by Nick G
Should you become an Outlaw if the World is against you?
| Nicholas Gabrichidze
Copyright: N. Gabrichidze; current address Rue des Deux Eglises 100/2 1210 Brussels tel
+32 47 550 62 66)
Joe, a young reporter for the “Kentucky Post,” was walking along the Tuilieries gardens towards the Louvre, enjoying a warm April day. Young tender leaves were already blossoming on the chestnut trees all around Paris; an essence of leisure and joy was spreading in the air. Joe was not yet a most wanted criminal, traitor, murderer and gangster. Would some tell him how many people Joe would kill in the coming four years, or how many houses would he rob, Joe would possibly take it as craziest joke of the worst kind. Joe came here in Paris an year ago, in 1939 right after the college. His mother, an American woman of Belgian origin, had moved to France after becoming a widow; Joe hoped to use family connections when applying for the prestigious Sorbonne University. Unfortunately the war broke out before the semester began, but Joe then decided to stay in France as a reporter for his hometown paper. His French soon improved, opening lots of doors and sometimes attic windows. Exotic drinks at the “intellectual” cafes, charming and open-minded girls, French kisses in the parks and midnight rendezvous at bohemian parts of town made an impressive contrast to the irksome Kentucky lifestyle.
. All the troubles of the past few months seemed to retreat; even war and mobilisation did not seem so terrible, or at least not so scary. Summer was coming. Couples began to exchange burning kisses on the terraces of the student districts, most people found better subjects to talk of than Hitler, Maginot line, the RAF, and German tanks. Life seemed like an everlasting holiday, as was usual in Paris. His current love interest, Sarah, was supposed to meet him in the Latin Quarter, near Pont Notre-Dame. Soon, only in a few years she would become Joe’s accomplice in many killings and many robberies, but here and now they just enjoyed one more evening on the Paris terrace together.
The feeling of content was destroyed right after the aperitif.
“Mon ami I’m pregnant,” Sarah said in casual way, “The doctor said I’m five weeks along already.”
When one is twenty-two years of age, things often are not taken seriously. Joe carelessly asked: “So… what are you going to do?”
His use of “you,” instead of “we”, and his tone of a voice provoked her outrage: “I thought you loved me. Or maybe you don’t want to have a family with me because I am not Catholic—am I right?”
Sarah was a nineteen-year-old provincial girl and had not yet completely learned the complex Paris science of achieving the goals through pretence and dissembling. Joe hesitated a second longer than necessary, but the pause was long enough to make the gap even bigger... They exchanged more insults, and ended the date by breaking up. Moreover, they broke the glasses, causing their expulsion from the café.
“I’ll raise the child alone, if you don’t need me,” Sarah threw into the blossoming evening air, rushing away before Joe had a chance to argue.
“Sarah, don’t be silly! I love you; of course I do! Wait!”
She couldn’t be serious, Joe thought as he watched her disappear into the crowd. He gave her a few days to calm down and then telephoned to propose marriage, but Sarah wouldn’t answer phone. As it often only after the girl disappeared had Joe suddenly discovered that life is not bearable at all without her.
“I would kill to see this woman again” confessed he once to the occasional mate in the café. In a few years Joe had to prove this words many times.
Joe visited her boarding house in Montparnasse, enduring a long wait in stale air permeated with the smell of fries and grease, only to learn from the unfriendly concierge that Sarah had moved out. He looked for her everywhere: at the boutique where she worked and her favourite cafés, but his search was in vain. Every time someone who looked like her would appear in his view, Joe would leave a business meeting, jump out of taxi or run into the streets only to see a stranger’s face, or, worse, to lose the target in the crowd and then suffer the whole day. Often, Joe just walked long hours through the streets hoping to see her face, but Sarah seemed to have vanished. There was a moment when he tried to clear his mind of her. He even dated others, thank goodness were was never a shortage of beautiful women in Paris. But only to tortured himself. It made him want the taste of Sarah’s lips and the smell and warmth of her skin even more. Joe desperately thought Sarah might have returned home, back to her family. In the following terrible few weeks Joe could not focus on anything but her... He dreamed about her body almost every night, and was thinking about the beautiful child she would give birth too almost every hour. Writing articles for the Kentucky newspaper took twice as much time as before because often Joe would just stand by the window looking out, hoping that she would just appear. He could only force himself to focus on the battles in Sahara and refugees from Poland by using extreme concentration and mental fortitude. As far as he knew, she was from some orthodox Jewish community in Provence. She never gave her full address there, yet Joe began to build plans of searching her province town by town until a trace of her could be found. But on June 14, 1940, when the French lines suddenly broke apart like a rotten cake and German tanks appeared on the empty roads of Paris, Joe found out that Sarah was still in town.
