Two weeks before I went to visit him, my father set his hillside on fire. It began as a harmless clearing of weeds, turned out of control by drought and a broken hose. Now, on his isolated mound, scorched earth stood out like ink on a page. It showed the fire’s progression in a winding semicircle around the house, having turned trees ocher as if by an early autumn. He had fought it alone, with a bucket, dozens of loads sizzling on advancing flames. It was still spreading as he threw the last of twenty gallons from the barrels of rainwater left from spring. And just as there was nothing left to do but wait and watch it burn, he saw the lights on firefighters’ helmets, their trucks driving up the dusty road.
From atop his house, the landscape of forests and fields appears devoid of other homes, yet someone miles away had seen the smoke and called for help. It had not occurred to him to do so. In the end it was disaster averted; he escaped unscathed to tell the story, yet another tall tale about the crazy old writer cooped up in the middle of nowhere. People told him he was an idiot.
He told them that this is how life works: You get saved at the last minute and you go from tragedy to farce. That’s how it went in the war.
The house where he lives on the hill was an abandoned sheep pen, perhaps more than a century old, until a sailor stranded himself on that arid land, and remade the house into a home with no ocean in sight. Jean Claude Courchay, my father, moved into the house some months after the sailor’s death. He’s another castaway with a seafaring past, who did his military service on the aircraft carrier La Romanche. Maybe somewhere in there is a common experience to explain the choice of home: two men who loved the sea retiring among the rocks.
The house is at the end of a dirt road on hunting grounds for boar, deer, and pheasant; winter buries it in snow, which melts and freezes the road into an icy slide that will discourage any car’s descent. Until spring arrives, you can be isolated save for long excursions on foot or tractor. It’s prime real estate to see the world recede into forgetting. A telling place, it speaks in its distance from all else, in age-old wooden beams and peace. But only if you can withstand the nights: those moments when you could believe you’re the last person left on earth. My father had spent a long time looking for just that.
His home is a curious full stop for a lifelong wanderer. Then again, in traveling you must allow for your soul to catch up with you, as a wise woman once told me. For most of life, it’s easy to imagine always staying one step ahead, easier to accelerate than to stop. This house is where Jean Claude stopped traveling fifteen years ago, long enough for his weary soul to finally find him.
Aloneness is a state unto itself. Strange things happen when there’s not another soul for miles, when cities are a memory and the closest thing to a motor is the sound of boars plunging their snouts into furrows. A change came over my father in this remote life, one long sought and finally embraced. “I unfurl endlessly,” he says, as his arms encompass the land. Living without interruptions, the soliloquy of self, that’s when memories can surface. The past slips in; its murmur grows clearer. Stray recollections start to make their way home: Come right in, the doorway is no longer crowded by new experience.
Something there kindled his memory of the war, and I went back to listen.
It takes seven hours by direct flight from New York City to Paris. Once at Charles De Gaulle Airport, the next step in the low-cost trip southward is the train station Marne la Vallée Chessy, nineteen miles east from Paris, following the tourists heading for Disneyland. From there, the high-speed train takes slightly less than three hours and a half to Aix-en-Provence TGV station. Even when you disembark onto the sterile platform, you know you’re in the south—the warmth, the landscape, and the sounds. The train continues to Marseille, but the city of Aix is still twenty minutes away by bus. That’s where he’s waiting.
We spend the night at a friend’s apartment. I tell him why I’m here. The war, why not?
There’s that time with the swastika smeared on the house, he begins.
No, I say, don’t tell me yet; wait till we reach the hillside.
We take the morning bus to the valley, another three hours to Malemoisson, a stop on the edge of N85, where we’re the only ones to get off the bus before it makes its way to Digne, the département capital, famous for being the starting point of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. His jeep is in the parking lot nearby. Then we start the trip into the valley, the seven miles of winding road through fields and small towns, like traveling at the bottom of riverbanks with hills on both sides, heading upstream. A sharp turn left starts the climb before you reach the postcard town of Thoard. The road narrows; houses become scarce. After a couple miles, another turn left towards the hamlet of Les Bouguignons, past two houses and a chicken farm and onto a dirt road. Now it’s stone, dust, and looming cypress, oak, pine, and mulberry trees for twenty minutes, steadily climbing a path that feels like one long bump. For years there have been car pieces strewn on the way, from those who braved the climb and from when the sailor drank himself into the countryside. My father has added a couple of oil pans, bits and debris of his own, paid in tribute to the climb, but the road he curses is his moat: It ensures no one will try to see where the path ends.
Then there is the house, above the lavender fields, the thick walls of stone. The key is hidden in a corner by the door, and once inside there awaits the large wooden table on the first floor, underneath those age-old beams he says make him think of a ship’s hold. It’s the best place in the world I know for conversation.
Once the wine is poured, he starts by telling me about the fire. The flames, the last bucket in vain and the firemen. By the time they arrived the base of the electric pole was burning—he concedes that would have been a bother—but the gas tank was still far off. Then again, salvation in the nick of time is what his life is made of. Though no one believes him when he says so, that’s how it goes.
And to prove it, look no further than that morning in 1944. Then as now, disaster averted, and a wormhole in the conversation takes us back seventy-three years, to the moment that marked his childhood: “It’s the same thing”—all seems lost and then, after the flames are spent, what remains is only a funny, self-deprecating anecdote over aperitif, something else to write about.
Except he never wrote about what happened during the war, not in full, not directly. In some thirty books of fiction and non-fiction there are tangents and fragments, but a man who made a living telling stories withheld this one for a lifetime. Until now he’d shared bits and pieces with me, memory flashes of littered ammunition, wartime deprivation, German soldiers, and ambiguity.
I first tried to write what little I knew six years ago and failed. “Your story is bullshit,” he told me. “You don’t get it.” But you can only tell what you’re told. Now the flames opened a clearing into the full story. So, we started talking last summer, a recorder between us, alongside the wine.
For a month he went back for me, to the period between 1940 and 1945, to the time that left scorched earth inside him that his memory traces like a finger upon a scar.
“Life is a series of ruptures and betrayals in which you end up alone. Since then I’ve always been expelled from everywhere; it’s a vocation. There’s no place where I’ve remained, and in the end, I find myself here,” you tell me, and at the road’s end, I’d like to know why.
It isn’t really the war I’m after but the start of the flight. You were born in 1933 and lived many lives and left each one without seemingly looking back. Peace has come after you’ve severed all the ties. Never had a cellphone, never used a computer or the Internet; no TV, no one around, and goodbye to all that. Whatever keeps on happening out there in the world barely survives the climb. It took a lifetime to get this far, far enough. What propelled you here started when you were a child and your childhood was war.
Because I’ve come to learn that by the war’s end, the die is cast: there will not be a straightforward life (if such a thing exists), instead the active rejection of one. There will be no belonging again, no being betrayed again. Fool me once…maybe once was enough.
When I was seven, my mother and I left for México, her country, and that past that crept at the edges, that blank instead of a family history on your side, became all the more foreign, an ocean apart. That started changing during a holiday in college. I found old black and white photographs in the trash, you put a finger on a soldier I’d taken out: that’s your great-granddad. That’s where I started to listen, trying to put the fragments together and failing. I hadn’t learned how to ask.
When I finally did, something had changed; maybe it was all flooding back. You’d stored it away without ever fully closing the lid, memories still restless, half-buried, bubbling up. It happened at the beginning of your life, before you learned to dodge it all, a time when you were still unarmed. You can let go of people, but not of that.
- We talk about it because it interests you, but nobody gives a damn. This is seventy years ago, right? It’s been pushed down for some time.
- But it’s still stuck inside you, Dad.
- Because I’ve survived, while many in my generation are already dead.
- I remember you told me about it growing up.
- It’s something that…when you’re little, marks you for eternity. It’s something I’ll die with, I was nearly born with and I’ll die with it. That’s all.
We sit across from each other, you on a cushioned chair and me on a bench against the wall, near the sliding glass door where nightfall has subdued the distant woods, the large oak tree, and the trail left by the fire.
War? It was about time.
PART I: THE FALL
“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” —L.P Hartley
Once upon a loss or another, are all the various beginnings for this story. Start with a speech on the radio announcing defeat; start years earlier with a death in Africa, trace it back to a lost manuscript or long, long before, to the plague that wiped out the vineyards. Start with an absence, a loss not yet fully sealed, sparked by those words passed on to me not to inherit anything:
“Some families explode in midair,”
you tell me of our kin. Down the ladder of generations, I wait to pick up the pieces.
To understand what happened, to them, to you, I pull the furthest thread. Start with a name and a place: the Godard family from the département of Haute-Saône, in the region of Franche-Compté in northeastern France. Sometime on this earth they toiled and bred, in distant lives reduced to summaries that echo those of countless other migrants: poor Catholic farmers of the nineteenth century. The vineyards were their bread and butter. Yet, over the course of a lifetime, chance and necessity will thrust this family of laborers into the world, from their lands into war and to Africa.
The family doesn’t actually explode in one go; it falls apart over time, a series of implosions into silence and voluntary amnesia. It begins with the plague.
Among the myriad reasons for who they became, the smallest is the most convincing: Phylloxera, Daktulosphaira vitifoliae, “almost microscopic, pale yellow sap-sucking,” an insect brought from North America that ravages the vineyards of France in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. With it, Stéphane Godard left life on the wasted lands for a career in the military health services. World War I takes him to Salonica, or Thessaloniki, on the Macedonian Front. He never spoke about it. He’s my great-grandfather, your grandfather. Henceforth, the family’s turning point.
“They were Franc-comptois, farmers originally, working the vines, then came the phylloxera, the vines died, and they were forced to join the army. It was a huge empire and so there were limitless possibilities,” you explain to me.
To join the army was to see the world in a way the life of a farmer would never allow—a way to change one’s fate, and perhaps to move upwards on the social ladder. The start of a flight, Outre-mer, as they called it: overseas.
In his book Small Lives, writer Pierre Michon gives insight into a poor French laborer gambling everything on a life in the colonies: “His vocation was that uncertain country where the childhood pacts made with oneself could still, in that time, hope to accomplish dazzling revenges, providing you submitted to the haughty and summary god of ‘all or nothing.’” But that story, great grandfather Stéphane’s, was never told. It could have started there, too, with a memoir written decades before I was born. You titled it Le Phyloxéra, in French. It was to be Claude Courchay’s first book, on the twist of fate that made his grandfather Stéphane Godard. Of that first attempt to salvage the pieces, there remains only a mention on a half-ripped page.
The envelope reads: “To Mr. Courchay, 4 Cours A. Briand, 84” in the city of Orange, in southern France. The letter is from Simone de Beauvoir, your sometime literary mentor. It’s undated, probably from the mid-sixties, her handwriting mostly unintelligible. The author of The Second Sex begins by asking “Do you want us to have dinner on Monday 25?” Her folded, handwritten page is the companion piece to a typed one, of which the upper part has been ripped. It is addressed to Beauvoir, from her editors at Gallimard:
“The second news is that Claude Gallimard is finally not hot to retain ‘THE PHYLLOXERA’ by Claude Courchay. The opinions of the readers committee are divided and finally we can say the majority rather favored refusal, while recognizing the author’s numerous qualities and certain talent.”
I don’t know how you took the rejection. You certainly remember it more than you do the work itself. To this day you still grumble about the writer Raymond Queneau, long dead, who allegedly disliked your book. Afterwards you succeeded in losing the manuscript, and with it your grandfather’s tale. Hence this story, its genesis, waited another five decades to be retold. What was lost was that the gamble of the army paid off for him, if gamble there ever was, if ruined vineyards weren’t reason enough to try anything else.
Stéphane features prominently in the ramshackle family museum I’ve inherited, in what you produced when I started asking. It’s a brief archeology of departed loved ones, selected pieces they would have chosen, or not, of which time becomes the final editor: food stamps, military passbooks and records, postcards, children books and awards. And photos. Here’s the oldest of them all: Stéphane stands upright in military uniform with a round collar and two lines of buttons, complete with a kepi on his head, his right hand on his hip, his left on his sword, his upper lip covered by the thin moustache of the time. He looks straight at the camera. To his right, his wife, Rosalie, is seen in a hat and a strict, long, dark dress, her expression puzzled, her gaze lost somewhere outside the frame. They’re in a garden. The exact date is unknown, the name Moghar is scribbled in faded pencil at the back of the photo. They’re in Algeria around 1900 where France has just built a railroad from Ain Sefra, the southwestern mountain town, for twenty-five miles to the Moghar Oasis, on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
A lifetime passes until the next photos. Remarkably, the most recent of the two, from 1931, shows a near-repetition of the Moghar shot, with both grandparents standing in the garden side-by-side, though inverted, with him to her right. Things have changed with passage of time: Rosalie and Stéphane are older and stouter, his moustache larger, both transformed in their expressions. Decades on, they’re smiling; both bareheaded now. In between both images is a proud family portrait with their three children, Marcel, Margot, and Marie-Louise. Of your grandfather you remember a well-rounded life: “He was satisfied with himself, had his Rosalie alongside him. He was very jovial, had a paunch. Grandpa Stéphane with his nice, big moustaches, gentle, with a satisfied air: the assurance of the warrant officer. He was something of a character, the summit of the noncommissioned officers. Never really fought, never really worked, ate well. A guy happy with his lot, he had had a good life. Instead of misery as a farmer, he was an officer.”
After his career in the colonial army, old age found him as a concierge at Michel-Lévy Military Hospital, at 84 Rue de Lodi, in Marseille. An antique photo shows a massive square building, with a fenced gate and large walls on which its name was adorned with crosses. The main entrance was large, with a half-round transom, beyond which Stéphane must have stood at the “entrance desk” where your grandmother accompanied him and sold chocolate to the troops and visitors. It’s at Michel-Lévy that shots and vaccines were administered, for typhoid, diphtheria and more, to the soldiers heading abroad.
Young Margot and Marie-Louise grow up next to this entrance desk, girls of the seafaring city, its port and breezes. From that vantage point, they see a daily procession of men bound for the furthest reaches. And while Marcel, the son, became an electrical engineer, it was the two daughters’ marriages that further certified the Godard’s station in life. A strict religious education by nuns prepares them for the restricted role then expected of women. Amid the coming and goings of uniforms, the Godard sisters find two to their liking. Their betrothed are both northerners and in the military health services, just like daddy, and now it runs in the family. All is at is should be.
Fair-haired Marie-Louise, your mother, marries the Normand, Maurice Courchay, who becomes your father, who had a history not unlike his in-law’s, of humble background, with a mother who had been a textile worker in a backwards region. “It was very feudal still in Normandy, the lords in their castles and the little people. My grandmother was the little people.” Both Maurice and his brother had gotten away through the army, the first as a male nurse and the second a captain in Indochina. The eldest sister, beautiful Margot, marries “the giant” René Navel of Lorraine. Born in the city of Sedan in 1900, he became a military doctor.
For these men, life existed in defined trajectories. For Stéphane, for Maurice, serving was the way to be upwardly mobile, and to get food on the plate. “In the army you eat, quite simply. The army fed you, gave you a rank, the army gave you responsibility, the army made someone of you. If you wanted to study you had to go to the seminary, where you’d learn Greek and Latin, and when you got out you joined the army and left for the colonies.
The church gave you schooling, and the army gave you a job and fed you.
It was a system. It was extremely important. It was that or being proletarian.”
This family’s way will be the army, the prism through which to peer into their view of the country’s fate, their allegiances and, in time, their downfall.
Within a generation they become something new. From Stéphane onwards, the family finds a definite identity, a “type,” that no longer exists today but that once spoke as clearly of a way of life as a priest’s or a teacher’s. It meant they had photos in uniform in foreign landscapes, men at war at one time or another, implied roles and beliefs and a place in society. “It became a military dynasty, and a colonial one because there was the empire.”
From then on, the marriage of Marie-Louise and Maurice seems preordained; work abroad for him in a military hospital and she to follow. For their children to be, the lot of “a family of military, you were born in Dakar or Algeria, somewhere in the empire.” And so it goes, at first. Maurice Courchay is sent to serve in Dakar, Senegal, in Western Africa. Their children come in quick succession. First a boy is born, named after his father. A couple years later, in 1933, along comes Claude Courchay. A daughter soon follows. All three children are christened after the Virgin: Maurice Marie, Jean Claude Marie and Marie-Line.
Nothing remains of that period, not a photo, not an address or memento. Mother is at home and father works. “Being in the health services you thought you were going to tend to the population.” Or the other way around: a Senegalese woman breastfeeds Claude, who rejects his mother’s milk. Whatever the realities you never knew, there wasn’t time. Before you can begin to retain this life, it comes to an end in 1938. Here again, another possible start, another implosion, another loss: death in Dakar.
Military nurse, Maurice Courchay, leaves behind three small children and his wife, Marie-Louise. Swept away by malaria. Both Maurice senior and Claude got the fevers, the yellow skin. Only the son lived.
“My mother wrote about me from Dakar, ‘my poor Pimpin is going to die.’ I had malaria and dysentery. I was mostly dead; I don’t know why I survived. I guess I must have since I’m here. My father had it also. I don’t know him, but I love him, and I missed him enormously.”
The father’s death precipitates the family’s return to France. Marie-Louise is suddenly a young widow in a country she didn’t choose, jobless and left to care for a family that had barely started. “A young woman, completely innocent, ends up in Dakar, pregnant…three kids.” So much for that preordained life.
Claude is five when they leave Senegal. After that, what’s left of a birthplace sealed away by loss? What does a child remember? The kaleidoscope of early memory, stray images coming into focus: a wax cloth with insects buzzing on it, the warmth and the sound of a herd of goats passing by every evening. The stuttering reconstruction of distant experience: “I remember Dakar. There was a house; there were stairs. I fall down the stairs and open my chin. An ant stings me inside my shoe, a stink ant”, which in French bears the gruesome name of cadaver ant.
Amid all that, the crown jewel salvaged from forgetting: a single memory of a father. “Mother scolds me, father is very sweet; a giant, very tall for the 1930’s. My mother had forbidden me dessert. I see my father, like a good force…” After his mother has grounded him, Claude sulks to the kitchen and there his father sneaks him some cake. That single paternal gesture, that’s the last sight of Maurice Courchay; there’s little more besides. I first knew of his name from reading my Mexican birth certificate, which lists each parent’s parents. The only remaining photos are a couple miniatures taken in Marseille: tall and sturdy, a strong jaw, wavy light hair. In one photo he’s standing alongside others, with a wry smile; on another he sits with Marie-Louise on the grass with his legs outstretched. He’d been born; he’d risen above his station, married into the profession and multiplied. Then the fevers, a corollary of stray facts, and a single memory that lives on.
There’s nearly more to be said of the ship on which the family returned to France, leaving Dakar and with it a grave none of them will ever see again. The ship was built in 1925, in a naval shipyard by the Mediterranean, with two steam engines to power its way to Morocco, the Levant and beyond; these destinations written on the old promotional poster by the Paquet navigation company, showing the ship’s stylized rendition reflected on the swell: Marshal Lyautey, written on the side of its hull. As luck would have it, I came across a print of it decorating a French restaurant, in the airport, in Mexico City. Whether or not the family saw the actual poster, their origin and final port was marked there, the route from Senegal to Marseille, which they took in 1938.
“I was on the boat, I remember some sort of bird, that screamed when you made it swirl; a toy. We were on the boat’s bridge, the Marshal Lyautey. It was good.”
They sail on a vessel whose name foreshadows the destination. In Marseille there awaits another father, for his widowed daughter, Stéphane Godard whose hour of glory in WWI also bore the name of Lyautey at the bottom:
The Ministry of War
By the decree of 1914
Single article. – Are inscribed on the on the Special Board of the MILITARY MEDAL, from December 25th 1916, the military whose name follow:
GODARD, Stéphane, Jean, Baptiste, active sergeant of the 15th Section of military nurses.
“Served in campaign with zeal and devotion and renders precious services in the accomplishment of the special services of which he has the charge.”
Paris, December 29th 1916.
The award, on brittle paper more than a century old, was in the bundle kept on the hill, passed on by hands unknown to the last heir, and from you to me.
Now your story starts in earnest. The stage is set for the memories to be grounded, encompassed by the theme of the father’s absence that will preside over your childhood. Loss draws the family circle tightly under the same roof.
Having nowhere else to go, your mother turns to her parents, Stéphane and Rosalie. It’s a far cry from a festive family reunion. “When they retired in ’38, we arrived orphaned.” It’s not just your preordained lives that death has rewritten. Whatever plans they had for their old days have been derailed, and the villa your grandfather bought after a lifetime of service is about to get crowded. “He had to take in his daughter with three kids and tighten his belt. Unfortunately, his daughter was a widow and we were ‘Pupil of the Nation.’” And here’s where I first learn that term, Pupil of the Nation. For now, it stands solely as a euphemism for military orphan.
So there are six people in a home meant for two. With a couple of retired seniors on a pension, and only her own pension as a military widow to provide for three children, Marie-Louise, with only the nun’s pious upbringing and no career training, needs any job she can get. “She ended up in Marseille without a penny, so she worked at the dates. If you were just arrived, you went to the dates.” That’s the date fruit plant, where the loads brought from Algeria were prepared for selling. “Marseille received bunches of jumbled date fruit, they had to be readied: clean off the sand, take out the stem, make them presentable and edible. It was sugary and sticky, something that ends up disgusting you. Poor women worked there. When you’re not qualified, that’s the job you can get.”
Other jobs followed. First came a step up, selling at the Chocolat du Prado, with a factory next door that spread the smell of chocolate onto the sidewalk. Neither job left a good taste in her mouth: “For the rest of her life she didn’t feel like eating dates or chocolate ever again.”
Whether by choice or convention, she never married again. “After her widowhood, she was proposed to, but she wasn’t about to repeat the experience.” Hers was a world where “decent women had hats on, didn’t let their hair loose. Those who did were deemed prostitutes.” The word that recurs most in speaking of your mother is “sacrifice.”
Still, it could have been worse, were it not for the generosity of that old couple. “My mother adored her mother. They had taken her in. Without them I don’t know where we would have ended up.” You too share that gratefulness. Though it’s the first time I remember you saying it, I know. Stéphane is my second name. Crammed somewhere between a Mexican first name and a Normand last one, with the added Marie at the end that seemingly no one in the family can ever be spared. Until college I saw Stéphane as just an initial, something to be discarded when the teacher asked what you preferred to be called on the first day of class. You never told me, but you asked my mother to give me that name. He’d been you grandfather, you told her. He put a roof over your head.
Unlike your mother, for you Marseille isn’t a sorrowful homecoming. Marseille gives you the south. In a drifting life, the region is your one place of return, carried with you always in the inflections of an accent claiming belonging.
The city you arrive in is a commercial port, the most important in the country. You and your family were among the 819,000 passengers that graced its quays in 1938, atop 13,000 ships that came and went.
The place you remember still seems provincial, stuck in time and space, “a hollow” between hills stretching along the coastline. It was “a pretty, quiet city, there were plane trees everywhere, all along Rome Street.”
Despite the duress to come, or because of it, it will be your hometown, even if it’s to despair over the changes that erase what you knew: the hard-earned right to lament your lost city.
Nowhere as in the south does the distance narrow with your past. Over the years, when you and I visit its cities together, you point to details that have been there for as long as you can remember, still there to be shared in their quasi-sameness: a building or passageway cleansed by the city but otherwise unaltered. Some years back, during a rare outing to Marseille, you looked out the backseat window and started telling of a hospital on the street we had just taken, a place where your grandfather had been a concierge, where your mother had been born, where she had met your father, where she later returned widowed to work as a switchboard operator. The hospital was demolished in 1988, the year I was born.
It all comes across as overwhelmingly quaint in your memories, a child’s geography settled by places that could be listed with an accordion playing in the background. From your grandparent’s neighborhood, La Vielle Chappelle (the Old Chapel), to your church in nearby Bonneveine (Good Fortune), where you attended Mass at Notre Dame des Neiges (Our Lady of the Snow) “where there was allegedly a miracle and it snowed on a 15th of August,” or going hand in hand with your grandfather to the school of the Lapin Blanc (White Rabbit). All those “nice kitsch names”: the words to spell the age of innocence.
It’s an enclosed world on the outskirts of Marseille, the old world past generations recall in lost details where you could still find “cheese and snail salesmen, each singing their merchandise as they went,” along narrow streets of your sun-kissed South. “It’s a life straight out of a book.”
Though not all changes are bad: “people didn’t have septic tanks, people did their necessities in buckets and chamber pots, and the torpilleur passed by, pulled by a horse, and the employee poured the buckets in the barrel” — So much for the good old days.
In narrowing concentric circles, we draw nearer, from the city, to the neighborhood, rising steeply along villas, secluded and preserved before the storm to come. You scribble me a map of the land of childhood. Up from the sea of curves on my notebook, past the arrow of three streets, turn at the grocery to where with two drawn parallels you ask me to imagine a rise of gravel and large steps, which Pimpin, Kakou, and Bibi, you and your siblings, run up and down, screaming and skidding, often falling—children in short trousers and dresses with knees stained purple by the mercurochrome disinfectant you used on me too. Up and down the cul-de-sac of Montée du Château, the Castle Rise to the building whose gates closed the street into an impasse and gave it its name, atop Collet hill, overlooking the Mediterranean.
“The castle enclosed the Montée du Château, there was a cement wall, with two pillars, which blocked the street completely. It occupied all the top of the hill; there was a huge black gate, behind it a park, with paths lined with box trees, and this completely tacky castle with round turrets, a phony nineteenth century castle. This guy had money and had made himself a nouveau riche castle.”
In a few years it will be gone, its turrets and balconies destroyed, yet another of those sites where people wonder about the strange old names one finds in the city. The sign today still reads Montée du Château, and sure enough you’ll see a street that rises, yet at the end of it there are just residences. No castle in sight.
On the slope you draw for me, about halfway to the right, a scribble signals the home of Marcel Godard, the eldest child and the electrical engineer. Then past the villas marked “unknown,” there’s a gate. Welcome home.
It’s a narrow entrance, with a small garden, then up a flight of stairs to a small terrace surrounded by plants, where children play and adults enjoy the garden. The front door leads into the kitchen with the coal stove on which Stéphane likes to grill cheese. Then the dining room, always liveliest on Sunday when the men play cards, filled with “magnificent furniture from the grandparents, old and splendid, maybe centuries old” left from that other life in Haute-Saône. The most memorable relics were a dresser and a pendulum clock that “rang every half an hour, and every hour, making an abominable noise.”
From there a hallway leads to the room your brother and sister share, then to the left, your grandparents,’ and in front, a room for Marie-Louise and you. “I had to share the bed with my mother.” Every night she tells you: “Turn to the wall, don’t move” as she changes into her long nightgown. “She should have slept with my sister.”
There isn’t a single photo of your father in the house, you remember.
There aren’t any bathrooms either. “We washed in the kitchen because it was warmer; in tubs of zinc you got water poured on you. Like in the paintings by Bonnard. That was normal, no showers, no bathtub or bathroom, that’s the way it was. We washed on Sundays, once a week to be clean for Mass.”
Running water requires effort. “You had to pump water. Obviously, grandpa had fought in Salonica and all, but he wasn’t up for this anymore, so we pumped the water and it reached the kitchen and a water filter in the house: not so much running as pumping water. We pumped for hours.”
