Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Chapters names, dates, quotes: Arranging stuff on the page

Yesterday, I talked about making choices between French and English vocabulary. But more choices keep presenting themselves, and I'm finding myself with analysis paralysis.

The beginning of each chapter starts with three things: 

  • A specific date (as a tribute to my grandfather's Journal 1940), either day/month/year, and sometimes additional things like time of day, or year only. 
  • A quotation by a family member about what happens during that chapter.
  • Chapter name

So then, which order is better? Chapter title, quote, then date? Or quote first (which leaves it sort of outside the chapter), THEN chapter title and date?    

So, this ...

Chapter Title/Quote/Date

Note: Click the image to enlarge (optional)

.... or this?

Quote/Chapter Title/Date

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Français vs English: Word choice when writing in English, but in a French setting

So as I write my grandfather's stories, I'm constantly having to decide between using French vs. English words.  I don't like it when books that take place in France (but are written in English) use common French words (like "oui" instead of "yes") to make it seem "très français" -- that practice seems pretentious and unnecessary. Besides, I think the use of French words in an English-language book can be distracting, and tends to pull the reader out of the world of the book.  If you notice a word is in French, it means the flow of information, the telepathy (as Stephen King calls it) between the writer and the reader stumbles slightly.

So, my default is English.  Besides, that's the language I know well.  


There are exceptions (because of course there must be exceptions. Sigh...)

The most important exception: proper nouns. The name of the town is "Beaumont-lès-Valence," NOT "Beautiful Mountain of Valence."  Étoile is the name of the town, not "Star." Dr. Jean Planas, is named Jean, not John. His son Michel is named Michel, and not Michael. My name is Cathy Byland Weeks, not Cathy Byland Semaines.

Other exceptions/issues:

When the word in French is actually better than the English: maternité is "birth center" or "maternity hospital/clinic" in English. I like the word, and that it's a single word, and "birth center" seems too modern a term.  So, I used maternité.  But now I'm reconsidering this one. Not sure yet. Maternité or maternity clinic -- what do you think?

When the proper noun is a descriptive name of an organization: I haven't decided on Secret Army vs Armée secrète. There's nothing to be gained by using the French, I don't think, except that "Secret Army" seems a little corny.  

Codenames: My grandfather's commanding officer was codenamed "Sanglier," which means "boar" or "wild boar." And his son served in the same maquis unit as head of the medical/first aid group. His codename was "Marcassin." Which means ... "young wild boar."  So, they were ...  Boar and Baby Boar, and that is some wonderful humor.  If I use the French words, as I've been doing, because they were in effect *names*, the humor is lost on English speakers. But if I use the English words, it seems ... a little corny.  I am leaning in that direction though (damn it. I've got Sanglier all through the text).

Historical acronyms:  in France, during WW2, there was the STO (Service du travail obligatoire) or "Compulsory Work Service" where Frenchmen were sent to work camps in Germany because Hitler drafted so many German men into the Wehrmacht, that there weren't enough workers to keep the German economy going (let alone a war economy), so the Nazis demanded France, Poland, and Russia make up the difference and provide them with workers.  In the end, I decided refer to it as STO (with a footnote to explain the acronym the first time it occurs), but describe it as compulsory work service, conscription, work camps, etc.  I could make up an acronym for English, maybe "CWS," but ... STO was used commonly and CWS has no historical usage at all.  

Thursday, April 21, 2022

July 1944: The Murder of My Grandfather's Landlady (variations on a theme)

So, last March, I wrote an article about reconciling different sources of information, both from the same person at different times, but also from different people, when they include different, and sometimes contradictory information.

Well, this morning, a historian in France sent me a key piece of information, and it contradicts (slightly) my grandfather's account, and also Dr. Michel Planas's account. Except ... I'm not entirely sure that Dr. Planas's story is about the same event. Perhaps it is? Probably? But how can I be sure?