The streets were empty; Paris had become a ghost town. The radio had announced that the French capital was now a so-called “open city,” and everybody who could move was on the run towards the Northern coast in the vain hope of getting on a boat for England. The government was gone too. Joe’s mother joined the stream of refugees, but Joe himself refused to follow the panic. He still had a job to do. Events had to be reported until the end, and besides, somebody had to look after their house in Saint-Denis. Surprisingly, the telephone was still working when Sarah called pleading for a meeting. She sounded lost and scared… Joe asked if she had done any harm to the baby and heard, “No.” That was a relief. Of course, he immediately invited her to come. Usually, she would not have felt comfortable in such a rich neighbourhood, but under the circumstances, following class structure norms would be complete nonsense. The social division between the right and left banks of the Seine would not last more than a few hours. The pitiful Paris class prejudice always seemed annoying to Joe anyway.
Dressed in his best suit and a fancy summer hat, Joe waited for more than an hour for her to arrive. The air was full of soot. Bureaucrats had been burning the state archives. Taxis and public transportation had vanished from existence and Joe’s mother had taken the only vehicle with fuel for the family when they evacuated the city. Sarah had to walk all way to his place. Joe reproached himself for not thinking about that earlier, but it was too late now. Finally she appeared at the corner of the street. The first thing to come out of her mouth, even before greeting him, was:
“Joe, I am so glad you are still here... I am so scared that we will die now. The Germans will be here in a few hours... I heard they have killed everyone on the way… What can we do?”
She spoke to him in English, and her language was much better than Joe remembered from before. Was she practicing her English the entire three months of their separation? She did not have any other English-speaking friends that he knew of, so she was doing it only to impress him; she must have had a reunion in mind. It was not only the extreme circumstance of the day that made her call, Joe thought confidently. She still loved him; otherwise, she would not have decided to practice his language. Pregnancy had made Sarah even more beautiful, but she was also very poorly dressed and seemed terrified, exhausted and desperate. Joe embraced her and spoke in French: “Relax... Do not panic. I don’t think they’ll touch the spouse of an American, darling”. He added soothingly “We’re staying out of this war. Let’s go have a drink somewhere so you can relax, OK?”
Most of the businesses in town had closed, but Joe was sure that even the Revelation would not make his favourite bistro shut down, and he was not mistaken. The tables and chairs on the terrace had been packed away, but the old, invalid owner Jacques was there. “I was thinking you would be somewhere on the front line,” he greeted Joe from behind the counter. “Aren’t you a journalist?”
“There’s nothing to report from the front. I guess there is no front any more. Everybody’s on the run.”
Jacques apologized because most of the menu was not available. “My whole family is on the run too, and the garcons are gone; there is no one to prepare even an omelette. The bakeries are closed as well, so I have no baguettes today.”
Joe soothed him, saying brioches and lemonade would completely satisfy him and his lady. Jacques refused to accept any money; francs would not matter any more, he said.
“I wish I could go away, too, but who would take care of the business?” he lamented under his nose while serving the table “I can’t let this bistro be vandalized. I’ve been building it for decades, monsieur. I don’t mind the furniture being broken, but I have rare wine in the cellar. I could not live if I lost my collection, monsieur… I just couldn’t.”
“Where have you been all this time?” Joe took her hand when the innkeeper finally left them alone.
“Joe… We can talk about our relationship later... Otherwise, we will fight again... I have no one else left in Paris... I’m so scared,” Sarah whispered. “Joe, what if all these terrible rumours that the Germans are putting all Jewish people in prison for no reason are true?”
Joe smiled and loosened his tie. “You read too many cheap newspapers, Sarah. I’m a reporter myself, so I know how these stories get—how you say it in French— cooked up, I guess. Do you really believe everything “Figaro” publishes? It’s called propaganda; it’s always like this during a war. Nobody in their right mind would kill a whole group of innocent people. My mother lived under the German occupation in Belgium during the last war, and before the Germans took over, all the newspapers there predicted the end of the world. But for ordinary people it wasn’t any worse under the German Kaiser than under the Belgian king. It’s not like it was any better, but either way, it will be the same this time too. You’ll see.” Joe smiled. “Actually, her best years were during the occupation because that’s when she met my father. He was a corporal in Kaiser’s army; haven’t I told you before?”
“So the Germans let them go to America?” Sarah asked sarcastically.