Wooden stairs lead to an attic filled with a lifetime of trunks, and at the end is a wooden balcony, from which “we saw Borelli park, we saw the sea, we had a vast view. We saw Marseille.” These were your favorite parts of the house.
Downstairs was your other refuge. Two large steps take you out to the back garden, surrounded by walls of stone, where the yellow cat hunts lizards and scorpions can be found nestling under the rocks. In the left corner were Stéphane’s rabbit cages. “My grandfather had some rabbits, he fed them. Once in a while, he’d kill one, take out one of the eyes to bleed it, save the blood because everything was used. We ate rabbit. He skinned them, dried the hides on a plank and tanned the skins and made fur collars.” His retirement pastime was a return to his roots. “He was a farmer, after all.”
At the center of that garden is one of childhood’s symbols, “the magnificent fig tree,” towards which memory gravitates, under which books are read and where one day the German officer will make his entrance. “There were figs, I ate them, they were delicious, there were two seasons,” the breba figs of spring and the purple summer figs you love. All around were the other villas on the hill. “It was good because it was a place where we were away from it all.”
The two activities outside of the home, school and church, inscribed themselves within this closed circuit. “I never went to the port. My path ran from Montée du Château to Notre Dame des Neiges and the Lapin Blanc. That was my universe.” And it was a religious one.
“Notre Dame Des Neiges was a normal church. What was interesting was that next door was the parsonage where the priest showed us movies. He had a small projector. Priests back then tried to have an influence on youth, you needed to make the first communion and the confirmation. And catechism. ‘Only one God you will adore…’ the Decalogue.” You still know it by heart: “What is God? God is a pure spirit, infinitely good, infinitely perfect…”
Stéphane didn’t accompany your mother and siblings to church, as a man of French republican values, he was not religious, and in time of fasting he made sure to have another serving of herring.
Still, he walked toward the church every day, but only because he took you to school in the mornings. “My grandfather took me by the hand, sometimes I’d trip and he’d nearly fall: I was little and I had a large forehead. I liked school.”
The teacher was M. Chamonard, who liked to have an orderly class. “Each had his bench, with his inkpot, you came in and lined up next to your bench. You waited until you were told to sit, and rose every time an adult came in. You stood silent and crossed your arms. There was lots of discipline and politeness. There were moral courses…we used slates, chalk, and had a rag to clean it.” You remember him punishing you once for erasing a single letter in a word on the blackboard, making a vulgar wordplay.
Sensory memory is acute here. “I remember smells, white glue that smelled like bitter almonds and tempted us to eat it, the smell of ink…penholders were made of bone, with images on them. I learned calligraphy.” And the grand history of your nation in “naïf history books.” All through your school years, you were meant to stand out and win scholarships. It was your role, that of the worthy fatherless boy, implying you were deserving of any help available to continue to study. “I was the best in the class. That’s what was expected of me.”
It was a system that thrived on perpetuation. Education was the introduction into something that existed long before you, an unmovable world inherited from the century before. “It was curious because every generation learned the same recitation. We went up to the blackboard and recited. Grandfather had learned them, father had learned them; there was a communion over time, a common culture, through the same recitations; the same benches, the same inkpots. The same smell of chalk.”
And you nearly learned something else, too. “There was a little girl that wanted to kiss me, but I didn’t want to.” Nearly a first kiss, nearly eighty years ago.
From this narrow circle, knowledge of the outside broadened slowly, like ripples in water. In this isolated neighborhood, the radio brought home the wider world, though what reaches you does little to dispel the parochial imagery. “We sat before the radio and listened. The programs were good-humored. There was a show called ‘My Village,’ all very nice and sweet, like you’d speak to children, it was something pretty paternalistic. We listened to the radio ‘It’s noon, sit down, sit down to eat, it’s noon, the little mouse is saying,’ it was dumb, and the radio had an enormous importance. There was only radio.”
The other teachings of the day and age, the lessons and values that stuck with you came from the uncles and aunts. Among those teachings: You were the poor cousins.
“Marcel was the one near us, at number 6 Montée du Château. Marcel had a higher standard of living than us because he was an engineer and he had a small car, a Rosengart.” It was a sign of certain social standing. “Cars were rare back then.”
He was the eldest and had done well for himself. “Marcel was tanned, always smiling, quite ironic, kind but superior. He had class and style, a sort of casualness. He was an engineer, after all.” He’d been “impressed” by how your father, a Normand, ate cheese. His soft spots were his wife and his cat. “He was in his armchair, he listened to the radio. He had a beautiful cat, with long hair, whom he caressed.” He had a passion for his wife, Aunt Yvonne, over whom there might have been some fuss because she’d had a son with Antomarchi, the Corsican. “The son was handsome. Marcel married her anyway.” Yvonne, you remember as a bit aloof and “very thin.” She soon became known in the family for a strange trait. You always knew where to find Aunt Yvonne in bad weather. “She was permanently surprised. A bit lost. Except during storms, when she’d lock herself into a closet. Panic at the sight of a storm. The thunder!”
Then there were Margot and René. Back in the days of their youth at Michel-Levy hospital, the Godard sisters had both made similar choices in their spouses, yet from then on, their lives had diverged.
While your father worked then died in Dakar, Margot’s husband, René, had built a profitable business. “When René finished his time in the army there were no fridges yet. Before American electric fridges there was the glacières. He got an associate and made iceboxes.” They were made of zinc, with cork inside to preserve the cold. Back then ice was still delivered to the houses, “trucks passed by with huge blocks of ice, you would go down and they’d break off a piece of ice for you, which you’d put in your icebox to keep it cold.”
So Margot and René had a very different life from your own, of which you caught glimpses when you visited them. “Sometimes we went to her house and it was much better, another neighborhood, a large house, with a rising staircase with his collection of helmets and sabers displayed there. René had put that up. There was a large terrace, and still another floor with terraces.”
To you, they were the image of the happy couple. “He was a giant, extremely kind, always wanted to please, he helped us, brought us food.” She was your favorite relative, “I liked Aunt Margot best, but I seldom saw her.”
The contrast between the families was not lost on the children. You spent time with your brother, Maurice: “I had no father, so my brother took the role up a bit. He did everything well. He was responsible and good. I tried to keep a low profile.” When you were by yourselves, you could say those silent things that welled up inside. “One time my brother and I were talking, we were sitting out back, and we dreamt, a bit like in fairy tales, that we weren’t really of this family, but orphans, that maybe this wasn’t really our family and there was a better one. I was much better at Aunt Margot’s. I could breathe there.”
Meanwhile you mother “left for work in the morning and came back in the evening,” toiled by day and shared a bed with you at night. And whereas your mother had worn the black of widowhood, “Margot had her man. She was extremely sweet.”
And here the image of Margot and René together was a further reminder of the absence at home, and not just the physical absence but the erasure of Maurice Courchay. “The photo was exposed nowhere. My mother must have resented him. She had been young, innocent, instead of having a normal life, with a normal husband, she found herself in Africa and a widow. She was young and finds herself nearly penniless, with a very small pension and forced to feed three kids. You’re a young woman, still dreaming of love, and you find yourself sacrificing yourself. It mustn’t have been very fun. She must have remained horrified by sex. She was young, there were guys, but she turned down, everyone. She did not want another man.”
To you she never spoke of him, only to your sister, who will one day let you in on what was said in those heart-to-hearts that never included you. But that’s far away, in adulthood. For the time being there’s no traces of father, not even in the mirror. He’s in your face less than in your brother’s and sister’s, who are clear-eyed, blonde Normand types. You take after your mother, the Godard. The search for him has the opaqueness of a blank slate, from which no image arises, no gestures to imitate, no tones or subtle mimicries, no starting point from which to later depart into individuality. You always had to look elsewhere. There was your grandfather and uncles.
It was on Sundays that they all came together for the weekly family lunch. “We ate vol-au-vent, there was good food before the war”—puff pastry filled with fish or meat, with a sauce on top. The aunts and uncles would come over to the grandparent’s house, food was served, and afterwards the men had the table for the things men did, “and meanwhile the two women…” There were roles and gender was a hierarchy.
No drinking for the uncles but a “room thick with smoke” while they played cards… “René came on Sundays, he played cards with Marcel. There were the chips, the cards, and it lasted for hours, for all afternoon. The two men played against each other and René absolutely wanted to win and did. They smoked enormously, and we choked. There was a cloud and smoke and ‘Your turn Marcel!’ It brought him back to life. It must have reminded him of his career in the army, where they probably spent hours playing.” For René it was a moment to relish. “It was very important to him, I think it was the great moment of his week. Belote and smoking.” Belote, an old soldier’s card game. For René, one card game brought to mind others, and an entire, distant life.
Cards were a man’s thing and you weren’t one. “They were good to me, except at the table you could only speak if allowed to. You had no business talking. You waited, asked permission to leave the table. You’re a kid, you don’t have a say in things.”
And as you watched through the smoke, you caught a glimpse of that absent presence in the room and the question left in the void: who was Maurice Courchay? As René shouted and reenacted his empty hours of military service, you gleaned something that told you more about your father than the few stray details you were afforded: that the way life once espoused by the men of your family, the career that took them from nowhere and transported them to faraway places—to a great colonial bazaar that infused them with pride to go along with all their stories—had been the great adventure of their lives, just as it had been of your father’s life, too. A life into which maybe, one day, you’d be allowed to partake. “You became a man after the military service. That was the rite of passage into the virile age.”
René was the door into that world, by his presence, through what he said and the gifts he gave you. He was the early male influence, complementing your grandfather’s, introducing you into the world of men, the army, and war.
When René came on Sundays, he brought the newspapers, where you looked at the photos and illustrations and read some about the Spanish Civil War; maybe the men discussed it in front of you. They had very definite opinions. Some lessons filtered through: You should “trust not so much in state as in the army, because the state is rotten, but the army has a chief.”
Wealthy Uncle René brought you toys, and they were the right sort: “I’d play with my little lead soldier, my Solido cannons in front of the castle’s huge gate. I had a small Solido cannon… I had a small Solido mortar, which had a spring and launched a small shell: my own little 77.”
And didn’t René indulge in similar games in adulthood? He’d been born in 1900, lived his teens in the onslaught of World War I, and soon after joined the ranks of a victorious army and spent his best years serving it. He’d done well afterwards, but then we all cling to mementos of the time that gave us meaning. “He was bored and collected enemy trinkets, then took to sculpting artillery shells. You had to kill time somehow.” You had your toy war; he had his collection of wartime paraphernalia, the “enemy trophies” you inherited, and with which you one day decorated my childhood room: Prussian helmets from 1870, French and German ones from 1914, grenades, guns, swords, knives, insignia. Boys will be boys. Boys will be men. Men will be soldiers.
Furthermore, they’d been in the colonial army, a pillar of the empire. Greater France. Another layer in the natural order of things: “I was young, there were exercise book covers and at the back of them was the empire, painted in red. People thought it would last forever.” The lesson was “the civilizing mission of the colony.”
“I collected stamps, magnificent stamps from all over the empire, as my mother received letters from Dakar and elsewhere.” Packages came from far away. “They sent us coffee from Dakar. To receive coffee was like solid gold.”
It all comes together, the smell of coffee, Stéphane’s career, René’s nostalgia, along with windows into distant places where France extended its rule and where your grandfather, your uncles, your father had all gone to serve the “mission.” Civilization, you’re told. “That’s what they told us: generous France was going to emancipate ‘primitive’ populations. It was all for their good. Everything was good and pure. Magnificent.”
The child aspires to do “good” as he’s been taught. “I didn’t want to join the army, I wanted to be a missionary, go abroad, my robes, my cross and a large beard. I wanted out. My father had died for France and I wanted to have an honorable death, to earn a beautiful death.”
Now suddenly the past breaks, with your laughter.
Beautiful death, you say and laugh out loud to dispel the weight of illusions once held dear. The narration stops but I leave the recorder on. It’s on the table, alongside the bottle of home-brewed liquor from which I pour us two more glasses. We drink, and then I ask.
- Why is it that your father “died for France”?
- He had died for France because he was a French soldier, in the French army, serving abroad in the interest of France, and so he died in service of France. And so, I was, we were, “pupils of the nation.” Which showed how much the nation had its eye on us, so to speak, how dear we were to the nation.
Amidst all these aged beliefs, the shadow is ever present. The brief life of Maurice Courchay, buried far from his homeland, disappeared behind his role, his station in life. It’s the last bond you shared: He’d died for France and you were left fatherless, but more so, a Pupil of the Nation.
It was a status instituted in France by law in 1917, through which children “orphaned by war” in the carnage of World War I were “adopted” by the nation, as way to safeguard all those many broken families.
The law provided aid for your mother’s three children, in addition to her pension. Maybe a scholarship, you don’t remember the specifics. It would have been something the teachers were aware of, a badge of honor instead of a father. In his posthumous book The First Man, Albert Camus writes of a boy that could well be you: “During the examination at the beginning of the year he had been able to respond with certainty that his father was dead at war, which, in short, was a social standing, and that he was a pupil of the nation.” This is what you are, what you ought to live up to. A title. You’re something more than a boy deprived by an absence.
It’s the missing piece that crystalizes all the other the beliefs, the foundational sacrifice upon which your world is created. You were the son of a man who died an honorable death for his country and its great mission in the world. The nation is indebted to his sacrifice, for his untimely passing. The son, dare I say, of a hero.
You laugh at an old ghost that’s been tamed to provoke not sorrow but mockery: beautiful death, pupil of the nation. Can you believe it? Yes, you did. And you would hold on to that belief, even after the war, after the rest had long crumbled. It’s another unquestionable truth, amidst a whirlwind childhood in which you weren’t meant to ask questions.
“Things happen, one day you’re in Dakar being bitten by ants, then it’s warm, in the evening you hear goats go by. A herd of goats passes every evening. Then one day you’re on a boat, then another. You’re in Marseille, and it’s good because there’s a fig tree, or perhaps it isn’t because you have to share a bed with your mother, and then you go to the school of the White Rabbit, and that’s good, and you have to go to Mass, you have to go to church a lot, and on Sunday there’s the card game and that’s it. That’s it, that’s good. If it were otherwise it would be exactly the same. Things exist; it’s not your place to argue. It is as it is, you don’t dispute it, you accept. You have no right to speech. You don’t speak. You wait and wait. You ask for nothing.”
It’s 1939. You’re six years old. You were born in 1933. On January 30th that year, in Germany, President Paul von Hindenburg names the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, Adolf Hitler, as chancellor. A countdown has started for another European disaster. Men will be soldiers, and war always returns. Camus again: “‘There has always been war,’ says a character, ‘you quickly get used to peace. So, we think it’s normal. No, war is what’s normal.’”
For those generations, war isn’t outlandish or on foreign soil. It adds to the family’s foundational stories. They’re the offspring of war, have been for generations, their lives shaped by conflict. It starts in 1870, with the Franco-Prussian War, which France lost. So, Stéphane grew up in a defeated country, stripped of the regions of Alsace and Lorraine that went on to belong to the German Empire. His was a generation obsessed with military revenge.
Others in the family remembered seeing the Prussians and held a grudge: “On my mother’s side, one day we saw some minuscule old ladies arrive, all in black with black bonnets. They were Franc-comptoises. Distant ancestors. I can see black silhouettes. One of them had a husband who was a sergeant in the army of Bourbaki (under Napoleon III).” From her you inherited a soldier’s wooden canteen with the name Godard carved at the bottom. “This was in the war of 1870. There was a General named Bourbaki that fought against the Prussians and took refuge in Switzerland. She said: ‘I saw the Prussians and dogs of their ilk.’ That’s all the way back in 1870.”
Revenge for that came in 1918 and Stéphane served in the army that exacted it, and though he keeps conspicuously silent on the facts, he flaunts his Military Medal and he’s always up for having a dig at the Germans. Uncle René also knows World War I by heart. Born in 1900, he grew on a military fault line, in the city of Sedan, in the Ardennes region, the site of a Prussian victory in 1870, of a German victory in 1914, the first battle of the Western front when French forces were forced to retreat. For four years, until being liberated by the American and French armies, his hometown was occupied by Germany. You remember your uncle telling you of the hunger, of stealing potatoes from the fields to eat.
For the family, the sworn enemy has always been the Germans, the Prussians, the boches, or whatever each generation called them. And in case you forgot about them grandpa brought it up every supper: “Another one the Fritz won’t have!” he’d say after finishing his food. “The boches were bad, but you’d just eaten. They’d taken Alsace and Lorraine, been a royal pain in the ass, but food is in our stomachs. This one they aren’t getting! They swallowed up Alsace and Lorraine but they’re not having my plate. It proved the fight kept on going, another one over them.” Now it’s started again, martial rumblings are coming from the eastern neighbor.
First, military conscription is reintroduced in Germany, in March 1935. It violates the terms of the Versailles Treaty, which had settled the crippling conditions of Germany’s defeat after World War I, and planted the seeds of future conflict. A year later, on March 7, 1936, Germany re-militarizes the Rhineland region, on the borders of Belgium and France. Again, treaties go unheeded and protests swell and fade. Two years later comes the annexation of Austria into Germany. The same year, Hitler nearly unleashes war by demanding to be given the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia. At the Munich Conference in 1938, with Italy, France, and Britain, he gets his wish. On September 30th, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain speaks of a “peace for our time.” On March 15th Hitler violates the Munich agreements and goes for the Czechoslovak state. The invasion of Poland sets off the war, in 1939. Britain and France declare war on Germany on September 3.
“The declaration of war, I remember. It was in the air. Planes had flown overhead. We didn’t know if they were Italian, if we would be bombed. We knew nothing. There were planes. Nothing had changed, except it was war.”
The months that follow are remembered through the distorting glass of wartime news. “In the newspapers there was talk of skirmishes. I recall small illustrated weeklies, you could see images, a German interior, on the table there were apples, with a portrait of Hitler above it, and you saw a French soldier that is about to throw one on his face and another stops him because it might be mined. I see it clearly.” It means to say that Hitler’s portrait itself is a menace, so treacherous are the enemies: “Germans mined everything, Achtung Minen, ‘Don’t throw it, we’re going to blow.’”
Wartime builds, and you’re consuming it. “These were popular illustrated weeklies, that fed people the idea that they themselves had of war.” It comforted and confirmed their idea of it. “We didn’t know anything about war. There were no reporters, no photos.”
There’s not much to see at first. War takes its time to actually begin. “War comes, it starts in 1939 and it lasts. Nothing happens.” Small-scale actions take place. Some British vessels are sunk, and a German district is invaded. There’s economic warfare. World War II doesn’t start with a bang. It’s the period referred to by the French as the Drôle de guerre, the “funny war.” It was called the “Phony War” in English, and Churchill coined the term “Twilight war.” Germans opt for “Sitting war.” It’s the calm before the storm. It lasts eight months.
On your end, during that strange prologue, one thing remains certain: France will prevail. It had “the first army in the world, the second largest colonial empire. Everything was in order, all was well.” It says so everywhere. “There were large posters: ‘We will vanquish because we are the strongest.’ You saw the map of the world, in red the English colonies, French colonies, the whole world, and ever so little: Germany. So, it was evident we would prevail.” Nothing to worry about. “There was the Maginot Line of defense, there was our army, there was General Gamelin!” What could Germany do before that might? “Illustrations in the newspapers showed the last parade of July 14th, 1939, a magnificent army, Spahi troops, Tabor troops, the colors and the empire.”
The funny war leaves colorful imagery I see in old newsreels and you recount to me, of French soldiers having wine, of French soldiers in train stations. Of roses being planted on the defense line to boost soldiers’ morale. The uniforms are still those of World War I. “In France we were continuing the war of 1914. A good war, proof was that we had won it.”
Newspapers of the time make for strange reading. On January 3, the newspaper Le Matin quotes Marshal Pétain, the French hero of World War I, then ambassador in Spain, as saying “we await without fear the great clash,” and that France “has all the required conditions for victory.” On the 6th of January, L’Intransigeant reports “Hitler is again considered as very ill.” His throat hurts, and it might be cancer.
In Marseille things continue unaltered. “We returned to school, I went back to the White Rabbit School, my grandfather led me by the hand. Life went on.” You went to Mass every Sunday morning, then Vespers. Church was good: it helped you discover Charlie Chaplin’s movies. “On Sunday, after Vespers, the priest took us to a room with a small projector and showed us that. Chaplin was everywhere at the time. I don’t remember what I saw, only Chaplin with his ridiculous pants, his large shoes, his vest, moustache and cane. I see him very clearly. Chaplin was general culture.” It was too early for you to see The Great Dictator, his parody of Hitler. By the time it made it to Europe, it couldn’t be shown in France.
Until the spring of 1940, there was nothing to worry about. France was safe behind its militarized border. There were fortifications meant to stop Germany’s advance “except they went from Switzerland and stopped at the Ardennes Mountains. Marshal Pétain had said ‘the Ardennes are impassable’ and if ever they try to cross them, we’ll catch at the exit. Catchy. So, from the Ardennes to the sea there was nothing (as defense). Sure, the Belgian border, but we know the Germans don’t violate borders…” On May 10th, 1940, German troops marched into Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg. Italy joined Germany a month later. The “funny war” was over and the blitzkrieg, the “lightning war,” had begun.
The city of Sedan, Uncle René’s city, is once again the theater of defeat. On May 13th, the French front is pierced there, north of a Maginot Line rendered useless. Not that you’d expect it by reading the papers barely a day before.
On the 12th of May, L’Auto was categorical: “The Germans have not succeeded in their plan for lightning occupation,” and “resistance lines have not been pierced.” The German tactic “has completely failed.”
As the German army rushes to the English Channel to cut off British and French forces at Dunkirk, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud takes a bet on old glories to rescue a desperate situation: On May 18th he “names Marshal Pétain as vice-president of the Council. He believes he’ll reassure the French by calling to his side this icon of the Great War, despite his eighty-four years of age. It’s the beginning of a misunderstanding,” writes Henry Rousso, a French historian specializing in WWII France and the societal inheritance of the Vichy Regime: “the Vichy symptom.” Pétain is called upon to breathe new life into the fight. The opposite will hold true.
It’s all coming apart at astonishing speed, yet the good news remains. “I followed the war in the newspapers and the radio, which said only bullshit: Germans advanced but they were pushed back always with ‘heavy losses.’ Except they were advancing a full speed, ninety miles per day. Luckily, they had ‘heavy losses!’ What a joke.”
On May 23, three days before the battle of Dunkirk, Le Petit Parisien publishes a remarkable article: “The enormous losses of the invading army cause deep anguish in Germany.” It’s author, Lucien Bourgues, claims that the enemy press is telling “absolutely fantasist” tales of nearing victory. All lies, he writes. On the contrary, according to “certain sources” the German population’s morale is “seriously hit.” The German people are “absolutely distressed by the huge losses,” and in the cities of the Reich “word of mouth” is of 500,000 dead and injured on their side. “The unending sanitary convoys flowing from the combat zones are hard to hide.” That same day, in the same newspaper, French General Weygand is quoted as saying he is “full of confidence” as long as everyone “does his duty with a ferocious energy.”
By June, there are some eight million people fleeing southwards on the roads of France as the German army makes its way to Paris.
Escaping “in apocalyptic disorder” are the French from the north and east; the Parisians; the refugees from Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Poland, many of them Jewish. It’s all unwinding on the roadside: “French society seemed to come apart, and the roads were crowded with millions of people. Walking south, or going south on bicycles, or old cars with mattresses and furniture tied to the roof, because it was the exodus as well as the defeat. The exodus seemed to show the society, the state had ceased to exist,” Robert Paxton, Columbia University professor emeritus, specializing in France’s Vichy regime, tells me. It’s the image of a country disintegrating.
The government flees Paris for Bordeaux. On June 16th, Paul Reynaud resigns. Marshal Pétain, the aging talisman, is called upon to form the last government of the French Third Republic.
Once upon a loss or another, are all the various beginnings for this story. Start with a speech on the radio announcing defeat; start on June 17th, 1940. That radio broadcast and Pétain’s voice. You remember it, seventy-seven years on, and to you, defeat is an old man’s tears.
“I saw my grandfather cry, I listened. It was 1940, I was seven; I notice that my grandfather is crying, that the country is lost. My grandfather, when he heard ‘it is with a heavy heart that I say to you today that the fighting must cease,’ my grandfather, who had fought in World War I, cried.
It was supposed to be the first army in the world. He had spent his life in the army, and the Marshal tells him… ‘the fighting must cease.’ In 1914 the fight went on. There was the German offensive, there was the battle of the Marne, there were the trenches, and then guys, generation after generation, falling, dying, returning mutilated, but the fight went on. And here in mere days everything’s done and dusted. There are no words.”
Why is this man crying in his old age as France comes undone? They must have been countless like him, crying, at the news of France’s capitulation to Germany. But a man, all the while crying in unison with the many, also cries alone. Stéphane Godard cries for his life. He cries because it’s Germany, who had defeated France in 1870 and taken the territories of Alsace and Lorraine, because he grew up wanting the revanche and got it in World War I. He cries because he’s a soldier and he won that war and nothing will ever come close to that achievement. He cries because this feud has presided over much of his life, and after each meal. He doesn’t say Germans, he says boches, a contemptuous word, from his world, of which the Marshal is the uncontested idol, the victor of the battle of Verdun, the man who stopped the enemy tide. He cries because it’s Pétain talking, it’s Pétain admitting defeat, and though he’s then a national treasure, he’s also a mirror in which Stéphane can intimately fathom the disaster. Stéphane is a man of the nineteenth century, like Pétain, a man of rural origins, like Pétain, from which both went on to spend a lifetime in the military. He cries because once upon a war, he won the Military Medal, and Pétain wore it, too. It’s the hero of his generation. It is a narrative that gave him meaning. All dissolving in tears on a day in June: the fall of France.
PART II: THE MARSHAL
“No one who lived through the French debacle of May-June 1940 ever quite got over the shock. For Frenchmen, confident in a special role in the world, the six weeks’ defeat by German armies was a shattering trauma.” —Robert Paxton, Vichy France.
That Monday the 17th of June 1940, at 12:30 in the afternoon, “the world explodes, all things fall apart.” The radio is on at home and the broadcast, playing out on the distraught face of your grandfather, carves itself into your memory. The implications overwhelm you, rendered by tears you cannot forget—the symbol of an ending.
The rest is blurred. The radio could be in the living room or placed on the terrace outside. Mother is probably at work, grandma and your brother out of sight, maybe your little sister on the fringes, unaware, playing. You’re alone with an inconsolable adult. “I was a little Frenchman and my country has completely crumbled,” along with the man who had served as your father. There is still the vestige of shock when you speak about it. “There was no army, nothing. Tomorrow the Germans could arrive.”
To you that’s how it all begins, this story about that boy you were; the boy you can’t save.
First, though, in that moment when all seems lost, something remarkable happens. Providence issues from the airwaves: “I give to France the gift of my person in order to alleviate her suffering,” you hear Pétain say. It’s the voice that will shape your childhood and echo throughout the years to come.
For with this Christ-like phrase, a new faith is being born to you.
“There was chaos.” Then there was him. “It was the divine voice!” When every certainty seems void, Pétain steps forth to fill the vacuum. Amid the ruins of humiliation there is a reprieve. “There’s nothing, nothing, nothing, and you feel betrayed, cheated. You’ve fallen into the bottom of a hole, and there’s one ladder to get yourself out of it: there’s the Marshal.”
