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To my sister Hedl - Souvenir of our Voyage through France
Leonie's diary: May - October 1940
Haverhill, Mass. February 1943
In the hills of St. Cloud in a little apartment in the new apartment houses, there lived two happy people. Mornings, the sun shone on their small balcony, and at night the incomparable panorama of Paris was magically illuminated -- Sacre-Coeur, Notre Dame, the Dome des Invalides, and the Seine. The household was easy going, happy and social; and as a sideline, we had a small but nicely increasing production of candies. Two or three times a week, Katrin came, our dear partner. Of course the business was still too small to run at full capacity. Half an hour away at the highest point of Garches, lived Georges & Marianne. In their house, we and many others had always found love and hospitality. The week before Whitsuntide started beautifully and happily with an excursion to Chantilly with Marianne, Georges, Nelly, and Katrin Stern. We picked lilies-of-the-valley, lunched in the open air, and praised the beauty and life in France, which we considered our future homeland. We expected Thomas' visit for the Whitsun holidays. He was supposed to land in France soon with the British troops. All the settings for happy times were present. The war--cette drole de guerre-- seemed so remote, and with the invasion of Eastern Europe, it seemed to have come to a standstill. Besides that, we were living behind the Maginot Line.
8th of May: During the night, there was an air raid alarm for the first time in seven months. We just stayed in bed. Pauline, to whom the sound of the sirens was something new, came to us somewhat scared. In the morning, I missed the radio broadcast, and we only learned of Hitler's invasion of Holland through Katrin. We continued working in a depressed frame of mind. From that point on, the news was bad every day. Whitsun Monday: In the afternoon, Georges and Marianne came to tell us that all Germans and Austrians up to age fifty five were to be interned on Wednesday. This applied to Hedl, not to me, but the prospect of staying alone seemed worse than the internment camp. We went to Versailles to pick up Lali's children, since Lali had been interned. The same evening, the radio reported that the internment order applied only to the Germans, not to the Austrians. One could breathe again. There were frequent air raid alarms, but nobody went to the shelters anymore.
18th of May: We were asked by the Khuners* to meet them at the Hotel St. Regis. There we found them ready and packed, and heard that they wanted to go to Biarritz by car. * Georges and Marianne. Georges did his very best to avoid any mood of sadness, but it was clear to all of us what this departure meant. Even at that time you could move only with a travel permit on the heavily overcrowded roads. After the Khuners' departure we, Nelly, Katrin, Hedl, and I, wanted to go to a movie in the Champs-Elysees to distract our minds from their going. After a very short time, there was an air raid, and we came to know the Parisian shelters, where not even the most primitive preparations had been made for their use. From then on, every trip to Paris brought us new depressing observations. One day, all the busses disappeared and the wildest rumors about their use made the rounds. The first transports of Belgian refugees were received with curiosity and pity. The stations were jammed, and for the third time we saw automobiles loaded with mattresses on top, leaving Paris in an endless chain. The radio and newspapers tried to keep up our spirits.
3rd of June: There was an air raid alarm during breakfast, but we didn't want to interrupt our meal. However, since the anti-aircraft guns were firing intensely and quite near, Hedl went to the balcony door to look out. There she saw the first bombs hit Paris, and dense smoke rose from the targets. Now we went into the shelter, where all the residents of the building were assembled. Nobody had any idea of the extent of this first bombardment of Paris. The explosions were not especially loud, but after two days we learned from the papers that one thousand were dead or injured. The columns of cars leaving the city grew even denser. We watched them longingly, but we knew that we couldn't count on getting a Sauf-Conduit. Katrin remarked bitterly, "If the stable burns, you release the cattle, but we have to stay." The nights were the worst. There was a lot of shooting, but they stopped sounding alarms and it was left to everyone's own judgment whether or not to go to the shelters, and so one preferred to stay in bed. We were still hoping to receive our American immigration visas, with the possibility of sailing in the beginning of July.
Sunday 9th of June: We packed our large trunks for advance shipment to Bordeaux with the idea of saving something because it was clear that nothing good could be expected now. At night, we went to the Sterns in Versailles and we all agreed that we wanted to leave as soon as the panic grew hectic enough to cancel out the possibility of having to show our travel permits. 10th of June: at the American Consulate: The consul told us that until July no visas at all would be issued. This killed our last hope. In a cafe we wrote letters to the USA and London --a kind of final goodbye. Across from us, at the Gare St. Lazare, crowds were piling up. Many cafes were surrounded by police in steel helmets searching for spies. We decided to go home and to leave Paris the next day no matter what. Nelly and Katrin were waiting for us at home. They hadn't waited for an invitation, but simply followed their urge not to stay home alone. Nobody could eat; one can of sardines was more than enough for the four of us. Nelly insisted on putting her luggage in order first, but we said that we wouldn't stay an hour longer than tomorrow morning. They definitely wanted to come with us but were against the idea of having Lali and the children along. They knew that with seven people it would be hard to move, but finally they had to submit to our arrangement. They were to inform Lali the same evening, but they didn't. We only found that out the next day. That was the urge for self preservation. "S’il n'y a qu'un miracle, qui puisse sauver la France, --je crois en ce miracle," said Paul Reynold on the radio, but one had a hunch that he was no longer speaking in Paris. In the evening we heard Italy's declaration of war against France and England, but we were already too numb and worn out to give it the right importance. Late into the night we were still packing things we wanted to save and straightening the apartment.
