Wednesday, December 29, 2021

July 1944: A Fellow Maquisard Murders Arthur's Landlady (chapter draft)

     This was a particular ugly event in my grandparents' life: someone tipped off the Gestapo that a farmer from Beaumont-Lès-Valence (a town of about 1200 people) had joined the Maquis, which was true.  The Gestapo retaliated by burning the man's farm.   No one knew who the informant was, but suspicion fell on my grandparents' landlady, Mrs. Auvergne.  (Pronounced "oh-vern")

    She had two strikes against her: 1) she and her husband were fascists and supporters of the collaborationist Vichy regime and Marshall Pétain (who would be later tried -- and found guilty -- of treason after the war ended) and 2) She was flirtatious and loved to flirt with men in uniform, including men in Nazi uniforms, so there was a slut-shaming aspect to the suspicion. 

    BUT, she had rented a home to my grandparents during the war, sheltering them for several years and letting them pay what they could afford (which wasn't much, but then again it was a thatched roof, dirt-floored,16th century farmhouse with no running water, was infested with rats, and could barely be heated in the winter), and by doing so, increased her own personal risk.  My grandfather really didn't like her politics, but I think felt some loyalty and gratitude for the fact that she'd given them refuge.  She also babysat my aunt from time-to-time. And she was raising her niece, whose father was in the French army, and thus in a POW camp in Germany.

    One of the other members of my grandfather's maquis unit was an intellectually disabled man.  I myself think it was kind of unethical to allow him to join - how can he give informed consent to the risks he was going to take?  But ethics fall by the wayside during wartime, and he was still a Frenchman, and who are we to deny this man the right to fight if that's what he wanted?

    So, I had to research historical terms, to find out what terminology would have been used in the 1940s. (Answer: "mentally retarded", and "high-grade," at least in English), then I struggled with my depiction of him, in order to avoid the usual clichés. He's not especially sweet or happy. He's not their mascot. He's not big and strong, nor a gentle-giant. He's not especially puppy-dog-like, and while he's somewhat ostracized at first (which I suspect is a typical - though perhaps ignorant - response when people spend very little time with people with mental disabilities), the unit begins to include him more, and he's happy to have friends, because who wouldn't be glad to have friends? He's just a regular person, albeit slow to learn.  And he's someone who doesn't understand the terrible thing he did.

    Until very recently, I didn't know the man's name.  My grandfather merely referred to him as "my retarded friend."  So, I named him after three literary characters with the same abilities: Lennie Small, Tom Cullen, and Charlie Gordon. My character is named Léonard Thomas Gourdon, Leo for short.  Since I wrote the scene, I did learn his real name, but the character's name is cemented in my head as Leo, so that's that.  

Note: After I wrote this, I found out that the event probably took place around June 12, 1944 rather than in the early spring. I found a mention of the incident in other historical sources.


A Fellow Maquisard Murders Arthur's Landlady

The Germans suspected that someone was in the Maquis, and they were right. And they came to Beaumont-lès-Valence and burned the farm. And the whole village, the whole town was trying to guess who denounced them. How the Germans knew it? Well, we lived in a home, you know this sixteenth, seventeenth century peasant home with no floor, with one tiny window. It belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Auvergne.  They were people from the right -- France was divided --- and they were for Vichy. Not for De Gaulle in London, but Vichy government which collaborated with Germans. And she was flirting with German officers. And then came the suspicion that she denounced.   --Arthur Lubinski to his granddaughter, May 1988.

The next morning, three men returned to the unit from leave, bringing news.  Someone had tipped off the Gestapo and Milice that a farmer from Beaumont-Lès-Valence had joined the Maquis (which was true) instead of reporting for STO. Arthur knew the farmer in question, though not well.

  The Milice had retaliated by burning his farm, and the Gestapo deported his wife and children.  