For you this moment breaks the dam of everyday words and you turn to the only imagery that could match it. “France was lost” and “the Marshal was Joan of Arc,” “France had drowned” and “he was Moses.” Reliving the trauma of those days is done in the halfway house of biblical allegory and historical alchemy. The child of a religious and military family hears the voice of its greatest icon and wants to believe in a miracle.
“He might have walked on water; with the Marshal everything was possible.” If not him then who? “The victor of Verdun! Verdun was when we stopped the Germans. They needed to be stopped and he did it.” Pétain’s myth grows ever larger in light of unparalleled disaster. Beyond these walls, in the north of the country, of the Loire River, millions are flooding the roads before the cataclysm engulfing proud France. Could he rescue you again? “France was on the floor and the one thing left standing was him.” This, the country’s vulnerability mirrors your own. “I remember being poor and weak, that anything could happen and that it wouldn’t be grandpa or grandma, or my mother that would protect me, I was completely defenseless and hoped to be spared by my insignificance.” The nation’s salvation feels all the more personal.
As the first step out of the pit, Pétain announces he’s asked your adversaries “to put an end to hostilities.” It’s happening “honorably.” You expect his next speech to know just how the world will go on turning again. “We waited, there was this war that the Germans had won, but then they never showed up. We waited. My grandmother prayed. The elderly didn’t understand. They had their time, they had had kids, they were happy, they had had a job, and suddenly it was over.”
Your new reality starts to take shape on the 25th as Pétain announces he’s signed an “acceptable armistice” with Nazi Germany days before, calling upon their “sense of honor and reason.” There will be no more fighting. He assures you “love for the nation has never had more fervor.” It will need to. The conditions imposed are “severe.” He won’t lie: “You’ve suffered. You’ll suffer still.”
Take a map of France and slice off the north, including Paris, then all the western coast on the Atlantic all the way down to Spain. That’s how country will be divided, what the Germans will occupy. That’s three-fifths of the country under German rule. The French army will be demobilized. The 25th of June is declared a day of national mourning.
What’s left is an exception, a unique case among all the countries conquered by the Reich. It’s the only one accorded an armistice, to retain a semi-independent government. Now there’s an “occupied zone” in Germany’s hands and what remains is the southern “free zone” split off from the rest. That’s where you live, what remains sovereign under the guidance of Pétain. As Hitler wished, it both avoids the victors the administration of the whole country while imposing his severe economic and material demands on the defeated. Amid the various clauses, you’ll learn one day, there’s betrayal of French sanctuary, the handing over to Hitler of the Austrian and German refugees. That’s the deal struck to preserve a semblance of French rule. For you it symbolizes hope. “The Germans left a piece of France unoccupied. It was nothing. But it was the free zone.” It’s from this amputated homeland you’ll mold your understanding of the world, the shape for the future. “From there came the attempt to reorganize a state, an army, but above all to remake France.”
That is what you’ll retain from those foundational times. France needs deep surgery. It needs explanations and solutions for that calamitous defeat and its consequences. And Pétain provides them: “The failure surprised you. Remembering 1914 and 1918, you seek for its reasons. I will tell them to you.”
What he spells out is a tale of guilt and redemption. It wasn’t the military’s fault, he explains, the disease runs deep into politics and society. Because of his narrative of decadence, the actual aftermath is all too clear for the little believer.
Why are these trials upon us? We’re being punished. “Since victory, the spirit of pleasure has overtaken the spirit of sacrifice.” You listen, learn and repeat: “Sacrifices will need to be made, the Marshal said. Which meant you enjoyed yourselves, and now you’ll pay for it. At Verdun they had sacrificed.”
Yet afterwards “France had lost its soul, lost the taste for work, and on top of it, aperitifs, dancing, had lost the healthy values of work and sacrifice.”
Instead “of continuing to serve and give it all to France, you had thought only of vacations and pleasure.” It’s a lesson you can understand. “The boy’s been naughty, now’s his punishment. Morally, France has sinned, it had been punished and now it needed to be lifted, thanks to daddy Pétain.”
For Pétain says there’s a way to redemption still. For that boy, in memory, all that the Marshal announces is enshrined into righteous fact. “I believed that one day France would be strong again and one day we’d be winners again, that maybe…meanwhile there was Pétain.” The dogma transfigures your understanding of this period.
And though the adult knows better, those memories belong to a boy caught in an instant when history changed course and he was swept along. “It’s hard to convey those speeches now. You can’t judge a time without living it. Reading it afterwards is done with a cool head.” And though a lifetime has passed, it doesn’t sever the bond to an expired truth that you can still reach for, like a phantom limb. That pillar that sustained this dream of salvation on the brink: “You’re a kid. There’s the Marshal. You must be well behaved. You must be good. And later, maybe, we’ll have an army again. Maybe we’ll be great again.”
As historian Henri Amouroux, who served in the French resistance and specialized in German occupation of France, writes, “in a defeated country, in search of extraordinary men to offer to the admiration of the crowd, there remains only one extraordinary man: Phillipe Pétain.” Peace and a return to a semblance of normality is what most people desperately desire and rejoice in seeing it within reach, “For there is no mistaking the joy and relief flooding after the anguish,” Paxton writes.
There are voices that arise against this narrative. An opposition to Pétain had arisen, though dimly still. On the 18th, in a broadcast issuing from London, General De Gaulle has rejected the surrender and rallies France in an opposite direction: “France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war.” He envisions that the conflict will be long and its outcome still uncertain. You do not hear his call. In the face of the neutrality of Russia and the United States, his vision then still seems a folly. “The people who believed in 1940 that Hitler would be defeated were visionaries, like De Gaulle, they were believers, there wasn’t much concrete to defend such a belief,” Paxton tells me. For you, then, there seemed no possible alternative. “Do you need me to draw you a picture? There were no Americans. The Russians helped the Germans. Stalin and Hitler were having their little love-in. Now they would turn to conquering the world,” you say. “It was over. The old civilization had crumbled. What do you hang on to? There was the voice of the Marshal.”
Had your family heard De Gaulle’s call it would not made much of a difference. There could be no competition with Pétain. “My grandfather and my mother were fully behind the Marshal. Everyone was.” His most fervent supporters were veterans, men such as your grandfather, men shaped by the Great War such as your Uncle René. He stands for all they believe in. “A family of the military, I’m a little French boy, a Catholic, it’s the basis, it’s everything. Everything we were stemmed from this war in which we had survived thanks to daddy Pétain. It’s the family’s way, the prism through which to peer into their view of the country’s fortunes.
At this point they are among millions; their fervor, despair, and allegiance reflect the vast majority of the country. As Henry Rousso writes: “This adherence often takes the form of devotion, of a religious mystique that ties the personal destiny of individuals and the collective destiny of the nation to the word, when not the actions, of a providential man.”
Voices from all sides explain the aura that then surrounds Marshal Pétain. Time and time again he embodies salvation. Writer Ernst Jünger, then an officer in the German army, remembers seeing columns of French prisoners “who dragged themselves through the road’s dust, in the torrid July heat, and acclaimed his name as that of a savior.” From another standpoint, Walter Stucki, then Swiss ambassador to France, wrote in his memoirs, “In July 1940, the new head of the French state had behind him not only an important majority of the National Assembly, but also the greater part of the French people. With an almost mystical veneration he was treated like the savior of the nation.”
“He stops the war and France must be remade and there’s only him,” you tell me.
All he needs now is the power to carry out it out.
Cometh the hour, cometh the savior.
Democracy dies swiftly and by an overwhelming margin.
It happens in the small city of Vichy, near the border of the newly divided state, where the government will reside after its flight across France and with Paris occupied.
On the 10th, in a vote of 569 votes to 80, both chambers give Pétain the authority to make a new constitution. You tell me “he was Moses, he could speak, he could dictate the Tablets of the Law.” Now he indeed can and does. By the next day, three constitutional acts place within his hands alone the executive, judicial, and legislative powers. He takes on the title of Chief of State and suspends the assemblies. The Republic is dead. Less than one month after defeat, Pétain has established the basis of a personal dictatorship. Welcome to Vichy France.
Democracy’s demise seems to be received with resignation, if not relief in the face of the new leader. The newspaper Le Courrier du Centre runs the headline: “The Destiny of France is in the Hands of Marshal Pétain.” A newsreel voice announces: “In a unanimous élan, France follows Marshal Pétain, he is the symbol of this country as he is its leader.”
On the 11th the leader addresses the nation from the height of his new role. “The National Assembly has invested in me extensive powers” and, with no checks on his rule, he can make sure the “impotence of the state ceases to paralyze the nation.” With this power he will take on “international capitalism and international socialism.” It’s the end of dissent, he announces.
Now the new regime proceeds to weed out the past even in its most symbolic representations. It does away with the motto of the Republic, replaces the values France saw itself as embodying: “The Republic is over. Off with Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, we’ll have Work, Family, Homeland,” you tell me. Off with the Marianne, the woman who symbolized the French Republic in every mayor’s office; by 1941 there will be the bust of Pétain to stand in its place. What the country believed itself to stand for is quickly remade.
Here begins the second layer of the narrative as you came to learn it. First you are given the reasons for defeat, cast as moral and social failings. To sustain it, you need the adversaries so now there’s the scapegoating.
You explain its rationale: “We return with our tail in between our legs and we ask ourselves, what the hell just happened? It’s monstrous. It’s unthinkable. We won the war in 1914 and here we crumble in mere days! It doesn’t stick, someone needs to be blamed, and who are the guilty?” Someone needs to carry the burden of our shortcomings. “The defeat needed scapegoats, France had crumbled, and it wasn’t the fault of the military, of course, nor of the Marshal, anyone but the military, they hadn’t lost the war. In reality, the Marshal was a minister, so he’s heavily responsible, but you know nothing of it.” Instead, “It was civilians that had lost it, by sapping their morale.”
In a conservative uproar, the French postmortem scapegoats the communists and the left, the freemasons and the Jews. The Third Republic was blamed for defeat and the partisan hatred for the governments that preceded the war was confirmed. That hatred had reached fever pitch with the arrival to power of the alliance of leftist parties known as the Popular Front (1936-38). A catastrophe for the right wing: their ideological nemesis had taken over and put Leon Blum, a Jew, at the head the country. “A Jewish, socialist prime minister for crying out loud. I mean, one French person out of two thought that was the end of the world,” Robert Paxton explains to me. A conservative reaction festered. Then the most unexpected deliverance: War will bring what the ballot had denied them. As you put it, “Their faction loses the elections, the Popular Front prevails, and suddenly, thanks to defeat, to them it’s ‘at last we return to power, our ideas return to power. We will restore order, we will restore morality; we will restore a sense of purpose.’ And to that, Pétain added the return to true values.” It’s the beginning of a retrograde nationalistic experiment, attempting to take France forward by pulling it back into the past.
That summer, Pétain holds all the powers and possesses a seemingly unassailable moral claim to guiding the nation. What did he do with it? “Pétain had an enormous emotional capital in 1940, the country was at his feet, he could do anything…,” Paxton tells me. “There was a crying need for a leader, and Pétain stepped into that role and I understand how people like your father would see him like that. It was a great tragedy that he did not fill that role in a way that would unify the country.”
Instead comes division. Pétain distills it with a formula: “France and anti-France,” Us vs. Them. Partisan politics gradually take over around Pétain. The ensuing years will play out that formula’s fatal logic.
To adjudicate the sinners and the saints, good and evil; first there must be something holy to stand by. None of it exists without the faith. The image shows Pétain. And that image seems omnipresent.
It multiplies around you, affirming his presence: “There was his portrait everywhere, in the newspapers, in the shops. Portraits upon portraits; there was a veneration of the Marshal.” A newsreel announces his beloved image is being spread across the land. “The mailman goes from house to house offering the portraits of the great leader. His image, already present in the hearts, must have its place in every home in France.” Did your family put it up? “I can’t remember if we had one at home.” In a sense you don’t need it, the portraits are mere signposts, he himself tours the country and his image is firmly rooted inside you.
“You’re completely bereft. Your country is no longer your country; you have no father.” Now after the fall of France and of your grandfather, a venerated, paternalistic leader is the ideal fit for the role, “I was very little. To me, Pétain is the ideal father. I had the Marshal as a father.”
To stoke that fervor and affirm the new order, the Marshal’s travels across the country are all captured in newsreels. On November 5, there are ecstatic faces in the crowds, of women crying in joy, of children saluting as Pétain traverses the city of Toulouse. On November 18, Pétain is received in adoration by the city of Lyon. Wild cheers, fervor. On December 3, Pétain is in Marseille, ever so close. He parades in his car, its roof down, advancing through an avenue lined with crowds. You won’t see him, but you’re given the commemorative supplement from the newspaper Le Petit Marseillais, “Official Trip of Marshal Pétain in Provence.” It’s filled with photos of gleeful children waving flags, “ovations without end” and “thunders of applause” and “never in living memory has Marseille such a beautiful parade.” Then an “apotheosis” before the city’s cathedral under the shining sky as Monseigneur Delay tells Pétain, “God is working through you to save France.”
How often did you look at the supplement then? It’s in the bundle in your home on the hill, still intact nearly eighty years on. Just worn pages that stick to the fingertips, a meaningless blur.
The past is a foreign language.
But look again; all the old scaffolding is there: patriotism, cult of the leader, and religion as living law. The faded snapshot comes into view. It’s your life in the time of fervor.
Before he departs Marseille, Pétain tells your city: “The first duty today is to obey.”
It’s only beginning. Everywhere you turn, Pétain’s bond to France is confirmed.
Who guides the flock in troubled times? What’s the word from the pulpit? “The church welcomed the arrival of the Marshal; he was the Second Coming.” At last a good, practicing Catholic is in power after those times when “France had lost its soul.” On November 19th, 1940, Cardinal Gerlier spells it out for all to hear: “For Pétain is France and France today is Pétain.”
For you, the demands issuing from the spiritual and the political feed off each other. Pétain speaks of sacrifices and the church asks you the very same thing: “Church was important also in Marseille, I did the Eucharistic Crusade, I was fully into it.” In following it, you counted every day “the sacrifices you were making. You had by some miracle a piece of sugar that you kept for your mother. As soon as something could please you, you suppressed it to make a sacrifice. You attempt to deprive yourself of absolutely every pleasure, all of it, for God. Because, you know, he suffered for our sins, and he’s overjoyed if you suffer also.” It’s a morality that melds into Pétain’s, his denouncing of pleasure, his hymns to sacrifice for the resurrection of France.
In pursuing a new moral order through policy, Vichy echoes the concerns of the church, a redressing of the course after a leftist government: there’s a swift rollback of the rights of women, of sexual liberties. In your memory, there’s no mistaking the portrayal of Judaism in religious representations of your youth: “There were naïf figures and those portraying Jews were abominable, the huge noses, the caricatured faces.” Or in the way you were taught the Bible. “At church we were thought they were the deicide people. Pontius Pilate asked who should be freed, Christ or a robber, Barabbas, and they said Barabbas! So, the Jews had demanded the death of Christ.” That seemed normal at the time, the indictment of a “deicide people” passed on by the priest. Retrieved and seen anew, these teachings of that time are understood in a different light:
“The church made anti-Semites.”
And for these undercurrents, the dams are being opened. As early as July 1940, the government does away with the laws repressing anti-Semitism in the press.
In that enclosed world you inhabit, the sources of authority and meaning are within walking distance from each other. Walk down from your home a short distance, there’s the church; go just a bit further and there’s the school. It’s here that the new order truly reaches you: taught, learned, and internalized. Pétain’s portrait went up on the walls one day at the Lapin Blanc, as it did in every classroom and office building.
There are reasons why he has his eye on you; it’s for your own good. He says so in his speeches. Try to understand. Remember the defeat. We are what we learn, and so the accusing finger of Pétain points to schooling, the “moral cowardice” of teachers that “had broken the nation’s morale,” you tell me. Your forebearers, Pétain explains, were led astray by wrongful values, including individualism. “Truth is the individual exists solely through the family, the society, the Homeland.” But for those like you, still untainted, Pétain says, change has arrived on time.
On August 23, the newspaper La Croix headlines “Another cleansing: the schoolbooks.” On December 6, Le Figaro announces the primary schools will impart moral lessons based on the motto Work-Family-Homeland. “Professors will have to give back their place of honor to these sentiments and ideas.” God will be put back in the schoolbooks and the young will learn of “duties before the State, loyalty to its leader.”
You are aware of the attention being put on your education. “At school the Marshal took care of us, took interest in us.” You exist little orphan, and you matter to him. He calls on you to turn things around. “Everyone had to swear loyalty to the Marshal,” you explain, every schoolteacher and public servant was made to do so to carry out their work. For you there wasn’t much of a choice. “It was an extremely regulated life. Above all you didn’t have the right to speak, you were authorized to shut your mouth.” A newsreel shows that pervasive allegiance: French youths raise their arms solemnly in a collective pledge.
Placed side by side, your memories and propaganda seem one and the same. In a classroom like yours, Pétain is seen arriving under his own portrait and addressing children your age: “Young pupils of the school of France, the reason I wanted to speak to you on this day, as you begin a new school year, is that it is important for you to know that I’m absolutely counting on you to help me rebuild France. Work well, be brave and have good results.” That was the mission he entrusted you and you lived by it. “I’ll be good and work well in school. You’re little, what else do you do?” And though you never receive a visit from the Marshal, you are close to his heart and mind. You have proof of it.
Pétain cares about you so much he writes to you personally. “We had a correspondence with the marshal.” It’s true. “At school the teacher told you ‘you must write a letter to the Marshal’ and the Marshal answered you. They made you send him a letter and he answered very kindly. We were very happy because we believed it. It said so. It read: ‘my little one, work well and be good,’ and the Marshal himself signed it. We were happy because the Marshal wrote to us.” You received his cherished letter and it was cardboard with the colors of France, which you would open to reveal imitation handwriting and a picture depicting him in all his glory: “the Marshal, on a beautiful white horse, with big moustaches. There was his picture, you could read it, it was pretty, and you had a direct contact with the Marshal.” He’s there for you and when you write again the miracle is renewed. “Then you’d send him another letter and he sent you his portrait. It was great. He had a handsome face, the proud kepi, the beautiful moustaches; a beautiful gaze. All framed in blue, white, and red.” You will keep these letters all your life.
And when you do succeed in school it is again his image that is offered to you, your achievements take you a step closer to Pétain. Your school prizes are books exalting him and the New France. Kept in your home is one such reading: The Life of Marshal Pétain Told to the Children of France. It starts with “Once upon a time” and tells of his glorious military career. He wins the World War but soon his work is undone as “the bad shepherds return” and a hate from abroad is “poured into the hearts” of the French. When war comes again, and defeat befalls the nation, he returns so “France will not die.” He is a “beautiful old man, solid and straight like the druid tree” and this stoic figure is the promise of shining tomorrows.
This is what you read as a reward, these odes are the backbone of your schooling all those years ago. Viewed from the present, this propaganda seems transparent. Its puppeteer’s strings obvious, its gestures twitchy and awkward. Remembered by a child, however, it is the absence of ambiguity that is painful.
All the mementos of those times you keep to this day in the old bundle. That book is there. Its pages are yellowed by time but it’s still possible to make out your watercolors. You painted French flags and a knight’s armor, and golden ears of wheat and Francisque axes, his symbol. They adorn the portrait of the Marshal on the first page. You were meant to believe, and you did.
You believed in Pétain’s narrative of suffering and rebirth and it intimately resonated with your personal history. You believed, and he gave you meaning, purpose, and destiny. You adorned his effigy in an old worn book that still exists to tell its shredded tales. You kept those mass-produced letters once cherished.
By now, all that will be left will be a worn newspaper supplement, a wrinkled book, two old letters and all the words from an old song that shaped and twisted your life. “France overawed, salutes you Marshal! All your children who love you and venerate you . . . Marshal here we are!”
You are firmly under his wing and beyond school he has plans to further your communion with the ideal: “Modern youth needs to live with youth, to take its strength in open air, in a healthy fraternity that prepares it for the combat of life. We will see to that.” And he does, and you take to heart the mission of “a young France, clean, no more bistro, no more cinema, no more bullshit. A France of boy scouts.” So, you did just that: “I went to the scouts.”
It was an escape from the city, north of Marseille to the region of Vaucluse. You were part of the “cub scouts,” where you walked in the woods and communed with nature and all the sanctioned values. “The scouts had something military to them, and it was also church, and God. On Sundays we hoisted the flag, we saluted, and we sang ‘Marshal here we are!’ We sang it on vacations, in public gatherings, scouts, whenever there was a group.” Every day “when you arose you got out of the tent you went to the pole with the tricolored flag, to salute the colors. You line up in teams. We hoisted it and sang the song. I was too small to ever hoist it, of course, I was there saluting, watching the tricolor flag rising in the azure sky.”
It was a thrilling experience to be out of the house, you “roasted acorns on the bonfire” in the wide-open spaces, learned meaningful songs and felt part of something greater. The lyrics have stuck with you and one of them, you thought long afterwards, had a disturbing similarity to a foreign song. “We sang a song called Youth. Listen to this ‘youth, youth, Spring of beauty…’ Which is funny because the Italian fascists sang the song Giovinezza, primavera di belleza…also a song called Youth, starting with the same lyrics. It was the quintessential fascist song.”
Coincidences of those times when the old world had been beaten into dust, when the monologue of ideology could produce a narrow mind “filled to the brim with such sentences,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “that at one time or another had given him a ‘sense of elation.’” Again and again, Marshal here we are!
Still. When the songs died away, when the portrait no longer watched over you, there were other things on the little boy’s mind. You had to go home at some point. And then returned the same longings that made you dream alongside you brother, fantasizing about secretly belonging to another family. The circumstances in which you lived, the myriad reminders of what you lacked, what life was not; closest of all in that shared room there was you mother and with her came a form of sadness and reproach: “My mother was all about the sacrifices she made.”
Fortunately, already from that age you held the key to eclipse your surroundings. As far back as you go there have been books. “I don’t remember when I learned to read, it feels like I always could.” And from then on and always, “reading was the sole evasion. I went under a bed, or underneath the fig tree. The fig tree was very large, delightful. I reread White Fang, under the fig flowers first, the fig fruit later.”
You kept going over Jack London’s novel because books were as precious as they were scarce; apart from what you might receive at school, those saccharine odes to France and the Marshal that you were handed as prizes. You’d only get one new book on your birthday, maybe, and then every Christmas a new volume of a collection of children’s books, the Bibliothèque Verte, the Green Library, which was meant to last until your next fix. “I read it and reread it all year.”
Then one fateful day you found the treasure trove.
In an overcrowded home, without a room to call your own, there was a premium on solitude; “I hid away to read.” Leave it to little Claude to discover a place cut off from the world: “There was this stairway leading to the attic, they left trunks and suitcases up there, it was a mess. It was narrow, the whole attic was a storeroom.” You found joy in that abandoned room. “The attic was a refuge.” Then like any curious boy you looked around and found so much more. Inside one of those trunks, would you believe it? Books! “The books left over from a lifetime.” All those pages after having had to subsist on a miserly yearly ration.
Now with a wealth to choose from perhaps you proceeded as I did when I was little: lined them up, gleaned stray phrases inside like appetizers, felt the trepidation of choosing, drawn to one and then another, treated books indeed like treasures, to be discovered by touch, by the distinctive smell of old editions. It was you, after all, who first surrounded me with books. And here your thrills were just beginning.
Your strict upbringing extended to the books you were given. A proper little boy had to be exposed to the right things, and make sure he trod safely within the boundaries of the Green Library. One prime example comes to mind: the saga of Anastase Pimbollet The Serviceable Orphan, “the moral story of poor orphan, devoted to doing good,” who studied hard. Now all alone in the attic, where no one could see you, you’d escaped the vigilance. Freedom! Forbidden knowledge! “I had stumbled upon Manon Lescaut, and I read it, though it was the life of a prostitute.”
The most memorable among the trunk’s findings was “a first edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Châtiments,” a book of poetry in which the first page bore an image that caught your imagination, an eagle struck by lightning. “It was The Punishments, where Victor Hugo attacks Napoleon III, the eagle being the empire, what it has become, and the lightning being Victor Hugo.” You “found it so beautiful” but couldn’t take it down from the attic with you, let on what you’d found up there. Maybe it was too tempting to have a secret, even if it was a piece of paper, something of your own that you’d found and hid and looked at: “I ripped it out, while now it would be worth a fortune, what did I know? I just knew there was this eagle and I took it.” A shred of a treasure, a treasure nonetheless.
It is easy to lose sight of those closest to us. No one was closer to you than your mother and no word seemed to better distill her life than “sacrifice.” Yet there was so much more to her. Life had not been easy for any of you, but it had been so much more difficult for “Malou,” barely in her twenties and already a widow with three kids. She’d toiled at the date plant, sold chocolate in a shop on Prado Avenue, taken any job she could get. When a position opened to be a switchboard operator at Michel-Lévy hospital she applied. It was a good job, a big step up and there was competition for places. Part of the application process was a personal essay. It must have represented a rare opportunity to express herself, to make a claim for what she wanted after being a military daughter, a military wife, a military widow, and a single mother. When she had finished it, she turned to her studious little boy. “She had me read her essay. It very was good, in good French.” You remember her being proud of it.
In a roundabout way “she had come full circle,” back to Michel-Lévy where she’d spent her youth, across from the place where years before “grandfather stood filtering the crowd” as a concierge, “where she crossed all those soldiers going to Syria, to Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, Indochina, and where she met Maurice Courchay,” and where, finally, “after a journey to Dakar, the date plant and all the rest, she had returned.” You tell me “she was happy” and “she was very popular there.” Malou, your mother, had the “joie de vivre at the hospital.”
Though you saw her thrive on the outside this only underscored the divide you felt; she may have been “joyful in public” but the same could not be said at home. There were the inescapable limitations of poverty and the new wartime restrictions. “My mother couldn’t invite anyone over. She didn’t have a dime, couldn’t offer coffee, there was no coffee, couldn’t offer cookies, there were no cookies. There was nothing. No one came.”
So, the only ones you remember ever visiting were, as always, the family. Good old Uncle René, Uncle Marcel, playing cards, smoking nonstop and talking to each other. With their visits they brought home their views, and their opinions carried weight. You listened and learned what men thought, successful men, the engineer and the businessman.
And in those views, in those opinions, something had shifted as the situation had changed, or been unearthed by circumstance. They were in favor of Germany now. And, little by little, so were you.
Marcel spoke knowingly. Why, he’d seen their efficiency with his own eyes! “He had been to Nazi Germany and found it splendid.” Now this had been “before the war, before 1940,” he had made a trip, perhaps for work, and “had been seduced by the discipline, the order, by the organization!” He’d even brought back some of those telling details that showed you all you needed to know about the place: “When Germans did a collection, Germans gave.” How about that? And his opinion was informed by his professional standpoint, clearly: It was the German quality that had really done it for him. For an engineer, you recall him saying, it was a role model.
Now, while he “had been formidably impressed by the efficiency and order” of the Reich, the contrast with his own homeland was appalling. “France was pastis, France was just good old France. While Germany! Now there was a country! Orderly! Admirable!” His own country was proficient mainly at having aperitifs and so, logically, knowingly, “he had great admiration for Germany.” It’s likely the swift French defeat had not dampened that opinion.