“He was wounded so they let him out of the army, and after that they both managed to sneak first into Holland, and then Sweden, so they could get married. See, the Swedes are always smart enough to stay neutral. And by the time my mom got pregnant, she was already on a boat to the US.”
“Funny; I’m carrying your child and you’ve never told me that much about your family before,” Sarah murmured quietly. Joe took her hand again and said the thing he had rehearsed many times.
“As soon as things sort themselves out, we’ll get married; I promise. I don’t want anything we do right now to be done in panic. It’s always better to keep a cool head. Soon the embassies will reopen and I’ll get you an American visa.”
Joe tried to sound resolute and solid, but his shaking voice at the end of the phrase revealed his agitation. He had a silver ring, an antique one saved for this moment. Trying his best to soothe his shaking hands, he took it out and put on Sarah’s finger. She did not object. But instead of answering his proposal, kissing him, rejecting or doing anything a young girl would do when proposed to, she suddenly spoke about German army again.
“We could try to get abroad, to escape them,” she objected indifferently, turning the ring on her finger as if the meaning of the engagement wasn’t really important “There is still enough time. Joe, we could be dead by tomorrow. I have really heard terrible stories about those Nazis. Like they kill everyone they dislike.”
Joe decided not to push the marriage idea forward until she calmed down. Sarah had not rejected his proposal, which was enough for the time being. Possibly some rumours about the German army had scared the poor girl so much that she could not focus on anything else, even marriage.
“You can’t solve your problems by running, and you can’t run from yourself. Here, I want to show you something…” He led her inside the cafe towards an aquarium with lobsters and fresh fish.
“I come here quite often, and once, while watching this aquarium, I had a stroke of inspiration and I began to imagine how fish would feel if they were to suddenly become as intelligent as we are. If fish were to dream of freedom, it would be possible for them to decide to jump from this aquarium to another, and even possibly make it to the fountain outside. But in the end, the fish would end up back here. No matter how far the fish ran, it wouldn’t make a difference because it’s just an illusion that there is any chance of escaping. I even tried to write a science fiction story about it – intelligent fish trying to escape, I mean.”
The story only scared Sarah. “You mean we are like those lobsters there? Sentenced to be killed, no matter what?” she asked, shocked.
“No, my dear… Don’t be so silly. I just mean that running away isn’t the best solution most of the time because life is the same everywhere.”
“Are you really planning to take me to America with you?” she asked.
“Sarah, of course I am. As I said, we are just waiting for the right moment. So... are you going to marry me?”
Again, she changed the subject.
“You are trying to write science fiction? Like Jules Vern? Nobody is reading that kind of story these days.”
“No, it’s not old fashioned, like Jules Vern’s. I have been writing modern science fiction. Soon, it’s going to be the biggest thing in literature, you’ll see. It’s already very popular in the U.S. Just wait ‘til we get there, and you’ll see for yourself.”
“You are so funny... Ok maybe you’re right... We should wait for the right moment, and prepare for the wedding,” she smiled. Of course, I will marry you. I love you Joe...
They kissed, returned to the table, and sat silently, holding hands for a while. The ring on her finger was slightly scratching his palm. Jacques was furtively watching them.
“You can stay at my place,” Joe said. “I’m alone there. Mother is gone, so we can have kind of a pre-honeymoon and forget about this stupid war. Too bad I can’t take you to Hawaii right now...”
“Are we already a family, Joe? You just proposed five minutes ago”
“Call it an engagement. Betrothal, as you call it here in Paris, I guess.”
Before they left, Jacques insisted that they accept a bottle of champagne as a gift for good luck and joy in their future family. As long as couples are getting engaged in his bistro, he said, there is hope that the spirit of Paris isn’t gone. French bistro-keepers knew how to treat sweethearts better than anyone else did in the world. Sarah finally paid some attention to the ring:
“So interesting” she said, examining the ring “look at these engravings... Like an eye... and people building a tower or something”
“Sure” Joe said. “It means I will always be watching over you” He had never paid much attention to such details himself, the thing was a treasure enough to offer her. He never noticed the engravings.
