SALETÉ RÉFUGIATE – DIRTY REFUGEES
REMEMBERING WORLD WAR II – PARIS: MARCELLE RECALLS DIFFICULT MEMORIES
“You asked me what I remember about the beginnings of World War II in Paris,” Marcelle responded. “What my life was like? How I lived? Let me see if I can remember……” She sat quietly, running her index finger round and round the handle of the coffee cup before her, her mind racing back to her teens over seventy years before.
“Now, you probably know that Hitler came to power in 1933,” she began. “I don’t think we thought much about it at the time, and I, of course, was too young to think of such things. As you know, I was born on the last day of WWI. So, I knew little of what caused war . . . although being French, politics was always under discussion.” A twinkle flitted through her dark eyes.
“I do know that when the Spanish civil war began in ‘36, it became a dress rehearsal for what was to come, for Hitler was testing out his dive-bombers at Guernica. We should have taken note.
“But, in 1936, I moved to Paris, where I gave birth to my son, Thierry. Because I was an unmarried teen-age mother, I never returned to my grandmother’s home in Vannes and avoided my mother’s home in Paris. It’s a long story, but it seemed better that way.”
“It must have been very difficult for you—being so young and on your own,” I said.
She shrugged her stooped shoulders and pulled her sweater more tightly around her. A look of determination swept over her weathered face. “I found that ‘family’ comes in many different forms. You see, I was not the only young mother in Paris….and I made a network of friends. Fortunately, I found a good job working at the Citröen factory and my beautiful son was cared for by the child care workers for factory employees.
“Like I said, the year was ‘36, and there was great turmoil going on in Paris. At that time we didn’t know France was headed for war once again.” She cocked her head to the side. “But I remember that the atmosphere simply crackled with talk of it.
“I faintly remember hearing about such things, but not understanding what was happening. Everything is made clearer in hind-sight, as they say. I think it was around the time when both Germany, then Russia, invaded Poland, that we began to see that we needed to prepare for war too, but I suppose it was already too late. The massive numbers of refugees were already beginning to fill the streets of Paris…..streaming down from the north.
“It was on September 3rd, 1939, when both England and France finally declared war on Germany, that it became real for me. That was when the Communist Party was banned and as a factory worker, that meant that I no longer had as many rights. Same as a union worker. At least I still had a job, and that was what mattered most to me.
“The eight-month period which followed was known as the ‘phony war’ – Drôle de Guerre – phony, because although war had been declared, there was no fighting. None at all! Everyone was waiting to see what Hitler would do next. Waiting for the other shoe to drop! I guess we felt pretty superior as we had beaten Germany in WWI. And we were relying on the defensive Maginot Line that had been built after World War I, along our northern border. We were constantly being told by our government that we were all safe…..and, of course, we believed them. We had no idea what was to come.
Not until the bombs began to fall on our beloved City, did we realize the danger we were in. I remember it was the 3rd of May, 1940, the Germans began bombing Paris. An estimated 1,000 bombs were dropped and the very Citröen factory where I worked became a major target. The factory was seriously damaged and set ablaze; glass and debris littered the streets all around.
“As all of our workers raced into the Metro, we were handed WWI gas masks. We had been told to expect the Germans would be using gas. I tried not to panic, but we were all so frightened.
After the bombing raid was over and we came up from the Metro, a concrete air raid shelters across the street, crowded with women and school children, was crushed with all of its occupants mutilated beyond recognition. Again, I could only think of my dear son.”
I could barely breathe until I received word my Thierry was safe. I was, indeed, grateful. Oddly, though, after those first bombs fell, I felt panic, yet there didn’t appear to be panic around me…. only outrage and a sense of unreality—a feeling that such things could not possibly be happening to us.”
