I recently visited Secrets of WWII at the Reagan Library There, I explored “over a hundred rare and unique stories and hundreds of artifacts” that were “not even made public until recently.” Particularly touching to me were the panels dedicated to the horses, birds, and dogs who had been forced into the war. What I saw and read, however, felt somewhat removed from my personal life experience until I happened upon a glass case that contained a German helmet and a telephone that the Germans used to communicate.
“They forgot the Waffen SS boots,” my grandmother and I thought. « Les bottes noires des boches, tu les vois ? »
My grandmother Marinette, deceased for three decades, was standing with me by that glass case, asking me, in French, if I could see the black boots. No longer was I standing in the lower level of the Reagan Library in 2022: Marinette and I were both frozen in dread in the cellar of the family live-in store in the early seventies in a remote village of the Auvergne region of France.
Marinette suffered from then-undiagnosed PTSD, the result of her active role in the French Resistance. For her, WWII had never ended, and to hide us both from the Nazis, she would rush me down to the cellar throughout my youth and well into the early eighties. From the diminutive, street-level rectangular window, she could still see the dreaded boots march by the store.
My maternal grandparents Marius and Marinette were both members of the French Resistance. Records about their service are archived in the French Defense Historical Service in Vincennes, near Paris. They had put themselves in grave danger, and many of their friends had died. Marinette’s closest cousin Yvonne, also a Resistance member, had been caught and deported. She miraculously survived Ravensbrück from August 1944 until May 1955. Here is a link to a short story that I wrote about Yvonne https://thecentifictionist.home.blog/2021/05/10/yvonnes-parakeets/
My maternal grandparents also raised me for the first few years of my life starting in the mid-sixties. Twenty years after the end of WWII, they still lived and worked in the same tailoring shop in the village’s main square by the 12th-century church. Their trusted friends from their time in the Resistance continued to stop by to reminisce around homemade pastries and tart cherry liquor. They told stories high in color in patois Auvergnat, which is a local dialect of the Occitan language, the language of the French peasantry. My grandfather, who hailed from the south of France (an area with a different dialect of Occitan) was not as fluent in patois Auvergnat as his wife and fellow résistants, so he’d switch to his southern-accented French when the actions recounted required words said in rapid-fire.
My grandmother was especially vocal about les collabos. Those people were either supporting or full members of La Milice, which was a paramilitary organization created in January 1943 by the collaborationist French government to combat la Résistance. Those were people she had also grown up with. They were even more dangerous than les boches, she said, because you were prone to assume that you could trust them, but you could not.
Silent dread set in once their résistant friends left. My grandparents would usually drown themselves in work, then, while I often went up to the attic to scrutinize the remnant of the bleach-resistant blood stains on the unpolished pine floorboards. The attic was where they had hidden wounded résistants and British paratroopers. Tonton Mabrut, head of the resistance for the region and a medical doctor by profession, would sneak in under cover of night to remove exploding bullets from mangled limbs. My grandmother was the one to assist in the operations because my grandfather would faint at the sight of blood.
Once my grandparents retired, they sold the store to move into a brand-new house. Perhaps they hoped that the physical move could make them new also, that it could remove their dread and even the painful parts of the lives that they had lived so far. I took it a step further and moved to America. But dread takes more than relocation to dislodge.