They lived for six happy weeks in Joe’s mother’s estate at Saint-Denis. The old woman had acquired considerable wealth from her Belgian relatives and the house was luxurious but cozy enough to fit as a honeymoon resort. Joe and Sarah played “hide and seek” naked around the fanciful rococo interiors, or sat in the garden for hours, silently watching the rooftops of Paris burning in the sunset. Every evening they took a huge old fashioned bath together. Sarah improved her English even more, while Joe took some lessons from her to improve his already good French. Making ends meet was not a problem at all: the grand rooms were overflowing with baroque statuettes, musical instruments as old as the Renaissance, and all sorts of memorabilia from colonial travels. Antique stores around the Pantheon and les Jardins de Luxemburg began to reopen. Most operated illegally, but the occupying German authorities had turned a blind eye. Selling just a few of these artifacts gave them enough money to survive on. The summer of 1940 was a time of horror for the majority of Parisians, but for Joe and Sarah it was the most wonderful period of their lives. Their only worry was the absence of news from Joe’s mother; but this, Joe hoped, would change soon, once the war was over. A few years later, Joe found out that his mother had never made it to England – she had not even reached the coast. Her ‘Pequot” was riddled by low-flying German aircraft on a country road, a hundred miles north of Paris. German jets made a sport out of hunting refugees that summer. But no bad news had spoiled the little, private paradise yet... Trouble from the real world began to knock at the door during the final weeks of August. The USA had reopened it’s embassy to protect its citizens who remained in France, but there was no consulate to issue travel documents to get Sarah out of Europe, unless they could produce a marriage certificate. And one of the first laws the German’s had introduced was prohibition of marriage between different ethnic groups. It seemed like official marriage had to be postponed and they were stuck in Paris. Terrifying rumors about cruel and draconic new rules already being on the desk of new authorities to sign began to circulate around town. In the markets, in the bistro’s, and in the theaters, people would murmur about martial law, about prohibiting minorities from public services, about labor camps and deportations. The French republican slogan “liberty, equality and fraternity” was suddenly switched to “homeland, family and labour”. Protecting Sarah from learning the bad news was impossible. Even if street rumors were kept out of the house, Joe could not stop her from listening to the radio, and what they heard from it was disheartening. Everybody was obliged to carry an identification card-it was now officially announced. The denial of citizenship and depriving right for people of Jewish origin was terrifying news. Finally, the introduction of mandatory yellow stars combined with stories about deportations were the last straw to drive Sarah into a deep depression.
“You don’t have to obey this medieval madness,” Joe was insisting. “Paris is a big city. Their plan might work in small villages where everyone knows all the ins and outs, but not in an ant-hill like this. And hopefully the war will be over soon and people will become more reasonable. France isn’t like Northern Europe, thank God – nobody will know you’re a Jew unless you let ‘em find out. Just don’t tell people who you are. Say you’re Catholic.”
Sarah wouldn’t accept this in the beginning.
“You don’t understand, Joe. It means refusing your own identity. Cursing your own self.”
But finally Joe managed to convince her that pretending to have a different race or religion wasn’t a mortal sin; convincing the system was a much harder job. A simple story about a lost passport wouldn’t work; the occupiers had been checking out records at everybody’s birthplace. Finally Sarah and Joe decided to invent a story about her being a French woman from Québec who had immigrated to France and lost her papers in the panic of occupation day. The story worked and was enough to get Sarah a temporary “Auxvasse” identity card, but not without a bribe.
To get himself back on track, Joe had tried to telegraph reports about daily life in Paris to his editor. The next day, German agents in their strange black uniforms and bizarre red armbands called on him, asking for papers and accreditation. Joe was reminded that the country is unfortunately still at war and all reports sent across the borders had to be monitored. “We want to make sure that there isn’t any spying for England,” they said. The Germans weren’t being aggressive or brutal, though – the visit seemed like just a routine check. They scared the hell out of Sarah, but Joe acted as a gentleman and it seemed to make a good impression. Gaining their cooperation cost him one more antique, which went away as a present for friendship, and Joe thought of it as a good deal. The agents even ignored the swing music playing on his short-wave radio, even though both swing and short wave radio receivers had officially been banned.
Soon he received an invitation to visit one of the numerous public government agencies that had reopened around Paris under German surveillance. A bored French bureaucrat suggested a few themes to write for his American editor. Suggested topics included “Jewish conspirators against Europe”, the “brutal British attack on the French navy”, and “German efforts to rebuild the French economy”. To avoid trouble Joe accepted the suggestions, but threw them all in the trash as soon as he was home.
In February of 1941, Sarah gave birth to a boy. They named their firstborn Clark: after Clark Gable. The following year turned into a nightmare which never seemed to end. Food, clothing and other necessities had to be distributed through the rationing system, and getting those stamps without being employed by the occupiers was a miracle. Selling antique pieces on the black market became more and more dangerous as the Germans tightened the screws, punishing illegal trade with the death penalty. And legal sales for a fixed price were just a covered up confiscation. Bringing the large items out and carrying them to the dealers on the street became too risky; only the small jewels and antique souvenirs would do. The warmth of Sarah’s body at night and the happy noises the child made were only things to take Joe’s thoughts away from the nightmare outside their walls; but even in the family there was no safety anymore, as the ghost of hunger was almost visible. Finally there came a cold evening when they had not a bite to swallow for supper to cure the hollowing stomachs, and worse, not a bite to give their child. Once Joe asked if it is OK to sell the wedding ring, but Sarah reacted as if he proposed a blasphemy and he never mentioned the idea again. For a few days after, she walked around grasping the ring as if someone was taking it away by force...