What his own father thought, Stéphane, who’d spent a lifetime cursing after the Germans, you do not know. He’s receded in the background of old age.
Uncle René’s opinion had different roots to it and, though it might align with the engineer’s, it went further than just table talk. And it was through him you would partake in a radical worldview at that most malleable age. You won’t reproach him, the good uncle who bought you all those war toys, as simply an unwitting influence upon an impressionable child. Still, sarcasm abounds when you recount his contribution: “Uncle René, thanks to whom I had the fortune to impregnate myself with all things fascist, all things European and right wing.”
It started before the defeat, with another conflict, the Spanish Civil War. “Every Sunday he came to play cards, he dropped off the newspapers” but they weren’t meant to enlighten the household, “he didn’t leave them for the adults, neither of grandparents read, nor my mother, and they weren’t meant for me. They were for lighting the fire in the stove.”
The rationing began before the war and would only get worse over time. You “had no money” so René thoughtfully brought paper to make fire and you “wet the paper, made it into balls, put it to dry and burned it.” As things got worse it even became a substitute fuel, “we also warmed ourselves with it due to coal rationing.” Apart from the radio, this was the only news to reach the house, so what was it that was going up in smoke? Even then, before the German occupation, René’s news diet already consisted of such staples of extremist thought as Gringoire and Je Suis Partout, which on any given day might extol the virtues of fascism and anti-Semitism.
Each Sunday he’d arrive “with lots of newspapers, right wing and far-right.” And having always been hungry for the written word, what did you do? You poured over them before they went up in flames. You tell me it wasn’t something he made you read. At most, he just facilitated it. Yet he consumed these ideas and he spoke, and you listened and followed suit. “I was six, seven, eight, and I read that, and I was already politicized, but to the right.” You tell, again with sarcasm, “I was fortunate to read this extremist press.” It was the cream of far-right publications and you were discovering it at a crucial moment. “It was the time of the civil war, it went on until 1939. The Spanish war: Franco was the church the Reds were assassins.” The conflict was a prelude to the war to come. The rightist press opposed the leftist Spanish Republic and Franco’s forces, supported Mussolini and Hitler, and through it you started to learn some key lessons on the ideological divide, following it as it played out in the neighboring country—“There was a red wave that was stopped by a fascist wave. So, everything bourgeois and military could not be against it, it’s exactly what they wanted.”
And, being a good reader, following in your uncle’s footsteps, you rooted for his side.
“I had a fascist education.”
Soon these admired neighbors were racing across Europe. The Germans were on French soil as victors and as occupiers, and millions fled them fearing the worst. But from the safety of Marseille, south of the war zone, the image you remember being conveyed was that they weren’t actually all that bad. “Suddenly, in days, this fucking country crumbles! What happens is nothing happens, the German are there, the Germans are proper, the Germans have won, the Germans give to the refugees.” This isn’t something you could have witnessed; it was relayed to you, and indeed old propaganda showed precisely that: A newsreel from August 6, 1940 starts with German soldiers fighting a blaze blamed on the British, saying the scars of the war are erased together; trains begin to run again with French operators “and their German comrades.” You remember a poster that left a mark on you: “Abandoned population, trust the German soldier!” A little boy smiles as he sinks his teeth into a piece of bread from the height of a German soldier’s arm, while two other children look on enviously.
This imagery and impressions are very much a policy: In the first stages of occupation the German army is constantly offered up as an example in parades and open-air concerts. Figures of authority believe in it and Cardinal Gerlier declares to the press he’s “very satisfied with the discipline and the correctness of German soldiers.” It is a façade consistent enough to be denounced. In August 1940, a British tract warned: “Today the officers and German soldiers put on the guise of courtesy with you and your children. Never forget they remain the same Germans. The have one goal: subjugating France.” But that idea didn’t quite make its way to you.
The term “collaboration” first comes up in the armistice signed between the two countries on June 22nd, 1940. It’s a winding process that arises with the French government negotiating to have its remnant of sovereignty, Vichy, carry out its internal revolution. Collaboration with Germany, they think, will grant them more leeway to achieve it. France will administer itself as Germany receives the vast spoils of victory—up to fifty-eight percent of the French annual budget.
On October 24th collaboration is enshrined in the train station of the town of Montoire: Pétain shakes hands with Hitler, a scene filmed as by an onlooker, from behind a shoulder. Six days later he explains it in a speech “It is in an honorable way, to maintain French unity—a unity of ten centuries—and within the frame of an activity constructive of the new European order, that I am taking today the path of collaboration.”
Collaboration, Robert Paxton explains, “started many Frenchmen down a path of everyday complicity that led gradually and eventually to active assistance to German measures undreamed of in 1940.”
Aiding and abetting the worst the century has to offer.
“Collaboration was necessary, we were told. What did we know? Politicians speak, and you listen, it’s says so on the radio,” you tell me. “France had been defeated, there would be a ‘new Europe,’ and France would have its place in it as much as it collaborated with Germany. The Marshal had met the Fuhrer. So, we must work with Germany if we wanted a honorable place in the Europe of the future—which would forcibly be German.”
But it not just the radio, is it? Finally, what did Uncle René make of all of this? “René was for a German victory.” For him it wasn’t mere acquiescence or approval, a bit more than just going along and certainly not resisting. He was for Germany, despite all the facts you told me of his life would seem to indicate. He was “born in 1900, in 1914 Lorraine was immediately invaded and he was ‘German’ from 1914 onwards; he was subjugated by the Germans. That is to say the Germans could do with him as they pleased.” On top of having already suffered a German occupation, he worshiped the French victory over Germany in “the 1914 war, had albums on the 1914 war, all the legend of it, Verdun, the whole thing. The 1914 war had been the great moment of his life, He had not fought in it but he knew it by heart.”
So how could you explain his newfound allegiance? Maybe defeat had played a part, a form of martial admiration for the victor. Or quite simply, a good veteran, he believed Pétain was doing the right thing. Then again, maybe his evolution is best outlined not in the elements in his biography that should have made him reject Nazi Germany, but in the affinities that facilitate his transition. The most obvious one: Anti-Semitism.
“He’d had enough of politics, communists, Jews…” all lumped up together within a reasoning that formed a closed circuit: France versus Anti-France.
“People didn’t care about justice or logic anymore. There was a fracture.” Or an abyss, and on the far-right side of the divide, a man like René, “a good Frenchman,” adhered to an ideology in which Jews had long been cast as the polar opposite, the embodiment of capitalism, of the corrupt and decadent old world to be torn down. In this sectarian view “You couldn’t not be anti-Semitic, you had to be a Jew yourself.” In the process of getting closer with Nazi Germany, hate built bridges.
Former Secretary of State Pierre Mendès-France, leftist, Jewish, and jailed by Vichy, remembers: “Anti-Semitism had also begun to surface. People who wouldn’t have dared confess their anti-Semitism started to openly proclaim it, and as German values started to impregnate people, and as it was sought to get closer to Hitler in hopes of creating a Europe where France and Germany would collaborate, obviously anti-Semitism became cement between certain French and German elements … There was such hatred … you can’t imagine how rampant sectarian views had become.”
Yet that’s not quite it for René. The fact of the matter is beyond ideology and baser instincts. René’s support throughout the war isn’t merely rhetorical. He has stakes in the matter: “he worked for the Germans.”
It’s uncertain when it started, but eventually the armistice brought opportunity. René was a “technician specialized in cold,” had his own business of iceboxes, and his skills were in demand. “The Germans probably needed someone qualified for their ships, so he went to work for the Germans in the port of Marseille, for the German cold rooms.” To carry out his work he had an aussweiss, an identification card from the German authority, which you show me. “He worked, very normally, for the Germans within his specialty.” Nonetheless, “he didn’t speak about that.”
There’s another telling element that comes with the fall of France: René’s reading list is changing. While his usual news outlets are banging the drum of closer collaboration with Germany, even calling for an “alliance,” new publications are also becoming available and make their way to you. Through Uncle René, you’ll get the best war propaganda Germany has to offer.
“I threw myself on the newspapers, I read the newspapers and it was German propaganda. I read everything and that’s all there was, Signal for the Wehrmacht and Der Adler for the Luftwaffe. Uncle René brought them.” These were the propaganda arms of the German army and the air force. With them you were discovering the war itself in its most stylized portrayal. They represented a leap in quality from what you’d been consuming, in the potency of narrative made all the more compelling because of their visual quality. This was still a time when images were scarce, and Signal advertised itself as having the “best photographic reportages.”
Within the pages of Signal, combat is portrayed like a beautiful illustrated adventure, full of valor, fearlessness, and unrelenting triumph: “young men fighting magnificently on all fronts. It wasn’t war but campaigns, ‘The Campaign of France,’ ‘The Campaign of Norway,’ ‘The North-African Campaign,’ it was like sport, a young man’s war.” It’s in language you can understand, one that you’re already attuned to. You were brought up on the mythologizing of old military triumphs; now you could follow them as they happened.
And then there’s the magic of cinema, still exceptional for you at the time. You were dazzled by the German newsreels. Each episode started with its large German eagle on the silver screen, an image that spoke to you. “The German newsreels were impressive. They had tons of men with small cameras in planes, in tanks, and you had the war live, it wasn’t bullshit; it was fascinating, you felt and saw it. They were good at it.”
The cult surrounding Pétain had first made you permeable to nationalist rhetoric and propaganda, and now a new strand of it was at work. You were reading some great adventure but a foreign one, as French collaboration didn’t extend to military participation. There’s one element missing to align the beliefs you already held and all this newfound imagery.
It came with the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany on June 22nd, 1941. It’s the turning point of the war. “Before ‘41 the Soviets were the allies of the Nazis. After June ‘41 they were on the Allied side.” Now the Germans are fighting against the Soviets, against “the red peril, the danger, the end of civilization and the Catholic church.” And within the belief system in which you live, it crystalizes the ideological battlefield. It’s the tipping point.
In your upbringing, Germany had represented the ancestral nemesis, but communism was the antichrist: “I knew it was absolute evil, there was no more God, no more church, it was the continuation of the Spanish civil war, a cancer, a fire.” That had been among the first lessons you’d learned in your early readings: the fascist wave would stop the red wave. “What do you want? You want the greatness of France and you want the Church to continue existing. Communism was going to destroy everything, Communism would destroy the church. Communism had razed the cathedrals in Russia, had destroyed it all, massacred the priests. Therefore, they needed to be stopped.” And who was there fighting them? “The Germans were trying to stop it.”
You’re close to the official line of thinking. Not so far in the future, on June 22nd, 1942, Pierre Laval, then the most powerful man in the French government would say “I wish the victory of Germany because, without it, tomorrow Bolshevism would install itself everywhere.”
As Robert Paxton tells me “the collaboration side is now the anti-communist side, so that also solidified opinions on the collaboration side.” Some, like the Legion of French Volunteers, would go as far as fighting alongside the German army on the eastern front. From then on men like René, “mostly because of anti-communism, cling to Vichy and to collaboration to the very end.”
And that’s precisely the lesson you will learn. “It was the crusaders submerged, the fall of the Roman Empire, Christian religion, the West confronted with barbarian hordes, civilization crumbling under the assault. That’s what we believed I can still see the number of Signal on Stalingrad, and the weekly from the Luftwaffe, Der Adler, had a cover in which you saw a knight in armor, cribbed with arrows, a shield, and behind it planes on their way.”
Now there was no doubt. “A good French boy had to be on the German’s side. They had to win, for civilization, for church, for the faith, for your soul.”
Early on in life you’re told a series of stories that explain the world. Thresholds are crossed en route to new beliefs, and ushering you along, by example or by chance, are figures of authority, in a time, context and at an age over which authority ruled supreme. There’s the figures of Marshal Pétain, of René Navel, blocking out any glimpse of the reality behind your reality. These are the truths enshrined in the Sunday family consensus, in the quorum of voices of your loved ones, and in the verdict of radio and press.
“This world no longer had rules. This world had been destroyed. Usually you go to school, there’s mommy and daddy. Daddy smokes his pipe, mom sews, the cat purrs, etc. That was over, it was a changing world and there were no rules. I tried to understand. Had I been happy, had I been loved, I think I wouldn’t have searched, I would have been happy. Here, not existing, I tried to understand this world. The newspapers were a key to the world.”
In 1940 and 1941, when you start consuming the propaganda, there seemed to be no alternatives to blunt the narrative: the United States is yet to join the war and only Britain fights on. But Britain isn’t an ally anymore; it had responded to the French armistice by a surprise attack upon the French fleet in Mers-el-Kebir in July 1940, slaughtering 1,300 French sailors. The French had denied their fleet would ever fall into German hands, yet Churchill had preferred to take preventive action. There was no love lost from then on, you explain, “The only exploit of our allies was to sink our fleet.”
So there remained General De Gaulle who, from London, seeks to create a competing legitimacy in the struggle for France’s soul. At the time few have followed him into exile and action, and to you he is a faceless name opposite Pétain’s omnipresence. “We didn’t know what De Gaulle looked like, there were dumb caricatures. He was a name.”
Meanwhile the message the résistance carried was characterized as “Gaullist counter-propaganda, to dishonor the Marshal,” which in any case wasn’t accessible on the radio. “I didn’t hear it. It was scrambled by the Germans. You’d hear a wailing sound.” The adults will have not only dismissed the résistance but reviled it. To those who held positions like those of René, argues Paxton, “the résistance looks like a Communist movement and they hated the Communists, who were very powerful in the résistance.” Little by little, after 1941, there were the first signs that “a civil war was starting” and in the newspapers you read the résistance increasingly comes to stand for Anti-France: “They were depicted as not being good Frenchmen, as being traitors doing London’s bidding,” stopping at nothing to undermine Pétain’s mission. They are “evil terrorists killing and pillaging, attacking grocery stores.” They are said to stoop as low as “stealing ration cards,” which poor families like yours depend on for sustenance. And by now, that’s actually the greatest concern: You can swallow all the propaganda you want but it won’t feed you. Wartime is above all material and physical suffering.
While you “waited for war to pass” and “hoped not to get a bomb on the head” achieving the most basic needs becomes an overwhelming struggle. Fear of bombs led to children being sent away by train to safety outside the cities for brief periods of time. Scarcity and hunger, however, were inescapable.
You ask me to imagine a life where everything, every single thing, goes wanting.
The supply chain is a faucet that runs dry and you pray for it to drip a little. Daily acts like washing or warming yourself become an ordeal. Coal had fallen to nearly a third the prewar years, and though you could get by when “winter wasn’t too harsh,” as soon as the mistral wind arrived there was little to guard yourselves against it. For washing “there was no soap, only some sort of disgusting earthy material.” Every item of clothing you wear becomes precious and irreplaceable: “Textile? There was cloth, no cotton, no wool.” To dress her three children your mother “spent her time sewing,” remade “remnants of the old blue-horizon army clothes from grandpa,” the clothes from your cousin’s first communion, anything she could get her hands on. “You took the old stuff and tried to make something of it.” Without leather there were no shoes, fixing the ones you had meant using wooden soles. “Women had wooden and cardboard shoes.”
The staples of daily life vanished. “There was no sugar, we used cherry sugar, or saccharine. Tobacco was rationed; wine was rationed. Coffee was a composite of thirty different products.” You see it play out throughout the city: “on the street guys picked up cigarette stubs, spent their time searching for them. They’d break them down and smoked that. They smoked anything.”
Yet all of that paled in comparison with living through a lack that can’t be patched, sewn, done without or ignored. “The main problem was food. There’s nothing else when your stomach is empty.”
The situation in Marseille is dire. The city can’t sustain itself by land: “The problem with Marseille is that it’s surrounded by the Crau, a field of stones. There’s nothing there.” Now the port suddenly finds itself cut off from its lifeblood. A British blockade isolates it from the sea trade and it only gets worse over time when “the coastline had been mined by the Germans. You couldn’t fish anymore. No more sea, no more land.” Hunger has no timeline; what you recall stretches from the onset of occupation until late 1942. Among the few markers remaining is that, at first, some help comes from abroad. “At school there was distribution of American milk, Pet-Milk; we got a quart of it as part of American aid. We got warm powdered milk, from America. We took vitamins.” It won’t last. “That’s before they entered the war,” in December 1941. Meanwhile the occupying forces are bleeding the country dry: “The gigantic requisitions of French foodstuff, for the occupying army and for export to the Reich, were among Germany’s most important single source of nourishment,” Paxton writes. You sum it up more bluntly:
With the arrival of restrictions, “surviving” is the overpowering concern. That depends on ration cards that allot the measly quantities of just about any produce you might manage to obtain. “To eat there were the tickets, every month you had a certain amount of fat, meat.” If you were lucky “you might get one hundred fifty grams of meat per week, with or without bones. You ate what was on the ticket. You got a little bit of fat in you, everything was rationed.” At home you remember the recipes without the ingredients: “Omelets without eggs, with grated potatoes.” Stéphane’s hobby of growing rabbits has become precious. “That allowed us to eat meat a couple times. Unfortunately, there were only six, for a whole year. I wished we had more, we could have eaten one every Sunday. Unfortunately, there were more weeks than rabbits.”
Life hinges on those pieces of paper, your hopes placed on the fine print that determine if you’ll get something on your plate: “From such date to such date this ticket will be endorsed.” Scarcity forces a life always on the lookout. “You lived from day to day; you looked at the newspapers at what would be distributed that day. Will there be oil; will there be peas?” All around you it’s the same scramble to somehow get by, anyway you can. “As soon as there was a line, people joined it, hoping there would be something at the end, not knowing what there would be. They just waited in line. If there was a line that meant there was something, so they got in line.” Sometimes, for all the struggles, despite what you read in the newspapers and what cards stated, for all the waiting in line you ended up empty-handed.
As Pierre Mendès-France remembers, from another part of the country, “it is very difficult, in hindsight, to describe what it was like living in a country where everyone was always searching for everything.”
Things were always tight in your family, but you got by. Now that’s no longer the case. While your mother spends her time working, your aging grandparents are no longer able to provide for themselves: “The two seniors couldn’t go down the steep climb to the house.” It was left to the two boys. “My brother and I went down to do the groceries to get what we could.” But here the little Pupils of the Nation come up against the harsh realities of wartime supply and demand. “At the bottom was the grocery, but you needed money. If you had any, there might be something in the back, if you didn’t there were the ration cards.” The greater the want, the bitterer the lesson: “You were poor, you stayed poor.”
Others might get by, drive away to the countryside where goods could be found, or overpay to get all they needed. Your family couldn’t afford to. “Nothing to eat unless you had money or a car. Those who had a car could go buy food elsewhere. My mother couldn’t go get food. Neither could I.” I’m left to wonder if Uncle Marcel helped, if he still drove his Rosengart. Uncle René, as always, managed to get by. “René ate, he had a factory; he must have gone to the black market. If you had money you ate. If you had money you found meat. You needed money.” You await his visits for more than just newspapers. “He brought us food once in a while. Once he brought us a sugary treat.”
From clothing to food, you can only be grateful for leftovers and whatever slips through the net of German requisitions. “All we had in Marseille was miserly amounts of bad bread, rutabaga, and sunchoke, a small tuber, slightly sweet and not very good, with which they fed pigs. Germans didn’t take those because they’re for pigs.” Necessity is a bitter teacher. “We were pigs and ate it.”
Hunger is no longer something that happens three times a day, an urge that can be postponed, let alone sated; it has become a form of daily violence, something that never leaves you. Like ideology, hunger might remain an echo in your memory, but its legacy is in the body. “I didn’t have a normal growth.” You were stunted. France suffered localized malnutrition and you tell me “Marseille is the place where the size and weight of children, as recorded in the school census, was the lowest in France.”
You’ve had a lifetime to go over the facts to explain it to yourself. “I’m too little, always looking ages younger than I was, small, weak. It was hard.” When peace comes, you’ll have to undergo a hormone treatment. You never fail to mention how tall a man your father was. The centimeters you lost in the war.
“When you’re a kid and haven’t known anything else, you’re not used to anything else, it seems perfectly normal. It’s normal to be hungry. It’s normal to be ill dressed. There are no comparisons…. I didn’t complain. You can’t hope for something better given that you’ve never known it. You see? You’re in shit and you stay in it. Shit is the normal state. Hannah Arendt spoke of the banality of evil. Well, here we were in the normality of shit. You discover that’s the adult world, that’s the normal world.”
From a distance, though, it’s clear that world didn’t happen by chance, that there are reasons for it. Didn’t this show you the failure of Pétain’s policies? Don’t you tell me “The Germans took everything”? How can you reconcile the state of the country, the hunger you suffered, with your belief in those responsible for it?
“You’re little, you’re not able to judge, you don’t know treaties, or anything else. You’re like a small cat, if it rains you come in. You’re a little animal, the world surrounds you, the world exists, and you take it on the kisser. I knew I was hungry, but no German ripped the bread I lacked from my mouth.”
Until late 1942 you’ve never seen a German in your life. Pétain said they’re on your side and let’s shake on it. They exist as images and a lot of words. That’s about to change.
It’s a German newsreel. As brass instruments play marching tunes in the background, a sign appears on-screen: Demarkationslinie, Ligne de démarcation, Überscheiten Verboten, Défense de Traverser (Demarcation Line—do not cross)
The scene cinematically cuts to a watch giving the precise time as a voice begins to speak in German. A border guard lifts a barrier to let a convoy cross: “On November 11th, on the French-German demarcation line at 7 a.m., under orders from the Führer, the Wehrmacht crossed unoccupied France to the Mediterranean. This is a response to the Anglo-American aggression in North Africa, preventing the enemy from landing on the southern coast of France.”
The allies’ arrival in Algeria and Morocco on November 7 means France is now within reach of military action, just across the Mediterranean. Hitler responds by ordering total occupation to assume the defense of the southern coast. It’s 1942 and the Germans have invaded Vichy France, supposedly autonomous France, the Free Zone, the remaining territory left free of military occupation in exchange for that armistice…it’s an empty shell now. In mere days, Vichy has lost the remnants of its empire and its territorial autonomy.
The Germans are heading for Marseille. Here come those crusaders against Bolshevism, so it’s only fitting that it’s René’s edifying reaction that has stuck in your memory. Take a good look inside his house: it’s a sort of war museum in honor of the French army: “At his place there was a large stairway where you had the helmets hanging and the swords crossed.” He’s spent his military retirement collecting “symbols of the pinnacle of French victory” and the centerpieces are trophies taken from Prussians and Germans soldiers, helmets and swords wrested from the sworn enemy. We sure got them in 1918, didn’t we? We sure did, but they weren’t supposed to be able to show on your doorstep. Now what? “When the Germans entered Marseille, he scrambled to take it all down, he was scared and took it off the walls.” He didn’t quite stick to his guns. He’d made his home into a memorial to “French military superiority, so he bravely hid it away.” Good old Uncle René! You shake your head in disbelief, “I seriously doubt the Germans invaded the Free Zone to retrieve their old helmets.” He’ll get over it; he’ll even get a job out of it.
The German soldiers have sprung from the photographs and the silver screen onto your reality. They’re near your school, in the park, then ever nearer in your street until finally…Four times you’ll see them, there might have been a fifth, but you’ll only remember the consequences.
They first appear to you in the neighborhood, next to your school, and for a moment it’s like a wishful mirage of an entirely different reality. “I see soldiers in front of the Lapin Blanc. I remember it because I saw them, and I wondered if they were French. They had a greenish uniform and I almost mistook it for the French blue. I wished them to be French soldiers. They had an insignia with white and red, but the blue was a bit dark. Wanting them to be French I almost saw it.” But your country has no army anymore, not in Vichy, and these soldiers “they didn’t speak French.” Apart from that, the first sight of the foreign army seems nothing out of the ordinary. “They weren’t armed, two young guys on the street having a talk,” passing by your school, even “chatting happily, they were in Marseille, not on the eastern front.” The thing that struck you the most was their age, and you weren’t the only one to notice. “The Germans were in Marseille and they were young, younger and younger. There was a running joke: ‘If they keep on splitting them into halves this ain’t ever ending.’”
Once in a while, you’d be on rabbit duty, the precious pets needed to eat and “grandfather couldn’t get grass.” Your own garden was “too small for much grass” with a “cement alley in the middle, and the huge cement cube” to pump water. He couldn’t pick it up on the street because “there was no grass in the Montée du Château.” Feeding the rabbits meant going down the steep street and he was too feeble to descend. “Borelli Park wasn’t next door, it must have been half a mile or more so I went with a small bag and brought back grass.” As you arrived there you always passed “a sort of museum and there was a fence to enter” the park, but beyond that point the place had changed. Now you found a part of it “limited by a wall and a ditch,” and on the edge of this ditch a massive sign of the German presence: “there was the bunker” all in concrete with an armored door. You looked at it and one detail stuck with you: “Above its armored door there was written ‘Monika’ in black. It was called Monika.” While making those discoveries and fulfilling your mission you felt a sudden urge. You looked around for some privacy and found that the occupiers had also dug “small trenches, big enough for two people.” That will do. “I felt a need to pee so to do it quietly I went down inside one.” While you were trying to have a moment “a German comes along, he looks at me and says ‘Raus!’ I got the message he didn’t want me sticking around.” Your first sight of them had been reassuring but now “the little soldier that screamed raus when I pissed in the enemy trench was less friendly. He vigorously told me to scram.”
The next time you see them is even closer to home. It happens while you’re playing. Options were scarce when you wanted to get of the house, not much to do down your street apart from skidding on gravel, while Borelli Park is farther, had seen better days and maybe you weren’t eager to go back. So, you found a spot up the rise to sit down with your toys, right where the street was cut off by the castle grounds. There, by the fence, you could peer beyond into an inaccessible world full of trees, “alleys, large stones, bushes, and that damned castle.” You disliked the massive building that dominated your street and gave it its name and refer to it as “phony” and “nouveau riche”: it was the fantasy of a wealthy man and maybe that grated a little, as did having a park next door and out of your reach.
You never saw the owner but knew he was called Fichte and was “an Alsatian with money, who had built himself this stupid castle, a fake castle with turrets, roofs, utter bullshit, with a large park.” Now Montée du Château is a narrow street, a calm street, and it’s not surprising the neighbors started noticing the castle got more visitors, that a new type of guests started calling on the local magnate. It became known that Fichte “hosted German officers.” Given his origins, being from the region of Alsace, so often as then under German rule, it was assumed “he must have spoken German, he was certainly pro-German.” Now not only were they in Marseille but your neighbor was said to be “very good friends with the Germans.” And just as they’d gone from enemies to the future of Europe, they went from a distant rampart against communism to being hosted next door. Once and again the boundaries of normalcy shifted, though by now they were lax enough not to cause you much surprise. “The Germans were there, and they got along swell. All of it quite normal.”
That day you “played with toy soldiers and with little cannons” when you noticed “there were the German officers that went to the castle. The officers were there, in front of the gate.” They were looking at you. “They watched me play and laughed. They were laughing out loud, at the little Franzosen that’s playing war.” The way you interpret it, “they said ‘that’s a good little kid, we’ll have our work cut out later.’”
There’s more to it than Fichte’s practicing his German and them discovering southern hospitality. To understand what follows, you have to take a step back and see that little street with a different pair of eyes. What you always liked about your house, about your attic, was that privileged view. Your street is on a steep hill overlooking the city and the sea. Now, for someone planning defense against an invasion, that’s a strategic post.
