[UPDATED AFTER SEVERAL READER COMMENTS – SEE THE LAST PARAGRAPH]
Living over here in France, I have run into folks that have lived through events that as an American born in the late 60’s, I have a hard time conceptualizing because they are just so foreign to my own experience. I have now twice met people that were in their twenties during WWII and had pretty amazing stories about it. I thought tonight that I would share what I remembered about their memoires with you.
The first was a man I met in a bed and breakfast in the Cévennes more than a decade ago. We were hiking around the area and stayed in a funky little chambre d’hôte that also served food (all the guests – not more than a half a dozen usually – eat at the same table food prepared by the host (hôte) thus it is called a “table d’hôte” in French). The folks I remember from the table for the three nights we were there were our host – a certain Jacques with dark hair and eye brows but very bright blue eyes – and a wizened, quiet old man sitting on the other end of our table. He was about 90 years old and still an avid hiker. Jacques had, for the past few days, been dropping him off at about 6am everyday about 10-15 km away from the b&b and he would be working his way back all day until dinner. Yes, 6am sounded really early to me too, but you have to realize that the Cévennes is a highly Protestant part of France where the work ethic of “early to bed, early to rise” is still very important – Jacques was used to waking up at about 5am everyday and we were typically done with the dinner at 9pm. Anyway, on our last evening there, during dinner Jacques asked the old guy a question, I can’t quite remember what the question was, and this taciturn old man opened up and told us an amazing story. Back in 1939 he was working in a factory in eastern France near the border with Germany when the Germans invaded. At the factory, the French bosses were all replaced with Germans and life continued as usual. We didn’t inquire as to whether there were any Jewish workers that were sent to the camps and he didn’t offer that information. He told us that they were no more demanding than the previous French management (although he didn’t know what happened to them, were they killed? imprisoned?) and were actually pretty generous in terms of food despite the penury that most of the French population endured during the war. When the Russians overwhelmed the German army in ’44 and marched on their “liberation” of the eastern front, all the workers in the factory, our narrator included, were forced to march deep into Russia as prisoners of war. This was a traumatic experience because he was separated from his family (wife and a kid I believe) and he only had his work boots. They marched across Germany and on through Poland into Russia where he was put to work in some other factory. The long march was grueling: not enough food, random cruelty from the Russian soldiers, and of course the bitter cold. He was particularly horrified at the fact that as fleeing German officers would try to meld in with the prisoners on their march, if they were detected, the Russian soldiers would shoot them like dogs on the side of the road and just continue. About 25-30% of the men that started the journey died of cold or starvation en route to the Russian factory. Once the war was officially over, it took the French government until 1949 to find all these French prisoners of war and negotiate their release with Stalin. Our narrator was finally released but had to ride a cattle train all the way back to France – about 3 weeks I recall his saying. When he got back, he had lost his parents to the war but found his wife and child. He actually went back to his old job – with yet another new set of French managers – until he retired. His wife had since died and his son had moved away, so he spent his time wandering and hiking. He also insisted on the fact that his Russian prison years actually counted towards his French retirement and he was highly appreciative of this. It was a highly moving first person story that has stuck in my mind ever since. I guess what struck me the most is how the French laborers were captured along with the German bosses and marched back to Russia.
Today, out of primarily family obligation, we spent the afternoon at the house of a mother-daughter that live together in Fontainbleau about an hour from Paris. I had never learned very much about these two women as I was usually busy chasing the kids around their yard and trying to be polite with the luncheon (not great) that they served. At one point, the mother mentioned something about the war. She is 88 now, so she would have been about 15 when the war started. She remembered that when the Germans poured through the Maginot line, panic broke out and there was a massive exodus towards the west of France, Brittany in particular. Her family quickly packed things up and headed out from Fontainbleau, through Orleans and on to Nantes where they found the Germans were already there. Apparently, the German army hustled across northern France to Brittany to secure the ports of Saint Malo, Lorient, and St Brieux. After about eight days, they headed back along the same path. Somehow, her father had been separated from them so she was traveling with her mother and some other family members. They arrived at Orleans where they found a mass of people near the old bridge. Rather than stopping for the night, they pressed on for another few kilometers before nightfall. They learned the next morning that, in order to break German lines of support and provisioning, the bridge had been bombed by the British late at night and all the people that had camped there had died. Apparently, life resumed. The narrator became a school teacher (at only 16 now) and was still teaching in Fontainbleau when the Normandy invasion started. Apparently, there was good intelligence that something was going to happen because she recalled being put on vacation starting in mid-May – almost a full month before the 6 June. She remembered hearing about the invasion on the BBC via an illegal radio. There was a neighbor that suddenly had to deliver mail up in Normandy on June 5th raising suspicions that he was likely a British agent. After the war ended, food was still scarce. She and her sister would trade the potatoes that they grew behind their house as well as other vegetables for meat in a neighboring village and sneak back across the countryside in order to avoid getting caught by French Economic Police because food was rationed out and there were efforts to stop the black market. I learned that there were government ration tickets for food until 1 January 1950. The conversation unfortunately veered off in another direction and my daughter started crying outside so that’s about all I gathered. Fascinating though, right? There was similarly no mention of the deportation of Jews from this particular story. It seems to be still a taboo subject. Guilt? Sorrow? Complicity? It is really hard to say. There was a racist comment (anti-black) at one point, but the subject and language of anti-semitism was carefully avoided.
It is always harrowing to hear first hand accounts such as these and they give me pause. In the USA, we learn about the war as if it was fought by John Wayne himself. The Germans and Japanese were all pure evil and the Allies wore white and committed no barbaric acts. We were never taught about the events I talked about above, particularly the impact on civilians. In fact, we are never taught about “life during wartime” for the non-soldiers. I suppose that makes it easier to gloss over “collateral damage” like that at Dresden, Tokyo, and especially Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Hearing these stories first hand from innocent civilian victims of the war just made the war feel more real – less like a movie. I guess if you want to see how most Americans view WWII, my review of the repulsive Battleship shows that there was no blood just glory for the US of A at least in retrospect. The view changed over time, of course, after the draw in Korea and the catastrophe in Vietnam, but unfortunately the patriotic rhetoric never dies.
May we never sink into the horrors of world war again.