World War II in France

Arc de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe

Picking up from our last episode about the French family in World War II, it’s 1940 and the bombers have attacked. The Germans have sent their tanks and troops through the Ardennes forest bypassing the Maginot Line. The French government, not having another plan to defend France, appointed Marshall Petain to take charge of the war. Our family remained at the farm owned by the Ledouxs, where they had stopped after running out of fuel. They listened to the radio for further word. Within a few days, Marshall Petain announced that he had asked the Germans for an armistice and a stop to the war. He declared that France had not enough men, arms, allies to continue. According to terms, Germany would occupy the northern half of the country, and Marshall Petain would install a new government in the southern city of Vichy.

A short time later, Charles Degaulle, who had escaped France to England, came on the radio calling on the country to resist the Germans, that England was their ally and that France still has a chance. Alas, his broadcast was missed by most of France, and the surrender took place. France capitulated to Germany in just 6 days. Terms of the armistice arranged for the Germans to occupy and govern the northern part of France. Marshall Petain would form a government at the town of Vichy to govern the liberated portion in the south.

In 1941, Marceline and her family returned to Paris with an uncertain future. Her father was a prisoner of war in Germany. It was a cold and icy winter, and the family was hungry because the Germans took everything from them. Marceline’s mother had to stand in line at the local shops and stores to get food for her family. Most days after school Marceline would go to take her place in line. The Germans issued ration tickets to each family to pay for food and other essentials.

Marceline recalled the German soldiers goose stepping as they marched by. One soldier told her that she reminded him of his daughter and gave her a bon bon, which her mother later threw on the ground rather than let her eat.

After some time they received letters from Papa. He was being held prisoner at a camp in Germany, and he was hungry. The family sent him a package with all they could find to help him. Marceline sent him a sweater and a scarf, as well as her hope that the family gift would warm his heart.

Mom found extra work as a dressmaker. She would go to people’s houses and would be paid sometimes with other than money, sometimes with some sausage and one time returning home with lentils hidden inside the lining of her coat.

For Marceline’s 8th birthday, her mother made her a dress from the material in the curtains. Marceline made herself a cake using some potatoes and cocoa. It didn’t taste very good. Four days after her birthday the family learned that the German’s had attacked Russia by surprise.

Each night there was a curfew at 7 pm in the village. No lights were permitted. Marceline’s family would cover the windows with dark paper, but one time they forgot a pane, and a German patrol almost discovered them. It was very scary.

1942 was a terrible year. France had been cut in two. The French government in Vichy was collaborating with the Germans, who occupied the north. Also the French organized an underground resistance movement.

One day Marceline remembered coming to school and seeing the four Jewish students, including her friend Rébecca, arrive wearing yellow stars on their coats. The Germans had ordered all Jews to wear yellow stars as an identification badge. In June 1942, the German police took away Rébecca’s father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Weissman, to work in Germany. Rébecca escaped capture by fleeing to Marceline’s house. Marceline realized that her parents had no way to stop the things that were happening to the Jews.

Rébecca stayed with Marceline’s family after her parents were sent to Germany. Her aunt asked Marceline’s mom if they could keep Rébecca for an extended period and gave her some money to help with the cost.

In the summer the family went to Marceline’s grandmother’s house. She lived in Indre near Châteauroux. That was past the line of demarcation that is the border between the occupied zone and the liberated zone. They took Rébecca with them. As they took the train south, they knew that they couldn’t show the identification papers for Rébecca stating that she was a Jew.

When the Germans entered their compartment, they hid Rébecca under the bench seat. Mom had removed the yellow star from her coat. When the Germans asked for their papers, Marceline was so scared that she couldn’t manage to breathe. She thought they might spot Rébecca when her younger brother Michael dropped his toy car on the floor. After looking at their papers the German inspector finally left, and Rébecca got back up – completely pale. When they arrived at Châteauroux, Marceline’s grandmother was just happy that they were there and that it was vacation.

In 1943, the family was still at grandma’s house in Indre. Chateauroux as well as the rest of France was now occupied by the Germans. Rébecca had been given the name Rosaline so people would not know she was a Jew. The school had accepted her as a student without papers. All of her class work was destroyed once it was completed, so there was no record of her. Although there were informants in every village, no one denounced the courageous actions of the school teacher. “Not existing” was very traumatic for Rébecca, who felt she could not participate in life with the other students.