A restless night followed. In the morning we woke to a heavy fog. We noticed that the insides of our noses were black, but didn't think it important and concentrated on finding a porter to take our luggage to the station. That wasn't easy, since the panic was indescribable. The railroad clerks were calm and polite and took care of part of the expedition. Immediately after we registered our luggage, no further baggage was accepted. We returned to our apartment to give our key back to the concierge, but we saw that she too was all packed up and ready to leave. Of the seventy tenants of our apartment building, only two or three remained. In the Rue Coutureau we met a woman postal clerk, whom I had helped in the past with the writing of English letters. She had to go back to her job and just called out to us, “Partez, partez, mes dames, si vous pouvez!” The fog had not lifted. One guessed that it was no natural fog, but even later one couldn't learn whether it was an artificial fog created all over Paris or whether it was smoke from burning camps. We drove with small suitcases to Versailles to pick up our friends, still intending to drive on from Chantiers. We soon noticed that our luggage was much too heavy for us to carry, and we decided to relinquish the greater part of it. In the house we found the sterns not nearly ready to leave. Lali appeared desperate and deadly pale because she thought that she would be left behind. Upon our assurance that we wouldn't desert her and her children, she was relieved and made preparations to leave. In this way, we lost two valuable hours. When Hedl and I finally went back to the street, Nelly was still distributing her marmalade and stock of food. Before this was over, the last surface car to Chantiers had left. There would be no more cars because the conductors had stopped working and given up their posts.
So we started out on foot. Seven people, doomed to failure from the beginning. Every attempt to find a cart or a baby carriage for our luggage was futile. On the Place d'Armes we got into the huge endless stream of refugees and we joined it trying to get away from the army barracks. But we always followed the big roads because we didn't know the forest trails. The first time that we stopped to rest, Hedl and I threw away our heavy gas masks, while the others still held on to theirs. Our joy in leaving the barracks behind was short lived because then we came to the big airports and had to walk many kilometers along their boundary walls. It was hot and we hadn't eaten since early morning, but we wanted to get away from Versailles at any price. On our way we learned that it would be best to go into the valley of Chevreuse. In the afternoon, Nelly succeeded in getting a seat for Hedl in an automobile driven by a lady. The remaining six kept on walking. The long walk created the illusion of greater distance from the danger zone. Later on, the Wolf children* also found places in an automobile going to Chevreuse. The remaining four kept on walking, fearing that it would be deep night before they reached Chevreuse, however. About ten kilometers before Chevreuse, we found places in a truck. On the roads, which were half blocked by barricades at certain points, there were military checkpoints where the papers of the drivers were examined, but not those of the passengers. At a street crossing, we found Lali and her two children, *Hanna and Heini Hanna crying and Heini very depressed. Their driver had simply left them on the street saying that he preferred to take another route. In Chevreuse we met Hedel who had found quarters during the long wait. The place was overcrowded with soldiers, but they were all in good spirits and we felt relieved. In the evening everybody sat in front of the house in the village street, drinking milk and chatting with the residents. The quarters were very primitive and filthy. Hedl and I were permitted to sleep in an officer's bed, who was not expected to return that night.
Wednesday, 12th of June: Very early the next morning we went on our way. We noticed with displeasure, however, that many of' the local people did the same. The night before, everything had looked more peaceful. The latest news must have been very disturbing. We could only go very slowly with our heavy luggage. At noon we managed to buy an old wheelbarrow for 150 francs in one of the villages overcrowded with refugees. With its own heavy weight and packed high with trunks, however, it became so heavy that Katrin couldn't push it for very long, and we could not expect even a fraction of that from all the others. Three disheveled Belgian refugees, untrustworthy fellows, alternately took the job of pushing. We just kept an eye on them as well as we could. In the meantime, a drenching rain had started and we were completely soaked through. The Belgian refugees, whose shoes were almost gone, simply stopped working. For awhile we kept pushing the luggage but we soon realized that we would never reach Rembouillet in this way, and Nelly asked three French soldiers to help us. Three kilometers before Rembouillet, we enjoyed the refugee welfare for the first time; military guards stopped us, asked us whether we had come from Paris on foot, and said that they wanted to help us. First they led us into a dry barn, let us rest, and then drove us in two automobiles to the railroad station of Rembouillet. The station and the square in front of it were packed with people waiting for trains without even knowing whether any were still running. On the other side of the square the endless chain of refugees walked, surrounded by people hoping for free seats in any kind of vehicle. French officers did their best to keep order. They checked every carriage and distributed vacant seats to the waiting crowd. So Lali and her children and I were suddenly lifted on to a two wheeled peasant cart where we sat on a heap of manure behind a drunken driver. I read a street sign that said "42 kilometers to Chartre", and I knew that with the horse just walking we wouldn't get there that night.