Joe thought of the most fantastic plans for getting out, but the only realistic way was to cross the mountains on the Southern border of Spain on foot. His family wouldn’t survive that type of journey. To put food on the table, he had to swallow his pride and accept the “offers” for writing reports under German supervision. Fortunately, the editor in Kentucky had not forgotten him, so Joe began to write about how the Parisians enjoyed German law and order. Reports went to America, and money got wired back, only to be cashed into food stamps. Joe wrote more. A little to his surprise, all the bogus reports got published; but then, Joe had always suspected that his editor was a fascist sympathizer. The old fellow passionately hated everything non-white, and deep inside he probably had something in common with “der fuehrer.”
The Gestapo, the ruthless secret police, was roaming the streets. People began to disappear, usually revealed as “terrorists” or “enemies of the state” shortly afterwards. Worst of all was that the public seemed to react as if nothing extraordinary was happening. When the occupiers outlawed minorities, Joe expected outrage, or at least some sort of protest, but most Parisians took it in a very ordinary way, discussing the necessity of persecuting gypsies and Jews in the same manner that they would have discussed football or fashion.
On December 7, 1941, Joe was out of town, interviewing models at a fascist fashion show in Versailles. The radio announced that Pearl Harbour had been bombed. It meant that war between the United States and Germany was only a matter of time. Joe thought he had only a few days left to save his family. That was too optimistic. Sarah was arrested before he even made it back home. Later Joe discovered that the overzealous French police marked her as the mistress of an “American spy”; Sarah had almost convinced the inspector that Joe had left and that she had no idea where he was. Investigators were about to let her go, possibly to monitor her from around the corner in order to find Joe. Then, old Jacques, the café owner from Joe’s neighbourhood, was brought into the same police station. While Joe was making a living working for the Nazi propaganda machine, Sarah had needed some company; Jacques seemed innocent enough, and she spent some time gossiping with the old man until he knew most of her secrets. Unfortunately, they caught him at the same day. It was purely accidental; Jacques was caught for selling food on the black market and decided to earn himself salvation from the firing squad by revealing Sarah’s secrets to the Germans. Under the new rules, a Jew without a yellow star would be sent to the concentration camps. Their son had to be detained too. When Sarah was arrested, a single policeman was left in Joe’s apartment to look after Clark. Now a whole team of agents was sent back there to pick up the baby. That is what saved Joe, because they had been busier searching for the poor child, instead of setting an ambush. When Joe approached his home and saw swastika-adorned cars blocking the street and a ruffian in a black uniform at the door, he understood everything.
Joe had some cash left in his wallet. It wasn’t hard to find a place to live. All the hotels in Paris required identification and had been ordered to send a memo to the commandant’s office, but places above Place Pigalle, where cheap love was included with the room service, traditionally ignored all the rules. German soldiers entertained themselves there as well, so their masters had no other choice but to ignore the whole situation. Joe checked into a single room, saying he was expecting his own date to avoid the unwanted advances. He managed to get some sleep, and then in a cry for sympathy, telephoned the US mission the next morning from a booth in the metro. There was no answer, and Joe went there in person only to find out that the consulate had been evacuated. America and Hitler had declared war on each other. The exhausted clerk asked: “Are you American? Don’t leave and we’ll try to take you away as if you are diplomat. But I can’t promise anything.”
“I have to stay in Paris until I find my wife. I just thought you could assist me.”
“Have you lost your mind, mister? You’ll get yourself killed within a week if you stay. The only reason they let us evacuate is because they want to trade us for the German personnel in the US...”
“It does not matter for me,” Joe turned to the door. “I can’t leave this country. I have a family here. I have to save them.”