Arthur and all of the other Maquisards from Beaumont-Lès-Valence were gathered together trying to figure out who could have denounced the farmer.  Leo stood in their circle, listening, looking from one angry face, to another.

“Mrs. Auvergne. That whore is always flirting with the Boches. It could be her.” 

Arthur shook his head. “I don’t think so. She’s my landlady.”


“So, she’s never turned me in. And she knows I'm maquis.”

The men discussed other possibilities, but it always returned to Mrs. Auvergne.  She seemed to be the only one who could have done it. Arthur still doubted it - there were too many variables they couldn’t know.  

“Someone should kill that traitorous cow,” one of the men muttered.  

Dr. Planas intervened. “Go about your work,” he told them. “If she did it, she’ll be tried after the war.”

The men dispersed, muttering, angry.

That night, Leo got lost again when he’d accompanied a patrol in the woods, and the men worried for him. He was prone to losing his way, and they worried he’d be picked up by German patrols, or the Milice.  The unit had always been careful to never speak of plans in front of Leo, because if he were caught, he wouldn’t hold up under torture — but no one could bear to think of him being tortured.  

“Did he desert us?” Arthur asked.

“No, I wouldn’t think so,” Dr. Planas replied.  “He’s got too many friends here. I fear he’s lost.” He sent men out in patrols to find him.  

The patrols searched all night, but had no luck.  All they could do was hope Leo had found refuge at a friendly farm and would find his way back on his own.

All day, they waited, hoping Leo was safe, and just after sundown, two men returning from leave brought him back to the unit.  The other men started to cheer at Leo’s safe return, but stopped when they saw the grim expression on his companions’ faces.  

They brought Leo to Dr. Planas, and Arthur saw them pull their captain aside, handing him a pistol butt-first as they did so.  They started talking to him, and Arthur saw Dr. Planas’s face go slack with shock, then darken with anger.

The two men then walked Leo inside, and down to the cellar of the headquarters. Leo walked down two or three steps, and then turned and looked plaintively out, as they closed the door in his face, and locked him in. It was a look Arthur would never forget.  

“Arthur,” Dr. Planas said. He’d used his real name, and not Biscuit.  “I must talk to you.”

Arthur approached him, trepidation gnawing at him. “Yes, sir?”

Dr. Planas started to say something then stopped, and remained silent for a long time. Then he finally said, “Leo traveled to Beaumont-Lès-Valence last night, and this morning, he went to Mrs. Auvergne’s home, and shot her to death. A little girl who was with her, was also killed.”

The next thing Arthur knew, André and Marcel were steadying him.  Only a few seconds had passed, but he was sweating profusely and breathing shallowly and his vision was a little dark.  “Was it Liliane?” he asked.  He legs were weak.

“I don’t know,” Dr. Planas answered.  “I know I canceled leave, but you may have tonight off.  If your little girl is OK, then be back tomorrow. If she is not, then come back in one week. . . . André help him pack his supplies and walk to Beaumont-Lès-Valence with him, to ensure he is all right.”

Arthur made it by midnight, having no memory of the long walk  home.  As soon as they made it to the back door of his home, André squeezed his shoulder, and nodded at the door.  Arthur knocked once, waited five seconds, then knocked a second time.  Roma snatched open the door.  

“Is Liliane all right? Is my baby alive?” he whispered, unable to stop the tears from pouring down his face.

“Yes! She is unharmed,” Roma whispered as she stepped outside, and quietly closed the door behind her. She stepped close, and wrapped her arms around his middle.  Arthur felt her gesture for André to leave them, then her hands moved to grip his lower back back, holding and soothing him. “Liliane is okay; that man didn’t hurt her.” Roma was crying, too.  Arthur weakened so much with relief, that he could barely stand, and he leaned on his tiny wife for support. They held each other, and cried together for a few minutes.  

“What happened?” Arthur asked her, when he could speak again. He noticed that André had gone.