However, when our driver turned off into the opposite direction, we asked him whether he wasn't going to Chartres. He said that he wouldn't even think of it perhaps tomorrow. We jumped down from the cart and stood a long time at a crossroad with other refugees, again with officers who unsuccessfully tried to bring some order into the situation. The fear of losing Hedl and the Sterns finally forced us to decide to return to Rembouillet. Any group, once torn apart, had little chance of ever getting together again. We were immensely fortunate in finding them again at the station square where we had left them. It was about 5 PM. Nothing had changed and we were wondering whether it would make any sense to continue waiting. Suddenly He heard airplanes. A tremendous motion invaded the waiting crowd and the soldiers shouted, "Couchezvous sous les arbres!" We lay the seven of us, side by side, in the wet grass under the trees and heard the machine guns over us and the answering fire of our air defense nearby. After minutes which seemed endless to us, we were permitted to get up, but even before we had decided in which direction to go the German plane had returned and again the soldiers told us to take cover under the trees. We soon learned to put our faces into our rucksacks to protect our eyes. When we were allowed to get up again, we went into a garage which really didn't offer any protection, but the roof over our heads gave that illusion. Courageous and cowardly ones had been equally afraid, and from then on we were very timid. There was no more thought of riding any further or of finding quarters. At random we marched along the station road towards the center of town. We read the sign "Centre d'Acceuil" on a school building. We decided to go in at once and that was fortunate because the classrooms were not yet totally occupied. Nice friendly people showed us places on the floor between the school desks and even provided straw. None of them would accept even one franc. They were not government employees but themselves refugees who had volunteered for these duties. We were asked to lie down close to each other with our heads to the wall to leave enough space for others.
We were tired and hadn't eaten for a long time. Katrin went into the street and returned triumphantly with two big bottles of hot soup and pieces of pot-au-feu. Bread was not available. We all ate and immediately our spirits rose. We took off our wet clothes, dressed for the night in the few dry things left and lay down on the paper thin layer of straw. Our classroom started to fill up. Men, women, children, and dogs were put in every vacant space on the floor. Of course, there was a lot of noise, snoring, and the smell of garlic, but we still got a few hours of sleep. At 6:30 AM we were all at the station square. We all hoped for the arrival of the auto-busses which we had been told the preceding evening would arrive. In the square we found several busses only half filled. However, to our great disappointment we learned that they were reserved for the workers of a munitions factory which had just been evacuated. In the mean time, the chain of refugees was moving on along the road as it seemed to have been doing all night long. The only change was that you hardly saw any more automobiles but only peasant carts, hand carts with dogs pulling them, and wheelbarrows. A hearse jammed full, and a construction machine with large rollers in front passed us. Now the poorest ones were on their way. One couldn't figure on getting ahead on the road any longer. Katrin learned that there might still be some trains passing through, and we waited without any certitude that the train traffic would be maintained at all. After a short time, a train pulled up. We found seats in the corridor of a fine first class car. Inside the compartment before which we stood, four railroad employees sat having their breakfast. The greasy wrapping paper was spread over the vacant seats, but so far nobody tried to make room for us. Lali and her children had found seats in the adjoining compartment. After finishing their meal the railroad men allowed us into the compartment. From their conversation we learned that they had simply relinquished their jobs at the St. Lazare station and had taken the first train that passed by. After many hours we finally arrived at Chartres, a favorite target of the German planes. It was just being attacked again. We couldn't make out whether they meant to hit the station or the town proper, but none of their bombs hit. Lali and the children had moved into our compartment. Now we had four seats for seven persons, so we switched places every hour during the night.
Friday, 14th of June: Arrival in Saumur: Our desire for something to eat made the majority decide to press for an interruption of the voyage. In the train next to us, we saw English troops returning to the coast. I gave them a little note for Thomas. We walked through the streets of Saumur. There wasn't any food or newspapers or even news from the radio. We had enough time to buy some lingerie and hosiery. Shoes, which were the most important items, were unavailable. We wrote postcards to give our relatives a sign of life. We kept away from bridges. They were suspicious looking. We didn't know, however, that the worst actually done to them was the setting of explosive charges. In the restaurant opposite of the station, they gave us a luncheon after we had assured them that we were going to pay for it, but our rest was soon ruined; a woman burst into the room with hysterical screams and told us that the Germans were in Paris. The Frenchmen started making violent speeches and we preferred to leave. No trains were expected. We bought tickets for Bordeaux. We lay down for a few hours on a nice lawn, chatted, and were quite happy until an air raid alarm brought us to our feet. The people from the town streamed into our area, and we took cover in the brush along the creek. Thereafter, we returned to the station.
After a little while, there was another alarm. The shelters were low excavations and nobody could get in or out anymore. People were asked to let women and children get into the shelters. We sought cover under some cement basins. An overcrowded refugee train soon arrived. All evening we stood pressed together in the corridors. It was hopeless to try to find even the smallest space for standing. The most disagreeable was the close contact with various members of an Italian worker's family who exuded a penetrating stench. With us rode many nice little students from the military academy of Le Flers. They had simply been dismissed without any instructions and were enjoying their premature vacations. Furthermore, there were some Belgian soldiers also traveling without a goal, and finally, two better looking ladies from Paris. No light was permitted. The train seemed to not move at all. After hours, the train stopped only a few kilometers from Saumur and this time it seemed like it would be for an extended period. Nelly Stern wanted to breathe some better air and left the car and walked back and forth in front of it. Katrin followed her. After a while, they embarked again, Nelly standing in her space in the corridor next to me. Katrin sat down on a trunk and said to me, "Give me a handkerchief, a big one; I have hit my head on something and am bleeding, but it's all right." It was pitch dark. From the compartment before which we were standing, one of the Belgian soldiers passed with a flashlight. We then saw that the handkerchief from Katrin's head was soaked with blood and blood was streaming from her hair. The soldier, who claimed to be a medic, shone the light into her ears and thought that there was no injury to the skull, but only a flesh wound. He advised her to leave the train and to get a bandage at the first aid station at the next stop. Nelly and Katrin left the train and disappeared into the night. Five minutes later the train started moving. We knew that we couldn't count on ever meeting them again.
