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September 3, 1939
The day war was declared, it was the church bell of Sainte-Mère-Eglise that rang out first. Never had I heard bells ringing that way. I'll remember it as long as I live. I knew at once that it was a bell of warning or alarm. I could see the belltower from my bedroom window at the Sheepfold, and I was looking, transfixed, at the church.
Amfreville's belltower responded immediately, followed several seconds later by those of Fresville, Neuville-au-Plain, and Chef-du-Pont. It was a strange, slow melody, even sadder than certain autumn evenings when dusk falls. To me, church bells are happy. Of course, they do ring at funerals, too, but those I had learned to recognize. No, this was no funeral; it was a new and menacing sound, a dismal chant filled with storms and desolation that lay heavy over the fields and fen. Why? What did it mean?
That day Mama had left me-the big girl of six and a half that I was-in charge of her one-year-old baby brother, who lay sleeping in his crib. Poor Mama. As the bells began to ring, I was looking at her through the window. She was wielding a sickle, doing her best to cut the tufts of thorny bushes that grow, in random patches, in the meadows, like weeds in a garden. Cattle that ate them could damage their stomachs. Some people called them "cursed thistles," but around here we simply referred to them as "cow killers."
Mama was the sole custodian both of the large herd of beef cattle and the thirty acres of meadow on which the cattle grazed. She had her hands more than full, and, in addition, two small children to take care of. My father managed to spend every penny he earned drinking with his buddies. So my mother was working, as usual. The ordinary, everyday work of an ordinary, everyday day. As for Papa Maurice, he was nowhere in sight. But we knew what he was up to: he was downing his daily portion of hard cider or Calvados.
My mother had been up at the crack of dawn, as she always was. Before she had left for the Leroux dairy farm, where she and another woman split the job of milking some twenty cows, she had come and laid my baby brother in my arms. He was fast asleep, and I had hardly dared breathe for fear of waking him up.
Little Claude was not just my brother, but also my protÃ(c)gÃ(c) and my refuge. He was the only person in the world-aside from my mother-with whom I felt at ease. I watched him sleeping, attentive to his every breath, fearful yet impatient for him to wake up, so that I could see him open his eyes and smile and begin to babble.
When she had finished milking the cows, at about nine o'clock, my mother came back to the house. Climbing the steep wooden stairs that led to my room, she had come to claim her baby. While she offered him her breast, I went down and lighted the fire in the big fireplace. It was breakfast time. Our breakfasts were very simple. Two pieces of bread sliced out of the six-pound loaf, grilled over the fire, and dipped into hot milk. After breakfast, work time: for my mother, out into the meadow; for me, cleaning up the house. My older sister and brother, Denise and Francis, had jobs at Leroux's, doing general chores during the summer vacation.
Yes, today was an ordinary day. Outside, everything was still. Off to my left, along the fence that bordered the road, the tall elms cast almost no shadow. It was noon. To my right, beyond the trees that marked the end of the meadow, the marshes began, through which the railroad ran as far as the eye could see. This swamp was still dry; winter was a long way off. I could see some cows and horses grazing there-not ours, I knew. Could it be that Papa Maurice was watching them too, leaning up against the gate crossing of 104 — that old wooden gate like all the gates in the countryside-making sure that none of the horses or cattle strayed onto the tracks as the train approached? Or maybe he was pacing up and down the tracks, keeping an eagle eye open for any rails that might have expanded with the heat.
An image of peace and serenity. Nothing bad could happen to us. Life was hard, very hard some times, but it was ours. Why should it change? And who would have the power to change it?
The bells were still ringing. Why? Why were they ringing so loud and long? I had to find out. Glancing at my little brother, and seeing that he was still fast asleep, I left the house and ran toward my mother. She might know. She heard me coming and straightened up. I could see she was crying as she folded me in her arms. I buried my head in her breast and asked her why the bells were ringing that way.
"It's an alarm," she said. "It's awful. They're ringing to tell us war's been declared."
"War is when men go out and fight each other. Kill each other."
I'd heard of war before. But in my mind wars took place far away, in a corner of France where neither I nor my mother would ever go. So what would that change for us?
"You'll have plenty of time to learn what war is," she said sadly. "We're going to become poorer and poorer, more and more unhappy."
Maybe so. But I hadn't noticed that we were unhappy. I wasn't a spoiled child, like some city kids who never knew what it was like to work. I already had my responsibilities, my allotted chores. I had seen hard times before, and knew I would again. But still that was no reason to despair, was it?
My mother was crying; I had to cheer her up. At least try.
"Come on, Mama, give me a big smile. And stop working. You'll see. It'll be all right. Come back to the house with me, I'll make you a cup of coffee."
"I can't, Geneviève. I can't stop now. I still have a lot of fences to check before dark. The cattle have broken some of the barb wire, and I have to string new ones."
"Too bad! You can't believe how cute the baby is today!"
I knew that would do the trick: a faint smile came over her lips, and she followed me meekly to the house. As she was sipping her coffee I came over and sat on her lap.