Within two weeks Joe was out of money; he had no papers and no status. Saving Sarah and his son seemed impossible, but Joe kept fighting. He slept in parks and under bridges with “clochards” as they call the infamous Paris bums. Soon he became a clochard himself: wasted, in rags, unshaven and sick...At least there were no worries about being recognized. The homeless wouldn’t fit with the purification plans of the new administration, but most of the German repressive machine was so busy persecuting minorities that bums were left for the French gendarmerie police to handle. The gendarmerie didn’t bother, so for a while there was safety under the bridges. Joe heard rumours about French soldiers and officers who formed an underground army to fight against “bosches”, as everyone contemptuously called the Germans. Joining a resistance group would help, but he could never expect any political activity from the unfortunate wretches he had to befriend. The resistance found Joe before he found them. On a cold and gloomy December evening, a hangover beggar in rags joined company under the bridge and traded a pair of not-so-rotten shoes he had looted from somewhere for a half-empty bottle of cheap aperitif which Joe had recently found near to one of the brothels nearby. The guy seemed desperate for a drink. Joe had met many of his kind since his life made a rough turn and learned that liquor can be a valuable currency to get food, extra clothes or blankets from his new friends.
Inside one of these shoes, Joe found a small note with an address in the Latin Quarter and a single sentence: “Your country needs you. Tomorrow; the same time as now”. It was written in English and had the initials of Charles de Gaulle’s, the self declared leader of the French resistance, who, according to rumours, was coordinating the fight from London. The message was clear enough to understand who was behind the invitation.
“Password – Candid”, Joe thought he heard the beggar whisper. Before he could ask any more questions the beggar walked up the stairs back to the wharf embankment and disappeared into the twilight. Joe looked around for him but the guy seemed to have vanished.
There was a risk that whole thing could be an ambush but Joe had nothing to lose. Plus, why would anyone set such complicated task to arrest an unfortunate bum? Joe did as the note said. The contact address happened to be a small bookstore; Joe’s shabby appearance seemed to scare a professor-like owner, but when he said “Candy did”, Joe was told that the name of the book he is looking for is actually “Candide”. Books by Voltaire are in the basement, owner said and led Joe downstairs. There was a solid looking door, apparently leading into some hidden bunker room. Joe entered. The silent, swarthy dark bearded giant with a soldier-style bearing patted him down. A chair, hot tea and food were offered and soon yesterday’s bum, now dressed in a clerk-style inexpensive suit, appeared from above, accompanied by the shop owner.
The shop owner filed the glasses with wine and gave one to Joe:
“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” he said in English but with a strong French accent. Joe froze. In the ordeal of the past few weeks, he had lost his sense of time completely.
“What day is today?” he asked
“Christmas was more than a week ago and New Year’s was yesterday,” answered the store keeper. “But I doubt you had a chance to celebrate it properly, as well as the rest of us.”
For a while, they just silently drank and watched each other. The swarthy giant was standing behind him, blocking the stairway up.
“You are American, aren’t you?” asked the other man, the one who passed him the note. “You worked here as a journalist and now you have to hide from boshes to avoid arrest? We ran a check on you and came to the conclusion that as long we both have a common enemy, you may find it interesting to stand by your country rather than rotting under a bridge.”
It was a surprise that the gutter under the bridge was watched so carefully. As Joe was told later, “Lots of interesting people are out in the streets nowadays, messier, so it would be silly of us not to pay attention to the people who sleep under the bridge. Yes, yes messier. If someone is out on the street, but doesn’t turn into an alcoholic or addict, even trying not to steal... this combination alone is enough to get our attention, monsieur. And your American accent was crucial…”
“You have a choice,” the shop owner said. “You may walk out of here and forget about this place. Nevertheless, there will be eyes watching you to make sure you do not enter the Gestapo to sell us out. Alternatively, you can stay here, and fight for liberty alongside us. Simple choice, I guess, but there is no time to think. You need to answer right now.”
Later on Joe wondered many times what would have happened if he had said “no”. Could be they would just shoot him and thrown the corpse in the river. It would be easier and a more logical thing to do, given the state of war, instead of letting him go and monitoring him from around the corner. He never found an answer for this question. He said “yes”.
Joe got a fake ID card and a few addresses at which he could sleep. He was not put into serious action yet; for the time being his assignment was to walk around town looking for other potential recruits. A former provincial school teacher, now his contact from the resistance group, would meet him in a café once every couple of days. Joe had to pass along the information and then forget it. In mid-January, he was asked to monitor the fate of the arrested resistance fighters: to hover near the Germans’ offices and to note the time and direction of the prisoners’ truck, what the vehicle looked like, to record the plate number. Other members made friends with French personnel to find the location to which the prisoner had been taken. And soon, life gave him a gift. Joe received the heart warming news he had been waiting for. Rebels who collected information from French gendarmes told a story about labour camps, where the “boshes” kept everyone they considered racially inferior. There were only three around Paris and anyone from the capital would end up in one of these. Joe asked for a favour. He gave Sarah’s and Clark’s descriptions and asked whether they were there. His contact hadn’t found anything, but Joe got the trace. He was a reporter, after all. Soon there was another chance: one of the resistance fighters had turned out to be a Jew and was taken to one of the camps. A member of the group was sent to find employment there and gather more information. Joe tried his best to get close to this person, to make sure that he would also check for Sarah... And it seemed that luck was on his side this time – she was there. Joe double-checked, and there was no mistake: Sarah was in a labour camp near Paris, working as a seamstress for the Wermacht-German military. She wasn’t even separated her from Clark. The only problem now was to convince the resistance to take action before she was transferred elsewhere…
The resistance leader was angry.
