I don’t think the Germans ever really trusted my father. It was difficult to get him to “Heil Hitler”, and it was only after severe threats that they got him to salute them when they passed in the street. It was strange for my father to be so defiant, since normally he never took chances and navigated carefully through delicate situations. But it this case, his prudence dissolved.
They arrested him the October of 1941, over a year after the Germans came to Ste. Mére-Eglise. He was in his shop with my brother Joseph, and although he went quietly, there was a crowd gathered by the time they’d left with him.
“They” were the Gestapo, the German police force. They’d always suspected my father of being against the Führer, and part of the French organization that people were starting to call the “Resistance”.
The worst part is that I didn’t know if he was myself.
My mother didn’t tell me when I asked her. I know why she didn’t, and I knew why she didn’t want me to know, but still, I had an ache to know if it was true and where they’d taken my father.
The Germans had marched into Ste. Mere-Eglise on the eighteenth of June, some of them singing “Wir sind auf dem weg nach England!”
Translation: “We’re on our way to England!”
Our attic offered an excellent view of Ste. Méré-Église and the fields that surrounded it. The church steeple was the highest point of the entire town. Houses, for the most part, were one floor or sometimes one and a half, such as this attic. The streets were dirt or mud, depending on the season. Most people had animals of sone kind: chickens, sheep, cows, dogs. Some people had a horse or two, but not usually to serve any useful purpose. The most common way of transportation was by bicycle. Not too far in the distance was the ocean, seen over the top of the hills, a silvery grayish color most of the time and a deep blue when the sun shone directly down onto it.
Two things to know about Ste. Méré-Église: One, it had sat there nestled between the green slopes near the ocean for centuries, utterly untouched by history, the most ordinary town you can imagine. Two, it is also very small. There were enough streets to count on one hand and only about a thousand residents in total, including the farmers who lived outside of town.
That is the first part of the story. The next bit is just as important.
That summer, before my father was taken away, I met two people as a result of lucky circumstances. Of course, I had known them beforehand—in a town as small as Ste. Mére-Eglise, it’s difficult not to know people—but I had never imagined that we would spend the next five years of the war the way we did together. The war made friendships out of extraordinary stuff that otherwise would never become friendships. We were just lucky enough to become friends during that war.
It’s funny now to think of all those times when we were near each other before the war and never knew the other two were there. There must have been scores of times when we were in the same room, walking down the same street, even standing next to each other, and we never knew.
One of these people was Norris Légar, a neighbor and a classmate. Until that point in time I knew three things about him:
His hair was bright, the color of water when light shines off of it.
He had eyes that sometimes were mirror-sharp and sometimes were soft like clouds.
He spoke with laughter.
And that was all for the time being.
The other person was Renné —. He, too, was a classmate. There was something about him that I couldn’t name, yet it was clearly there, as if it just kept slipping out of sight. He had a touch of quirkiness about him that wasn’t entirely visible at first. My first impression of him was a received, quiet boy, who—as far as I could tell—was nothing special with regard to school or talent. Of course, first impressions aren’t always trustworthy.
It started with my brother Joseph, who took the Germans in Ste. Mere-Eglise the hardest out of all of us. That year he was nineteen, and several years before he got into an automobile accident that smashed up his leg and luckily didn’t kill him. Since he couldn’t do much physically, he felt an obligation to amount to something in a different way. This included helping our parents in our butcher shop and looking after my little brother Charlie and me. He tried to make up for the fact that he was something of a burden on the rest of us.
The way he did that was to do exactly what our father had been arrested for. He joined the French Resistance. At first, we didn’t actually know that it would result in such a huge change. It was not even called the Resistance yet, being so new and unorganized. It began with our cruel neighbor and an underground newspaper, and quickly advanced to Norris, Renné, and on to ending the war.
The cruel neighbor was Monsieur Julian Bernard. No one knew what tho think of him or even what to say about him and as a result he was treated as a sort of taboo in conversation. No one was any more neighborly to him than they had to be. Stories, of course, were spread about him, mostly told be the older children to frighten the younger ones. They were usually something along the lines of Mr. Bernard drowning cats for fun or stealing for children, but although most people hated him no one believed the stories.
Mr. Bernard, of all people, published an undercover flyer that promoted anti-nazi propaganda. No one knew about it unless they were officially part of the Resistance and could be trusted with such things. Nevertheless, Joseph somehow found out about it and it appealed to him. His one talent was rhetoric, and he was proud of it, and he saw a chance to use it to make himself amount to something.
At first he didn’t tell us that he had begun to help with the publication of the flyer. In the long run, I was glad that he waited to tell anyone because if my mother or father had known, they would have put a stop to it. If that had happened, I would never have met Norris or Renné and things might not have ended up the way they did. As it was, when my mother did find out, we were already so tangled up in things that she knew it was better to go along with it.
Joseph spend evenings up in the attic pounding on his typewriter. It was difficult for him to climb up the ladder because of his misshapen foot but he managed to do it using both hands and his one good leg. He kept his typewriter and a stack of papers up there all the time and never told us what he was doing.
He had to help in the shop more than ever now, and most days my father sent him on errands around town. I suppose it was on these trips that he found the time to deliver his slips of writing to Mr. Bernard.
This was the point in time that things started to change and come together. It was when I learned what Joseph was up to and when I met Norris and Renné, although it did take us a while to warm to each other.
This is what it looked like:
Day after day I pass by Mr. Bernard’s and peer in the window. Sometimes his dimly lit face appears as I round the corner and his eyes catch the flick of a shirt or coat.