“It was before the winter” in the back garden surrounded by walls of stone, where the yellow cat hunts lizards and scorpions can be found nestling under the rocks. “One morning, in 1942, there was a hole in the wall at the back of the garden, and through it came the Germans. They arrived from behind.”
From the garden they walk past grandfather’s rabbit cages, past the fig tree where you went to read, up the two steps to the house. There are two of them but it’s only him you remember. “My mother must have received him. She was there.” Aside from arriving through a hole in your wall you remember he’s “polite, very polite, reserved, he introduces himself.” You have no difficulty in bringing up the name after all this time: “He was called Heinz, like the tomato soup, last name Kronenberg. That means crowned hill in German. Heinz Kronenberg, an officer.” He’d like to know if you would be so kind a to do him a favor.
“He politely asked permission to listen to the radio and to see an atlas” and though he “jabbered French” you understand him. “You don’t need many words to get your point across, you say ‘radio,’ you say ‘atlas,’ not very complicated.” There was certainly a radio and as a matter of fact you possessed a large atlas. “He’s the only one who came in, the soldier stayed outside.” You’ve seen a lot of the Germans by now, like ticking off the landmarks of your small universe, by the school, in the park, on your street and now inside your own home, coming in and taking a seat at the table.
As any polite guest would do, Officer Kronenberg arrives bearing a gift for your troubles. “He brought us bread, strange bread, German bread, square and black. We were starving and damned happy to see some bread.” Various images compete, what is and what should be, what the child sees from behind the tainted glasses of fatherlessness, of propaganda. Start with the last. Bread is certainly the best way to win you over. You’ve already told me you dissociated your hunger from the occupiers and that “no German ripped the bread I lacked from my mouth.” It’s rather the opposite that’s happening. Here reality confirms propaganda.
One image is offered to your imagination, that poster from July 1940: a dashing German soldier, tall and blond glowingly smiles at a little boy in rags he carries in his left arm who’s blissfully munching on a piece of bread. “Abandoned population, trust the German soldier!”
Now Kronenberg takes what might be the place of Marcel or René, “he sat at in the dining room” and one of you brought him the atlas. It’s “a huge red hardcover” and he laid it down and “opened it on the table and bent over it, looked and turned the pages. He must have been looking at the Russian map.” Meanwhile, “he asked us to listen to the radio” and it was put on for him and he looked for a station. “I don’t know if it was the BBC, or Switzerland, but it didn’t sound like German radio, not German propaganda. He sat politely looking at the atlas and listening to the radio.” You think he was avoiding the German version of what was unfolding on the battlefront, listening to the other side while following it all on the map. “He was coming from Russia and must have looked at what was happening.” You know this because he told you. There’s a kid looking at him intently so Kronenberg gives him a little demonstration, like a magic trick. “He had his boots, pressed then down and bent them. He crushed the tip of his boot and said ‘Stalingrad.’ He’d been there, and he had left his toes in Stalingrad.”
It’s almost a family scene, he’s “very kind,” he brings food and he comes from that great battle you’ve read all about. Then he definitely wins you over: “He took out his gun and let us hold it.” It’s a real gun straight from the hands of a soldier from the eastern front. You couldn’t have dreamt it better. “There are countless stories of brutality, and rightfully so, but for my part I had this image, a German officer that corresponded exactly to what I wished he was, tailor-made.” What is and what should be. He’s no “Nazi brute” and you’re not heeding that warning: “Today the officers and German soldiers put on the guise of courtesy with you and your children.” You’re not the first family that has to host a German soldier, and there’s actually a “manual of dignity” from the period that serves as counterpoint to what you lived and says how one should behave in the face of the invader. Foremost, there’s Vercors’ The Silence of the Sea, clandestinely published that very same year: the story of the Francophile German officer who tries to kindly “seduce” the French family he lives with but is defeated by the “circle of silence” of his proud hosts. In the face of defeat and their imposed presence this fiction tells you “active silence” is the dignified form of resistance to the invader when he shows up on your doorstep. You’ll learn that later and hate its moralizing portrayal. It’s the distorting mirrors of two families faced with a German officer: Vercor’s fictional scene and your homely memory, repelling like oil and water.
And there’s a further reason why you remember this man’s visit so clearly. Unbeknownst to you then, it signals the events of the following days. But that’s not it. “I don’t know how I can remember his name, memory is selective,” you tell me. It’s selected as captured through the tainted glasses of fatherlessness and so the scene takes on another meaning. It almost feels like a homecoming doesn’t it? You tell it to me three times. “I remember he was tall and blonde, he must have been a bit like my father.” And also “a tall guy, normal looking; a bit the Normand type like my father would have been.” And finally, “Heinz Kronenberg, large guy, blonde, must have looked like my father.” You catch yourself and say: “I’m not saying it was my father but he had his height.” Not him yet also a soldier, that looks like what might have been, and sits at the dining room table, brings food and lets you play with his gun. And amidst the total absence of any photo of your father, and with some fatherly propaganda that fills in the blanks, Heinz Kronenberg takes his place in the long line of fleeting images of fatherhood for the Pupil of the Nation. He doesn’t stay long. Then again, neither will you.
For why did Heinz come through a hole in the garden wall? Surely you can use the front door to ask to listen in on the radio. They have to plan for an allied invasion and your hill, your street, the castle, your homes are all part of their preparations for the battle to come.
“They were fortifying” and planning on using Fichte’s castle as their base, and the whole hillside would be a part of the defensive strategy. Gradually they were “linking the houses among them, linking the villas between them by the back, through the gardens, to better retreat without having to cross the houses. They could circulate from behind.” If your backyard becomes their backline, how do you fit into those plans? You don’t.
You’d seen the German four times. You don’t remember the fifth, only the announcement. “Then one day they told us ‘You have forty-eight hours to vacate the premises.’ The German authority told us, some officer.” Was it officer Heinz Kronenberg who broke the news? “I can’t remember well, I was too small. One day there’s a German who comes, another came to tell us to leave. It’s like a flow, I can only tell you what emerges, floats to the surface. What emerges is that one day the Germans told us to scram and gave us forty-eight hours.”
Two elderly grandparents who can barely walk, a single mother and three children need to leave behind the house on the castle rise, Stéphane and Rosalie’s house, where they took in your mother, you and your siblings, the crowded house, the house where you washed in the kitchen but also the fig tree and the attic where you read. The only home you’d known. You told me you were “like a small cat, if it rains you come in.” Where to?
“I have no memories. I was a child, there must have been preparations, bags must have been packed, but I was out of it, and you get told ‘don’t be in the middle, get out of the way.’ I was a bundle, I was a package; I was nothing, just a child.” Again, war does away with every certainty, and you are cast into the unknown.
PART III: IDYLL
“At the beginning there is hunger. And you are nothing, surplus, and there’s something to be forgiven for: your existence. You shouldn’t be there, so you make yourself forgotten. From then on, it’s very simple, everything can only be better, and finally, la vie est belle.” Recording 14.
The Germans soldiers gave the family forty-eight hours to vacate the house indefinitely. The worst years of the war are ahead for Marseille. Short deadlines dictate a decision: The children must be sent away.
So off you went. Northeast-bound by train, away from the city, its sirens and bombs, away from hunger, your mother, the Marshal and the sea. It’s the winter of 1942.
That year, Marshal Pétain’s Christmas address to the nation captures the uncertainty of the times, such as they befell the young boy you were; perhaps told to pray, be good and grow up brave, even as you were sent away to parts unknown without your mother. With his slow, measured cadence, and the slightly trembling inflection you know so well, Pétain seems to lecture a nation of restless children: “French, tonight’s message isn’t for me to address you wishes for the future. I know no more than you what the New Year will bring, misery or relief. Providence has its plans. But I tell you high and loud: French, meditate on your misfortunes. Meditation, far from burdening you, will elevate you. Understand what you were, what you are, what you must become.”
From Marseille you’re headed to the département of Haute-Saône, where the saga started, “the land of origin” of your grandparents Rosalie and Stéphane Godard. That place you know only through the furniture they brought along from those olden days, the hints of the uprooted farmer in your grandmother’s distrust of city life, your grandfather’s talent for skinning a rabbit. “They sent us there because we had cousins, relatives,” you tell me. “They took us in.” Your destination is a town called Dampierre-sur-Salon. Around a hundred miles to the border with Germany, even less to the Swiss.
You have no recollection of the trip. “I just know there was Marseille, then this order to leave within forty-eight hours, and then, as if a sudden change of scenery, I found myself in Haute-Saône. I don’t remember anything about the train ride. Memory remembers what it can. We took a train. We got off at a station. Someone must have picked us up. I don’t know, I can’t say.”
Chances are the coaches are crowded. There are fewer civilian trains and it’s likely wartime disruptions stretch time and distance. Your older brother has to be there; you remember him being with you in Dampierre. Your mother, your sister, the rest of the family? They’re absent for the years to come, appearing only in beloved letters your mother writes from the home of the friend who took her in.
You don’t remember that trip, but you remember another like it; this has all happened before. It’s not the first time you’ve been sent away because of the war; when you were younger it was much the same: The fighting had begun and there was a train carrying you away. You stood on the platform with a name tag, waited alongside city children being ferried out of the city centers threatened by air raids.
“Children were evacuated, a tag was wrapped around our neck with our name and address and off we went. The train stopped every once in a while, and we were adopted or taken in by people. It was fun. You roll; it’s a landscape with rows of cypress, rows of reed, a horse and a chariot. I was taken in by a family in a town named Saint-Etienne-du-Grès.”
This image of departure—your identity scribbled and hanging on your chest—recurs in our talks; it’s a theme of your life, a rehearsal for late 1942. The children on the trains conjure other scenes of French children, sent away on trains that, unlike yours, are going nowhere safe. But you’ll only learn about that later.
“One day you’re taken to the station and you get on the train. That’s the way life is—one day you get a tag around your neck. Had I been Jewish, the trains would have taken another direction than Saint Étienne-du-Grès.”
That town today is some seventy miles from your home, nestled in the Alpilles, a chain of small limestone mountains. You don’t know how long you stayed—only a few weeks; the town evokes memories of joy, of good people, the “adorable” elderly couple that took off that name tag and took you in. To the child, it’s something of a vacation. “The man had a horse. I left with him. I remember him catching a horsefly, piercing it with a pine needle and setting it free.” Leaving was good then. What about now?
This next journey is hundreds of miles longer, to Dampierre-sur-Salon, and there’s no return date. Today, you’re unable to say when you saw home again. It’ll all be a blur after what happens in September 1944.
You’re nine, but you don’t look it: “I was little when I got to Dampierre, I look closer to five than ten years old. I was little and frail, undernourished.” It’s no exaggeration; a photo of you at sixteen isn’t fit for puberty. Never will you live up to your military father at this rate—six feet he was, tall for the times. And what about Uncle René? In the photos with his kepi and uniform, he’s standing heads and shoulders above everyone in his unit. The damned war, the inches lost to hunger during the war, a lifelong lament. But maybe you’re different; you’re pious, you read. Maybe there’s a place for you, where you’re headed to right now. Though you surely don’t think anything of that. Looking back, it’s as if some stream is carrying you absently away—until something will happen, eventually. Not unhappily, even.
“When you’re young you haven’t gotten into the habits of a supposedly normal life. Normality is uncertainty. You can be here and elsewhere the next. You can be sent to Haute-Saône. Everything happens. It’s not that it’s good; there is no notion of good. But everything can be better. For instance, in Haute-Saône, you get to eat.”
There’s no memory of going to or leaving Dampierre—a time between parentheses in a separate paragraph—but you certainly remember the menu once you got there.
“It was incredible, there was food! Like a believer that’s lost faith in God and reaches heaven. There were fabulous things. There was bread! Butter! There was milk! There was meat.” Pig. They’d actually killed the pig! The mark of a major moment, you don’t just slaughter it any given day. And once it’s done, you’d better love it, because “You killed the pig and salted the lard, and all year long you’d be eating lard soup, with cabbage and potatoes.” So, they killed it for your arrival, and your brother and you “were sick like pigs afterwards, sick from the food, we vomited. Our bodies couldn’t take it.” Let’s hope those good people weren’t offended.
Seventy years on, you can go on and on about what is was like to rediscover eating. You won’t cook a warm meal for the life of you nowadays, but still recall that peculiar cheese they made: “The cancoillotte. You bought this gritty white thing, left it to rot in a warm cloth, and when it had ripened you melted it on the stove. It made for a liquid cheese, warm, the cancoillotte, the local do-it-yourself cheese.”
And eating is all the more meaningful because back home things aren’t getting any better. “Meanwhile, in Marseille my mother fainted from hunger on the Castellane plaza, fainted from lack of food. She fainted and fell. She told me so, we wrote to each other. It happens when you’re that hungry.”
The wonderment of food aside, the place will need some getting used to. It’s winter when you get there, and for a southern boy, born in Africa and raised by the sea in Marseille, the season is something of a discovery. “The weather was very hard, very cold, lots of snow. It snowed enormously. Haute Saone is above Switzerland and underneath the Vosges, a hard climate, cold, ice and snow. It was cold and backwards, the France of the Middle Ages.”
We’re definitely not in Marseille anymore. So, what is this place?
For the longest time I didn’t have a name for where all this happened. Then, as my father and I talked, I got something to go on. There’s Dampierre, and there a street called “Côté Renversé” that doesn’t appear on any map, and the mention of another town called Denèvre. Add to that a sprinkling of names: Jean Saunois, who lived on “Côté Renversé” next to one of the city’s bridges, a neighbor called Mr. Virey and an “Uncle Abel” who you saw in Denèvre. I start to put that world together.
Dampierre-sur-Salon stands on rural flatlands, in the département of Haute-Saône, affectionately christened “Haute-Potato” in the nineteenth century for its ability to produce potatoes in overwhelming quantities. Across the fields and below the city’s bridges runs the Salon River, which gives it its name. Nature holds court here. It’s an old land, the property of successive noble families until established as a marquisate in 1746. Further back, there are the remains of a Merovingian cemetery and the ruins of a feudal castle. There was also metallurgy once, making use of the river, a blast furnace finally destroyed in 1889.
If something can be said about Dampierre, it is that it seems to have taken pains to neither grow nor disappear. It’s a masterpiece of staying put. According to the earliest statistics I found, it counted 1,312 inhabitants in the year of our Lord 1793 and had only slightly shrunk to 1,282 all the way to 2014. In between, during the twentieth century, censuses were carried out every five years, barring wars. Before the last war, in 1936, the town shrunk to 744 souls, after which the context of 1941 didn’t allow for demographic pursuits. The lowest population registered came with the postwar census of 1946, down to 736 inhabitants. In that eventful decade in history, Dampierre lost a further eight of its own.
Your arrival and departure during a wartime hiatus deprived you of participating in the minimal subtractions and additions of a place seemingly caught in amber. But low population has its perks when perusing records. Among the digitalized censuses available, the 1800 one is of little help. By 1911, however, the list of inhabitants turns up meaningful names. On the second of thirty-four pages of the census, handwritten in neat calligraphy, on Dornier Street, in the 14th lot and 15th household, individual number 40 bears the name Abel. His last name is Saunois, born 1887 in the town of Denèvre, a barber by trade. Below him in the next rows are his wife Hélène, born 1883, and their children Hélène junior and Jean Saunois, born in 1907 and 1903.
By the 1921 census, the Saunois have made it safely through WWI and still live on Dornier Street. Abel has added “wine-grower” to barber and is somehow ten years older, not just due to the trials of time but now born 1877. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Jean lives at home employed in the shoe trade. Five years later, Jean Saunois is gone. Abel is still a barber but also cuts plants on the side, as “gardener.” Hélène senior is a seamstress and her daughter works with her. In 1931 Abel is now exclusively a painter, Jean is still gone and now so is Hélène junior. A new neighbor has moved in, on lot 14, to the Saunois’ current lot 12 (the numbering by lots isn’t the soundest). His name is Charles Virey; he’s retired and lives on a pension. The only thing to happen by 1936, with the Saunois and Mr. Virey still neighbors, is that Hélène has opted to include her maiden name, making her Saunois-Villeminot.
What’s to be learned, apart from Abel’s jack-of-all-trades tendencies, and an inscrutable moment from Hélène senior, née Villeminot, is the location I’ve been looking for. There is no Côté Renversé Street, but near Dornier Street where Abel lived there is the city’s southern bridge, and past it on Google Street View there’s currently a commercial area named “Côté Renversé.” “Uncle Abel” is in fact the father of Jean Saunois, and Mr. Virey was indeed a neighbor of the house on Dornier Street. After 1936, Abel might have returned to live in the town listed as his birthplace, Denèvre, where you met him, leaving the family home to his son, Jean, upon his return. And what I do know is that it is Jean Saunois who takes you in, in the “first house in town” next to that bridge.
So now I can see you arrive that winter, past the church and along Dornier Street lined with rectangular houses of stone, two-storied with tall windows, and tiled roofs with chimneys that smoke in the cold air. At the end of the street there’s the bridge and trees along the unseen river below. The Salon River splits in Dampierre and here in between its arms it cradles the extent of Dornier Street, starting north at one bridge and ending shortly after the next, to the left of which your new home awaits and this story will take place.
I can’t be certain the memorable pig feast happened there and then, but shortly after your arrival you meet Jean. This is a man “chiseled by the sun,” very skinny and tanned, and the word you most use to describe him is “dry.” He looks like what he is: “the head of a colonial,” retired army and married with no children after serving fifteen years in Madagascar. That’s where he went before the 1926 census lost track of him. You call him uncle.
Then there’s his wife, like no woman you’ve ever seen before. “It’s not that she was beautiful; she was different.” You’re nine years old when you discover femininity.
“She wore makeup, put on lipstick; she had bust, curves, a sharp nose, she knew how to dress. She was a Parisian.” Even coming from Marseille, though from a conservative family, she was a revelation to you. “She was the first woman I’d met who flaunted her body. An attractive woman.” What impression might she have made in Dampierre? “A Parisian among the farmhands.” It must have been quite the sight.
It’s striking that you can’t remember her name—“she was just aunt”—given what you’ll go through together, or is that the reason?
The home they welcome you in to pays tribute to both Jean’s origins and his years abroad. It’s a rustic house, with a large living room and the couple’s bedroom on the first floor, a kitchen where water is drunk out of a bucket with a ladle. At the back the house is an interior courtyard with flowers, lots of flowers, and in the corner the toilet: a small cabin, a sort of wooden box with two holes and a lid. “There wasn’t toilet paper, of course, we used newspaper which we cut into squares and stuck on a nail.”
Amidst this, signs from his other life: decorative sculpted woods from Madagascar, brought by boat to accompany him in retirement. And many fishing rods and all the equipment for making the most of all the nearby rivers, his sole passion apart from his wife.
The revelation must have come when you left your baggage, or when it was time to rest. You’ll be sleeping on the second floor, just you. After living at your grandparents’ and sharing a bed at with your mother since you can remember, facing the wall when she changed into her long nightgown, staying still at night not to bother her, you’ll have a room of your own.
And I don’t know if you were aware of it beforehand, but your brother won’t be staying. He’s going to Denèvre, with other relatives some miles away. Instead of the crowded house of Marseille, this calm; instead of old Rosalie and Stéphane, of your widowed mother, you get an aunt and an uncle, a real couple who love each other: “I slept on the second floor and I heard them doing adult things, of which I had no idea.” And you have them all to yourself: the only child. It changed you. “I had from them the kindness I lacked from my mother. That was the blessing of war, I was treated like a child, a normal child. For the first time I was accepted, I was taken in with a smile, well treated, well fed. They were extremely kind. It was a family. I found myself in a real family. They didn’t have children together.”
Afterwards, you’ll be shown the town. Dampierre feels like stepping back in time. “I took strolls, there was nothing, no traffic, a return to the Middle Ages, with cows in the middle of the road. Since it was war, there wasn’t a single car left, nothing, so the cows were on the road, the cows were the traffic. They left huge manure, the horses left dung, and an old lady would come out with a shovel and brush to pick it up.”
Further down the road to your right was the church, a large stone building overlooking its surroundings, where mass was said in Latin. The priest lived in an alley across the street, in the presbytery. Every year the townspeople reenacted the Stations of the Cross.
Past the church, to your left, was the school, the large courtyard whose games memory retains better than any classroom lesson. That’s where there are monkey bars to hang from, boys play leapfrog and the game of osselets is all the rage, called Jacks or Knucklebones in English, which in Dampierre was very much still played with the pastern bones of sheep, tossed and swiftly caught with the back of your hand.
Seasons are starker here and in these rural parts the best comes with winter’s end, its harshness giving way to a “magnificent spring.” Then the surrounding world is open to be explored. “At the exit of the village you crossed the river and there were fields. Then the road rose and there were woods.”
Continental climate makes for violent blooming; nature pulses invitingly through the green, the murmur of insects and the scents marking the time for harvest. Within your reach the ripening fruit; there’s Mirabelle plum, and in the shade “tons of hazelnuts.”
Alongside the warm days come the hannetons, called cockchafers or May bug in English, “wonderful creatures, large, always ramming into windows.” They’re beetles which are easy to catch, just be careful not to hurt them, to tie them with a string and fly them like a kite. It’s a change from the city, “easier than tying a casserole to a dog’s tail.” That’s the bestiary of childhood, and like it, long gone: “Now with pesticides they’ve completely disappeared, kind creatures which have been murdered.” Back then fields were full of them, instant pets zooming along the string in your hand.
Some days you walked the couple of miles to Denèvre to visit your brother. His foster home is different from yours, a family of farmers who “worked enormously.” A farmer’s life, long days of toil after which “at the end of supper the daughter would crumble her head between her arms.” If you went on Sunday there was chicken, and also milk provided you went to get it yourself. They “lived in isolation, sold some things and bought what they needed: salt, for instance. Their prized possession was “an old horse, with a valve in his neck, if the valve got clogged the horse fell.”
But it’s mostly Uncle Abel you remember from the trips to Denèvre, an unspecified relative of your grandparents you called uncle because that’s what everyone was called. “Marvelous Uncle Abel,” you recall, a very old and smiley patriarch with big moustaches. After many a trade, he now grew his own tobacco, “a beautiful plant with large leaves” which he hid to avoid being taxed. “He would dry them, roll and cut them and make himself goddam cigarettes that’d kill a sailor.”
Though you made the trip on several occasions, there’s no recollection of time spent with your brother. He never came to visit you. That’s all right; there are other people to care for you now.
Back home your aunt is growing fond of you. “She was extremely kind, I was a bit her child, and to her I tried to be sweet. She must have liked to have this shy, kind little boy, it was a piece of cake.” And though you miss your mother, you learn you’re not alone in longing for family love. There’s a photo in the house “a bit discolored across by the sun”: a daughter, working abroad… “She wasn’t Jean’s daughter, but his wife’s. It doesn’t matter.”
And then there’s Jean. “He was a fanatic fisherman. He went to the Saône River on his bike and brought back enormous amounts of fish.” Other times he’d catch them with a net right by the house. He taught you how to fish there in Haute-Saône, a passion you would carry with you to the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Atlantic, and which started by a river with that “skinny man with a beret, a loudmouth but a sweet one, adorable to me.”
When not fishing, there was another thing Jean had the habit of doing. “He was good to me, he just tended to get blind drunk.” Decades ago the Phylloxera plague had wiped out the vineyards in the land and driven your grandfather into the army, but time passed, and people were resourceful. “They made their wine themselves, it was god-awful, a horrid piss.” Uncle Jean didn’t seem to mind it. And anyway, as alcoholics go, he was the practical kind. “Every morning in front of the house there was a small mauve puddle. He vomited outside, he took care not to do it inside. Then he would come in and you had your everyday puddle. It was convivial.”
He was still just what the doctor ordered for a boy raised without a father, with only an aging grandfather to fill the role, or the paternalistic semi-divinity of old Marshal Pétain in his propaganda. Jean was “vigorous and skinny like an alcoholic, but kind. He never laid a hand on us.” And you won’t forget him. Decades from now, when literature has become your trade, the past will filter into fiction as homage: you write a novel whose hero is called Jean Saunois.
A good student, you went fishing by yourself. Up the Salon River you caught sticklebacks and once even a perch. Around you, the fields were full of “the colors of the flag,” blue cornflowers, white marguerites and red poppies. “It was extremely calm, there was the river, the woods, the fields in which women would still glean, like in Millet’s painting; there were still gleaners.”
Something’s happening to you in Dampierre. A boy scarred by loss and war is sent away from all he knows; he’s put on a train to somewhere and finds the unexpected, the rhythms of life by the rivers and fields, a family, a warmth ironing out previous sorrow: “Dampierre was a sudden change. Marseille was the sea and the famine; it was sharing a bed with my mother.
In Dampierre I found myself with two good people who loved me, who took me in as if I were their child.”
You’re an old man now, my old man. Looking back, grasping through the distant past, you’ve retrieved many a twisted memory, held it to the light for me to see the dusty cogs that set into motion life’s relentless flight and unbelonging. Set fast on the table, rusted sadness and betrayals—more and less than an explanation. Yet among all that rubble preserved by its hold on you, here’s a token of something else. Polish it with your sleeve, precious enough to have carried with you through the decades: Dampierre, that rare season to which you’d return.
“It was fabulous. The uncles, the nature, true nature, the woods, the snow, the fields, the hazelnuts, fishing, paradise on earth, wild, completely different.”
Forget about the war, all the vivid specters of ideology roaming back home and that weight around your neck, “Pupil of the Nation,” like a destiny of lead pulling you down. Maybe you’re not surplus here, maybe life has turned a corner, and la vie est belle, after all. And I know it before I hear you say it: “I was never as happy as during the war.”
For a time, you find yourself here, this place outside of time and conflict. War is the reason you’re here but it’s a distant rumble now, no longer the force that molds daily life. That’s despite you coming from the former “free zone,” while Dampierre has been in occupied territory since the fall of France. You’d hardly notice it. “We never saw a German.” They did go by the town during the offensive in 1940, and the townspeople told of their one exploit against the enemy forces. “There was a forge, and before the Germans came, they made a sort of large metal roll, or something like it, and they put it in the middle of the road to stall the Germans, who just took it out of the way.” That was about it, though once in a while you came upon evidence of their distant authority, out of place, on barn doors: German propaganda posters. You never knew who put them up.
But you have other things to think about: you live here now and that means going to school, the school, the only one in town. Both boy and girls study in the same building but are completely apart, with different entrances and separated by a hallway. Opposite sexes never mix. You seem not to have met a single girl in Dampierre, always near but far “on the other side.” They’re a childhood enigma; “I’d wonder where they played.”
An old postcard shows Dampierre’s school for girls, a tall building with a flat façade, small windows and a gated courtyard in front, with children in old-fashioned clothes looking on in black and white. Your own attire is very Dampierre, made to wear wooden clogs, in which you somehow ran around. Due to your age you can only wear short trousers, “you did not have long pants until you were big, knees and thighs got bitter cold.” Another mystery of bygone times; “I don’t know why we were made to freeze our butts off.”
The classes are taught by Mr. Lachaud, in age groups divided in “little ones and older ones,” totaling some thirty or forty students. Hanging on a wall in the classroom, like everywhere in France, there’s a portrait of Marshal Pétain to shatter the amnesia of your village idyll.