“Monsieur, your idea to attack this labour camp is very brave but also very... naïve. Forget it, monsieur, and if somebody else in your group is backing your idea, tell them their courage is appreciated, but sadly it’s the wrong moment for it.” His walrus-style moustache jumped with the emotional speech; “Our leader General De Gaulle issued a special order prohibiting unauthorized attacks. It’s done for a good reason, messier – and that reason is for planning all actions into one general strategy”
The walrus-moustached man was Joe’s last hope. Joe had already got one refusal to organize an attack from his own supervisor – a former school teacher who collected information in a cafe. Joe hadn’t given up of course and demanded to be put in touch with some of the leaders. His supervisors refused, or pretended to ignore him, they even tried to threaten him; but Joe insisted an attack to save an arrested resistance member should be set up. His real plan was to get Sarah out during the confusion.
“We can’t leave our man behind” Joe kept insisting. Finally – after many security measures, including blindfolding him and driving around in circles – Joe was brought to this meeting in a secret basement in suburbia. Only to have his best expectations thrown into the fire...
“I am not going to risk the whole movement to save just one man,” the leader kept on, “I appreciate your courage, but no, no, and no. You do not see the whole picture. Besides I can’t order such an attack without approval from our headquarters in London. And right now we have to keep radio silence, so that makes it, impossible.”
Joe decided to play one last card. Respect for his personal loss could soften their hearts. Joe explained that there was more than one life at stake that his family was in danger too.
“Family? That explains a lot...” said the resistance leader, after hearing the whole story “But still... unfortunately, I must not only deny you any assistance, but as a superior officer I forbid you to take any action of your own... Everyone here has lost some family. I regret your loss, but the only thing I can advise you is to stay calm and to prepare yourself for future action against the people who killed your loved ones...”
“They are still alive...”
“For you they are already dead, monsieur. That’s sad and that’s unfair, but c’est la vie. We are at war, and this is how it goes. I am sorry but our goal is to liberate France, not your family alone. I am sorry.”
Joe opened his mouth to object, but the resistance leader stopped him with a gesture: “I love my wife and my little angel of a daughter more then anything else in the World, monsieur. But if the bosches take them away… I will regret it, I will cry, but I will not risk The Movement to save them. We are soldiers here, and must learn to put discipline above our personal feelings. Had our army been more disciplined, we would not have lost our country to the enemy. Think of it monsieur… otherwise your country will have a similar fate. If you believe in God, then pray to Him to save your family. This is the only advice I can give you. Au revoir, monsieur... Let’s just hope that victory will be at our side this year and perhaps you’ll see your family again soon.”
One of the guards moved in and blindfolded him again so they could drive him back to town. The audience was over. Joe had to come up with another plan if he wanted to see Sarah alive. And it had to be a radical one. Joe visited the place where the camp was located once again; even walking around. He was risking arrest or even a bullet from his comrades in the resistance. Barbed wire, and submachine guns at the perimeter, combined with patrols seemed unconquerable. Resistance hadn’t even entrusted him with a gun. He needed allies to save her; he needed to join an organisation; any kind of organisation…
During the summer of 1942 Laval, the collaborationist French ruler declared that minorities were too much of a burden on the economy. On July 10, thousands of French Jews and other undesirables were gathered up and brought to the Velodrome stadium in Paris. The venue was packed with horrified, screaming and sweating people. Their fate was grim: those who could work were selected for slave labour in Germany; others, those declared “not useful”, including infants, seniors and the handicapped, had to take the train for concentration camps in the East. Promises for their return were made, but rumours about death camps wrapped the crowd in a cloak of horror. There was hardly a German uniform in sight. Guarding, separating the “useful” from the “not useful”, beating up those who resisted, dragging away the bodies and calming the panic-stricken with sticks were jobs for the French volunteers of a German-run “anti-communist legion” and the French gendarmerie police. The most zealous and ruthless were promised a promotion. Few lower-ranked operatives from the SS, the elite German paramilitary, controlled the entrances and supervised the event from the terraces.
