Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Spring 1944: A Fellow Maquisard Murders Arthur's Landlady

 This was a particular ugly event in my grandparents' life: someone tipped off the Gestapo that a farmer from Beaumont-Lés-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 for treason -- and found guilty -- after the war ended) and 2) She was a flirt 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, and infested with rats, and that 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.

I don'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.

Here's how I wrote the scene:


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-Lés-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-Lés-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?”

“So, she’s never turned me in.”

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-Lés-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-Lés-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.”


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 was a danger to society (which he probably was), then confining him would have been appropriate, however.

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