And it’s here that blending in becomes harder, not in the midst of your new family, or alone in the fields, but among your peers. “Thing is, I had the Marseille accent. While they had their drawl, dragging their words.” It’s a clash of cadences between the marked pauses of the north and the vivacious southern speech. And it probably didn’t help that your education marked you as different.
“The problem with school is that I was something of a phenomenon. I had a solid vocabulary, I had been around.” In this haven amidst the fields no one grew up raiding a trunk in the attic like you did, where reading Victor Hugo and George Sand mixed with Jack London, in a home where Christmas meant a new book. There’s one scene that set the tone for your time at the village school. “One day Mr. Lachaud had a nice idea: he wanted to speak to us about the labyrinth, wanted to explain what it was.” That was you moment to shine and you finished the job for him. “‘It’s a complex network of passages,’ I said. Bang. Those words meant nothing to the other kids, while the teacher was left speechless. He was going to explain, except I knew the definition. I wasn’t supposed to, a little boy from that time, wearing wooden shoes to school, has no business knowing these things.” You’d been brought up a poor student, whose sole chance was to excel by “competing for scholarships all the time,” winning school prizes you sister would keep until her death. But there was no competing here, and excelling didn’t necessarily endear you to anyone. “Another time, Mr. Lachaud read us a passage of Chateaubriand, asked us to discuss it. So, I told him the text in full. I had a fabulous memory. He thought I had copied it.”
From then on there’s little luck fitting in, to be just one of the boys. You’re a bit of a rarity, a bit of a freak, something of a character. It gives you a role at school, though not one that makes you popular. “I didn’t have many friends, I wasn’t from there and I was…I was tolerated, they didn’t bother me, being the special kid, but we had nothing to do which each other.”
Another change came over you that wedged itself between your communion with Dampierre. Ironically, it is in part because you’re there that it occurs. Because this town quenched your physical hunger and gave you a new family that fulfilled your emotional longing, it is your mind that is now allowed to ask for its due. But odds are on that front, you’re facing intellectual famine.
“I was the smallest and the weakest but by far the best student, the most read. I was curious, would have jumped on books had there been any. It was terrible because I was made to learn and was mowed down from the start. I would have read anything and there was nothing. I’d have given a horse for a book. You’re thirsting and there’s nothing, save the Bible.” So, you became devout.
You’d already been a very religious boy in Marseille, at the church of Our Lady of the Snow, back where a single snowfall was miraculous enough to warrant christening a place of worship to remember it. Catholicism was part of your upbringing and you’d dreamt of being a missionary in the colonies where your family had served, but now you plunged into faith with that appetite for wholeness, learning, and purpose that had bloomed in Dampierre and had not found an outlet in education or friendship.
“Dampierre is where I realize I had a mind, that I would want to learn, that I’m avid for knowledge and there’s nothing, nothing, nothing, but the church and the mass in Latin. That’s it. There’s only the church.” If it’s the only thing, let it become all, and with both hands grasp the knowledge it offers, and the Holiest of languages—of which to this day you’ll still blurt out passages at the most profane times.
“For me Latin was magical; it was the language of God. The priest turned towards the altar, towards God, and gave mass in Latin.”
Intríbo ad altáre Dei. Ad Deum qui lætíficat iuventútem meam.
I will go in unto the Altar of God. To God, Who giveth joy to my youth, you heard, repeated, believed, arriving in the morning to assist the priest in preparing to celebrate Mass. The priest was “tall and thin to the point of caricature, in his large cassock,” and the Latin he spoke was fittingly mysterious to the parish. The words were something to be memorized by repetition, their individual meaning to be divined but the message all too moving in a place without riches, still largely untouched, regulated by seasonal toil, where the pattern of successive lives could yet seem preordained.
For you, it is yet another step away from orphanhood, of a father, of a place in life, and if not in this life then in the next: “Catholicism astutely told the poor life on earth is shit now, but on the other side it’ll be a treat. I was a beautiful illustration of that.”
Religion gave a new outlet for your idealism. “I had the faith, wanted to achieve sainthood through prayer.” In faith, all you’d lacked growing up could be sublimated into “self-deprivation” for a higher purpose. Church offered another place of acceptance and belonging, where being unlike the other boys was a sign of something more to be nurtured. “The priest took care of me, he was interested in me. He saw me as spiritual, a soul made for the vocation: a good fish to claim for the church. The priest had quite a hold on me.”
Unlike in Marseille where, apart from Stéphane, religion was very much a family matter, in Dampierre you pursued the faith alone. As a choirboy you “left home early in the morning to one day deserve the heavens,” and were the only one in the household to aspire to such heights. While you increasingly “spent a lot of time in church, prayed a lot,” your foster parents kept their distance, to say the least; “Jean and his wife went nowhere near church.” There’s little in their description to suggest they’d be in any way tempted by it, and you’d have to wonder if they would have been welcome. Truth is, in small and pious Dampierre your aunt stood out for all the wrong reasons. “She sensed she wasn’t loved in the village.”
It didn’t help that she was a foreigner, “wasn’t from there, had that goddam Parisian accent. She had no business being there.” That’s not the half of it, this city woman “wore makeup, the farm women never did; she put on red lipstick.” She was different, and in a place like Dampierre back then, especially for a woman, that wasn’t a good thing.
This foreigner from Paris, “she shocked the farm women.” Why is that? “They had grey skirts, went around in clogs wearing head scarfs,” and lo and behold, from the big city comes this stranger who dressed fashionably, and had no qualms being attractive. “She was all you saw, and she was probably the only one like that.” In a homogenous community where modesty and discretion would have been held as cardinal values of womanhood, there, “in the midst of the farm women she was like a peacock.” Had there been any traffic left in Dampierre, she would have stopped it.
It’s an age-old story: every town has its Jezebel. “She was the sinner, a woman that was a woman. She represented another image of femininity.” Therefore, she was a target, though the implications would be felt only later as the everyday unraveled. In normal times people have minded their own business, maybe not dared otherwise because of Jean, former military after all, something of a local figure. Still, tongues will have wagged behind her back: she was married to a prized retired soldier living on a state pension, could afford to keep to her household, didn’t farm, and her marriage with Jean hadn’t born children. Speaking of children, had she not a child of another bed? She had a daughter. And where was that child now? She worked abroad, sent letters. And where from did those stamps come? The town knows! And someday she’ll reap what her very presence has sown.
Jean, a boy from the town, “had gone to Paris and found himself a wife.” And this wife had a past, “had worked in the nightlife.” And be it truth or slander—you think it was true and that it didn’t matter—she was said to be a former prostitute.
Then she met Jean and settled down; she “took care of her fisherman, kept her home spotless. She had a simple and good life. You don’t grow old in the nightlife, it’s not much fun. She had found this retired colonial and it was a good way to live out your days.” Now she had adopted you and given you the tenderness you’d lacked until then. And you loved her the way she was, so unlike your own mother, whimsical like a character from an opera: to you “she was Madame Butterfly.”
As to her daughter, she had a daughter herself while abroad, and though you’d never met her—you never would—your aunt asked you to be her godfather from afar. That’s family.
So you lived in two separate worlds. One at home, where you found daily contentment with your aunt and uncle. The other at church, where the void you’d carried with you to Dampierre could resolve itself in the knowledge that “life on earth had no importance, and you must earn paradise.” And every morning you performed that balancing act as you went from the kindness of one world to the solace of the other: “My role on earth wasn’t very brilliant, so I turned to the heavens. All would be well there.”
Look to the heavens and ye shall find. And it would come to pass. For if war is now absent in the earth below, signs of conflict now appear in the skies. It is not clear when you first became aware of them—perhaps when you were walking in a field or on the street, or leaving Mass or fishing, that muffled roar made you look up. Maybe they were always present, soaring above the fragile peace. “There were planes in the sky, double-tailed planes. There were planes everywhere, American planes.”
They’re Lockheed P-38 Lightnings, the “fork-tailed devil,” with two longitudinal booms that made it look like a winged H with a cockpit in the middle. It was in such a plane that the writer Saint-Exupéry would go missing on July 31, 1944. I read about them in a book on WWII aircrafts kept at your current home, how it was unusually quiet for a fighter, used for bombing but also reconnaissance. I imagine it’s distinctive shadow passing over the land and a boy in wooden clogs marveling at this mechanical intrusion in a place devoid even of cars. And so, from the sky downwards, little by little like mold gaining on a wall, traces of the conflict engulfing the world started appearing in Dampierre.
One day, the school enlisted the children to help the farmers with a plague of Colorado potato beetles, which menaced the town’s main crop. “We were made to pick up Colorado beetles. There being no pesticide, no chemicals due to war, there were tons of them and school took us out to clean the potato fields.”
It’s there that you “found something extraordinary.” The potato fields were littered with strange objects, “large papers bands, with aluminum on one side and brown paper on the other, it was like a roll and we wondered what it could be.” Over time these alien objects found an explanation. Dampierre being near the German border, sometimes you’d see a flight of bombers very high up, and they threw these mysterious things to scramble German radars.
Not that these discoveries yet posed a serious challenge to the way things were; these signs of war were harmless, even a cause for wonderment. Then the excitement subsided, and one forgot them as they were picked up or faded into the fields where they’d appeared. Like small doses of disease in a vaccine will you make immune, so these scattered omens lost the ability to threaten.
“After school, I went fishing, I hiked around, I picked up hazelnuts, and the landscape was absolutely intact, it was still the Middle Ages: there was the harvest, picking up beetles. It was the Middle Ages plus American planes in the sky. Plus, the anti-radar aluminum rolls. The Middle Ages plus war, but not medieval war, but with the flight of American bombers passing overhead. They didn’t scare me. Just like you saw flights of crows and magpies, you saw bombers. They were part of the sky.”
Then, one day in the spring of 1944, you saw the “Red poster.” The propaganda is back in town. It must have stood out sharply against the wooden door on which it faced you. On a striking red background, large white letters at the top read accusingly:
Below it, inside black circles, are the photos of the accused. Ten of them, their faces and crimes arrayed to form an inverted pyramid.
Grzywacz, Polish Jew: 2 attacks
Elek, Hungarian Jew, 8 derailments
Wasjbrot, Polish Jew: 1 attack, 2 derailments
Witchtz, Hungarian Jew, 15 attacks
Fingerweig, Polish Jew, 3 attacks, 5 derailments
Boczov, Hungarian Jew: Chief derailleur, 20 attacks
Fontanot, Italian communist: 12 attacks
Alfonso, Spanish Red: 7 attacks / Rayman, Polish Jew: 13 attacks
Manouchian, Armenian leader of the band:
There followed a series of six photographs depicting their deeds, then:
LIBERATION BY THE ARMY OF CRIME!
You remember it distinctly. At the time, it must have confirmed your beliefs, all those ideas sown by the propaganda already spread in Marseille. Yet this was Dampierre, and a further reminder that “the propaganda service reached all the way to town.” It was the Red poster, as well as the newspapers which railed against Allied bombings, and in which you saw photos of ruined houses bombarded by the Allies. Newsreels from that time spoke of a “wounded France,” and the tone was set by bombings like the one in northern Rennes a year earlier, listing two hundred sixty-two dead, including seventy-five women and forty-three children. Then, archbishop Roques had declared, “With a furious relentlessness, the monsters have sowed ruin and death.”
Still the Dampierre bubble proved resilient, and that same spring, as always, the church carried out the Stations of the Cross. A group led by the priest marched around Dornier Street while reading out prayers, portraying the crucifixion of Christ with figures showing the Roman soldiers, the Jews, the Saints and the Savior carrying his cross. At school, you performed in shows, in what you deridingly call your “brief career as an actor.” The smallest of the lot, you were made to sing in public “Straaaawberries, straaaawberries, of the pretty woods, straaaawberries in my basket”—and this you re-enact for me, mocking a strident childish voice before descending into laughter.
“It was all good-hearted, the church, the school, and the clogs. Suddenly you completely change life, epoch, clothing, climate, a total change, and a positive one. I find myself there, among the clogs, the church, the prayers, the priest, the school, the hazelnuts, the cows, the horses, the German posters, the Marshal. That’s the known world. You don’t challenge that world; you are in it and a part of it. And I was accepted within it. This was good.” Life as you knew it continued virtually uninterrupted, a soothing image that “might last a lifetime” in all its routines and details. And it was happiness.
Yet that world is slipping, the vise tightens on occupied France, and with that pressure come the first cracks in your haven.
In a way, it started and began to end with a train. The first, that brought you here as in a dream, forgotten upon arrival to safety; then a second, unreal but undreamt, announcing the changing times with a column of smoke visible from miles around.
PART IV: DEBACLE
“My dear friends, events force me to give my wishes the accent of a supreme exhortation, listen to a man who’s here only for you, who loves you like a father. Once more, I conjure you to think above all of the deathly peril that our country would risk if upon it fell hideous civil war, or if triumphed communism and its pagan barbarism. But, let us not finish these Christmas wishes with painful prospects. I want to again affirm to you, and with you, my hope. Our prisoners, our workers are far from us. They will return to their homes. Our cities are destroyed, we will rebuild them. Our miseries are immense, but the tempest will pass and the French will again love each other.” —Marshal Pétain’s Christmas address, 1943
Black smoke rising in the distance, people rushing to it and you with them. Hurrying in collective frenzy, past Denèvre, in the direction of the town of Achey four miles away. On the way, crossing a flow in the opposite direction, adults running past you. Noticing their arms full of what they’ve found there. You’re nearing the site, just a bit further past the sprinting crowd. Now you see it. The train comes smoldering into view. Stopping now, not daring to get any closer, not recognizing the people now. People scrambling around, people looting, that’s what’s happening. Beyond them there is the carcass of the train, and all around you the air full of fluttering, a slow wayward shower too big to be ashes. Floating down, within your grasp, then in your hand it’s charred paper, a five Franc bill burnt into half. The wind is full of ruined riches. You’ve seen enough. As you’re leaving, you stumble upon a tin can someone must have dropped. Take it home to show uncle and aunt, tangible proof of witnessing the uneventful coming to a grinding halt. The Allies have attacked the railroad.
It’s all sudden and unheard of, something outside reality.
“It’s like having seen a movie.”
“The train smoking, the pillagers returning.”
“Leftover images of
People running like ants.
French bills flying.”
Back home you tell of what you saw and hold up the tin can. “We opened it and inside was something incredible: powdered egg yolk.” How can that even exist? “That you could do something like that seemed miraculous to us, for whom an egg was in a shell.” You can’t remember if you dared eat it. There were no explanations for the French bills; perhaps they were being taken to Germany.
Events are set in motion. The attack on the train showed what the Red poster had told, derailments and targeting communications infrastructure is rife, a strategy of the Allies and the Resistance within the country. Train tracks are a prime target for sabotage, undermining the occupiers and the collaborationist state while crippling its ability to mobilize resources.
In response, German and Vichy authorities organize special groups that prevent the tracks from being blown up. South in Vichy, they’re called Communication Guards, distinguished by the insignia of a rotary wagon wheel with a sword. As incentive these workers are exempt from the mandatory work and deportation to Germany, which the stressed Nazi war machine imposes on France, and thus swelling the ranks of the Resistance. Up north in Occupied France the same type of personnel is needed, and in the town “there must have been notices asking for track watchmen. The Germans had all the money to recruit.”
Former colonial military, Jean Saunois, gets the job. Maybe there’s a salary worth coming out of retirement for. As a watchman you imagine him going around the vast railway system on the lookout for traps, treacherous sticks of dynamite and saboteurs. Coming home from work he brings back German tracts, small flyers in which you could see a worker laying bricks to stop the flames. “This isn’t stuff he distributed. We probably used it as toilet paper.” Knowing Jean, you have reason to doubt his work ethic was the required standard, “I think that he cashed his pay and didn’t survey a thing.” Nevertheless, after a decade and half of service under the French flag, Jean Saunois is now in the employ of the Germans.
As to what you may have thought it must have appeared as normal. After all, there was an armistice between the countries, wasn’t there? And hadn’t you been told that the résistants, “the liberators,” were the bad guys? “You heard on the radio they were thugs, did bombings, abominable things, were criminals. There was a rupture in society, it was organized pilfering legitimized, and I was absolutely against it.” And weren’t all these criminals Reds? And hadn’t the Fascist literature back in Marseille, like the tracts now, spoken of a European army against communism, following Germany’s lead? Weren’t there thousands of French volunteers fighting alongside Germany on the Eastern Front against the Reds? So, if Jean took care of French train tracks, and did so for Germany, against the saboteurs, either you cared little or you were the first to approve: He was doing his part.
But you better keep that to yourself, my boy. As Dampierre is drawn more narrowly into the war’s orbit, rifts that had remained dormant or behind closed doors come to light. The same divisions that had gripped the country before defeat now realigned along a divide between collaborator or résistant, for Marshal Pétain or General De Gaulle. “As the end of the war approached, we knew the Germans started coming undone. The more the war went on, the more the Resistance discourse prevailed. People in town must have been hearing Radio London.”
Something starts to noticeably change in town, a shift in conversations and attitudes. There’s the underlying stir of nearing denouement. Now it’s all catching up with you again. The safe space is shrinking rapidly. “I heard about it at school because the others spoke about it, and Mr. Lachaud was for the Resistance.” You’re becoming an outsider with every conversation. “What was terrible was that little by little they started to open their mouths, to talk resistance, talking…it became…if you didn’t talk, you became suspicious.”
But what could you tell them? Confess your dogma? That you had been brought up a believer in all they now opposed? That Pétain’s figure had filled your childhood sky? That you were as much choirboy as “Pupil of the Nation” and to you the Nation nearly from its inception was indivisible from Marshal Philippe Pétain?
To them, that man hanging on the wall of the classroom, well he’s a bad taste in their mouths after all these years, if not a villain, the traitor who has dragged France into the mud, promised there would be rewards for collaboration that never materialized. He’s the man who tied France’s fate to that of Germany, when now a voice on the radio, a résistant speaking from his exile in London tells them it needn’t be so. Should you rehash for them the narratives of 1940, expired for all but you, about the hero of WWI, the last Marshal, savior of France in its moment of greatest need, sole glory amidst debacle, national honor incarnate, final hope and ultimate redeemer? Not in Dampierre in 1944 you couldn’t. Not then and not ever again.
“Vichy, in Haute-Saône, was something that was going badly, and I was the only one not to rejoice. For me it was a catastrophe because there was the Marshal, the State, there was an order; for the others, Vichy was the war, and they were tired, tired of it. People waited for the Americans. I had remained in my positions.” In a way, Dampierre itself still fit into the Vichy ideology for you, the imagery that populated your childhood. In this rural town you’d been living the Marshal’s archaic dream of a return to the soil, to “true values” enacted by a united, nuclear family surrounded by the sacrosanct truth of the land “which doesn’t lie.”
Now irredeemably, “the terrain had changed.” You remembered defeat and had grown up in it, the speech of June 17, 1940, the voice of the Marshal on the radio, saying “It is with a heavy heart that I say to you today that the fighting must cease,” and the “gift of his person” to alleviate the suffering of France. You remembered and believed, and now because of it were left behind. “At first millions were for Pétain and De Gaulle didn’t exist, and little by little with Radio London, De Gaulle started taking all the space. Then things change, but I don’t. You remain unchanged, but the country changes around you. Once again, you’re completely foreign.”
The world is going wrong again, your faith is being tested. “I spent my time serving Mass, praying, attempting to be a saint, attempting to join God since on this earth thing’s weren’t going that well. I tried to book my ticket for the hereafter.”
And then the hammer falls. On Tuesday June 6, 1944: D-Day. The Allies have landed on French soil.
“We knew war lasted and lasted, ‘39, ’40, ‘41, ‘42, ‘43, ‘44, it never ended, we didn’t know if it would ever end. Until there was D-Day and we knew the Americans were coming. From then on, everyone only talked about it; people had been waiting for it for years. It was vital. In 1944, after the Allied landing, I felt things had taken a turn for the worse.”
With the Allies landing in Normandy, the maquis (French resistance groups) start to multiply, resistance movements are sprouting all over the country as the order imposed in 1940 fell apart. Something’s brewing on Dornier Street too, “late at night men came; they were in the kitchen with Uncle Jean. I was in my room upstairs.” But it’s past your bedtime, and these are “adults speaking among themselves of adult things.”
On August 15, 1944 comes Operation Dragoon, the Allies land in southern France. Back home, for a week it’s the battle of Marseille, from August 21 to 28 until the city is liberated. German forces withdraw northwards, towards the Vosges, a trajectory not unlike the one you had taken by train in 1942. “We knew any day now the Americans would come, but we didn’t know when.”
It’s the end of times for you in Dampierre. The mold has spread, the walls have cracked and “the world was about to crumble.” It seems a lifetime ago that curtains opened on a winter scene on Dornier Street, the piece a wartime pastoral, a boy is ushered onto the stage and given a role.
“Your life is a play in which you don’t choose the scenes.”
Now the last act starts, the ending poised for tragedy or farce.
In September 1944 war comes to your doorstep, and it’s not Americans you see.
You’re at home when it happens, maybe someone saw them coming and the whole town went into hiding. Shots are being fired. It’s started. “We were inside. There were sounds, sounds of fighting, of explosions. I was at the window. Bullets whistled.” A machine gun roars somewhere down the street, then a blast shakes the houses. The shooting has stopped. Eventually you go out to see. It’s happened at Mr. Virey’s house. The Germans have come to town.
A hundred miles to Germany from Dampierre, with the Americans hot on their heels. The retreat from France is underway and the town is a pit stop to take cover while above American planes “circled like birds of prey, looking for targets.” Your neighbor, Mr. Virey, got the short straw amid those living on Dornier Street near the bridge and village entrance. A machine gun was installed in his garden for cover. What follows are the sounds of combat you hear, the scene explained by Mr. Virey afterwards.
“Then the German soldier in Mr. Virey’s yard got it into his head to start shooting with his machine gun, and immediately he was wiped out by aviation. Everything that moved got it. The idiot fired, and a fighter attacked. The machine gun was destroyed and so was the house. Of the German there remained a boot.”
When you go around afterwards the house has burnt down, and all around is the wreckage of a life. Mr. Virey, an old bourgeois, is a friend of your grandfather, and like him, like Jean, he’s a retired colonial who’d served in Indochina. His gutted home spills unlikely souvenirs: “I remember one of his Buddha from Indochina, broken.” Mr. Virey is there “in a state of shock,” telling his story to those who come, searching around in the rubble. “He had gold coins and looked for them. I can see him, very shaken, looking but never finding them.”
That was the last of the shooting in Dampierre. The air raids relented and all that was left was to witness the German retreat. It began slowly at first, in the dark. “We started to see a trickling of German traffic. There started to be convoys. The American held the sky so when the Germans retreated, they travelled by night. German trucks had their headlights covered, nearly blinded, with only a gap, not to make light.” During the day they’d stop in the park in front of your school, hiding the vehicles underneath trees.
Then, like floodgates opening, the debacle began in broad daylight, streaming through Dampierre for days on end.
You were standing with another boy and when you saw them coming he started naming the brands as they passed, “Latil truck, French; Renault truck, French.” French industry is the means to motor out of the country. The trucks were covered in branches, “naïf camouflage,” with men on the bumpers trying to hide underneath while holding their rifles. They sped, desperate to reach Germany. Then came the door-less cars, for the aerial attacks, doors ripped out to be able to spring out quicker; you don’t open, you just bail. “There must have been a cemetery of doors somewhere.” To you this didn’t look like the glorious army whose exploits on all fronts you’d read back in Marseille in the glossy pages of the bi-weekly Signal magazine, brought to you by the Wehrmacht. “And those were the ones lucky enough to be motorized.” Then you saw the soldiers, the routed army.
“It was astounding…they were wrecked. There were guys with bandages, guys who limped, it wasn’t soldiers, it was guys that been passed through the mixer, then the lawnmower, then the milking machine. Completely bedraggled. Human distress after a shipwreck, and those who had pulled through, in any state, attempted to reach the border. It wasn’t too far.”
“You felt they had one desire, to take another step and be in Germany. They didn’t look at us, they didn’t look at anything. They stuck to the road, crippled, junked, coming apart. It was daylight and every step got them closer to the Fatherland. They looked at nothing; they walked, and walked, in any state, uniform or no. Some were pushing baby strollers, some on bicycles. They were no longer interested in anything, didn’t see anything anymore just desperately trying to rejoin Germany.”
“You couldn’t understand how so many men could be in flight, and I wondered what could have hit them like that, what had happened to them? American aviation had happened to them. Like a tsunami, you see it happen, but you can’t stop it. Like flotsam after a tsunami. Despair after a cataclysm. It lasted two days, maybe three.”
Outside your home it flows, from morning till night a phantasmagoria issuing from the fields and the woods, past the bridge and through town blindly heading east. Like parallel tracks, their road and your roadside, the debacle and the boy who witnesses never touch. That is until you meet the Russians. Months later, recounting it back home your grandfather would tell it was impossible, there couldn’t be, shouldn’t be, “there were no Russians, Russians were in Russia.” Yet you remember amid all the modern carnage this Russian troika pulled by horses, knowable and explained only through literature, “straight out of Chekhov.”
“One evening a chariot comes with horses. In the midst of the Germans walking and the ones on bicycles, there was this chariot with a seat, and two men sitting and holding the reins. We looked and there were these big smiley chums, in German uniforms but not the same type of guys, nothing to do with them, cheerful, very sympathetic. It was Russians! The Germans kept on going, didn’t pause. These guys stopped, they saw a little boy and they asked for vada, vada. I understood they wanted water and I went to get some and brought them a liter.
“You’d thought you were in the steppes; they were peaceful and smiling, just wanting water. Russians on a chariot amidst the German debacle! You didn’t have the impression they were fleeing; they seemed to be taking a trip and that they were home. They didn’t look worried.”
How did you know they were Russian? “I don’t know, you could tell they weren’t Germans…Yes, yes! I remember they said something when they left… Dosvidanya gospodin? I remember dosvidanya.”
You’d remain convinced of this strange apparition for years afterwards, and maybe there is in fact an explanation to prove your grandfather wrong. Once upon this war of strange bedfellows meet Andrey Vlasov, the Red Army general who defected to Nazi Germany after his capture during the siege of Leningrad, then led a “Russian Liberation Army” over a hundred thousand strong, under German command, vowing to rid Russia of “Bolsheviks” and Joseph Stalin. Considered unreliable on the Eastern Front, most of the Vlasovsty forces were sent west in late 1943 and early 1944, to France among other countries. Before defeat, before the gruesome homecoming of an extradition to the USSR, two Vlasovsty might have retreated through the French countryside on a chariot, pausing in a quaint town to sate their thirst one September evening.
After the swell, the Germans ebbed out of Dampierre. A trail of equipment was left strewn in their wake. On the last day a group of soldiers with heavy machinery passed the Salon River and took position on a plot by the road, right in front of your house. The troops had now moved on and they were the last, covering the retreat. Mere feet from your window, you saw them set up a weapon out of a nightmare, “like an enormous monster with its giant tube,” khaki-colored, twenty feet in length and sixteen of it gun barrel. “I saw the cannon all the time, as soon as you opened the door it was across the street, right in front, I could’ve walk over and touched it.” War had brought to your doorstep the 8.8 cm Flak, used in combat from North Africa to the Russian front, designed for anti-aircraft combat but, if your luck went south, equally effective against the vanguard of the American army nearing Dampierre.