Saturday, 5th of June: Airplanes attacked at 6 AM. All left the train in a hurry and looked for cover in the surrounding gardens. During the whole night, we had not even reached Tours. We reached St. Pierre des Corps during the early morning hours and stayed there under a bridge near the station until the afternoon. As could be foreseen, this did not prove to be a quiet place and the missiles hitting over our heads were rather disquieting. We were now on better terms with the malodorous Italians since everybody had a seat because some people had preferred to leave the train. An aerial battle developed close to us around noon. We could not watch it, but for the Italian and his two sons it was a sporting event. Suddenly, he put his head out the window and yelled, "Ca y est!" The German plane had been shot down. Regular meals did not exist any more. One ate whenever there was something to eat. In the afternoon, the train advanced a little stretch into the station of St. Pierre des Corps. In the meantime, the Italians had moved to another compartment. Two very nice young female workers from Angers now traveled with us. We were preparing for a better night. There was an indescribable jam in the station of St. Pierre des Corps. The refugee trains were piling up and endless military transports and hospital trains ran in between. Suddenly we heard furious shouts. A woman was lead by two soldiers to the station's main building. Menacing fists were threatening her from the crowded cars.
One heard cries of, "Espionne! Cinqui'eme colonne!” We were a little scared. After half an hour the two soldiers brought the woman back. It was an error. The door to our car was flung open and an officer asked roughly whether there was still any space left. We said no--- So he yelled that there was still room for a woman and child. He pushed a young blonde woman with a three year old child through the door. He also entered and we had to rearrange ourselves as well as we could. The dream of a better night had just disappeared. The young woman told us that she was the daughter of a general and the wife of a colonial officer. She had stayed in Paris so long that finally there had been no choice left but to depart on foot with the baby carriage. The child had been born in the tropics and looked sad. It could not talk yet and was completely wild and uninhibited. Everybody tried to help the young woman, but nearly all night she knelt on the floor before her crying child saying over and over again, "Christian, ne pleures pas." Everybody was disturbed, but this night also passed. From time to time we drove a few kilometers, but one felt that there would be no more progress. Around 6 AM the train came to a stop. We were in front of the station of a small hamlet. The engine was taken away and returned in the direction from where we had come. In front of us there were at least five refugee trains, endless queues of people and freight cars, all without an engine, so that the hopelessness of our situation became very clear. In long rows, people stood waiting to fill their pitchers and glasses from a minute fountain of “eau potable”. Hundreds of half dressed men and women did their morning washing in a swampy creek. I went all the way up stream to get water that was less dirty. Then the great and heavy worry began about what we could rind to eat here because our supplies were exhausted.
Some of us went into the village but everything was sold out there. Once in a while somebody got a glass or milk from a milking pail. Hedl and Lali had learned that one could dig up young potatoes to buy and cook them. They started to do this and everybody watched in expectation. After half an hour they returned disappointed and angry; an old furious French woman had thrown her potatoes into the boiling kettle at the same time and thereafter had simply stole the entire contents or the kettle. Still the refugee trains were not totally forgotten which was really a miracle in this chaos. Military trucks brought bread, cans or rood, chocolate, and milk for the children, and all that was distributed fairly and free or charge. We did not have much, but we didn't starve. Only much later did we learn that in almost all the towns along the Loire there was fighting, and then only did we recognize what the good organization had spared us, the organization which poor disorganized France had still devoted to the transport or refugees. With one engine they had brought many trains with many thousands of passengers into this quiet protected valley and then had maintained the supply or food. The day went along undisturbed but also without any news about the war. Towards midnight the train started moving and stopped at 6 AM in a larger station.
We read--"Chinon". Immediately thereafter we heard bombs falling and some hit a hill next to the station; but it was not a serious attack. We were all rather depressed, sleepless, hungry, and our feet were swollen from the many nights we had to spend sitting or standing up. We were able to wash up at a water faucet on the platform. The morning passed in this way. Our engine had again gone back along our previous route, and there was no sign that one would care to transport us further. More and more refugees left the train, whole compartments became vacant but nobody felt like settling down more comfortably. Toward 4 PM we decided to continue on foot. This was not easy because not only our feet but also our shoes could not stand up to an extended march. The sun was burning and again the entire width of the roads was filled with refugees. We went through the town where we saw everything in dissolution, and then went through the suburbs, where even in front of the small houses people were loading their poor belongings on horse drawn carts. "Pauvre femme, pauvre France," said an old man "en chapeau de paille" and he offered to carry our luggage for awhile. He advised us to leave the busy country road as soon as possible and to try for quarters in a little village off the road. He mentioned the name La Roche. When we wanted to pay him for his services, he refused to accept money, saying: "Moi, qui suis proprietaire.” It was very hot, the way seemed endless, and we had to rest time and again.
When we saw the village of La Roche half a kilometer off the road on a little hill, we were too tired to get to it. But we had to try to seek refuge in the first inhabited house. The people were nice and immediately gave us some water and a large piece of bread, but they themselves were preparing to leave. We crawled the uphill way from the station into the village, a trip that later we had to repeat very often. The first large farmhouse was overcrowded with soldiers. We didn't even try to ask for quarters there. A few houses further on, we saw a few women in an open kitchen window. In answer to our question as to whether we could spend the night there, they said no. But after we took a few more steps, they called after us that we could sleep in the hay loft of their barn. We were overjoyed, put our luggage down, and settled down satisfied with milk and bread which our new hosts had given us on a table in the courtyard. Mme. Bottreau stood at the door. With tears in her eyes, she said good bye to Maurice. "Il va joindre les Anglais," she explained to us. Fernande appeared on the kitchen balcony and asked, "Voulez-vous des oeufs?” We just wanted to eat and to rest on that evening of June 18th--nothing else. The relief didn't last long. The inhabitants of one room, four elderly soldiers, came home pretty drunk and very scared and told us that they were deserted by their officers, surrounded by traitors, and helplessly exposed to German air attacks. The fifth column informed the Germans in such detail that every large assembly of troops meant danger. They studied the location of the vegetable garden and of the stone wall at the end of the yard "pour se flanquer la" during the next attack. Our prospects were bad for spending the first night horizontally.