Day after day Joseph disappears on the walk to school and reappears next to me on the walk home.
Day after day Norris and Renné walk down the main street, past each other, looking at the cobblestones instead of each other. Their arms brush. Not one word.
As summer passes, things seem to speed up, like the clock is in a hurry for whatever is going to happen.
I look into Mr. Bernard’s window and catch a glimpse of lamplight reflecting off of glasses and hints of movement. He sees my face, shadowy, through the glass.
Joseph knows I suspect something and I see him hiding scraps of paper in his pockets as he clumps downstairs in the mornings.
This time Renné’s eyes catch Norris’s for a moment as they pass each other. They see each other but do not stop and do not speak.
This continues for some time. But things seem to speed up even more and we start to draw closer.
That day Mr. Bernard steps out onto his front steps and puts up a hand as I pass his house. He doesn’t smile, just looks.
It was then that I discovered Joseph and the typewriter.
That day Renné and Norris reach out and shake hands.
I saw Mr. Bernard out on his front steps with his hand raised to me and waved back, although I wasn’t sure why he had ever even bothered to acknowledge me anyway. No one in that town could remember the last time he had been any nicer to anyone than he had to be, and I couldn’t imagine why he chose me of all people to wave to.
“Good morning!” I decided to shout to him.
He didn’t say anything. He watched me as I turned the corner.
Of course we wondered what Joseph did in the attic nearly every evening, so one night that fall I followed him up after dinner and found him in sitting in the middle of the floor surrounded by papers with a typewriter on his lap. His crutch was next to him. He was not using it so much anymore now that, after years of use, his leg was beginning to function properly.
He looked up when I came in. Only his eyes moved. He had been sitting and chewing his nails instead of writing, but papers were sprawled across the floor along with a collection of pencils and pens.
“What’s this?” I asked from the doorway.
Joseph never said more than he had to. Sometimes it was hard to tell whether he said as little as possible just because he didn’t feel like speaking, or because he wanted to irritate somebody.
Joseph looked at me from over the top of the typewriter on his lap and didn’t say a word.
“What are you writing? We all want to know.”
“Come here,” he said, patting the floor beside him.
I sat down and leaned forward to see the paper on the typewriter.
This time as they passed each other, Norris’s shoulder accidentally jostled Renné’s and they both stumbled sideways. Norris’s foot slid in a patch of mud and slipped. Renné caught him by the arm.
“Oops,” Renné said, grinning.
“Hello,” said Norris
They shook hands.
“Are you the one who lives over by the orchard past the church?”
“Yeah, my name’s Renné. My family owns that orchard.”
He had on a sweater with bulging pockets. Reaching into one, he pulled out an apple and offered it to Norris.
“Here, take an apple.”
Norris took the apple. He crunched it and they stood facing each other on the sidewalk, each with a shy, curious smile and a yearning to talk, as a result of what they had seen of each other over that summer, the few seconds every day when they passed each other in the street. Over the summer curiosity had grown, and that was part of the reason for Norris’s “Hi”, the handshake, and the apple that Renné offered.
My war notes—1940
So far this story has left some big gaps in the stretch of time from when the Nazis came to when things started to come together. So to fill some of those gaps here are a few notes that I took on Joseph’s typewriter to chronicle the war:
““My name is Claire DuVal. Today is the nineteenth of June, 1940, and I am fifteen years old. I am recording this date because yesterday was the day that the Germans marched into Ste. Méré-Église. This town is so pathetically insignificant that no one has paid it attention in all of history before. The black cross, what they call the swastika, is flying over the town hall. The soldiers have already set up lodgings inside our neighbor’s barns.”
“They don’t like us because we don’t understand their language. And only a few of them can speak French, but very little and very badly. There is no way for us to communicate except for the few words that we know in the respective other language and vigorous hand motions, which usually accomplish little except for heightened frustration. I get the feeling, from the way they look at us and the way they talk to each other, that they don’t want to be here any more than we want them.”
I had torn these little scraps of paper from the typewriter and pinned them up to the attic wall, where I left them day after day. Soon the wall was scaled with bits of fluttering paper.
“I can’t walk twenty feet anymore before someone yells “HALT!” so that they can go through my things and talk to each other in German without me knowing what they’re saying. “Halt” is a word they dump onto their speech like it’s salt on a meal. The funny thing is, they look as miserable as I am to be talking to me. I don’t think they want to be here either.”
“‘Dummkopf’ ‘dummes Kind’ and ‘Schwachkopf’ are a few of the excellent German insults I’ve learned over the past year. They are not the worst ones, but still useful in a mildly irritating situation. German insults are so much better than French ones. Speaking of languages, we are not learning English any more in school. I think it’s because the Germans want us to speak their language, and luckily I’ve learned enough English that my speech is now a weird mash of all three: French, German, and English.”
“What interest does Hitler have in a town like Ste. Mere-Eglise? I don’t think there is any other town so out-of-the-way and quiet as this one. People here are farmers and shopkeepers and don’t care about the Germans unless they come nosing into our business.”
“The war is changing people. Joseph used to tell me everything, now he’s hibernating in the attic all evening every day and I don’t even think Mama known what he’s up to. I only hope he tells us sometime soon.”
“What does Mr. Bernard want with me?! Talk about the war changing people. Never in all the time I have lived here (which is every day of my life) have I seen him come out of his house and wave to anybody, much less me. I’ve never spoken to him. Not a single word.”
And that brings things to mid-summer of 1940.