembers one specific incident when she was in Bar Harbor with her mother and saw a sign that read, “No Dogs, No Niggers, No Jews!” She said, “My mother went around to get rid of that. She worked with legislatures, with governors, all kinds of people to change that in the state of Maine. I didn’t know how much she worked, or even what it meant as a little kid.”
One way Gisèle fought with the hotels and resorts that were denying entry to Jews was to make a reservation under the name Miller before arriving as “Mrs. Howard Levine.” Levine was a much more typically Jewish name, and when Gisèle arrived to check-in to a hotel, the establishment, more often than not, would magically have no record of her reservation. Gisèle’s commitment to a better environment for Jews in Maine earned her the respect of her fellow women, and of several lawmakers. Julie remembers having pictures in her childhood home of her mother shaking hands with governors and other important political figures.
I think she was very well appreciated. I think she was viewed as somebody that you didn’t mess with. That she was going to take larger issues on than just what needed to be done at Beth Israel Synagogue in Waterville. Yes, she was going to do that. Yes, she was going to raise money. When she was going to any of these conferences, or any of these events out of state or out of the area, meeting with the governor, you just didn’t mess with her. She was very kind and sweet and very respectful, but you didn’t want to cross her and you didn’t want to mess with her.
Gisèle as a Wife
All of Gisèle’s children spoke of the immense love they saw and felt both between and from their parents. For Julie, her parents’ marriage proved to be the standard against which she compared every other:
Out of everybody in our family, my mother and father had an incredible bond and marriage that you just don’t see people having. I wish I could say other families have that, but even growing up, they may not have been divorced or separated, but they didn’t have the relationship that my mom and dad had. That’s very special. I sure didn’t have that. … I don’t know how they did it.
Having that supportive a partner in life made Gisèle’s transition to life in the states all that much easier. Wendy thinks that because Gisèle had such a loving husband, she was able to bring much more love to other aspects of her life.
Gisèle’s Lasting Impact
Gisèle’s thorough integration into the Jewish community of Waterville makes her legacy all the more influential. She found the adoption of Ashkenazi culture and food to be a key part in her successes in the social scene in Waterville. The very fact that newcomers to the synagogue still refer to “Gisèle’s Kitchen” is evidence enough for her contributions. She managed to become integrated into the Jewish community of Waterville before anyone could even realize her differences. Gisèle’s is a story of one woman who, despite being from a completely different background, was able to build upon and celebrate the commonalities between her and her adopted home rather than focus solely on their differences.
Arnon, Sara Miller. Interview by Becky Mueller, Spring 2010.
Miller-Soros, Julie. Interview by Hannah Dhonau, January 10, 2011.
Miller, Wendy. Interview by Hannah Dhonau, January 14, 2011.
This essay also draws on letters sent by Gisèle and Howard from North Africa to members of the Levine family provided by the Miller family, on deposit in Colby College Special Collections.