19th of June: We had fine weather and everything looked friendlier. We became acquainted with the house and the inhabitants. Fernande was looking after the kitchen; Mme. Bottreau was running around the house confused using a magnet to collect straight pins that were strewn about her sewing room. The eighty two year old grandmother was sitting in the kitchen staring vacantly. In the house every bed was occupied, the larger ones doubly. Maurice had returned the following day. Fernande's daughter, Alice Rolland, and her friend Mimi, still wore the bandages which they had received in the hospital after an automobile accident. Alice's seven year old son, Dede, felt more attached to Fernande than to his mother. We were asked to eat in the dining room with the family. This evening the four soldiers had preferred not to return to their quarters, which were offered to us for the second night. It was a large ground floor room with a brick floor and completely unfurnished. Along the wall was a large pile of straw which had not been changed nor turned since the soldiers had left. Gun shells, which were buried in the straw, were found only weeks later when our room was cleaned. This was now our apartment into which we gratefully moved without knowing that it would be ours for many months to come. During the night, we were awakened by an explosion; one of the bridges in our neighborhood had been dynamited. One still believed that there would be a possibility of resistance at the Loire. The radio in the dressmaking room had been damaged and one could hear the news only very softly and indistinctly, including those announcing the armistice. Everybody breathed easier and believed that the worst was over.
Friday, 21st of June: Early in the morning, Fernande appeared at our heap of straw and said, "Ca y est; ils soht la!” Looking over the wall from the courtyard, we saw the German troops down the road. We felt miserable. During the day, everything remained quiet in the upper part of La Roche. It wasn't until that Saturday that the first soldiers came to the house to request eggs and other food. The abandoned houses were thoroughly pilfered, but the occupied ones were left alone. It was good for our hosts that they could report twelve inhabitants for the small house. Therefore, they remained safe from having any Germans quartered there, while all the neighboring barns and houses held German troops.
End of June: Lali and I decided to walk to Chinon to do some essential shopping. Hedl was still unable to stand a march of twelve kilometers. All railroad traffic was halted. The countryside was still unfamiliar to us, so we preferred to take the country road. Endless rows of German supply vehicles came toward us, everything moving in the direction of the coast. To the right and left of the road lay the discarded gas masks, steel helmets, and weapons of the French, often in such heaps that one had to be careful not to step on live shells. In Chinon, for the first time we saw the German occupation troops in their activities. Soldiers regulated traffic in the town; all large buildings were occupied by German staff and marked by the flags with the crooked cross. The artificial rate of exchange, twenty francs for a mark, was in force, but the merchants didn't yet know what this sell out really meant. There were still huge felled trees across the roads in the suburbs. For a short time there was still the intention to defend the city, in the same way as Saumur, Tours, and several other cities had defended themselves. Tired and depressed, we returned home. Bread became very scarce in La Roche. There was no baker there and we had to walk for half an hour to the next village to try to get some there. I went with the two young women, Alice Rolland and Mimi.
Our way led right through an improvised prisoner of war camp. Alice Rolland talked with the prisoners for quite awhile. I walked on, and when she caught up with me she had a lot of empty Camembert boxes in her hands. The French soldiers had written greetings to their relatives on these boxes. The German guards had deliberately gone away and did not attempt to stop the prisoners in their talk. Alice Rolland had tears in her eyes and on her cheeks and said, "Mes pauvres petits soldats! The fate of her husband, who was most likely a prisoner at the Maginot Line, worried her less. At the baker, about fifty women were waiting in the courtyard, standing in line. In the baking chamber, which was dynamited into the rock, bread was baking but it had not yet been distributed. A carriage with our French soldiers approached. The people yelled, "Take of your uniforms before they catch you!" Fifteen minutes later, they stood in the courtyard in civilian clothes and were helping the baker. The women were waiting patiently but without forming a real queue. One of the soldiers who had taken over the management said with good humor, "*Fritz, va vous apprendre a faire la queue."
July: In La Roche there was a return to the normal day with lots of work and comparatively little interference by the occupation troops which behaved according to their slogan, "Nous venons en amis." The newspapers had to hammer this down to the population also. Our dollar packages, which gave us such a lot of worries and headaches in the beginning, were now buried in a taped steel box in the chicken yard in front of our windows, and there were no valuables to watch in our straw beds anymore. Our neighbors to both sides had returned; Madame Mary with her three daughters and the Bonin couple with three children. It also became lively again at the La Roche railroad station. The stationmaster, M. Mary, had returned with his family and had started his duties again although no trains were running yet. All of them became our dear friends and through them we learned the best side of the French lower middle class. There had been some bad looting at the Bonins, and upon their return the house was still full or German soldiers. The soldiers did return their beds to the family members, but they slept close to them on the floor and made life very hard for them. (*French nickname for any German) Mme. Bonin was plagued by the fear that her temperamental husband would no longer be able to control himself one day and would physically attack a German. Bonin himself had been with the French occupation army in Rheinland as a young soldier.
