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Stanley Hoffmann Memories of Life on a War-torn Continent

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- White Russians? - White Russian. Can you tell us about the beginning of the occupation? How did it begin for you? What was your experience like? I had gotten surgery on my appendix the day that the Germans invaded France. The sirens were blaring while I was undergoing the operation. and during the following two days I was out of commission. When I had recovered a bit and was feeling stronger I turned on the radio and heard the President of the Council, Paul Reynaud, say "Should it take a miracle to save France, well, then I believe in miracles!" I thought to myself, 'we're screwed.' - Because you didn't believe in miracles. - Not one bit. During that time, there were hundreds of thousands of people on the roads. We followed them. Once I managed to get out of the clinic, which was right by our home We buggered off. There was someone in our building, a young woman, who had a car. We didn't have a car, so she took us. We had to leave behind my bedridden uncle, who was ill and worse for wear. He couldn't really walk, so we left him with our maid and the dog. We left them to find their own way because we weren't taking our own car. The maid was a tough and reliable woman. And so we left her, the dog, and my uncle Who hadn't yet recovered from his bout of illness, and couldn't move about. My mother decided that we would depart anyway So like hundreds of thousands of Frenchman, we took to the road for several days. We went into exile like everyone else. We traveled through Tours. I remember the scene there in Tours Totally encumbered with vehicles of all sorts fleeing Paris. It was a nightmarish sight. - The end of the world. - Yes, the end of the world. Once there, we quickly realized that the German invasion was still pushing towards us. So once more we found someone who would take us. It was much easier the second time because all of France was there. We found someone who would take us to Bordeaux. It only took a day and a half, perhaps two days at most Whereas the hundred kilometers from Paris to Tours had taken three days, I believe Due to the congestion on the roads. It was a surreal spectacle. - What did people think upon arriving? - They didn't have a clue. - They were scared. - They were scared, they didn't know what would happen to them. They knew that they would return home, sooner or later. At that moment, they fled because they didn't know their fate at the hands of the Germans if they stayed. I don't suppose that people thought long or hard about it But hundreds of thousands of others were leaving... So we arrived at Bordeaux, which was unbelievably picturesque. There were films made about those days in Bordeaux. On the parliament, which set up there, and so on. There was an excellent film, a rather recent one, but I forgot the name Must've been four or five years ago. It seemed to me completely accurate. - And you knew at the time that the French Parliament had moved to Bordeaux? Yes, we knew that the Parliament and the whole government was on its way there And would reconvene in Bordeaux. We frankly didn't know what would happen. However, we had made it there with no trouble. The contrast between the hellish journey from Paris to Tours, on the one hand And on the other our easygoing trip to Bordeaux That's only one of the many paradoxes of the time. Bordeaux seemed totally untroubled because we witnessed processions Of all the constitutional authorities. Life seemed completely ordinary Except of course that it wasn't. But, nonetheless, the Parliament and government were there. That's why, if you one day have the chance of seeing this film of which I've forgotten the title But which came out recently Starring Depardieu in a tour de force as a minister of the Third Republic Who later finds his way to Vichy... Anyway, it's a very good film. So, we soon understood that the Germans wouldn't cease before reaching Bordeaux And when we saw the sketch of the eventual occupation zone in the newspaper We saw that there would be a free zone And that it was crucial to leave Bordeaux Because the entire length of the Atlantic coast would be occupied. There would a morsel of France left inland. That is, in central and southern France. We yet again found someone to escort us by car. Several, actually, because we made the journey in stages. Thankfully, I had been a good geography student. - That always comes in handy. - I knew how to read maps. We followed the Garonne river And made our way to a village that we had visited before... ...let's see, when?... In any case, before the war Because we had a friend from our time in Nice. A friend of my mother's, who might've been in love with her. - He was right to be, she was an extraordinary women. - He was an older gentleman In poor health, but amorous of my mother, and who got along well with me. We decided that we would join this gentleman Who was always on a health retreat. We went to find him in a village called Lamalou-les-Bains Which was both a land of petty farmers, and a spa resort town. Old tired men and women would soak in the thermal baths there. We knew this village because when the war was declared, we had stayed there For fifteen days to see what would happen. When we saw that nothing came of it, we returned to Paris. This time around, we made the trip in reverse We didn't stay there all that long And when we saw that the war would continute uninterrupted We simply made our way to Nice, which wasn't occupied. - So it was paradise regained, but under radically different circumstances. - Yes, radically different, in a building right next to the one in which we had lived before The latter was a truly luxurious place, and our new lodging, an adjacent apartment, not so much We were on the top floor, and we did drills to determine how fast we could get to the roof in the event of a German raid. Can you