Note: there are two men called "Dr. Planas" in this article*. They were both medical doctors and were father and son, and served in the same FFI unit:

  • Dr. Jean Planas, who was my grandfather's commanding officer in the 4th company. He is referred to as Captain Planas or Captain Sanglier (his code name) in this article.
  • Dr. Michel Planas who was the head of the medical/first aid division for the company.   I refer to Michel as "Dr. Planas."

Anyway, the historian in France I mentioned above (and true to the historian brand, he has been incredibly helpful and generous with his time and research), found Madame Auvergne and her niece's graves in Beaumont-lès-Valence. So I now have:

  1. Exact date of death.
  2. Mme. Auvergne's first name.
  3. The name of her niece.
  4. Yet another corroboration of my grandfather's stories.  
Here's the text (translated to English) of what is on the graves:

Élise AUVERGNE, 46 years, died on July 16, 1944, cowardly murdered
Colette CHAVARAN, 9 years, died on July 16, 1944, cowardly murdered

The historian also confirmed that Colette was indeed Mme Auvergne's niece.

Ok, now on to the primary sources. If you read the previous article, you can skim the quotes.

In 1974, when my grandfather was about 64, he wrote:
Sometime in June, while the 4th Company was still on Ourches, J- F-, one of us, went home without any authorization, got drunk and shot to death Mme. Auvergne. The Auvergnes were the owners of the old house in which my wife and child lived. She had a reputation being a friend of Germans. In fact she belonged to a family of collaborators, but the rumors of her having denounced the FFI’s (the home of one FFI has been burned by Germans who gave 5 minutes to this family to leave the house) were probably only gossip. She knew about me being in the Maquis and my wife has not been investigated. J- F-’s self-handed stupid act resulted in a real danger to many families of FFI, mostly to mine. In addition, inadvertently he shot also her niece, the father of which was a POW in Germany since 1940.
Captain Sanglier was very angry at J-. He was dispatched, under armed guard to the headquarters of Major Antoine. From now on J- served in a command of desperados, most of whom were killed in extremely dangerous missions, but he survived.

In 1988, when he was 78, he told me the story in much greater detail. Here's the transcript:

     Yes, in our unit, our company was a man whose brain was not fully developed ... we say retarded.
    And 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 seventeenth century peasant home with no floor, with one tiny window. We lived over there. It belonged to the Auvergnes; Mr. and Mrs. Auvergne ... They were people from the right and they were … France was divided and they were for Vichy, for the government. Not for de Gaulle in London, but Vichy government which collaborated with Germans. And she was flirting with German officers, etc. And then came the suspicion that she denounced. 
     And my retarded friend, he came through the mountains, came from the mountains and shot down Mrs. Auvergne with a pistol. Killed her. And she was keeping in her hand, her niece, whose father was a prisoner of war in Germany.  And it’s a miracle that this was not Lillian because Lillian was supposed to stay with Madame Auvergne, but at the last moment, Mother left her with someone else. I don’t know what she did. 
     But in any event, almost Lillian was killed and the man returned to the Maquis. He came without permission, he killed someone without permission, and therefore as punishment, he was sent to a company whose duties were dangerous to such an extent that his probability of survival was very remote. And nevertheless he survived. 
     Madame Auvergne did not denounce these people. If she had, she would have denounced me. Roma would have suffered; the child ... It was not she. And after the war – he survived the war – after the war he had to go to a court and was accused of killing someone. And the gendarme – police – came to me, to ask what I knew about it. I said, “Madame Auvergne had wrong political ideas but she did not denounce. I wouldn’t be alive.”

Yet, here is how Dr. Planas described it (and I still suspect it is the same event):

Three tragic episodes disrupted the shaping of our Company: June 12, a member of the 3rd Section stole from Warrant Officer LABROSSE a Colt 45, a US Navy weapon, and went to shoot a milice volunteer in Beaumont.  Unfortunately, his lack of composure made him shoot down the wife and daughter of this sinister individual who came between our comrade and his target....