“They were waiting for the Americans; had their tanks appeared they would have shot at them, or a plane would have demolished the cannon, and then the house would have gotten it, too. Had the cannon been hit we would have caught the shell shrapnel. Luckily, the Americans didn’t blow the cannon. It was a series of flukes, if it goes well you’re fine; if it doesn’t go well you’re dead and that’s the end of it.”
All day the cannon pointed in the direction of the rising road beyond the bridge, awaiting combat as you looked on. At some point you saw the soldiers stir, go into that river where Jean threw his net, carrying with them what looked to you like cooking pots. The Allies knew bridges got booby-trapped during the retreat, and might pass through the river as a precaution. So the German soldiers filled it with mines.
You don’t remember what happened that night; when you awoke the Germans had disappeared. They’d held position until morning, the very last of the rearguard, and then left in enough of a hurry that they abandoned the hindrance of the cannon. It was rendered unusable in parting, its barrel blown. The massive remains in full view from your house made you think of a dead dinosaur.
It’s the parting shot, the destruction of the cannon. That’s it; they’re gone. The occupation here, it’s over. Then comes a void as all this dawns on the town.
What comes after this finale? For you the worst follows the end.
The morning Dampierre saw the last of the Germans, something must have stirred inside the townspeople. Maybe it was the elation of being rid of four years of foreign oppression, followed by the rage of having been made to endure it for so long. Yet the enemy that had fled under their noses could not have reasonably been faced even in defeat. Towards whom should the people of Dampierre direct their rightful anger?
What if there was in town a household deserving of their ire, in which people had thrived under the invader’s yoke? More sordid than German soldiers: local profiteers. By the river’s edge a nest of traitors in their midst. They need only be marked for all to see and take action.
It happened in the morning, after the cannon. Maybe it was you who discovered it, stepping outside to look at the broken monster across the street, then seeing something else, stopping in your tracks and calling out to your aunt; maybe she saw it first, intending to go to town, opening the door to find it, rushing back inside at the sight of it. You don’t remember this preamble, concealed by the fact on the wall. Bjt there, to the right of your door when entering, someone has painted a swastika. It’s large, in black tar coal, like a twisted black X indelibly marking the spot. You know it’s a judgment upon your home.
“The silence, no more Germans; the silence, no one left, no one. After the cannon was destroyed, it was suddenly like a void. Until then history was the debacle but still the war, suddenly there’s nothing, the street is empty, the Germans are gone and, in the morning, you go out, very normally, and you see this swastika. Suddenly there’s a brutal fracture. History stops and what’s going to happen? You understand it’s best to lock down the house.” It’s all done in frenzy; something’s coming so you scramble to bolt the doors, close the shutters and hide. Then you wait, inside, not seeing, not knowing. Until you hear them approaching.
Trapped indoors thoughts might race through your mind, not just what could happen, but why? Going over the guilty list in the face of indictment. There’s Jean Saunois, who works for the Germans. Jean who gets paid, on top of his French army pension, by the enemy, to do its dirty work undermining the Resistance’s efforts. And Jean isn’t even there now, hiding with his family. He’s disappeared some days before and you don’t know where he’s gone.
It’s just your aunt and you. Your aunt whose bad reputation in town, if not hatred towards her, predates Jean’s collaboration, and now intertwines with it as things fall apart and everyday restraints expire. And there’s more still. That daughter of hers, working abroad. Where exactly does one work abroad in wartime France? She works in Germany. And having gone and already had a child there before 1942, she’d gone since 1940 or 1941. So, she was a voluntary worker in Germany, had joined of her own free will before it became mandatory, because there were lots of jobs in that warring nation, and the pay was better than what people were earning in town. Now this all need not have been common knowledge; trouble is she wrote to her mother back in Dampierre. She sent letters from Germany. She wrote to her mother and people in town saw those envelopes sent from Nazi Germany, and on them were postal stamps, and those stamps had Adolf Hitler’s profile on them. Every single time she wrote there was the Führer’s image being delivered to their home, the final incriminating proof, so much clearer than a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the turncoats and guiding the hand that strikes at their home, with a brush for starters, with the loathed symbol that with the Germans gone is akin to being sentenced.
The war fades here; that other conflict is brewing: a country divided and in Dampierre a swastika smeared on the home one fall morning in 1944; the mark of Cain at the war’s end. A flurry of shut window and doors. A woman and a young boy barricaded inside, waiting. Then the villagers come. “First they marked the beast. Then they went for it.” A choirboy, you must know the phrase “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” This was the liberation of France, however, the season of reckoning in the fourth year since grueling defeat and Nazi occupation.
And so the stoning began.
You heard the stones hitting the house, the screams of your fellow villagers outside. It grows and intensifies as more join the fray. Above all, you hear the sound of those stones on your house. One thing you’re certain of is that they are coming for her.
“It’s morning and there’s no one, Jean’s disappeared, only my aunt left alone with me, no one left, the Germans are gone, no police, the time had come to settle scores, and the only issue for these good townspeople was to liquidate my aunt, to give that bitch her due, who received letters from Germany, dressed like no one else, who used perfume and makeup, the foreigner, the Parisian, the prostitute that took your man, this city woman that was all that the women in the town were not. She knew she was in for it, she didn’t know how but it was going to go very, very badly for her.”
You can’t know then, but you’ll know later, and it will haunt you, and I’ll hear about it for years without understanding, learning early on about the things done to women during the liberation of France. It was a punishment long announced by the Resistance in the underground press. Official figures stand at the least twenty thousand women publicly shaved, insulted and humiliated, amidst the fervor of the mob, sometimes spat on, stripped naked and paraded through their hometowns. This happens to those deemed “horizontal collaborators,” for allegedly fraternizing with the Germans. The strife of war purged upon women’s bodies.
“All over the country, proud male France had been defeated, and so it took revenge upon its women, by shaving them for having slept with the enemy, whether or not it was true. There had to be revenge so they took it out on the most vulnerable, took it out on the women.” Here, in recording number 12, your words echo those I’ll later read from an English historian and expert in the grief faced by civilians and women in WWII, Anthony Beevor, who adds “Revenge on women represented a form of expiation for the frustrations and sense of impotence among males humiliated by their country’s occupation. One could almost say that it was the equivalent of rape by the victor.” And in Dampierre, the women also bore a grudge.
It’s a bitter taste you can’t wash away as you tell me, “after the Germans left, they bravely came along, and there being a woman alone with a little boy, they painted a swastika and came to stone the house. The door was locked, the shutters closed, and they were probably going to throw down the door, take out my aunt, shave her, strip her naked, maybe carve a swastika into her, what was done all over France, everywhere, joyously.”
I think of the last adjective, and remember the photograph by Carl Mydans from the liberation, where three bystanders look on, taken from a low angle, as two others with a slightly manic air are fast at work on the head in the forefront, the young woman with her eyes closed, her skull being twisted aggressively in the direction of the camera by one improvised barber while the other seems to be finishing off her nape. Behind this vigilante, one woman is having the time of her life watching, and a girl, pushing beyond the same man, gloats with all her face as blades do their best to plunder another’s femininity. But, mostly, I think of your own work. Of the novel Retour à Malaveil.
It might be your best book, certainly the most sold. At its heart is the war, at its core the hatred born of days when France was liberated. It happens in a small southern town at the end of the war, when a group of résistant arrives. You paint an unflattering portrait. They’re boisterous drunks milking their moment of glory in a lawless interregnum, with the police gone into hiding after serving under Vichy. They’re “good-for-nothings of the twenty-fifth hour,” masquerading in mismatching clothes and old helmets, not the wartime fighters but the ones who took out their hunting rifles for a spin once the German were out of sight. In the novel they get drunk, then rowdy, looking for a quick exploit. Then someone snitches, uses them to settle an old score: there’s a woman who fits the bill, a lecherous collaborator. So, the whole squad goes to her house and she comes out to meet them, unknowing. The butt of a rifle to her face and it all fades out. She next awakes to a world of pain, her assailants gone and her youth with them. “So that’s the Liberation? My eyes burned. I could not cry. Who is I? Lord, give me madness, don’t let me think, give me madness, give me madness…”
You haven’t seen any résistants yet; you will soon. For now, I picture the two of you alone, barricaded in your home, a mob outside coming for the woman who’s adopted you, maybe you hold each other, maybe you’re each in your own terror. You can’t protect her, and no one can protect you.
You’re a little boy, helpless. Of childhood you remember being small, being weak, your only chance being to be so small, so weak as to “pass among the raindrops,” but now it’s stones raining from outside.
“They were coming for her, it was extremely violent, maybe the guys wouldn’t have hit me, I don’t know what will happen. You feel…you feel it’s going to capsize, everything is possible, and everything is the worst. Because after the rocks there will be the axe and they’ll tear down the door, and you wait, wait, wait for the door to cave in. I’m…I’m not afraid, I never am. You hear. You’re in the present. Intensely. Moments like that, when you’re hurt, you’re fully in the present, a potent present. You live from stone to stone.”
Until violence misses a beat… Abruptly life is suspended, a hit and a lull followed not by another rock but something issuing from the sudden silence. You hear the sound of an engine. “Everything is very quick. The ambient sound changes. There’s no more stones, there’s the motor.”
Someone’s heading your way, the noise issuing north of the street, from town, drawing closer fast. It all plays out in sounds your mind races to interpret. The aggression has drained from the instant, and fear has now spread outside. “There was this movement of panic, hearing the sound of an engine, they thought they’re coming back, the Germans are coming back, they got scared. They’re ready to spread out, the bridge is nearby, and you can hide in the fields. But it wasn’t the Germans.”
The engine has stopped outside the house, you feel it’s over somehow, and after a moment you dare peer through the shutters. Looking back on it from our distant present, as you relive this all with me, you turn to the fire that engulfed your hill weeks ago this summer trying to explain life’s turnarounds. Then and again uncertain outcomes, repetitions of instants on the brink: “Those rocks, their sound. It was as with the fire, I’m tired, I’m exhausted, and the fire continues, a hundred buckets, the fire, the fire, trying, and it rekindles and rekindles, I’m down to my last bucket and the firefighters arrive. It’s exactly the same. You’re about to lose and you get a winning hand. All my life has been that way, catastrophe averted at the last second. It seems unbelievable. Do you see? My aunt is going to be shaved, or God only knows, then the firefighter arrived.”
Your peer outside, and there he is standing thin, dry, chiseled under his beret. It’s Uncle Jean.
He’s atop a truck. He’s armed. He’s drunk. He’s covered in blood. He’s come to liberate the town.
Life is a soap opera, a bad one. He’s a collaborator. He’s a résistant. Was he both for months? Did he foresee what was coming and change sides at the last? Is he scoundrel or hero, profiteer and freedom fighter? You laugh, and that answers that. Logic has left the building. “It was the theatrical side of it, the preposterous side of it. You go from total anguish, wondering what will happen, the stones, the silence, then Zorro, the drunk savior, arrives.”
What you believe happened, piecing it together in the aftermath, is that they planned their local uprising during those nights when men came late to see him at home, speaking in the kitchen while you were in bed upstairs. He might even have met them while on the job, finding them on the tracks he guarded and getting recruited. How better to meet the résistance then getting paid to catch them red-handed? It’s also possible they sought him out. They had Sten submachine guns, the type the English dropped by parachute, but you had to know how to use them. He was a former officer of the colonial army, someone who knew weapons, who was trained, who knew how to fight, and so was a precious addition among civilian fighters. Ultimately, under the same roof, while you lamented the end of Marshal Pétain, Jean took a bet on the other horse.
Then, when the time was right and events dictated it, he joined the maquis and disappeared. You didn’t know, and neither, clearly, did the town. Right before his dramatic reappearance, he and his group were fighting the Germans. He’d boast about it afterwards. There was an ambush not too far, Jean and his comrades blocked the road as a German truck arrived and started shooting. The Germans surrendered and Jean and his men ordered them from the truck and took them as prisoners. There was one who resisted, however. Jean says he was young. He couldn’t take it, got a rifle and shot Jean. He didn’t miss but he didn’t kill him. The bullet went through one of Jean’s butt cheeks. So, they executed the young soldier. “Then there was no more Germans, so they came home.” Wounded but triumphant: a hero’s return. Except for the surprise party greeting him at his home.
He took that rather badly, Jean did.
“And the fool arrives, storming through town on a truck with a platform at the back, with guys on top. He’s drunk of course, the others half-drunk, all extremely agitated. He had just been wounded, his pants were drenched in blood, blood all over his underwear. He’d killed a German, a hero! He’d become a captain. He gets home, saw this crowd, ‘what’s going on?’ His goddam house with a goddam swastika getting stoned! The village he’s liberating is busy stoning his house. Can you see it? All the valiant villagers flabbergasted, because they’re trying to get a hold of his wife and daddy comes back. He wasn’t very thrilled. He damn near started shooting up the place.”
It’s chaos on Dornier Street: the hero’s a drunk, the oppressed a mob, the traitors are a housewife and a fatherless boy. The shoe is on the other foot now; the weapon is with Jean, the tetchy liberator wielding a submachine gun: “He’s furious, hugely indignant: He, the liberator of the town, a swastika on his home!” No one remembers you: “Everyone stopped, of course, no more stoning!”
A wild brouhaha ensues as you watch from behind the shutters, “I can see him on the truck platform, very skinny with his beret, and he’s completely drunk, screaming.” Terror devolves into hysteria, with Jean front and center, “with those three new captain’s gallons on him, bursting, a man unleashed.” Neighbors are at each other’s throats. “He could have gone on a rampage; it was a brawl. His friends restrained him.” All the while, forgotten in the background of their local tug-of-war looms the German cannon: hurrah for the first day of freedom.
For in the end, this play’s a farce. This is a small town after all. Neighbors tussle and argue and scream insults at each other. But no shots are fired and the fighting ebbs. These are down-to-earth, sensible people, and so they reach an agreement. “They kept on drinking.” There is no affront a couple bottles won’t solve. “They must have erased the swastika, and then they cheered the hero. It’s so beautiful it’s out of an American movie.”
Once again looming tragedy turns into vaudeville at the last moment, “Uncle Jean or the firefighters, in the nick of time. You’ll tell me it’s a coincidence, well it coincides well.” That’s the tragicomic story of your life.
But the horror of the image of the women with their heads shaved—the memory of what might have happened—will mark you. It will endure as an indignation you’ll cultivate, as you try to understand this time, these contradictory moments that almost engulfed you, your journey in this moral no-man’s-land: Is this about seeking vengeance for a national affront? Or is this really about settling more banal grudges? The nation is engaged in an exercise in scapegoating: sex workers were chief among the mobs’ targets during those days, women whom those townspeople claimed your aunt to be. It was “jealousy masqueraded as morale outrage,” Beevor explains. Except here, you add, “The ‘liberator’ happened to be the husband of the ‘whore.’ An absolute joke!”
Or, as Beevor calls it, an “ugly carnival.”
At some point during the melee you got outside of the house. They’re all there on Dornier Street: the armed liberators and their truck; the townspeople; the cannon off to the side, a ghost of the war. Bucolic, medieval Dornier Street where traffic was measured in cows, still mere days ago. Now you can clearly see the would-be vigilantes, the righteous, a crowd of men and women. You can’t remember if you recognized any of them, even though it must be hard to find strangers in Dampierre. But why hold a grudge? That’s all over now; it’s a free country again and people can kiss and drink up. “Things had to fall back into place. After the stoning there were celebrations.”
After all, no one’s a saint here, but then no one wants to be the devil either. Beevor again: “Many of the tondeurs, the head-shavers, were not members of the Resistance. Quite a few had been petty collaborators themselves and sought to divert attention from their own lack of Resistance credentials.” Everyone’s just trying to look good now that the bad guys are gone. Elsewhere in France, Mr. Raymond Guyot, a Communist leader, set high standards, saying, “In order for France to be liberated, every inch of our fatherland must be cleansed of every German and every traitor.” Men like Jean didn’t mind cleansing the former, if that meant getting away with the latter. At some point, after the mood improved, he’ll even crack a scatological joke about his mangled backside: “The bullet had gone in and out of a butt-cheek, and he said ‘I got myself three bullet holes!’” Those will endure as the famous last words of your experience with the Resistance, which you will later characterize in no uncertain terms. “Now I see TV movies on the Resistance, they make me want to scream they’re so false, bullshit. Reality is always much more simple, much more sordid, much more pathetic.”
The story moved on from there; people headed downtown for “the great party of the liberation, speeches, dancing, a whole circus. It was the town revelry in honor of our glorious liberators. Party, music, we’re free! Singing the Marseillaise, the song of the partisans.” What a time to be alive for Jean. “He must have had the enormous prestige of the liberator, which means getting drinks paid for free. Uncle Jean must have drunk himself blind, must have vomited more than ever in front of the house.”
From then onwards everything seems to recede from you; they all go off to celebrate and you back away, unable to follow the forgiving slope back into normality, the upheaval still stuck in your throat. To you it is indeed an “ugly carnival.” No shaving? No problem, we’ll still have a jolly time. “There was noise and music, but it didn’t interest me. I was out of it, foreign, it did not concern me; again, I was excluded, unwanted, out of it. For me the shipwreck continued. We’d made it out and all was disappearing anew.” It goes beyond the events in Dampierre, there’s a wider upheaval leaving you a castaway among the celebrations.
You’ll soon start to realize there’s nowhere to withdraw to. Life as you understood it has been erased with a swiping of the slate, along with all the beliefs that gave it meaning. You must have heard it, because by now it’s obvious: the Vichy regime has been toppled and it won’t be long before the Marshal stands trial for his crimes. “For me it was sacrilege, the world was falling apart. The world was the Marshal, God, Church, and suddenly the Marshal was a criminal. White became black. It was the end of everything.”
I can’t see what you saw, or feel it. In trying to inch closer I’m reminded of Hiroshima My Love, Alain Resnais’ classic movie on the acrimonious end of the war. The unnamed character, played by Emmanuelle Riva, is locked in a basement by her “dishonored” parents, after her public shaving and shaming. The theme is the horror of forgetting. She is hidden away, out of sight, amidst the tolling bells and marching to the national anthem that echo down to her cell and sound the beginning of collective forgetting. It’s the marching path forward, except for those refusing it, clinging to their memories, to what constitutes the other’s shame, the country’s stain—except for those who refuse to repudiate a life that has been recast as treachery and which has now made her an outcast. She represents a discordant element best hidden, unable to join in the catharsis of liberation.
For you, it is the horror of forgetting what you struggle to retain, even as all those around you put eraser to paper and wipe away the memories of those times. What you insist upon holding on to as the world gratefully moves on.
Still, it’s not quite over on Dornier Street. Like at any good carnival, a procession rolls in. It’s the first time you see a jeep. “Along came this implausible car, that looked nothing like a car, it looked like a sugar box on exposed wheels. The jeep had nothing to do with the cars we knew, the bumper, the spare wheel, the body of it, all flat, that you could step into easily. Suddenly there’s something new that looks like nothing we’d ever seen, as if the Martians had landed.”
The men in the jeep are just as surprising. “They were French in American uniforms. We didn’t understand, the car was American, the uniforms were American, but the guys spoke French. It was an enormous surprise.” The propaganda had told you of Frenchmen in German uniforms fighting for Europe on the Eastern Front. But now “there were French in American uniforms, liberating France.”
The farmers were quick to warn the soldiers about the mines the retreating Germans had placed in the river. You’re there as they talk, and one phrase carves itself into your memory. “It’s going to be terrible,” these Frenchmen warn.
“They talked a bit, explained that for those who had helped the Germans, ‘it’s going to be terrible.’ I remember the word ‘terrible.’ All good, then, it sounded promising. They were announcing the cleansing. My aunt was just an internal story in the village.” A boy from Vichy, you’ll henceforth be on the wrong side of history. “Until now you still believed you were French and now, you’re the enemy, the beast to be shot down. You realize that if you vaguely felt out of place—you laugh as you say this—you now feel it very concretely. It’s very brutal, and you’re not afraid, you’re a bit stunned.” The wedge between you and Dampierre, you and France, has turned into an abyss. “Suddenly I was at odds with the country. It had ceased to be my country.”
Yet nothing more would happen to you here; these “terrible” things were happening elsewhere. You’d learn in time and it made you shudder. In Dampierre the cleansing was over, “After the liberation there wasn’t anything. Nothing, except we were free.” Nothing except history, values, heroes, good and evil as you were fervently taught, had all been rewritten. “You believe in something, you’re not a turncoat. It’s not the vane that turns but the wind. At some point the ground shifted, but you didn’t move with it. Imperceptibly, the image of the Marshal was degraded, the military situation changed and the Marshal became an obstacle, but you, you remained constant. For you the weathervane is blocked, to hell with the wind. And suddenly you’re no longer home, you’re no longer you, you’re a traitor.”
Then, at the last, what everyone in Dampierre was waiting for finally happened: Uncle Sam joined the party.
“Then the Americans came. Holy shit the American equipment! Trucks and jeeps, the works: an enormous potency. There were the GMC, on and on. There was traffic, for once. The Americans sped by in the huge trucks, ‘GMC.’ It was an army, a real one.”
They’re heading to Germany to end the war, and again peripheral Dampierre is a pit stop on the way to History. Here are the images associated with the liberation of Europe, the festive townspeople welcoming the Americans passing through, that fabled army from across the Atlantic whose advance they had been tracking for years. You’d see it here and in Marseille, both probably intermixing in memory. And in your description of what follows and the details that marked you, I’m reminded that for all the pathos, the fear and beliefs, you were still only a boy two month shy of his eleventh birthday. The sheer awe of it makes you join in the welcome, as you hadn’t done with the village celebration. “This was at the liberation. The Americans threw candy, whole boxes of it. Americans threw all kinds of stuff. And also, American insignia, small round insignia, golden, with US on it, or with two crossed rifles, tons of insignia, and it was chic to have them.”
And, to a kid, what’s the most stunning thing about them? That thing in their mouth, that they start gifting around. “Chewing gum was miraculous! I remember girls who were marveled because they had chewing gum. We didn’t know what it was. It was this thing you put in your mouth, you chewed it and it had this flavor, such a strange thing. The girls were in awe.”
In a way, it’s your first taste of the postwar consumer society to come, the dazzling flow of products that will transform a country under strict rationing, deprived of the most basic goods for years. All encapsulated in that unwrapping and the first taste of gum. “It was my great wonderment, a packet of chewing gum. I couldn’t believe it. It was something flat, with this cellophane wrap, this silver paper. It was perfection. It represented a sort of technical development. What did we have? We drank water out of a bucket, had wooden toys. I marveled before this perfection. I was in the Middle Ages and here’s this piece of the twentieth century. It was modernity. I had never seen something so perfect, and utterly foreign. I had it and it was so beautiful I almost didn’t dare eat it. I kept it preciously.”
When dusk came, the Americans made an overnight stop in town. “They didn’t just lie around, they were organized, they had tents, had camps, they had everything.” After having seen the face of defeat in the German army, this was the other side of the coin. “The Americans were something else. The Americans looked kind, and they were laid back.” That night you saw their bonfire and heard their voices, “they were around the fire and one of them was playing the harmonica. It was an American tune and they were singing.”
The rising song of an army soon to be victorious, a bonfire in the night, then, with that last image, and as if spent with the flames, memory stops recording. Now that the country is free, the countdown starts for your return home to Marseille. But “from there on there is an amnesia.” A lot has happened in a short time. War finally came to Dampierre, all crammed into mere days, sketched in indelible scenes: the violence at Virey’s house, the German debacle, the cannon, the swastika, the terrifying stones and the unlikely savior, the French in American uniforms, the Americans tossing gum, an intensity of moments slipping into forgetting.
I ask, what do you remember afterwards, of your last months in Dampierre?
You reply, I remember that I remember nothing, it’s as if there’s the reel in the projector, and the film was broken in between September 1944 and when we came back in 1945. Months later, I see myself in Marseille. After the episode with Uncle Jean, I can’t see anything. Nothing else happened, or I stopped caring, I was out of it, out of the race, in shock.
All gone, save the loss. You’ll live out the rest of your time in Dampierre in the ensuing isolation and silences of your broken faith. “I couldn’t talk about it. My uncle was a résistant; the teacher, Monsieur Lachaud, was a résistant; and all the children were résistant. I was the only one.”
Stubborn boy, little fervent believer, guardian of an unholy truth now wholly tarnished. You’d be better off forgetting. You chose bereavement instead. You’re left to mourn alone for a world no one missed.
“It was the second death of France, the end of the Marshal. France has crumbled a first time in 1940 and it crumbled a second time in 1944. For me France was dead.”
There is one unlikely detail to surface from this time. War’s wreckage left a final absurd image: “Germans, in their retreat, they got rid of everything. There were helmets left behind, rifles, military junk. People collected Mauser rifles.” When the hunting season started the hunters had upped their game dramatically; “People hunted with Mausers.” It must have been a field day. The poor animals never knew what hit them.
And so Dampierre also comes to an end, “the charm was broken.” A blur erases the last of the familiar faces you’d learned to care for. What is lost? It was a place in time yet outside of it, a moment in childhood unlike the rest of your childhood. Farewell to the idyll and family. “I had always been the odd one out, now I realize, as I’m speaking, that the only moment I was ever well, the only period when I was accepted, was when these good-hearted people took me in because of war.”
Of all the lost lands of the past, Dampierre stands out for the tone of longing with which you recount it three quarters of a century later. The place of fields and fishing, where you had an uncle and an aunt, the Mass and the maybugs, all of it degrades and disappears for you after September 1944. The idyll is broken and so is the Marshal, the haven tarnished and you with it. “It’s not that you feel like a traitor, it’s your country that’s betrayed you. You do not follow the movement. Everyone became a résistant.” All save for you, as faith turns to poison. “They perfectly followed the evolution; I remained weighted down in 1940, weighted down in ‘It is with a heavy heart that I say to you…’
…and I still had the heavy heart.”
All this happened long ago, ended you know not when, with more forgotten farewells and another train taking you away. You never visited Dampierre, no letters sent, no fond reunions. If someone ever spoke to you of the town it is long gone behind the veil of all that came after. It’s a locked room you seldom visit, though maybe opened when your son asks, when your answers are the key and it exists again for as long as we keep talking.
You did attempt to return, once. It was decades later; you were back in the region in a friend’s car, and you asked if she could indulge you with a side trip. The road had changed. There was no more cow dung. There were more houses. As you neared the town you caught sight of a new building. It towered over the town, outlandish, all blue glass and outmoded modernity. You never got to visit it. “I saw this huge blue building like a wart, I told myself, ‘This is starting well.’ I was dismayed. It was no longer Dampierre.” Modernity stands in the way of childhood, you can return but you can’t go back. “When I saw the blue building, it was over. I didn’t…I didn’t…It was no longer that, no longer at all. It wasn’t Dampierre anymore, or only geographically. I didn’t insist. I didn’t even ask. To me it was dead and I turned around and got the hell out.”
So, it endures as it was for the eleven-year-old boy. The house on Dornier Street as it was, unaltered among the other petrified lodgers of memory.