It was a very cold winter. There was no heat. Marceline remembered her hands swelling and itching as a result of the cold. 1943 arrived with a ray of hope about the war. They heard that the Germans had lost the battle of Stalingrad.

Marceline’s brother Jacques was to depart for Obligatory Work Service in Germany, but he wanted to join the Resistance. Mom told him that he was a fool because she knew that the militia, the French police, and the Germans would pursue members of the Resistance and would torture and deport to Germany anyone who was apprehended.

Jacques asked the parish priest where to find the Resistance. The priest told him to look in the woods at midnight. Jacques disappeared from home.

Mom was worried about him. One night Marceline heard her speak with Jacques in the kitchen. He had joined the Resistance. He had helped a pilot whose plane had been shot down by the Germans. He related how they had listened to the secret English radio broadcasts and used message codes to provide the information for the resistance.

At the end of 1943 Papa was still in prison. All the Santa’s were in prison so it was a sad Christmas.

Marceline did not hear again from her brother until June of 1944. He had been involved with sabotaging German trains. The Germans had taken hostages as a result and then shot them, but Marceline’s brother was not caught.

The allies had started bombing the German forces, bridges, and vehicles. Marceline recalled rushing to the bomb shelter at school and how the fear of bombing had turned into an excuse for not doing one’s homework. She remembered June 6, 1944, when the allies and resistance arrived in France. She didn’t sleep. People laughed and cried as the hope of freedom had returned.

One day Rébecca left them. Her aunt came to search for her. Rebecca had never heard from her parents. It was so sad. Marceline’s family returned to Paris in August, just in time to see General de Gaulle and the army of the French Liberated Forces come down the Champs-Élysées. Paris was liberated. It was a party!

Some days later Marceline also saw the Americans, Canadians, and English arrive and pass down the street on foot and in jeeps. One of them gave Marceline some chewing gum. They threw bags of Nestle’s chocolate and cigarettes. They looked tired. Everyone was celebrating, and all the world danced in the streets.

The war continued, and in the Spring of 1945 Hitler committed suicide shortly before the Russians arrived in Berlin. Germany surrendered on 8 May and was occupied by the Allies.

They discovered the concentration camps. They heard that the Jews had been worked to exhaustion in the camps. Those who couldn’t work were exterminated in the gas chambers. They separated the children from their parents. The bodies were burned in the ovens at the crematorium. More than 6 million Jews were killed in the camps.

Other camps harbored resistance fighters from all the countries, among whom were also Germans who had resisted Hitler.

Marceline’s father was liberated. She did not recognize him when he arrived home. He was very thin and had white hair.

The war was not finished. Japan was still fighting. On August 6th the Americans dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. They caused 130,000 deaths. On September 2nd Japan finally surrendered.

The war had caused 50 million deaths, including 20 million Russians, 5 million Germans, and 600,000 French. But the victorious Russians and Americans could not agree on a plan at war’s end. Europe was divided, and Germany was cut in two.

All the same, there was peace, and Marceline received a letter from Rébecca. Her parents died in Auschwitz, but her uncle survived. She would be returning to Paris. Marceline was 12 years old and suddenly felt so grown up.

Comments

  1. Ardis Morrow says:

    Thanks for refreshing those memories. I lived through it.
    Surrender was called V.E. (Victory in Europe) and is on my birthday.
    Ardis

  2. Ardis Morrow says:

    Furthermore we thought VJ day Japan Surrender) would be on my
    husbands birthday Aug.12th, missed it by 2 days.
    ajm

  3. Margene Smaaladen says:

    Hugh — thoroughly enjoyed your post about the war. It reminds me of the stories I heard while in Norway visiting my relatives in Lillehammer how my mother’s relatives would receive winter clothes from Mom in Poulsbo (their cousins) and they told me that while they were embarrassed to have to accept “charity” … they were so grateful. And my cousin’s husband told of how he had to escape in the middle of the night to Sweden. Amazing stories — thanks for sharing. Really enjoying your blog — so envious of your and Brenda’s travels!!

    • Hugh Nelson says:

      Thanks Margene. I thought it was an important story to retell. Your comments help confirm the truth about how things were.

  4. Ann Pyles says:

    Amazing, simply amazing. Such a testament to the enduring human spirit.

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