Vichy

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: M.G. Edwards

Excerpts from the memoirs of Messieur Jean-Marie Daubert, assistant deputy of finance, Rhône Department, Ministry of Finance, Republic of France, 1937–42. Lieutenant in the Forces Françaises de L’interieur, French resistance fighter 1940–42, interned prisoner at Gurs, France, 1942–45. Transferred January, 1943 to Gross-Rosen Concentration Camp in Wroclaw, Poland. Released by the Soviet Red Army in August, 1945. French emissary to the Soviet Union, Moscow liaison, 1946–48, Consular-General to the French Republic of Indochina, 1948–54

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 June 14, 1940

My beloved Corinne,

The border is quiet tonight. News reached us that Paris has fallen to the Germans. The north is lost. The Maginot Line did not hold. Do not wait to leave. Take yourself and our son Jean-Luc and go at once to stay with Madame Bolanger in Lyon. She will keep you safe until I am able to meet you there. I will make haste and will meet you within the week. I do not know whether the government will reorganize itself in Lyon or seek exile in Britain. I am not sure what my assignment will be now that France is occupied, dearest Corinne.

Jean-Marie

 

July 3, 1940

My beloved Corinne,

I cannot say where I am now, for I am on business. I will give this message to Simon to relay to you; not even he knows where I will be when you receive this. Say nothing of this correspondence to Madame Bolanger or Messieur Thierry, and destroy it immediately after reading. I suspect that they have had contact with collaborators and may not be trustworthy.

The Resistance has assigned me to a post where I must stay for a few days. I will return to Lyon when it is safe, before our families grow suspicious of my absence. Tell my brother that I am in Marseille on business and show him a copy of my travel papers to put his mind at ease. Claude is sympathetic to Marshal Pétain. Be mindful of this at all times, Corinne.

I so want to be with you now, dearest Corinne. Fate keeps us apart for now, and I fear that the fight will separate us longer than we would prefer. Général DeGaulle is now leader of the Resistance and in charge of liberating France. I do not yet know what my next assignment will be, but please be assured that I am safe for the moment.

Stay with my aunt and uncle in Bordeaux after they have moved from Paris, and keep Jean-Luc safe. Move before the Vichy government cracks down on relocation, as I have heard that Marshal Pétain may soon prohibit such activity.

Jean-Marie

 

May 21, 1941

My beloved Corinne,

Paris is quiet and subdued tonight. The night sky is beautiful, but I cannot enjoy it while I am ensconced in my flat. The SS patrols have imposed curfew, and all lights must cease. I write this by candlelight in the bathroom. Our city is so different than it was just a year ago. It is but a ghost of its former self. Most of the bourgeoisie have already moved to the south as we have done. Nazi crétiens are everywhere, and I cannot even separate the faithful from the collaborators among our own people. I trust only those I know from the Resistance.

A man named Serveuz will give this to you. Do not ask him any questions and remember that any correspondence from me will come through him. I will remain in Paris for two months on official assignment from Vichy, and then I shall rejoin you in Bordeaux. These are terrible times for Jean-Luc, but Bordeaux is quiet and I pray that you will be able to shelter him from war.

Jean-Marie

 

November 16, 1941

It is too dangerous to write you any further like this. No other correspondence will come to you other than through official channels. I am well. Please keep Jean-Luc safe.

Jean-Marie

 

August 10, 1942

It has been six months since I last saw my beloved Corinne and son Jean-Luc. I was on assignment in Toulouse when I was arrested by Vichy police in my office on the accusation that I am an operative for the French Resistance Government in Vichy France and the German occupied territory. I suspect that Simon cracked under police interrogation, and that I am not the only one captured. It has been three months since I was incarcerated in Toulouse, and I still await trial and sentencing. I am grateful, if such a thing is to be said, that I was taken in the free zone rather than in Paris. I have little doubt that the Nazi crétiens would have ended my life in the woods by the gun. I prefer the cramped confines of this provincial jail to a mass grave.

I do not know what will befall my family now that I have been accused of being a traitor to a treacherous state. I only hope that they will be placed under house arrest in my uncle’s home in Bordeaux and that they sever ties with me. I do not know when I will be tried, although I am sure that I will be sent to Gurs with all the undesirables of the Nazi state. I pray that the Vichy Government can keep the south a free zone and prevent the full German occupation of my beloved France. Vive la France.

 

October 6, 1942

Madame Corinne Daubert,

I will be tried on Friday, October 9 in a military court in Toulouse. You have been informed by the court of this event and are permitted to attend. I ask that you not be present at the proceedings. When I have been acquitted, I will rejoin my uncle in Bordeaux.

Jean-Marie Daubert

 

November 12, 1942

The Gurs barracks are so cold at night. The buildings are shoddily built. The wind blows through the cracks and chills the body to the bone. The beds are hard planks set in tiers, and I have only one standard-issue woolen blanket to keep me warm. The winds blow even colder now that the Vichy Government has capitulated to the Germans and the Nazis are marching to take over the whole of France. The entire compound was alive today with rumors of what will happen to the prisoners here; the Jews and political traitors and other undesirables. Will we be shipped like cattle to the east, never to be seen again in our homeland?