“Everything changes at such speed. There’s only yourself that doesn’t change. In my head I’m the same as then. Likewise, I remember London in ‘56, now I see photos and the horizon has changed. Same as I won’t return to Venice, I won’t return to Angkor Wat. I saw Angkor and I was alone, alone within it with only monkeys, a fracture in history during the Vietnam War. Now there are a million people. All these places I saw which no one will see again because they’ve disappeared, so I keep them in my memory, keepsakes in my mind, because I’ve never taken photos. You go back to photos instead of your memories. And I never saw Uncle Jean again, I never went back. He must have died of alcoholism. I know that alcoholic as he might have been, he was good guy, always kind. He’s alive in my memory.”
PART V: RETURN
“I hate those lies that have caused us so much harm.” —Marshal Pétain, June 25, 1940
Germany surrendered in May of 1945. The worst of the war is long behind you by then. France is free and transformed into a partner in victory against Germany since the Yalta conference of February 1945, even granted some territory of its former captors to occupy. Now, it was safe to make the decision: The children must be sent for. So off you went, back to Marseille.
Marshal Pétain is returning home too, for justice to be carried out. His collapsing regime had ended with his departure from France in August 1944, enforced by the Germans against his wishes. He was to serve in a government-in-exile from the fairytale town of Sigmaringen, within the confines of its imposing castle only 200 miles east of Dampierre, on the other side of the border. Accompanying him in exile are many of the leading figures of Vichy and collaborationist France, from ministers to militia leaders and writers, from collaborators of all hues to outright Nazi apologists. He considers himself a prisoner, goes on strike as a mad parody called the French Governmental Commission takes over, presiding over ashes while the Marshal remains in his chambers preparing the defense he foresees he’ll need soon. As Sigmaringen nears capture by the Allies, Pétain allows himself to be taken to Switzerland on April 23, 1945; he arrives the next day and asks to be turned over to France. His wish is granted. He’s imprisoned in Montrouge Fort awaiting trial.
Unlike in 1942, your own journey back leaves an impression. “In between the Resistance, the Germans, and the Americans, there weren’t many trains and train tracks left. I remember the trains were full, the hallways were full, the compartments were full; people got in through the windows and sat in the bathrooms.”
Then rolling southwards, arrival and the visions of return, “I remember the sun, the sea, finding the house again. Rediscovering the fig tree, with figs.” You are back in your street, Montée du château, the steep “Castle Rise” to the family villa, once again filled with all the Godard-Courchay family. Home again with your mother, your grandparents and siblings, Uncle Marcel and Aunt Yvonne two houses down. Your grandparents have aged. “They were invalids,” their bodies starting to let them down. “She had a hard time moving. Grandpa was a bit dotty, he strolled behind his moustaches.” The war had left its mark on the place. “When we returned to the home after the war there was a hole in the house, a shell had hit a wall. We were lucky it wasn’t leveled. It was normal, somehow: your house had a shell hole. Well, it could well have been razed. Everything could happen. You weren’t all that shocked. Just a single hole, not bad! There must have been some fighting.” Further up, at the end of the rising street, the château itself is destroyed. No one knows what became of Fitch the Alsatian. He’s gone, along with the German officers he used to receive in his turreted castle that has been reduced to a hollowed battlefield.
Your family will keep a souvenir from the battle. When your mother was able to return to the house, she found a soiled army blanket. The war may be over, but poverty isn’t: “My mother cleaned it and made a coat for my sister.” As to fixing the damaged house, you think it must have been Uncle René, good old, obliging René who’d gotten you hooked on right wing and German army propaganda. After all, he’d spent the war as a specialist in the employ of the Germans in the port, working in the cold rooms; he was probably the one who could afford it. His icebox business would soon collapse with the arrival of American refrigerators. And why wasn’t he in trouble after the liberation? You think his friends in the army protected him.
There is, however, one silver lining from having been expelled from home by the German army. When they fortified the hill, they’ installed telephones…of a sort. “We had the telephone before anyone else, but it was slightly limited. The Germans had installed ‘fortress telephones,’ massive, reinforced, grey-colored. They had left them, but it was a closed circuit. We had the telephone but only from one house to the other. We had it and another villa and my Uncle Marcel’s villa. So, we could call Marcel, and from nearly next-door Aunt Yvonne could call to ask how everything’s going. For chatting she didn’t need to climb up the street. What a world!”
It is indeed a different place and life from the one you left. There will still be rationing for years to come, and I inherit the small paper cards with stamps for bread and tobacco, which run into the late 1940s. The postwar order brings changes that are hard to adjust to. “My grandmother Rosalie, in her mind, had stayed with gold Francs. She gave us 100 francs to do groceries, for her it was a fortune, while 100 francs didn’t buy you anything, so she thought we were stealing from her.” She didn’t understand that the currency had devaluated by 66 percent in 1945. “We certainly didn’t steal. It’s just that to her, money had been much more valuable than it had become with paper money. She was scandalized.” Fortunately, there’s a return of American aid: flour arrives, you eat white bread again and yellow cornbread.
Mostly you remember the change of school, no longer the little neighborhood school of the “White Rabbit,” nor your dream of the more prestigious Lycée, but by train to Docteur Escat Street for the “complementary courses” which at that time expanded education among popular classes. The food is awful, and you often escape to the nearby market to eat. It’s still the games you remember most, playing marbles without marbles. “After the liberation we played with cherry seeds, which we boiled and put into bags. We made huts with cardboard boxes, with a door and windows, and the game was if you sent the seed through the door you got five points, twenty points for the skylight. Cherry seeds…”
Like in Dampierre, happiness is nature, and you flee to it as often as you can. A rare passage on your childhood in your book La Soupe Chinoise tells it:
“Those mornings when joy rose above Marseille-Veyre, over the translucent wall of the hillside. The roofs of clear tiles descended unto the sea. You hurtle down stairs, down alleys. You’re going fishing. You’re very small. You have the entire ocean to yourself. You fish by hand, among the bricks. The shore is full of them. It’s the liberation of France and the Germans did quite a lot of dynamiting. In a couple of winters, all those bricks will turn to pink pebbles.”
The Mediterranean still had oil stains from sunken tankers, but to you they looked beautiful gleaming in the sunlight, and otherwise “with war, the sea was no longer as polluted, the sea was full of fish, of algae and sea urchin.” And Jean’s teachings haven’t been in vain: The passion stuck, and you can bring food home now. “I spent all my time fishing. I was little. I’d take a bamboo, stick a fork in it and catch crabs. I broke bottles by the bottom and put a cork at the top, I broke mussels, put them in the bottle, and brought back enough to make fish soup. Every day we had fish soup.” You’ll seek the sea all along your life, before renouncing it altogether in old age. “Now the sea is rotten and polluted, it’s dead. The sea was alive then. I spent my time by the sea.”
Those bricks, the ravages of war churned up by the tide, shrinking until they color the sand then meld into it. It’s something to hope for. The final crumbling of the lies of the past years and all that they sustained. It doesn’t come easy for you, if at all. Postwar brings more rage, more banished creeds. It all mixes without clear timelines, strata of revelations that gradually bore a hole under your feet.
It starts with the truth about Nazi Germany. What did you believe it was? “We thought it was like the first war, with the Kaiser, an honorable fight among soldiers.” The glory days of your grandfather, venerating Pétain. Then later the admiration for a resurgent Germany far from uncommon in Europe, present in your family, vaunting their order and modernization for your Uncle Marcel the engineer, seduced by the military esthetics and myth for Uncle René the former military man. Growing up with all that iconography, christened by the ingrained patriotism of the father dead in service of his country, resulting in a child with a ripe imagination daydreaming with propaganda. But the war’s end and its aftermath bring home the nightmare. It’s hard to imagine how you would have learned before that. You were a young French boy brought up on misinformation, who’d spent the last years in the middle of nowhere.
“We knew in ‘45, over the summer. It was immediately after the liberation, we had a flux of images, whereas before we had nothing save German propaganda. We didn’t know the gas chambers, we didn’t know the abominable racism, the massacre of the Polish, we didn’t know. Meanwhile, Hitler was a criminal madman and we didn’t know. Just out of war you find that…you always knew that everything was possible, and you find that once more the limits have been pushed even further. I saw that we had fallen ever lower. We realized it was industrial horror, beyond everything. But it was a bit late.”
The Germans had been something out of magazines, wartime narratives of exploits instead of action movies, then finally a parade of ghosts. But that’s not the deepest layer to crumble. In the larger lie you lived for, they were admired as allies of France in the far-right telling of it, in the fight against the supreme evil of communism. They had been ennobled by an armistice and the handshake of Pétain with Hitler at Montoire, sealing collaboration. And that was by France incarnate; that was Pétain. It was Marshal Pétain that mattered above all: That was personal and that became taboo.
“I had to shut my mouth because I was for the Marshal, and against this rotten France. I never spoke to anyone about the stoning. I wasn’t going to tell about it; stoning meant collaboration. For me, the traitors were the Gaullists that betrayed the Marshal. I had a grudge against France: it had betrayed me.”
The virulent sense of betrayal is not something I can fully grasp, to your irritation. Only in delving into the words from that period can I start to comprehend this idea of sudden abandonment, of “staying on the quayside as everyone got on board.” Though the shift in political opinion was gradual, and only clearing over years, that requires perspective, and from some angles it all seemed to happen in the blink of an eye.
French historian Henri Amouroux recounts a telling story. A woman tells him how, as a girl, she was chosen in Aix-en-Provence to bring Pétain flowers. It was during those trips in the first year of his regime, when he was acclaimed with fanfare as the savior. She is taken forward, given the flowers and finds herself in front of Pétain. She hands him the flowers, welcomes him and he hugs her. “Afterwards, I don’t know, except I received photos of the ceremony and I was proud of it. Two years later, my parents buried the photos in a drawer and told me to forget.”
In the spring of 1944, Pétain is granted his longtime wish and allowed to leave Vichy France to tour occupied France. A newsreel waxes lyrical: “Straighter than ever, maintaining despite so many responsibilities and so many ordeals this surprising youth of spirit, of soul and above all heart, the great soldier is indeed the leader around which must be consolidated this French unity whose existence is today exposed to peril.”
On April 26 he reaches the capital where crowds gather to cheer him. As he speaks to them from City Hall, they sing the Marseillaise. Again, a newsreel, a man speaking next to a huge portrait of Pétain: “The Marshal appearing in Paris we saw a crowd of a million Parisians that seem to surge from the cobblestones. We had the impression that this date marked the moment the people of France pulled itself together, and the renaissance of a lost unity.”
Four months later, on August 25, De Gaulle arrives in a liberated capital. At that very same City Hall the new leader reclaims the soul of France and its unity, quickly erasing the predecessor’s claim for the same: “Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!”
There’s a running joke about a foreigner saying the population of a town must have doubled, for how else could you explain the cheers for one then the other? Perhaps it’s best to heed the words of Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary under Churchill, who said, “If one hasn’t been through the horrors of an occupation by a foreign power, you have no right to pronounce upon what a country does.” You were there, however, and very much on the losing side. “For me the liberation was an imposture, the country was the traitor.”
Alas for you, Pétain is the man being tried for treason.
He’ll be tried in July and August, in his uniform of Marshal of France. On August 6, 1945, Time magazine wrote, “Not in a tumbril but in a Black Maria, Henri Philippe Pétain, 89, hero of Verdun, Marshal of France and chief of the late Vichy Government, rode to one of history’s great trials—his own, for high treason. With him rode the France of 1940 to be judged by the France of 1945. Few of the Marshal’s countrymen, who five years ago looked to him as a fallen nation’s hope, caught a glimpse of him as he passed on the way from Montrouge Prison to the Palais de Justice.”
Pétain is declared guilty of high treason and “national indignity” and sentenced to death. He strips off his Marshal’s uniform. The court, citing his age, asks for the sentence not to be carried out. De Gaulle, once a Pétain protégé, himself condemned to death by Vichy in 1940, grants the court’s wish and commutes the sentence to life imprisonment. That’s how he will die, on the island of l’Île d’Yeu.
You tell me: “For me he wasn’t a criminal, he was an old man overwhelmed, a man that dreamt a role above his means. He was eighty-four, he could retire, but he saw himself in a leading role, just like De Gaulle saw himself in one. He would save France. You’re old, instead of drinking soup and dying of boredom, you’re God. You’re the savior. France is lost and thou cometh. You’re going to have an important role. You’re going to allow France a role in the future Europe. We didn’t know what a child knows in high school now, that there will be America; what De Gaulle knew when he said, ‘France has lost a battle it has not lost the war.’ Which is exact, but back then, for us, the war was lost, it was over and done with.”
What rankles you is the “slapstick comedy” of history, whereby everyone adapts. The seamless change of those closest to you, who had once confirmed your beliefs. “We didn’t speak; my mother was fully for Pétain then for the General. At school I better not talk about it because they were all behind the General, so I was always lonely.”
It was as if that whole world had never existed, your life a blotch in the general postwar consensus. A shameful minority, one that could be lumped together into a treacherous caste, as the Catholic writer François Mauriac put it “In fact the squalid spectacle offered by too many Frenchmen in the presence of the enemy, do not imagine it to be new. The French police turned into prison guards through Vichy’s grace, the black-market traffickers, the businessmen and writers that the occupation enriches, all this hideous humanity belongs to an eternal species.”
Eventually, time created fissures, shades and self-critical reassessment allowing for national guilt to surface, as historian Benjamin Stora explained in The Gangrene and Forgetting: “The events of 1968 initiate the critic of a unanimous France, sure of its history and its values, an image constructed after the Liberation of 1945. The appearance, onto the scene, of young men who want to know the attitudes of their fathers towards Vichy; the emotional dynamics that traverse society after 1968; the departure and death of De Gaulle (…), all these elements combine to splinter ‘the myth of resistantism’ forged in the previous period. After having believed themselves to all be résistant, the French fear to discover themselves all collaborators.” Others sought to deal with the past by portraying Vichy as having tried to stifle Germany, instead of aiding it. That too would splinter.
These societal questionings are all far off.
For now, judgment is still being passed on the most visible among those responsible for a regime that repressed, persecuted and deported opponents, refugees; that deported 300,000 Jews and voluntarily sent Jewish children to their deaths when they had not been required to do so by the Germans.
We’re still in the murk of 1945 and the need for balm simplifying the pervasive horror of collaboration by splitting the world into crystalline good and evil.
And on the silent side of that divide, you’re left alone and newly orphaned by the sentence declaring the death of God. “You’re very small…you believe, you believe…you believe in God, there’s God in heaven and on earth, there’s the Marshal. I was faithful. You believe in God, you’re not going to devalue God after four years. I believed in God, I believed in the Marshal as I would God. I kept my faith as one keeps one’s faith in God. The others did not shun God because nothing replaced him—whereas De Gaulle replaced Pétain. I kept the faith. The others followed a false prophet with two stars on his shoulder. God is still in the heavens but the Marshal…the Marshal…the Marshal is a traitor. It was…everything…nothing was left standing. It was over.”
One day the sign of that change appeared to you in the skies of Marseille. “When De Gaulle came back, I remember seeing planes in the sky, making a Cross of Lorraine, the symbol of De Gaulle. I can’t remember when, it’s an image.” It’s a new world, casting away the past with the new wind of De Gaulle.
What follows in the years to come will only further alienate you from France. Soon the colonial wars will start, with their cohort of indignities, and the ground will further give way under your feet. All your genealogy of colonial militaries becomes one more bloody lie.
“I realized colonization was butchery, another nasty piece of work. All the while at school we were taught ‘the civilizing mission of France,’ that we ‘brought hospitals,’ we ‘vaccinated,’ we ‘brought schools and roads.’ Sure. Fuck’s sake.”
So as a lover scorned, you sought out the direct opposite of all that flaunted you, embraced all that defied the nation: you “converted to Communism.”
“I was Communist inasmuch as I attempted to be as little French as I could be, politically.” You joined the party section on Baille Boulevard, went to meetings, read all the right stuff and sold its newspaper L’Humanité on the streets saying, “Read! Ask for L’Humanité, central newspaper of the French Communist party!” That’s where your mother found you. “My mother was mortified, and she said, ‘you may be smart, but I’m a good Frenchwoman.’”
In hindsight you couldn’t agree more. It sums it all up well. So be it, it was a hard-learned lesson: “I guess I’m a bad Frenchman.”
That’s where we stop; we won’t go further, closer in time than this. The trajectory can be traced from there, the gist of it at least; it involves a life of too many lives to be recounted: The failed pilot, the waiter in London, the aid to Algerian independence? The widower of a woman met in a train to the USSR? The teacher who drove off a bridge, the drifter in Cambodia? The reporter covering sect-like theater troupes, town feuds, civil war? The bad writer of crime novels, the good author of tales of revenge? The man attracted by places on the brink, like a moth to the light. I was missing the starting point, the angle of the shot. Now looking down the barrel I can see the outline of the boy about to be ejected. With that weight around his neck, the destiny of lead, the heavy heart: the Pupil of the Nation with that Nation lost. An unrequited believer avowing unto a desert as only fanatics and children can.
“Finally, I realize I kept it with me for a very, very long time. I was extremely Catholic, extremely young, extremely permeable, so I was impregnated for fifty, sixty years. And this period never existed, interests no one. In all of this… you’re a kid, and very early on you believe in something and then, and then, and then, then you realize that it’s false, that you’ve been betrayed. And it lasts you your whole life.”
Here’s the warp in your fabric, the fold I can’t smooth no matter how long I listen. Something came crashing down inside you long ago, and as we sit today, in a place of perfect calm and distance, still the silence imagines the pieces that plummet on and on.
“I have more memories than if I’d lived a thousand years.” —Baudelaire
The remains of the castle stand atop Collet hill, overlooking the city and sea from the heights of a stony face, now reveals its broken absence. It had two turrets, a balcony on the second floor with an untarnished view of the Mediterranean. It was invaded for that view, demolished for that haughty location impregnable enough to make a battle last and the shelling linger.
There were Germans here in 1942, joking at a boy by the park’s fence, back when the war could still go their way. Then one long Saturday in 1944, there was tumult and explosions, those who’d been there for two years were expelled and others, soldiers from Morocco, came but did not take their place, instead moved on to other neighborhoods where there was more fighting to be done. Since that August, no one disputes possession of the castle; there’s not much left to fight over. Yet new invaders come now, into the large park they used to look at from behind the fences, from their treeless slope, crossing barriers made useless by battle to play where their elders killed each other. The shelling is over, yet like an infant echo, a crackling can be heard in the park. The children scavenged and found. They’re children of the war so their toys are weapons, munitions left strewn in the park. Take your pick among the grenade handles, and from inside like an Easter egg they spill silk cordons and small marbles that the children like. On the ground there are German caps and black sticks that burn slowly when you put them to the flames. Best of all are the cartridges, which you unscrew and empty black squares of powder into the palm of your hand. They crackle when they’re set alight. One day a boy let it all fall into the fire and a flame rose and nearly burned his eyes.
Among the children there’s one that looks smaller than his age, with straight brown hair, like the color of his eyes. He’s always cocking his head a bit, forcing smiles in the photos that can still be found. In one photo the family looks brightly at the camera while he’s squatting, shirtless, looking to the side.
He’s told me he was in the park, and that they made fire, so I imagine him there at an age where he could nearly be my child. It’s an inversion of sorts as parents reach old age: a vague need to protect those by whom we were protected. Not just from whatever comes from the outside—that they’ve dealt with all their lives—but from what arises as decades pile upon decades and reveal the crutches and obsessions, diminish the present and draw forth the distant past. To protect them from things long since buried and eclipsed for all but them. Things you never get over. A foolish wish, maybe; What do we know? They’ve managed so far and their road is longer in the rearview mirror than what still remains to be run.
Distance, independence, and respect would not allow me to make these musings out loud, yet imagining that young father-to-be, I’ll feel a downward pull in the chest when I think of his own lack of a father. Of all the putative figures he tried to place within that absence, starting with Pétain, that search he acknowledges for the man who died when he was five, in Senegal. He doesn’t remember that grave, or if he ever saw it. Instead he took me to another, in one of those strange coincidences granted by long lives.
One summer in my early teens his girlfriend suggested we take a trip to L’Île d’Yeu, an island off the western coast of France. Friends of hers had lent her a house there. We took the car across from the south and then the ferry to stay in a place called Port-Joinville. I don’t remember how long we stayed, just that it was the one time we went fishing, and it wasn’t something I was good at. Another day we took a walk to the cemetery. Among the graves there were those of aviators from one world war or another, Canadians I think. The grave he sought was a large white rectangle with a white cross at its head, lined with small trees. On it read:
MARÉCHAL DE FRANCE
I didn’t quite know who he was, some old thing out of a history book, good or bad. I was more into comic books and novels about teenage wizards at the time. Dead old soldiers, wars so ancient they happened in black and white—who cares about those things when you’re so young? The man next to me did, because of a boy even younger than I was at the time, standing looking at a fire in a park on a hill in Marseille, burning the debris that war has left behind, with no father by his side. All he has left of him is one vague memory, and that damning honor bestowed by his passing: Pupil of the Nation. The rest has gone to hell and the one thing he holds on to is that his father died for France, and that grounds him in a patriotic, even heroic legacy that he dreams to live up to somehow. And though national myths may have crumbled with the war, that family myth went unscathed. And I come to understand the hold that not only the living but also the departed had on that child. To him the unblemished image of the dead father, the unsoiled serviceman will still last for a long time.
He doesn’t know it’s a lie. He’ll hear from his sister, long after that. “My mother never talked about my father to me, she spoke to my sister about it. To her she said he was an alcoholic.” Their mother confided in her daughter, that she emptied Maurice Courchay’s bottle of Pernod in the sink, that he drank himself to death and if you want to blame it on malaria that’s fine. Fact is it they were probably better off without dad. She certainly was. “She married this sweet guy and then on the wedding night it was a rape session, a butchery. It was terrible. She told it to my sister.”
That’s the last remaining illusion that will fall away from that boy, knowing of his father’s treatment of his mother, his complicity in his own demise. I’ll know early on through my mother, who was told by my aunt too, and to me, grandfather was always an alcoholic. I had to learn that to you he had stood for something greater, not just painful absence, and it molded you somehow. You don’t recall when you found out, but there’s a passage in one of your books that evokes the shock you must have felt at the time. In La Sauvagine, published in 2007, a character named Jean, whose son you gave my name, has a conversation with a man:
—“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with you. You imagine having a destiny, right? Son of a hero: hero yourself. About time you woke up. Your father drank, that’s about all he was good at. He rotted your mother’s life…”
(Jean’s monologue) “My father, a loser? I sure hope so. I lived on a lie? What a joke, everybody lies to everybody. Everybody lies to themselves, there’s the truth. History is weaved with lies, and that’s perfect.”
(Monologue 2) “You see, Diego, your daddy defends himself. He’ll give you everything he never had, and first of all, the truth. Your father will arm you; he’ll knight you. We’ll keep vigil on the eve of battle. Life, you’ll be able to rush into it. Thinking of you makes me want to fight. Thank you, son. See you soon.”
That’s one way to heal the lies, the pain and the ideologies that bred them. Not to pass them on, but to break the cycle, to offer choices, to grant the liberties of forgetting you wouldn’t grant yourself. Then when the time comes, to try to explain.
There is little in common between me, the careless teenager facing Pétain’s grave and you, the youth by the fire in the park. The first will be afforded his own mind and life; the other will long have to settle for the counterfeit money of remembrance and will be imprisoned by memory. And when they meet and talk about it one summer, one discusses distant history while the other war endures in speech as if it weren’t over. He’s the last, the rest frozen in time, except this one boy he was, so close still that at times in mid-speech, today’s reality dissolves into the overwhelming images that pass before his eyes. For a moment, he’s lost in that internal landscape: of a park on a hillside, of flames that died out in 1945, rekindled decades later, not so far away in southern France, on another hill, the fire that has nearly engulfed his home just before I came to visit, just beyond where we sit by the large wooden table. The best place I know for a conversation, the only place where this one could be had.
We’re alone in the house. It’s summer on the outside, on the hill scorched by flames; it’s cooler inside, a summer laced with sadness and names that ring hollow except for brief flurries of remembering. Outside there’s a drought and inside all the lives evoked seem as dry as the land from which they’re mentioned, turned over like rocks in the dust paths that crisscross these hills.
Yet on his hillside, the Mistral wind has made itself felt, dispersed the ashes of the fire, the earth slowly appearing underneath the burn. After months of drought, one day, finally, there is rain, and green sprouts on that black canvas. Thistles are the first to return. It’s evening by the time we finish our talk, the best time to water the hill. My father takes out the hose as the sun sets, goes around the scorched land, tells which trees he managed to save and waters them profusely, a birch, the bamboos. He points to those that appear dead but still sprout green leaves in the higher branches: life still flows upwards in them. Two pines look beyond salvation, their trunks crackled and leaves that turn to powder in the palm. Those he waters a bit out of penitence, “for their old days.” Soon the seasons will separate the dead from the living. By next spring the face of the hill will have again changed.
In the daytime, on the high branches, above the burn darkening the tree’s trunk, there are cicadas. They return with every summer in southern France, their shrill cry climaxing as the days get warmer. We have their song in common. We both love them for different reasons. In a way, you identify with them. When you talk of cicadas you talk about the boy you were. “You’re something to be born, you’re not really in the world, not really in it, not really allowed, you wait, a cicada that stays two or three years underground before reaching the light and singing for one summer. Months and months underground for one summer in open air.”
To me they are the summer, the vacations when I could visit, and if I heard cicadas it meant I was with you. It seldom happens now, harder to return in adulthood than when I was a kid. Still I heard them this summer, in the background of our words, as we spent the days calling forth images, scenes enriched or debased by the shifting of retelling and all that memory does to bury or cling to what made us who we are. This imperfect final story has no claims beyond the mark history left on a single man. Its sole gain, for another, of discovering his family, a family rich with loss, where memories outweigh the living.
Now it’s time to head back to New York, I already missed a plane. I couldn’t bring myself to go, I never can. I’ll need another bag for the books and mementos you gifted me, as you do every time. So you bring out an old dirty green satchel. I get a sponge and start to clean the dust and mothballs. I shift it and out falls a religious medal with the Virgin and Christ, and a woven insignia with the Marshal’s symbol, the Francisque Axe surrounded by the seven stars of his title. Previous owner unknown, or how long they’ve been there. I can have them if I want. In the end just symbols and insignia, things worn merely on the outside that you take off in 1942 or 1944, tuck away and replace, move on, gratefully forgetting.
So the medal and insignia move on to a pocket in my bag, next to the keys and my Mexican passport, alongside one of your novels, the photo of Stéphane Godard in his uniform alongside Rosalie, his wife, another the Godard family in the villa, and one of my grandparents, all smiles. An old satchel crammed with facts and appearances, filled with concrete or fictional lives.
In time, both intertwine and fade, the life we lived, the one we thought we lived, or should have, the debate closed in a casket of time. Afterwards, if you insist, some reminder, some warning of circumstances, beliefs, or a sprinkling of words inasmuch as they mirror the present. Maybe not even that.
Diego Courchay is a Mexican-French journalist of varying location and language, who has worked in newsrooms in New York, Miami and México City, and is an alumnus of the Columbia Journalism School. He has been the recipient of various fellowships and grants for reporting and longform writing, and is first of all and at the end of each day an avid reader.