“I was supposed to go into town, and leave her with Mrs. Auvergne for an hour while I did the books for the city and picked up our rations. But Liliane has a cold, and was very fussy, so I postponed and kept her home. I was supposed to go today instead, but I just couldn’t after what happened.”

“And then?” he asked.

Roma struggled to find the right words, and when she did, they came out in a rush. “Arthur, she would have been at Mrs. Auvergne’s when that horrible man shot her and little Fayette to death. If I hadn’t kept her  home, Liliane would have been killed, too.”

He let out a long shaking breath.  “It is a terrible thing to be glad another child has died, but I am so glad it was someone else, and not our little girl.” 

This time, Roma didn’t even try to stop him from kissing his sleeping daughter. He gazed at the little girl in the moonlight watching her even breaths, then turned and silently went back outside.  

He picked up his satchel, and gave Roma a new batch of chocolate bars and cigarettes to trade.  He hugged her one more time, and whispered, “I love you.”

“And I, you.”

Arthur turned around and headed back to his maquis unit.  Unlike the trip home, he remembered every step of the long walk back.

“It wasn’t my daughter,” he told Dr. Planas, who didn’t look surprised. André must have told him already.  “It was Mrs. Auvergne’s niece.  Liliane was supposed to be there too, but she was sick, so my wife kept her home.”

Dr. Planas merely nodded. “I’m relieved for you, my friend.”

“What will be done with Leo?” Arthur asked. He didn’t think he’d ever even be able to look at the man again. 

“He’s gone. I sent him yesterday to a unit that will see a great deal of fighting.  I don’t expect him to survive the war.  He knows how to use a gun, so he can perhaps kill a few German soldiers before he dies.”

Arthur was glad Leo had gone to another unit. He knew it was uncharitable to wish a mentally retarded man dead — Leo certainly didn’t understand how terrible his actions had been — but he couldn’t quite bring himself to regret his death, either.  Mrs. Auvergne had sheltered them and kept them safe, and now she was dead.

“Biscuit, I’m sorry,” Dr. Planas said quietly.

“For what?” Arthur responded in surprise. 

“For bringing Leo to the Maquis. For endangering your family. It was a mistake to involve someone of his mental abilities.”

Arthur laughed without mirth.  “Yes, well, I taught him to shoot.”

“You couldn’t have known what he’d do,” Dr. Planas said.

Arthur shrugged, feeling weary and sad. “Neither could you.”


    A few notes: 

    Due to when this actually happened (June 12), I need to re-write this one significantly.  It was AFTER D-Day, so there wouldn't have been regular leaves. I believe my grandfather got only one leave between June 1 and August 31 when Valence was liberated. There was just too much going on around June 12th.

    Note: Leo survived the war, and was never punished, nor imprisoned.  My grandfather was horrified by that.  After the war, investigators questioned my grandfather, and he told them she was innocent, and couldn't have been an informant for the Gestapo - he'd be dead if she were.  Unlike my grandfather, I think it would have been unethical to punish Leo - he wasn't competent to stand trial.  If he were a danger to society (which he might well have been), then confining him would have been appropriate, however.

Monday, December 20, 2021

February 1944: Arthur becomes a Maquis radio operator (chapter draft)

Context: Arthur and a team of men had retrieved an Allied SOE airdrop to their resistance unit.  Because the unit had no radio prior to that, a courier would have hand-delivered a message encrypted with a one-time pad telling them that there would be an airdrop that night, and what their personal message would be alerting them to future airdrops.  The BBC broadcast a string of sequitur messages every day, some of which were garbage, and some of which were meaningful to specific groups.  


Biscuit in both British English and French refers to an American cookie (not the quick-rising bread that Americans slather with sausage gravy. It would also be pronounced "biss-kwee."

The radio was a MCR-1 "Biscuit Tin Radio" designed and produced by the SOE for the French resistance.

The story opens as they open their first air-dropped canister of supplies from the Allies.