Oh, how I miss my wife’s warm embrace now. I cannot imagine that she is so close to me, just over the Pyrennes. I have heard from her but once since I was found guilty and sentenced here. I am so grateful that my uncle has allowed her and Jean-Luc to stay with him while under house arrest, for no one else in our families would dare harbor the wife and son of an accused traitor. At least they are safe, although I do not know what will happen to them now that the Nazis are approaching. I have asked her to keep her contact with me seldom and brief for her own sake.

 

December 6, 1942

The pain. All I can think of is the pain, especially my back and wrists. Hours of interrogation before a German military board, screaming in that foul guttural tongue. They want names, they want contacts. They want to break all resistance. The dogs! How could we be overrun by such dogs? My face hurts so much, and the tattered blanket does not keep the wind off my body. My body is battered, but I will never capitulate. I will never give in. I will never do what Simon did and betray us. My back hurts so. Why does the plank feel as if it is full of sharp nails digging into my back? I am desperately hungry. I might feel better if they did not keep feeding us that tasteless gruel they call food. It is so cold as night.

I might as well be dead. The Germans have cut off all contacts between the prisoners and their loved ones. Corinne and Jean-Luc will never know whether I am alive or dead.

 

January 12, 1943

We are cattle being prodded into a train car. They keep us traitors separate from the Jews and push us into our own car. What a small recompense for being shoved together into an overcrowded space where everyone is pressed up against each other. The sweat and the filth; they are worse than animals. We are the lucky ones, they say, the useful ones who are being deported for knowing too much. They say they want to examine us and pull the knowledge out of our heads. The prisoners say they will strap us to the examiner’s table and open our heads and remove our skulls to find whatever they’re looking for. Savages! Am I hallucinating already?

The Pyrennes are unusually cold today. Our solace is that we are packed together so tightly together that it warms us. Jussip is over there, there’s Marc, and I see René in the corner smashed against two nameless faces. They are probably all Resistance members, but no one can say lest our tongues damn us to being scapegoats. It is remarkable what a mouth will say when the body is being tortured.

The screech of the train against the track as it pulls away from Gurs sounds eerie. Will I see France again? Will I ever see my beloved Corinne and Jean-Luc alive?

 

January 16, 1943

I cannot bear this place! Emaciated prisoners are walking around in the snow like the dead. No shoes or coats; only rags to keep them warm. Will they take my blanket from me as a punishment?

Schnell! Steh auf dem Linie!” Nazi pigs curse and kick us into a long line in front of the train. I want to go back into the train car. My throat is so parched; it cries for relief. The snowflakes sting my cheeks. Perhaps my tongue can catch some and quench my thirst. My mouth is so dry. It’s so cold. How can we survive without clothing? Do I see blood in the snow?

I thought I was going to Natzweiler in France, but I am now even closer to death. Gross-Rosen Camp in Poland, I hear. A place of death where you work until you fall, and they shoot you dead. I will never see Corinne or Jean-Luc again. Corinne . . . Jean-Luc . . . I miss you. Please help me stay alive, I beg of you!

 

March 20, 1943

The early spring is colder than in France. I dream of the days when Corinne and I tasted wine in the spring on the Champs-Élysee. So long ago that I hardly remember what it was once like. I love to dream now while toiling in the dirt and churning earth to plant beets in the camp. The day begins in the dark, and we are forced into the fields. They took away my blanket and gave me a worn out jacket, probably from a dead prisoner. I made gloves from part of my jacket, but my fingers have broken through, and they’ve become frostbitten. You could patch them up for me, Corinne, if you were here. Please, never come here.

From time to time, the guards come to take another prisoner for interrogation; sometimes the poor soul returns to work, and sometimes not. At times, the sound of gunshots comes from the woods. Another prisoner dead. The sound of death carries far in the crisp spring air.

Our lot as political prisoners is a difficult one, but I am thankful that we are not with the Jews. Our collective knowledge keeps us alive, for we know that we have some value to the Nazi dogs. The Jews are worthless to the Germans. We are kept in a different area of the camp, away from the Jews. Rumors of mass extermination of the Jews in gas chambers the dogs deny exist persist. Whispers of mass graves feed our curiosity whenever we look up at the columns of ashen smoke on the horizon. The dogs tell us to mind our business by cracking our skulls with their guns. When the wind blows our way, it carries with it the stench of death. Guards distract us by barking, “Get back to work! Arbeit macht frei!” they laugh. They cannot fool us. Work until death, and then freedom at death.

 

October 28, 1943

Life is terrible in the camp. I am so tired every day. The work is too long. There isn’t enough to eat. If I stop, I will die. Each day, we rise before dawn and then trudge back to the barracks after dark exhausted. Every day, in the fields tending crops for Nazi masters, except for the times when they take you to the interrogation room for a vicious beating. Even after they have drained you of your secrets and threaten to turn you into ash, still they keep you alive as a Nazi ear for the fresh prisoners who need to be drained of information. We cannot trust one another; stories abound of the spies among us. Gnawing hunger stays with you even after you consume the meager food you receive every morning and night. As winter approaches, the portions seem smaller and smaller. Airplanes fly overhead on occasion. More gunshots in the distance, and the now-constant billowing of ashen snow. We cannot tell whether the gunfire is from friend or foe, but it grows more frequent. We dare not hope that it is a sign of liberation.