imagine... - It was peaceful. - Yes, it was peaceful. So we stayed in Nice for a long time, a very long time. I returned to my old high school, since nothing else was transpiring. We stayed until the end of 1943. What was interesting to see was the atmosphere of the high school. As I told you, the day the Germans invaded France, I was at the hospital after an appendix operation And I had just about recovered But I was still rather weak. I'll always remember the path that went up from where we lived Right next to the principal train station. It took fifteen or twenty minutes by foot to get to the high school. It was a gorgeous path because of the view, which got progressively prettier as you went up. I still hadn't fully bounced back. Coming our way one day was a general, who was a fascist Or at least he had that reputation. He saw that my mother was carrying my backpack. He said, "Hold on, ma'am, why are you carrying your son's bag?" "He just got appendicitis surgery. He hasn't recovered the strength to carry it himself." "Ah," he said, and from then on he carried my backpack for me to school. - He was a generous man who was fond of you. - Well, it was a perquisite of being a good student. - What happened to him? - He was executed by the Communists during the Liberation. Awful. He didn't deserve it. - Simply from his reputation? - From reputation. So it went. - It must've hit you hard when you found it. - Yes. But he wasn't particularly beguiling, to my mind. He didn't like poor students... But seeing as I wasn't one... - Did he know you were Jewish? - He didn't give a damn. That's an interesting point - no one would ask if I was Jewish. France is not a logical country. - That saved you. The irrationality of the French. - Yes, it did. If they had asked me, I would've said no. I wasn't observant, and my mother was a total nonbeliever There were plenty of foreigners at the high school. We asked no one where they came from. To the extent that they were decent students They were treated like everyone else. Hence assimilatory meritocracy. I got along well with everyone. In fact, I became close with a gentleman Who taught history and geography. He mentored me. He was a sort of surrogate father. - He was a role model for your future career? - No, not particularly. He simply liked me because I was a good student. He was a pure-bred Republican. Anti-fascist, anti-Nazi. He took a handful of urchins under his wing All refugees from elsewhere in Europe. I liked him very much He died in 1976. - You remained friends? - Yes, certainly. - What was his name? - His name was Lehr. That fellow created false papers for me and my mother When it came time to leave the region, we needed documents. He was the one who forged them. - Tell us about these forged papers. Why did you end up leaving Nice? Well, I wanted to stay because that year, 1943, I would've taken the baccalaureate exam. And I didn't want to abandon that. But, what in happened in '42 or '43?...yes, '43. - I had a friend who... - In '43 you must've been fifteen. - I was fifteen. I had a friend I liked a lot. He was from a Romanian family that moved to France. His father was a pharmacist in Paris. His mother, with whom his father no longer got along Was a perfectly nice lady, but badly handicapped. One day, while coming home from school, there was a Gestapo car in front of their home, a tall building. The boy had a quintessential Jewish appearance. I still have his photo. - He was a very close friend. So, his parents saw the car from their sixteenth floor window. The mother, handicapped as I told you Immediately rushed down the stairs. She evidently was caught, and disappeared with him. His father and his younger brother saw everything from the window. They resisted the urge to come down. It was a good thing they stayed put. Also in their home was the widow of another pharmacist. She had grown quite close to them. She took charge of the husband, so to speak. They became lovers. She lived with him for the remainder of his life, and became very good friends with my mother. She was a very warm and kind woman. While he managed to survive My friend and his mother vanished. There was a Jewish man of German origin Who spent his life documenting the people who had been abducted. In his records, you can find details on every one On the way they were detained, and on their fates. When I came across these records much later I learned that the mother was killed immediately Because as a disabled woman she didn't have the right to exist in the Nazi regime And the boy survived to just about the eve of Liberation. - He died just before. - It was then that I decided to get the hell out. It had gotten too dangerous. - You were right to do so. What was his name? - He was called...let's see... - We can think of it later. - Yes, we'll come back to it. So we left Nice, and returned to Lamalou-les-Bains. - That you knew. - That we knew. And we were received as... That town was half thermal resort and half typical rural France Yet we were received and treated as members of the village. The locals already knew us because we had been there twice. Once right before the declaration of war, and another time in '40. We were admirably treated by these rural dwellers. - The two of you lived among them? - Well, yes, we lived there in a boarding house Because there were hostels, since many people would ordinarily visit to take the waters. And there were, unbeknownst to us, many German soldiers barely older than I was. They were sixteen. [inaudible] ...I understood German. Were quickly understood that they were miserable as anything Because the only news they would receive from their families Tended to be catastrophic. News of bombardments, of city-wide destruction. They were more or less abandoned there, were no officers present... - What were they doing in that village? - They occupied. - Alone? - Alone. - This was is '44. - This was in '44, yes. They were totally isolated, no one spoke to them. Those brave