Joe, wearing a brand new SS uniform, was among the supervisors, scanning the agonized huddle below for a glimpse of Sarah. He managed to join the SS soon after receiving the rejection from the resistance leader. They had a special branch, “Waffen SS” for the most loyal inhabitants of conquered lands. Of course only members of the Nordic race, or “Aryans”, could be accepted. It was a deadly risk to show himself before the authorities. But it seemed to be the only chance to help Sarah and Clark. First Joe wanted to try entering with a fake document but then thought the risk too high. He would not pass any serious profiling, and once his friends from resistance found out about his new decision, his punishment would be beyond comprehension. He did a much more radical thing; he went to the recruitment bureau and, using his own name and his own identity he played the heritage card. After all, his father was born in Germany. Joe tried to convince the SS recruiters that he was directed by a will to defend the German nation; that he had answered a “blood call”, as the Nazis called that type of urge. His old man was a big American patriot and would have turned in his grave had he known what his son had done with his family story, but now Joe had his own family to worry about. Surly questions about his ties with the American government were asked at the recruiting office, but Joe claimed that the espionage stories were a myth created by the French police to impress their new masters. They kept him locked in a Gestapo cell during the interrogation; every night he could hear the screams of tortured prisoners and shots ringing from executions. Joe could easily be the next one to face a firing squad and his tough pertinacity with every question finally earned one Gestapo profiler’s trust. On the other hand, a prison cell was the best place to hide from the vigilant resistance fighter who would surely be searching for him. Blond hair, blue eyes and some knowledge of German; which Joe had learnt in his childhood, helped a lot too. Joe was ashamed of the pro-Nazi articles he had written, but they earned him another point in German eyes.
The German government kept records of each and every one of their countrymen. Joe was asked to provide data about his father’s birth date and birth place. Fortunately he knew his family history well enough to give correct answers. Soon afterwards, he was informed that the records had been checked, proving he was a “pure Aryan”. There followed a theatrical, gothic ritual of acceptance into the SS. After a brutal training course which included a day long cross country run, digging a foxhole in 20 minutes after which, it would be run over by a tank and a speed course of the German language, Joe quickly got himself promoted to the rank of Rotten fuehrer, equal to Minor Lieutenant in the US army. They even awarded him with the honorary SS dirk as the best cadet. This title required him to always wear a cumbersome dagger on his belt. The SS uniform was revolting to him and such mandatory and impractical adornment fuelled his hatred for the uniform even more. Joe often secretly gloated over what would happen if his new brothers in arms knew that his lost Belgian-American mother had Jewish ancestors.
The bright summer sun was shining in the blue sky above the tortured crowd in the stadium; it seemed that the dark tunic was slowly roasting his body. Prisoners in the full blaze of the sun suffered even worse; some could not bear the heat and dared asking the guards for a drink of water, only to be shot. The SS supervisors soon prohibited that type of action. Only those who resisted orders should be killed here, the SS said. The Germans wanted to be seen as tough but impartial masters. They even stopped their French subordinates from molesting any attractive Jewish girls. Once, Joe had to step into action and drag a victim away from a horny gendarme thug. Then, suddenly, he recognized Sarah.
Joe looked around, sweat streaming down his face. There was no sign of Clark. Thousands of eyes were watching, there was no way for a man in SS uniform to speak in a friendly way with a Jewish woman. Sarah seemed to recognize him, but hadn’t said a word. Her face was indifferent and absent, it seemed as though she had lost touch with reality. Joe decided to take her away from the heat into the tunnel underneath the stands. They walked inside the cool interior and sat. The still, indifferent Sarah was against the wall; in line with several other powerless, female prisoners. It would be easer to keep an eye on her here. Sarah had not shown any sign of interest in what he was doing to her.
“Do not be too zealous in helping these people.” Joe suddenly heard the voice of his commanding officer, Ober-sharfurer Lorenz. Joe stood to attention and hailed with a fascist salute-straight hand thrown above. Despite the heat, Lorenz was dressed in a long leather raincoat. Under the coat, every detail of his uniform was ironed and fitted to the millimetre.
“Stand at ease! Let’s see what you’ve brought here...” Gleaming through his monocle, Lorenz efficiently examined Sarah’s teeth, breasts, and body: “Why would you select her, Rottenfurer. This woman is not in bad shape, but I doubt she is able to do hard work. Would not make a good house servant either—that type of female is always trying to seduce her master. The Reich does not need her and young females can be dangerous for the morale of our guards in the death camps... Please shoot her, Josef.”
.../to be continued
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