The other prisoners keep me preoccupied now. I do not doubt that I preoccupy many of them as well. Jussip and Marc remain alive and reside in the same barracks as I. We share company with the Dane Lars and the Russians Anatoly Brezhov and Mikhail Ivanisovich. I do not trust anyone other than these men. René fell to a bullet over the summer because of his indiscretion. German dogs do not want to be reminded that they are dogs, and the Schiller shot him down when René insulted him. We never speak of life beyond the barbed wire, but we know each other intimately as prisoners sharing the same struggle to survive the cold and torture.

 

December 8, 1943

Gross-Rosen is so far away from France. How long would it take for me to return to France and reunite with you, my beloved Corinne and Jean-Luc? How long has it been since I last saw you? I barely remember your faces, your looks, your smells.

What day is this? Is it February yet? My Jean-Luc, my own son, must be nine years old by now. Is he being raised as Hitler youth? Has he denounced his father? Is he a good little Nazi or preparing to join the Resistance? I have not spoken with my beloved Corinne for over a year and a half. Has she forgotten me already? Has she severed ties with this Nazi traitor?

Lars was shot days ago after he fell deathly ill. His body was burned alongside the Jews. Winter is unusually harsh this year. I can only hope it was just as terrible for the German Wehrmacht fighting in Russia as it is for us. May the Siberian cold render their tanks and guns useless. I can bear the winter knowing that the Nazi soldiers face the elements as we do. It tries a man’s soul not knowing what is happening around him. When will we be liberated from this madness? Will this madness ever end?

 

January 16, 1944

They took my toes. Frostbitten. Black and lifeless. The Soldier Heinrich enjoyed doing it. Heinrich. He was not a doctor. He used his long knife. He would have taken my feet too, but then I would be useless and shot dead. My life is not worth the bullet.

 

May 20, 1944

Where are the Allies? Haven’t we suffered enough already? I cannot cover my back anymore. There is no more material to patch clothing. Not even Anatoly has any cover to give me. The pain in my feet is dull now.

The dogs. Need more food. We haven’t seen food for three days. The dogs get all of it. Mikhail has cigarettes, but no one will barter with him. Why don’t they just starve us all and consume us?

 

September 16, 1944

Is it true? Have the Allies liberated our beloved France from the dogs? I do not believe it, but the camp is full of such rumors. A fence story told to a prisoner by a local sympathizer. I shall not believe, not until we have been liberated from this hell.

Corinne, I can no longer remember your face. It is but a blur to me. Why can I not remember it? Why are you fading from me?

 

December 25, 1944

Is it Christmas today, Corinne? Every day there are rumors that the end is near. The Russians have invaded Poland, they say. The guards still intimidate us, but the burning and mass executions have stopped. Perhaps they too know the end is near and want us all to forget their atrocities. But we will never forget.

I am still a mole in the earth planting winter wheat, but this year there is reason to hope. This hell may be almost over, and then I shall be reunited with you and Jean-Luc. If I can survive just one more cruel, cold winter.

 

February 2, 1945

The Russians have liberated the camp! Watch the Nazi dogs scurry now. Where is their Führer now? If I had more strength, I would beat a few of the guards to death. Jussip died of pneumonia just one month before the liberation. I do not know where the butcher Heinrich went to, but I will hunt him down when I have rested and this war is over. And Franz and Schiller. Lars and René will find justice.

There is still no food, but they have brought some clothing and boots for us. Food will come tomorrow or the next day. It feels so good to be warm! For the first time in three winters, I feel warmth. I am going home, they say, but where is home? I have not spoken with you for three years, my beloved Corinne? Are you in Bordeaux? Lyon? Paris?

 

May 10, 1945

My beloved Corinne,

I am alive and coming home! The Soviets have kept us here at Gross-Rosen for three months until the liberation is complete. They have arranged for the French prisoners to return to France via Italy in the next month. I hope that this letter finds you. I am sending it to Bordeaux, but I do not know whether you are there or if this letter will manage its way through the chaos. I so long to be with you and Jean-Luc again. Two and a half years is too long to be away from home.

I am well. The spring is cold, and there still is not enough food or clothing, but we are happy to be free. The Nazi guards have been rounded up and jailed and will face justice. I will be leaving soon, and Anatoly and Mikhail Ivanisovich will be returning to the Soviet Union. They are wonderful comrades. We will look each other up after the war is over. Hitler has committed suicide, and the Allies are advancing. It is only a matter of time before this evil war is over. I pray that both you and Jean-Luc are safe and that Jean-Luc has grown into a brave young man. I pray for our reunion and for peace.

I love you with my very being, dearest Corinne. Thoughts of you kept me going during the darkest days. I will never leave you or Jean-Luc again, my beloved. I will be home soon.

Jean-Marie

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