"Don't be sad," I said. "Why don't you teach me a new song."
As far back as I can remember, I always loved to sing. So much so that I sometimes think I learned to sing before I learned to talk. My mother knew how much I loved it — a passion she shared — and so she taught me a new refrain every day, or, on those days when she didn't have time, a new couplet added onto yesterday's song. Like me, my mother had a very pretty voice. And both of us derived equal and endless pleasure from our singing exercises. I practiced all day long, in the house after my father had left for the day, on the road, when I went with my mother to market or on my way to meet my sister Denise on her way home from school. Sometimes I even broke into song in the middle of my classes, before I could catch myself.
It was our one luxury, one that cost nothing and did no harm to anyone. But that day my mother had trouble indulging it. She looked so sad.
"Do you really want me to teach you a new song," she said, "even despite the war?"
Mama had once told me how one of the kings of France, Louis XIII, had placed our country under the protection of the Holy Virgin. In case of danger, it was to Her we had to pray. She could not refuse our prayers. I knew there was a pretty song that talked about it.
"Teach me that song about the Virgin Mary and France," I said.
"All right. But pay close attention to the words. I'm only going to sing it once. I have to get back to the fields."
Then she began to sing, very softly, enunciating the words very carefully. And I repeated each line after her:
Holy Mother, Our sole salvation Lend us your loving hand. Save our nation Save our beloved land.
Certain memories remain forever engraved in your mind. Nothing will ever erase from mine the memory of this first day of the war, and that song whose words are indeed naive but full of meaning. It was a prayer, a real prayer. My mother smiled and patted me on the cheek. Then she went back to her work, leaving me once again alone with my little brother. But not for long.
My father arrived home earlier than expected. His cap was askew, his eyes glazed, his expression more ferocious than usual as he stumbled across the threshold. He grabbed the door frame to keep from falling down. I knew what that meant. It meant I ought to make myself scarce, and I edged toward the staircase, hoping to sneak upstairs before he saw me. But it was useless. Papa Maurice caught sight of me and roared:
"Trying to hide, are you! Come over here!"
I had no choice but to obey. I knew what was in store for me. No one could have protected me. My mother had come back from the fields. But what could she do? Standing just five feet, and weighing only 100 pounds, she was no match for her husband.
"Come over here," he said again.
Submissively I walked over to him. He raised his hand. The first slap caught me square in the face. Again, the huge hand, bigger than a washerwoman's paddle, struck me full force. A trickle of blood ran down from my lips.
That was enough. As he brought his hand down again, I moved my head away at the last second and his hand crashed into a corner of the massive oak clothes closet against which I had been leaning.
Papa Maurice let out a howl of pain. Then he collapsed into a chair and launched into a diatribe, only partly coherent, about the evils of war. "Madness!" he thundered. "Total madness. Shouldn't be allowed to exist, I tell you!" But I knew it was only a lull in the storm, so I quietly sneaked upstairs to my room. There I knew I would be safe. My father was scared stiff of that staircase. Even in his worst moments, he remained painfully aware of the danger that the ascent of those thirteen wooden steps represented for him. He would have cracked his skull on them. Happily for me, he never made the attempt. So I knew I was safe until the next day.
A little while later, Mother brought the baby up to me. Then she left for the Leroux farm, to milk the cows again, as she did each evening. As payment, she came home with two liters of fresh milk.
Night was falling. I thought back on my day: the church bells ringing their sad alarm; my mother crying; the baby asleep; father coming home drunk. These would be my memories of that first day of World War II.
On that day, I was six years and five months old.CHAPTER 2
September 1939-June 1944
Jean Leroux and his wife, Madame Marguerite, were the important people of the region. Their farm, Noires Terres, was vast and imposing. I used to go there often with my mother, whom the Leroux's had known for many years, from the time before she was married. They always found some work for her on the farm, which assured us of our daily needs. It was work most often paid for in food rather than money-not all that different from the relationship between noble and peasant in the Middle Ages, with the difference, of course, that the work here was voluntary. But many of the labors performed were not all that different than they must have been in medieval times. Both the men and women of the region threshed the grain by hand with rhythmic strokes, for hours on end, seated on the stone floor of the farm courtyard; they were armed with flails, instruments made of two pieces of wood, one long and one short-not unlike the wooden handles of tools-and joined by leather cords about ten centimeters long, which gave them flexibility. It was hard, painful, and trying work, much as it must have been hundreds of years ago.
The buildings that composed the Leroux farm formed a four-sided complex, and I used to walk wide-eyed through the various buildings. One entered the complex through an archway nestled between a stable and cattle barn. On your right were the barns and storage sheds. At the far end of the courtyard was the master's dwelling, only one story high but so vast there must have been ten or a dozen rooms, at least. I thought how nice it would be to live in such a house.