locals, with a strong accent of the Midi region, as you know... Every time the Germans came to occupy a place where we found ourselves Because they always needed more room, though we didn't really know why We were warned ahead of time by the locals They would say, "Careful, you can't stay where you are go to this or that place." So we spent our time moving about. - They really protected you. - Yes, absolutely. - And did you try to hide, or... - By no means! - You simply moved houses? - We moved houses. And they were totally charming people, with their Midi accents. They leaned to the political Left, at that time. We didn't talk about politics. Léon Blum was the deputy of the neighboring department, for instance. It was certainly not a village of the Right. There was a village not far from ours in that part a country That became famous in books and films That became defiant, led by two resistance ministers And on which a lot was said and written Camus, who was in France then, spent the duration of the war there. He sojourned there, and wrote his books And I don't think he realized what was going on. It was a village that became famous. - And what about yours? - No, ours did not resist the occupation at all. We didn't even know what was happening in the neighboring town. When we went to get provisions, because there was nothing to eat where we were We walked a couple of kilometers on foot, and came back But we didn't have a clue of what was happening elsewhere. - And the radio? - We used the radio, but it gave us news of the war and the outside world And Vichy's radio was useless to us. Broadcasts from London didn't reach us in the French villages. We were just about isolated in that country. - How long did you stay there? - We stayed there... We arrived in the end of '43, I don't remember the month, but really the end of the year And we stayed up until our return to Paris. That is, right until the Liberation. - I see. - We stayed a long time, we were the only ones who knew German. We were able to help the locals by informing them of the morale of these sixteen-year-old soldiers. - How did you eavesdrop on the Germans, would they sit down next to you? They would chat among themselves, about their mail, which was usually catastrophic. - Were you right next to them? By walking, you pretended to just walk by. Yes, that's it. The poor boys. - You weren't afraid that they would catch on, and question you? - I think if they knew we spoke German, they would've explained to us how miserable they were. They were completely stranded, no one said a word to them. But, the instructions given by the courageous locals to their local guerrilla band Because their sons were in the band hidden three or four kilometers away The instructions were, "Don't shoot at them. They're the enemy so we don't speak to them But they're only sixteen, and they're lost." - In the end, what was it? Pity, affection? - It wasn't affection. It was pity. - Perhaps also empathy. - A little. Because they really were abandoned, they only had a handful of non-commissioned officers Who thought, "What's gonna happen to us?" But largely those kids were left to fend for themselves. And though they didn't know what would become of them, they left just in time Before the Allies arrived in the Midi after the second disembarkment in Provence. Little by little, orders got to them, and they retreated to the North. - And what about the guerrilla band, who were its members? - The sons of the peasants. - Did you know what they did? - Well, they were just there with their rifles They didn't really know what to do But they could have fought if called up. But no one wanted a general massacre, it simply wasn't necessary. - So then they totally respected the order not to shoot at the soldiers. - Oh yes. No one shot at anybody. - Tell us a little more about everyday life in the village. Everything was fine, except that there wasn't much to eat We weren't in wine country or anything like that. We moved from house to house because the German's would expropriate more and more land Though we didn't really know why. And we were always warned. "We know the German's are coming to take your current lodging But we have another over there. Go on." This happened several times. It was a very picturesque region. And these poor kids - well, sixteen-year-olds - were left there by themselves There were a handful of non-commissioned officers who were only concerned with their own fates. It was really rather curious Because no one harmed them, and no one spoke to them. - Do you think they suffered from this? - No, I think what they suffered from Was the letters they received and read to one another, which we learned because we knew German. - Do you remember the contents of any of the letters? The letters were catastrophic - bombardments, the destruction of cities. They read about these things in a place where no one cared about them. - And you and your mother, you would report these things at dinner? - No, we didn't discuss them. - But you would tell the locals what the letters contained? - No, not really. I don't believe that we spoke to them about such things. It was interesting for us. What we would tell the locals Were things like their comings and goings. - What did you tell them that would cause pity for the soldiers? - What we would tell them Was that the young Germans were unhappy, and shared nothing but bad news among themselves. That would raise spirits in the village, which weren't all that low to begin with Because by then they were receiving British broadcasts like everyone else. The village had a strange mix, where two thirds of the inhabitants were peasants And the other third were doctors, because visitors would come to convalesce To take the waters, et cetera. We didn't see the doctors often. But the inhabitants were humane folk. They had no desire to kill Germans for no good reason. They'd say, "They'll leave. They'll go on to have children." There was no heavy artillery or