It was on or around the early part of May, 1940, when Hitler ordered the invasion of France. Again, we French relied on our expertise on the ground. We hadn’t planned for the Nazis’ strong ‘blitzkrieg’ (air tactics), and within two days, the Germans had cut through our beautiful Ardennes forests …..where we didn’t expect them at all. And they had gone around the infamous Maginot Line. How could that be? We French had constructed this wall with the best instructions from our most famous WWI general, Martial Pétain! But, the Germans had completely cut off all means of French attacks. We heard that Churchill ordered a massive evacuation from our French port at Dunkirk, where tens of thousands of soldiers were transported back to Britain including many of our French soldiers. But, still, there were massive numbers of ships bombed and hundreds of our men lay dead or were dying on the beaches and in the waters. It wasn’t until we heard the radio reports from Dunkirk, that we finally realized we were truly no longer safe. In retrospect, all the signs were there . . . . but, it was too late.”
“I can’t imagine how frightened you must have been,” I said. Guilt riddled me for having brought this painful subject up in the first place. But I couldn’t help myself. For some reason, I needed to understand how she was able to make it. “So, what did you do? How did you carry on?”
Marcelle took a long sip of already cold coffee and placed her cup solidly on the saucer. I could tell she was envisioning the scenes of her past as if watching an old newsreel. But she sat up straight in her chair and continued on.
“I remember walking to work on a June day back then.” She paused. “All seemed so quiet; it was hard to believe that we were in danger. The skies were a beautiful shade of blue. The air was warm with the coming of summer. Everything seemed so normal. People were laughing and drinking in the café below my windows. In fact, I had waved to some of the women who were busy hanging their wash on the lines out back. Why, the people in our pension seemed to be going about their business like always. Edith Piaf’s voice lilted down to me from a radio in someone’s window. But, then, I heard a news flash on the radio that thousands of people were streaming toward Paris…. mothers, children, and the elderly were marching south on the roads, because Dunkirk had been completely destroyed. No men accompanied them, as they were either dead or captured by the Germans. In addition, we were hearing constant reports of our French soldiers running just ahead of the Germans….but, without any weapons of any kind. Was that true or propaganda?”
But by June 10th, I, along with my fellow employees, were told to prepare to go directly to Bordeaux. A new Citröen factory was to be built. We all made arrangements to make the journey, packing everything we could carry in one valise. Even though I had no choice but to leave my four-year-old Thierry behind, I dreaded abandoning him. My mother had done the same to me. But, now I better understood her. When it’s the only job you have . . . you must go. And I was promised Thierry would be safe until I could bring him to Bordeaux.”
“As the Germans entered from the north into the back door of Paris, the flood gates of humanity poured out to the south and to the west. Millions of people became part of a forced march, or as it came to be known, L’Exode de Paris, or the ‘Exodus of Paris’. It was all so sad,” Marcelle intoned. “We thought that as Citröen employees, we would be able to take the train. But, as it turned out, we became like the rest of the refugees, forced to walk. All the way to Bordeaux . . . 499 km. or 310 miles.
It was common to see little tots being carried, small carts being pulled by animals, big people, old people, children, all carrying everything they could possibly carry….everything they owned. It was like we now see on T.V….but, from other countries. Families were evacuating the only lives they had ever known. On that day we became part of the ‘Saleté Refugiate’ or the ‘dirty refugees’. Unfortunately, that was not the last time we felt that scorn from our own countrymen.
“At the same time, unbeknownst to us, the French government had also fled to Bordeaux, leaving the war hero, Martial Pétain in charge. They hoped for time to restructure the French government in relative safety. As we all left the City of Lights behind, none of us knew what we would find at the other end of the road.
“Within a matter of days, the Germans had taken hold of Paris and, General Martial Pétain—that same WWI French war hero—had surrendered all of France. How could that be? We were stunned! We had been sold out like rabbits! Even the French government had been left out of the debate. But, even though we French harbored great resentment, we knew we must work and we must survive.
“Six weeks later, desperate to see my son, I, like so many of us, returned to Paris. We proud French did not want to work for the Germans, but pride did not feed us or our children. We had no choice! We were forced to return to the repaired Citröen factory, but this time to work for the Germans. And this time we were forced to manufacture weapons to be used on our own people.” She sighed and shook her old head sadly. “At least my son was safe and that was all that counted—all that ever counted to me.”
Interview with Marcelle Pourrette which led to the historical novel, A Cup of Redemption.