Arthur Becomes a Maquis Radio Operator

Well, I said that it’s easy to translate kilocycles into wavelengths, because the product of the two is velocity of light, which is ten times ten to the power of ten centimeters per second. --Arthur Lubinski to his granddaughter, May 1988.

The young man took the crowbar, and went to work. In just a few moments, he had worked the lid off the box which had padding on the inside walls.  There was a great deal of burlap, but also a pair of shoes, three packs of cigarettes, and two chocolate bars being used to fill every available space. In the corners of the box were four pistols.  

But in the center was a big cube-shaped metal tin printed with “Biscuits” in big letters, with colorful pictures of cookies surrounding it. Arthur realized that Liliane, at almost three years of age, had never had a biscuit. 

“They are sending us desserts?” Marcel asked in disbelief.  

“Don’t be stupid,” André told his brother.  “Probably no biscuits inside.”

Dr. Planas lifted out the biscuit tin, revealing boxes of ammunition underneath it for the pistol.. There was a very thick pad of burlap beneath those. He placed the tin on the table next to the box, and lifted the lid off.  

Inside was a layer of corrugated paper, which they flipped out of the way. Under it was a dark grey rectangular metal box, about the size of a loaf of bread. One end had leads which attached to a battery or an electrical power supply, and the other end had a series of pins sticking out the end.  Carefully wrapped bundles had been placed next to it.  Three of the bundles contained what Arthur realized were caps or modules that plugged into the pins in the end of the main unit.  There was a big black knob one one side, and a three other smaller knobs, marked “reaction,” and “sensitivity,” and “AE Trimmer.”  

“It’s a radio,” Arthur said.  It was tiny; the smallest radio he’d ever seen — no more than about 20 or 22 centimeters on the long axis, and about 10 centimeters wide and tall.  There were several other bundles in the tin, containing extra batteries, a coil of wire, a power supply (if one had electricity, which they didn’t), and headphones.

There was a sheet with instructions, but it was written in English.  “Anyone speak English?”  Dr. Planas asked.

“I speak some English,” Arthur volunteered.  

Dr. Planas handed him the sheet, and Arthur started reading. It had been made in Glasgow, Scotland. 

“You attach the wire antenna there,” he said, pointing. Michel did so, then hung the wire up on a nail high above them.  “Attach the battery,” he said, indicating the plug at the end.   “The module coils - they allow you to choose which frequency bands.”  

Michel looked up at Arthur, who shrugged and said, “I’d try the range one coil.” Michel grabbed the thickest module and plugged it into the end of the radio.  The module was the same height and depth as the rest of the radio, but extended the length of the unit by perhaps six or seven centimeters.

“Plug in the headphones, turn it on, and tune it to _____.”

Michel did so, and they could hear quiet static come through the headphones, but when he looked at the dial, he stopped. Then he glanced at the others, then looked at the dial again, and fiddled with the settings. They could hear the static change. “I can’t read the dial,” he finally said, confusion plain his voice.

“What?” Dr. Planas, said.

“The numbers are wrong. They aren’t like what I’m used to.”  

Arthur could see a word printed under the dial, but couldn’t read it from where he stood.  “What does it say under the dial?” he asked.

“Kilocycles,” Michel answered.

“Kilocycles?” André and Marcel asked at the same time.

“What are kilocycles?” Dr. Planas asked. He peered at the radio dial.  “Radio dials are normally marked in …” he stopped, searching for the word.

“Wavelengths,” Arthur supplied.

“Yes, right. Wavelengths.   What are these kilocycles?” Dr. Planas asked.  He didn’t sound annoyed, just puzzled.

Arthur spoke up. “Well, the wavelengths times the number of cycles, is the velocity of light.” 

All eyes turned to Arthur. They looked at him as if he weren’t speaking French.

“What?” Dr. Planas finally asked.