anything. They truly were isolated. And they left at the last minute. - The day they left, there weren't any interactions? - No, they left unbothered And in fact, the order that the locals gave their sons in the guerrilla band Was, "Don't shoot them. They'll go away eventually. It's not worth it" - So they leave the village, and you and your mother, what do you do? We decided that they time had come for us to leave as well. By then, the Allies had landed in Normandy And we wanted to return to Paris. Naturally, I wanted to go back to school. - Yes, but you weren't yet in a liberated zone. Wasn't it still dangerous? They Germans retreated very quickly. When they left, they really were gone. We slowly made our way back to Paris. It wasn't easy, because we didn't know the state of transportation. So we took the train, and had to stop wherever the rails had been destroyed. We made a visit to the father of that friend of mine whom the Germans had taken. He had already taken a new lover. We found him in a village in the Massif Central, far better fed than people in Lamalou-les-Bains. We went to say hello, to him and his lover, and his surviving son. We were surprised to see just how better fed this village was Compared to those in the Midi. We bought a number of items to take to Paris Because we knew there was no food there. That much we knew from the radio. So we took some provisions. Because there was no refrigerator in town We set everything on the hotel balcony. The next morning, everything had vanished. When we complained to the hotel's owners, saying, "We had all these provisions to take to Paris." They said, "Oh, is that so?" "Animals probably stole everything during the night." We said, "No, that's not possible! We feed those animals bread, so that they don't steal the rest of our food." In May and June of '40, when half of France had fallen upon this village - two or three thousand refugees in a village of one thousand inhabitants - They all stayed there until they could return to their respective towns, which they did. They were wonderfully treated by the locals. That's what really stayed with me. And they were received as... I wouldn't say as Frenchman, no one much cared if they were French or not But as unfortunate folk in desperate need of help And who were taken care of until they could go back - How could a small village like Lamalou take care of three thousand people? - That, I never understood. - Would they all sleep in bedrooms? - Well, as this had been a resort town, there were hotels and boarding homes Into which the refugees packed themselves, and they would leave once they could. There might've been two thousand in the beginning, but by the end There were only people like us, who didn't quite know where to go. But all were tremendously well received in the village, which was remarkable. - Not to mention that when you were there, they actively protected you. - Oh yes. They treated us like heroes, when we came back in '46. All we'd done was stick around until we could go back to Paris. - Yes, but you were nonetheless courageous, and what you did was difficult You had witnessed terrible things. - They were extraordinarily kind. And they had their youngsters in the nearby guerrilla band With whom they were in constant communication. They never asked us about where we came from, our religion, our nationality. My mother spoke impeccable French. She couldn't write it perfectly, because it isn't an easy language But she spoke without and accent. And we had already been there twice. It was a very pretty village. - You said you went back in '46 and were treated like heroes. Did you go back after that? - We went back one more time since then. But not after that. - Maybe we could go back? - It would be interesting to know what became of the place. - Yes, very interesting. - I imagine that they've continued there lives unperturbed. It can't have changed much. - Time doesn't really make a mark in Provence. - No. The luck of Nice, if you could call it that, was that the Germans Wanted to leave crumbs for the Italians. The Italians were the occupiers of Nice. - And how did the Italians behave? They had heavy coats in the summer. They had no desire to wage war. There was a infamous instance, when a curfew was declared, not for political reasons But because an Italian and a Frenchman had the same mistress And one fired shots at the other. So there was a curfew for forty eight hours. - That was very Franco-Italian. - Yes. The French and the Italians... There were a lot of families that were half-French and half-Italian on the other side of the border The French had complete contempt for the Italians As well as the Germans, and for good reason. But the Italians hadn't beaten the French. They entered the war just in time for the armistice And the French took that very badly, because they hadn't fought the Italians. - They didn't deserve to occupy. - Yes, exactly. There were a lot of families with parents from the Italian side. - Yes, in Nice they speak Italian. That is, a lot of people speak Italian. - A lot of people spoke Italian. A lot had parents from either side of the border. But the French held the Italians in utter contempt. Independently of any political considerations. - That reminds me of the occupation of Greece. My dad has stories of the Italian occupation there And it was the same thing. Very friendly, by the way. The Greeks weren't afraid of them. And everything changed when the Germans arrived - So we spoke of a number of your experiences But for you it wasn't necessarily a war of violence and brutality. There are a lot of stories of decency. The decency of the French, the decency of Lamalou-les-Bains Even the young Germans. - The main thing was the high school. That's where I spent most of my time.

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Posted by: jeromekrumenacker on Oct 20, 2017

Stanley Hoffmann Memories of Life on a War-torn Continent

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