Overnight, the picture changed completely. The troops were withdrawn and only a few guards for the prisoners remained. The village was quiet and peaceful again. Only down on the highway which led to the west there were the columns of artillery, supply trains, and motorcyclists which grew denser all the time. They all went towards the coast--against England. There was no news from our loved ones. One day the line of demarcation which ran about fifty kilometers to the southeast of Chinon was published. Our village, therefore, was in the occupied zone.
29th of July: Hans Rosenfeld wrote from Limoges that in England everything was fine, Thomas had returned luckily, and Ali and Joele had landed in New York. That was a really happy day. In the morning, the mail traffic between the free and the occupied part of France was stopped and the border was closed to passenger traffic. Our stay in La Roche seemed to be unlimited. We began to adapt ourselves and got used to it. Still, our beds were made with a pitchfork and an old metal basin was the only possibility for washing up, but the people were good and friendly. Not a trace of hate of foreigners or races had ever ruined our being together. They and we did not yet know that people have to be judged by the fact whether they can execute an invasion or defend themselves against it or be able to stand up to it. The women were too involved in their everyday work to realize what had happened and even more what the consequences would be, but the men were suffering badly under the humiliation of their country. The first narrow bed which was lent to us by neighbors was put on its rusty legs "pour les dames" that were Hedl and I. But later on, when the refugees were slowly departing, better beds for all of us followed. Through the introduction of the middle European time plus daylight savings time, the clock was advanced by two hours. From that time on, there were three ways of telling the time in La Roche. The school started according to "l ancien temps", because the old half blind teacher refused to take any notice of either the French or the German daylight savings time. The people in the village were going by "le temps francais" and the railroad was necessarily running according to "le temps boche".
15th of August: An air squadron--we counted fifty three planes flew over our heads to the west. We guessed that this was an attempt at invasion (of England). The newspapers kept silent. After a short time there were large military transports in the opposite direction. "Ils ont des mauvaises tetes,"* said the people with great satisfaction. It seems the invasion had failed. It was prohibited to listen to radio broadcasts from England. M. Bonin, with whom we used to listen with great *(Idiomatic expression meaning "Things went wrong.") excitement to these broadcasts every night, felt that we didn't have to obey this order and encouraged us to continue listening. We just posted a guard with directions to signal in time if German patrols approached. Our visits in Chinon became more and more frequent. The railroad traffic had resumed though with very limited time tables, and finally Chinon was the only diversion for us and the opportunity to do a little shopping. It also had a coffee house and a public bath. Our still pending American visas and the loss of our luggage worried us, and we finally decided to go to Paris. Within the occupied zone there were no restrictions on travel. The destroyed bridge over the Loire near Tours was not even temporarily repaired. One had to walk and carry one’s luggage for six kilometers. The probability of finding a seat in one of the overcrowded busses was very small. Starting from Tours, the trains ran pretty normally. At night we arrived in Paris and immediately encountered difficulty in finding quarters for the night. All the better hotels were occupied by German headquarter staffs. Hedl remembered a small Hotel Buckingham near le Printemps and we got the last free room, good beds and even a bath. But even these unusual conveniences could not make the depressing atmosphere of Paris more tolerable. The next morning we went to the American Consulate. In the lobby, we heard that they had stopped dealing with any immigration visa matters. The next day we went to Versailles to check for Lali's luggage. On our way back we had a special stroke of luck. In St. Cloud we found our own luggage that had been there since the eleventh of June. The streets of Paris had changed very much. Only bicycles and a few German military vehicles could be seen. The entire passenger traffic was handled by the Metro. The department stores were running short in all their inventories. It was not even possible to find a towel to buy. The German military dominated all the good restaurants. The evening was sad and scary. Not a single ray of light was allowed to fall on the streets. We wished only to get out of Paris. Then on our last evening, we received a summons to the Prefecture. We went there at 7:30 at night although we should have known that it was hopeless to get any action that late at night. The policeman in charge gave us the good advice simply to depart. That we did and were happy when we saw our village again.
September: Life in La Roche continued quietly and almost cozily. The harvest was brought in with the usual festivities. The cellar was put in order for the grape harvest and wine making, and we tried hard to get some wood and potatoes and a stove for the winter. At the end of the month Lali and her children moved into a nice apartment in Chinon and Heini and Hanna entered school. Before dinner time we used to go to an inn on the highway for an aperitif. There, one of the German prison guards started to talk to us, a high school teacher from Karlsbad. He could hardly be in doubt about the reason for our presence in France, but he had finally found some people with whom he could talk. He didn't want to know anything else. Like most soldiers in the occupation army he seemed to suffer from homesickness. He very much liked to be addressed as Herr Professor and emphasized at every opportunity that he belonged to a different social class than his comrades in the camp.
After we had rather roughly turned down his request to procure some silk stockings for him and also better living quarters, he still complied with my request to write a letter to Sternberg. However, he could not refrain from telling us triumphantly of the air attacks on England and said the population didn't dare at any time to go outside the air raid shelters.
Hedl asked him, “Now tell me, Herr Professor, why don't they actually land in England?” He answered, “That will come very soon, Heil Hitler!". But apart from that, he still remained friendly to us and a few days later he whispered into my ear that he had written to Sternberg.