“Well—“ Arthur shrugged. “It’s easy to translate kilocycles into wavelengths, because the product of the two is velocity of light, which is ten times ten to the power of ten centimeters per second.”

“Hoh,” Dr. Planas said with his eyebrows up. “You know this?  You are the radio operator.”

Something — surprise? Worry? Excitement? — jolted through Arthur.  “But hell, I don’t know anything about electronics,” he protested. “If something happens, I cannot repair it.”  

You are the radio operator,” Dr. Planas repeated.

Arthur laughed a little. “All right. I’m the radio operator.”

Saturday, December 11, 2021

November 11, 1942: Arthur watches for Nazi Troop movements (chapter draft)

    Context: My grandfather did some work for the Polish Intelligence service during WWII, in November of 1942.  His assignment was to sit in a French café, and watch for German military vehicles traveling through southern France, and write down their tag numbers, which told the intelligence analysts which Nazi divisions were on the move (more specifically, toward the Mediterranean to fight off the Allied invasion of north Africa, AKA "Operation Torch"). 

    Note: Mr. Z. was a known Gestapo collaborator and police informant.


Arthur Watches for Nazi Troop Movements

And one time, I knew of a French traitor, who was working for the Germans, for the Gestapo, and I saw him suddenly, in front of my window. And he was, what you say? becking? Beckoning, he was beckoning to city police, policeman.  --Arthur Lubinski to his granddaughter, May 1988.

On November 11th, Arthur was sitting in a café reading as usual, when something blocked his light. He looked up and standing less than a meter away from Arthur, just on the other side of the window glass, was Mr. Z.  This close, Arthur could see broken capillaries in the man’s nose and cheeks, and the bags under his eyes.

“Helping the Gestapo again, are we?” Arthur muttered under his breath.  

Suddenly Mr. Z started beckoning to someone out of view, and Arthur leaned forward to see who the man was communicating with. 

Mr. Z was gesturing to several uniformed gendarmes, signaling for them to come join him in Arthur’s café.

Arthur’s heart started pounding. They are going to pick me up.  


He tried to read, to look as natural as if he were just enjoying a book in a restaurant, but he couldn’t concentrate. He felt the blood rushing from his face, and then sweat broke out all over his body.  He could barely breathe. 

He stared down at a page in his book, not recognizing the letters and words printed there. Arthur couldn’t move or think, and just sat there, frozen. Unable to do anything but wait for arrest. 

He waited and waited and waited.

One minute passed, or perhaps it was five and nothing happened. He finally lifted one shaking hand, and wiped the sweat from his face on his sleeve.  

He slowly looked up, and saw Mr. Z shaking hands with the police officers who had joined him in front of the window.  They followed him into the café.  The three gendarmes sat down at a table on the other side of the room from Arthur. Mr. Z bought them drinks and then sat down with them at their table, talking jovially the whole time. 

It has nothing to do with me. Arthur took a deep, slow breath, and very slowly and silently let it out. After a suitable length of time, he got up and forced himself to saunter out of the café on still-weak legs.  Brown-nosing toady informant traitor.


Here is how my grandfather told me the story (what follows is a slightly edited excerpt from the transcript of recordings I made of him in May of 1988):

And one time, I knew of a French traitor, who was working for the Germans, for the Gestapo, and I saw him suddenly, in front of my window. And he was, what you say? becking? Beckoning, he was beckoning to city police, policeman. 

I thought, ‘They are going in to pick me up.’


I start already reading my book, but I couldn’t concentrate. I heard--I felt all my blood, draining from my face, from my head; I was perspiring, all over the body. I was waiting for the moment when they will arrest me, and I wait, and wait, and wait. I couldn’t realize how much time passed, I couldn’t, I don’t know if it was a minute, or five minutes. Nothing happened. I lifted my eyes, and I saw that the French traitor was paying policeman drinks to get them friendly I guess, and it had nothing to do with me, and I--[sigh of relief]--relief came.