The fireplace at the Sheepfold was built in such a way that we had been able to install, beneath its mantel, a wooden bench where little Claude and I could sit on cold winter evenings. The bench was to the left of the fireplace, the right side being reserved for the chicks born during the off-season, for to sustain our needs we raised both chickens and rabbits. Fastened to the back of the fireplace was a heavy hook which held the big pot in which my mother always kept soup simmering. One winter evening I arrived home from school after a long, icy walk, and sat down at my usual place on the little bench by the fire. I rubbed my hands close to the fire, and had just begun to feel warmer when all of a sudden the hook that held the soup pot came loose, and the pot full of boiling soup spilled all over me.
I screamed. I was burned so badly that I had to spend the rest of the winter in bed. A whole winter of endless days in the house alone, with only my little brother for company. To help the days pass my mother gave me a doll. It was my first doll.
The doctor came to the house twice a week to change my bandages. I hated his visits, for the operation was very painful, and I could never hold back the tears.
"If you cry," the doctor said, "I'll take your doll away."
He wasn't so dumb. I had one toy, one real toy, a doll such as every little girl on the face of the earth dreams of having. And he knew I wasn't about to let him take it away from me.
Leaning over me, he began to remove the bandages. I closed my eyes and clenched my teeth. Not a sound escaped my lips.
My doll was my dream; pain was part of life. If I wanted one, I would have to endure the other.
In the meantime, we had more or less grown used to the presence of the Germans. For the most part that war was far away, and the news of what was happening, brought to us by word of mouth, often seemed vague and filled with rumors. Anyway, war was a serious matter not for children's ears, so in our presence the subject was rarely discussed. And yet we knew more than the grownups realized. We knew that war was, as Papa Maurice had said, total madness, but that it was also very complicated. For instance, we saw that some Frenchmen, our own people, not only sported but proudly wore armbands with a swastika on them. They worked for the Germans, and had the job of patrolling the tracks. They not only invited themselves to lunch whenever they felt like it, but they also ate the best food. They thought that was only normal.
As for the French who continued to fight for our liberation, we didn't know who they were. We didn't even know they existed. The Resistance? We kids had never heard of them. The members of the Resistance laid very low. We all knew about a man named de Gaulle, the general who spoke on the radio. We heard the grownups whisper his name. We didn't have a radio. And even if we had, what good would it have done us? Neither 104 nor the Sheepfold had electricity. Our radio was prayer. Every night before we went to bed we prayed for the pilots to bomb Germany, we prayed for this man de Gaulle, we prayed for the soldiers who were dying anywhere in the world, and most of all we prayed for victory.
Meanwhile, while waiting for victory to come, we had to survive. They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and before I was ten I had learned the truth of that maxim. M. Leroux had given us permission to glean his land, after the harvest was in, and that was how we managed to get enough grain of one sort or another to feed our chickens and turkeys during the winter. I also used to go after school to pick two big baskets of dandelion greens from the Leroux farm, which our barnyard friends devoured with great relish. During the summer our fowl managed very well for themselves by scratching about in the fields around the Sheepfold.
However the rations provided by the government were insufficient to fill even our most basic needs, so we had to figure out some alternate ways to better our lot. Then the idea came to me one bright summer day: we would go poaching! Little Claude was by now big enough to accompany me on my expeditions, and so, whenever we had a free moment from our chores, off we went, hand in hand, exploring the region around La Fière. La Fière! ... meaning "the Proud": what a fancy name for a tiny village of only a few houses which in winter stood just a scant few inches above the water that inundated the surrounding swamps. Legend had it that "La Fière" came from a German or Anglo-Saxon word meaning "ferry" and really did not mean "proud" at all. Apparently one could trace its origins back to the Norman pirates of old. And the fact was that, in the written records of the fiefdoms of Normandy, a certain Gauthier de Sainte-Mère-Eglise and Thomas de la Fière each held a knight's fiefdom under a grant from the Lord Lithaire. But all that was long, long ago, and nothing about the region was even vaguely reminiscent of the fierce pirates or warlike knights who once held forth here. On the contrary, the utter calm, the various birds of passage, the peacefulness of the countryside made La Fière a tiny corner of paradise. In 1943, it was our favorite region for exploration. From there, we reconnoitered into the neighboring villages. On this particular day our foray took us to a stream that had all but dried up. And yet it was strange, this stream: a real gold mine, for it was swarming with eels. And eels are delicious. I knew at least three ways to prepare them: fried in the skillet, smoked in the fireplace (in which case you eat them guts and all), or salted. My mouth was already watering, and I made up my mind to bring home this unexpected bounty.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Longest Night"
Copyright © 2011 Editions Robert Laffont, S.A..
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
September 3, 1939,
September 1939-June 1944,
Monday, June 5, 1944,
The Night of June 5,
Tuesday, June 6, 1944,
Wednesday, June 7, 1944,
Thursday, June 8, 1944,
Friday, June 9, 1944,
Saturday, June 10, 1944,
Sunday, June 11, 1944,
Monday, June 12, 1944,
Tuesday, June 13, 1944,
October 2, 1944,
Friday, October 13, 1944,
December 24, 1944,
April 9, 1945,
May 1, 1945,
August 14, 1945,
December 22, 1945,
December 23, 1945,