M. Mary, that golden heart, knew how dearly we longed for news from our loved ones and he sent us a daring and suspicious looking guy who, however, had a passport for doing business in the free zone of France, and he was ready to smuggle letters to and from us in this way. After all, he was sent by M. Mary and so we had full confidence in him and we went into this somewhat daring and suspicious enterprise without worry. It was significant that even this man did not expect any reward or payment. When we voluntarily gave him twenty francs, he found this gift huge. Later on he learned that such services have to be paid for. At that time, however, he did it just for the pure and clean joy of cheating the Germans. From that time on, here and there we got letters from England and America. Everything went via Louis Meunier, marchand de bois a Martizay.
Early October: The surprising and exciting news came from the American Consulate in Bordeaux that they were looking for us. It was like a dream--one hadn't forgotten us and one wanted to help us. The next day we drove to Bordeaux. The train connection was relatively good. Shortly before the end of office hours at 4:30 PM, we were at the American Consulate and we were received in a friendly manner by the vice consul. Our files had already arrived. The same also with the telegram from Washington, but the consul immediately killed every hope for us that the Germans would permit us to leave the country. The looks of an occupied city was nothing new to us any more, only the difficulties of getting quarters for the night exceeded all our expectations. At last we found two rooms in a rather questionable hotel in a street about which there could be no question. The next day we saw the consul again and there we found that the whole trip had definitely been completely unsuccessful and we went home. In the evening in La Roche, we learned that during our absence a telegram for us had arrived, but that the Post Office was already closed at that hour. We were advised that we should try to get hold of the female postal employee who lived far up on the main street. There was ample time for many thoughts and anxieties on the way to this apartment. Only cases of birth or death were allowed to be transmitted by telegram. The postal employee gave us the telegram which contained the news of Mother's death.
Mid-October: In Chinon, the first signs appeared affixed to Jewish stores. A figure from the Sturmer* appeared on these signs, and underneath: "German soldier, hands off! “Jews". This propaganda was not yet spread to Frenchmen. There were only very few Jewish stores in Chinon. One of them was that of the photographer, Dreyfus. From that moment on, people came crowding to that photo shop. The mayor of La Roche, the owner of a large farm who had a very good reputation, asked me for an explanation of the “Aryans”, which he thought was something having to do with the country of Persia. I don't think that my information helped him very much. One day, Lali arrived in La Roche at an unusual hour and in great excitement. Through posters on the walls in Chinon, the Jews were ordered to report to the Prefecture. The vice prefect, who had previously spoken to her on several occasions, had simply advised her, "Filez!” And on top of it, he had given her the address of an inn at the border, the proprietor of which made it his business to transport people across the border. We had the most serious reservations about seeing her go with the children on such a doubtful adventure and suggested she go for advice and help to our M. Mary. M. Mary listened to everything and also advised against this adventure which would put *(the most radical anti Semitic Nazi newspaper) them at the complete mercy of total strangers. But he agreed that it was necessary for all of us to cross the border. "Par hasard Meunier et son ami Vaumoron viennent d'arriver," said he and he went to the inn and returned with the message that Lali and the two children--but no more than these three people --could come along on a truck the next Sunday. There were busy days with preparations and later on with waiting for the first news from the free zone. The news finally came, but they told in the agreed upon code words of the difficulties at the border crossing.
In the meantime, we packed our luggage without knowing how and when our turn would come. At this time, we couldn't expect any news from M. Meunier who was again in the free zone. On a Thursday afternoon, M. Meunier suddenly appeared and said that on the next day we should travel alone right to the border and that he would meet us at a designated little spa near there. He took care of our jewelry. Vaumoron, Lali’s guide, took our large luggage and promised to send it from Abilly at the right opportunity. Then our last evening in La Roche came and we all knew that we wouldn't see each other again, and we departed at dawn on October twenty fifth. In Tours, the chances for further progress looked very bad already; there was no connection to Evreux. The porter who had to carry our luggage in a pushcart for several blocks said, "We had an important visitor yesterday." The meeting between Hitler and Petain had taken place in Tours. After that we heard the usual confidential assurance that every Frenchman was burning to fight the Germans again. After hours of waiting at a mover's office, we found space in his private car to which was hooked a moving van filled with passengers. Late that night we arrived in Evreux. Evreux, so near to the border, was a huge German camp. "On fouille les trains," people told us. Whether or not this was so, the $1000 in my luggage was a great worry for me and really didn't let me sleep at night anymore. Hedl was quite calm about it and felt safe and said that there was still no law in force that forbade carrying dollars with you.
The next morning I knew that I could not continue this trip as long as these dollars were still in my luggage. Against Hedl's better judgment, I simply put my luggage into the lobby of the private house of our mover and told the maid there that I would pick it up the next day. Relieved and with new courage, I went along no longer oppressed by the possibility of the loss of so much money. At dawn a primitive ferry next to one of the destroyed bridges brought us to the other side of the river. The train left from there for the little spa which we reached at noon. It was a charming resort with a good hotel which, however, was completely occupied by German troops. At the long lunch table, a well dressed young man sat opposite us and wanted to talk, but we were awaiting Meunier and wanted to remain undisturbed. Meunier appeared punctually and cozily sat down to eat. He mentioned that very soon a milk wagon would stop here and would take us along. The coachman was told that the two of us were Meunier's aunts. We also looked that way when we climbed aboard the milk wagon and sat down on the little stools that they had put there for us underneath the cover of the wagon. In front of us stood the large cans full of milk which we would have to deliver on our way.
At a turn of the road, in true terror we saw the partner from our lunch table; beyond any doubt he was from the Gestapo and had preceded us on our way to the border. We made ourselves as small and as invisible as possible under the canvas. In the meantime, Meunier, on his bicycle, had caught up with us and took over the Gestapo man, who in fact, was just a poor devil who, like us, wanted to cross the border but had even less courage to do it than we had. Our driver drove the milk wagon into a dirty farm building and changed his horse to a high two wheeled peasant's cart. We now rode on high steep grass roads, higher up into the mountains. The driver now sat very close to us and started a talk with Meunier's aunts. The impersonation was only successful on the outside. Apart from our very imperfect knowledge of the language, it also showed that we were uninformed about M. Meunier's family conditions and fates. We didn't know of his second marriage, or about his automobile accident. On a high plateau the driver let us descend from the cart and enter into a farmer's yard. In front of an open fireplace sat the owner of the yard and the participants of the expedition, namely Meunier, his father in law M. Barillet, and the so-called Gestapo man. We were disagreeably surprised to notice that no preparations had been made for our trip. Only now a debate started about the border crossing.
Their experience, it seemed, was only very small. "Les sentinels ont passe's a cinq heures moins un quart; c’est peu probable qu'ils reviennent maintenant." "Ne marchez pas vite. Faites semblant de vous promener, et si on vous demande ce que vous faites ici, repondez que vous allez au village chercher des oeufs." They then led us to the outer wall of the yard. Then they said, "Passez dans les champs a pleine vue; dans la foret on tombe dessus.", and they showed us a group of trees which appeared pretty far away. "Aupres de ces sapins, vous etes en surete". We went on our way crossing an open field. Even today I can't say approximately how long we walked. Not a soul was to be seen anywhere around. Also Meunier, who for some time was whistling and pushing his motorbike behind us, had disappeared. Hedl pointed to the right. There we saw the sticks of the demarcation line with the German colors painted on them. Only a few more minutes and we would reach the tiny little pine forest. We stopped in the best mood and waited for Meunier. He soon arrived and with him M. Barillet. They had let the socalled Gestapo man continue alone after the border crossing but both were angry about the difficulties which he had caused through his lack of courage, "Un coup de pied dans le derriere," said the old man. Next came a march on foot of about eight kilometers up to the place where M. Barillet was living. At a street crossing Meunier let us look back and showed us the French border guard from a great distance. He found it advantageous to avoid them as well.
At dusk we reached Preuilly s/Claise which was full of French military. ---We were so happy to see the poor little soldiers. To us they did not represent the remainder of the beaten demoralized army, but rather the symbol of our regained freedom. We expected to be put up in a hotel. To our surprise, however, we were led into the apartment of M. Barillet. There was an entrance direct into the kitchen from the street. He heated the stove and cooked a soup and then brought some smoked pork, bread and wine and really gave us complete hospitality. Meunier said that we would do better to sleep here in order to avoid reporting and also the attention of the police and he himself got ready to leave. That was the moment when we had to come to the confession about the luggage that we had relinquished. Meunier didn't enjoy at all the prospect of making another trip across the border and besides he had no gasoline for his motorbike, and the hiding place for our dollar package was under the saddle of that bike. Finally, he promised to make the trip once more and would return on Monday. The old man started with the preparations for the night. With uneasiness, we learned that we had to sleep two of us in one bed and three of us in the only large room next to the kitchen. M. Barillet showed us the necessary way across the court and further on from there. The goal could only be reached over rotten and loose boards between which one could see deep, deep down but unfortunately not into the bottomless depth. Then he gave us impeccab1y clean bed linen and left the room so we could get ready for bed. When we were lying in bed he entered the room, disrobed as much as he thought necessary, put on a white night cap, then lit his pipe and went to bed. "Bonne nuit, mes dames (sic.)". "Bonne nuit, M. Barillet." Sunday morning, when we woke up, M. Barillet was no longer in the room but had prepared for us all that's necessary to wash up and had started a fire in the kitchen stove. We went shopping and then cooked a Sunday meal. In the paper we had read the announcement of a theatre performance and asked M. Barillet if he wanted to come with us to see it. So he shaved very well and polished our and his shoes and the three of us went to the theatre. The performance started to the tune of the Marseillaise. What followed was naive and antiquated but the whole thing gave us quite some pleasure.
28th of October: "Meunier va s'emmener" murmured the old one and we waited the whole morning. Towards noontime he really arrived with my suitcase and the saved dollar package. At his first try to cross the border, the Germans had rejected him because in that suitcase were ladies' dresses. He contended that they were property of his relatives, but the soldiers said, "Nix Frau, nix Tochter." At another border check he was luckier. In the meantime, Meunier had examined the possibilities for our further trip to the railroad station of Chateauroux and had found a bus driver who was ready with the vehicle and gasoline entrusted to him to make a black market trip on his own. After darkness, the bus driver came and he brought the three of us to Martizay, a nice little resort, also Meunier's home town and near the bus station before Chateauroux.
At dinner that night, the following took place; the turning over of our jewelry and money and also the settling of our account, namely 10% of everything, and everybody was very satisfied about it. When we finally said goodbye to M. Meunier, he asked us for addresses of friends in Paris and he stood at the beginning of a very new and very promising career: namely, Aller a Paris chercher des Israelites.
The next morning we drove to Chateauroux and from there on joined the endless train of travelers, of wanderers, but no longer of the hunted ones.
Contact: Peter Rohel, 42 Cardigan Rd., Toronto, ON, Canada M8Z-2W2 | Copyright: © 2004-2012