It's written very briefly, and a little vaguely, almost as if the writer wanted to report as few details as possible, yet still remain true to the history, and include the unit's mistakes and tragedies as well as the triumphs. 

Dr. Planas wrote the account in 1955, only 11 years after the events in question, when the memory of the war was still very fresh and raw in everyone's minds, and he was writing about friends and neighbors many of whom were still very much alive. 

Dr. Planas was only about 33 when he wrote it AND he was very specific: June 12th.  Not, "sometime that summer," or even "sometime in June," but June 12th.
I also think it's fair to say that an 11-year-old memory in a 33-year-old man is probably more accurate than a 30- or 44-year-old memory in an elderly man as was the case with my grandfather, though I should mention that my grandfather was still quite sharp in 1988 - no dementia whatsoever.  But he does occasionally state in the 1988 recording that there were things he'd forgotten. 

But it's also fair to say that after 10 years, details such as dates are going to slip even a young man's mind. When I was 33, I am certain I didn't remember the exact date of my college graduation for instance.  And given how extremely ah, busy the summer of 1944 was, confusing the dates doesn't seem unreasonable, or unlikely.

Other interesting differences: Dr. Planas didn't mention the murderer's name in his account, and the name of the murderer as reported by my grandfather is not included in the list of members at the end of the company history. It may not actually be the same incident, but the details are awfully close, and I suspect it's indeed one and the same. 

What do the stories share?
  • Location: Beaumont-lès-Valence (a town of about 1200 people).
  • A member of the company went AWOL.
  • Weapon: pistol (Sten submachine guns were reasonably common, pistols less so).
  • A woman and a little girl were murdered.
  • Judgement issues (intellectually disabled in my grandfather's account, "lack of composure" in the other man's account).
How are they different?
  • Target. Was the target a member of the infamous Milice, or perhaps Mrs. Auvergne's husband, or was it Mrs. Auvergne herself? My grandfather never mentions Mr. Auvergne in any other way in any of his stories.  I'm not sure M. Auvergne was even present (or alive at the time).
  • Was the child a daughter or a niece?  Both accounts agree that the child was a little girl.
I tend to think it's unlikely that two different women/little girls were murdered by someone from an AWOL 4th Company member in the same tiny town, during the same summer. But ... it was wartime. I could be wrong.

In this case, I tend to trust my grandfather's account more, despite his being older, and the memories so far removed from the event, because he knew the people involved (and repeated the story many times over the years to my mother and aunts) whereas it seems as if Dr. Planas may not have known them, and that he simply remembered the second-hand details that were reported to  him incorrectly in the first place.

My grandfather also mentioned the man's actual name.  And the murderer's last name is the same as a local politician in one of the various towns where the 4th company was stationed. Could the murderer be related to the VIP? His son or brother perhaps? That's exactly the kind of detail that might get left out of unofficial records like the one I read.   

* There was actually a third Dr. Planas. Captain/Dr. Jean Sanglier's older son Richard also became a medical doctor, and he too served in the maquis, though in a different unit.

Monday, April 18, 2022

1940: My grandfather's probable employer

Have I mentioned that I really like historians?  Every single historian I've worked with has been really great, and the various historians in Europe who have been helping me find details about my grandfather do something absolutely excellent when they don't know the answer to a question - they pretty much always recommend further resources that may be able to help me find the information.

Most recently, the historian who helped me find when my grandparents' home in Brussels was built, put me in touch with a historian in Boechout, Belgium, who helped me find what is very likely the factory where my grandfather worked when the Nazis invaded western Europe.   

Here are the clues I was able to give them:

  1. Located in Boechout, Belgium.
  2. I thought the name of the place had the word "construction" in it, but couldn't be certain as the audio tape had a flaw, and I couldn't be sure of the name
  3. They made davits for the Dutch Navy (device to get a lifeboat into the water, when a ship is listing)
  4. They made aircraft fuel tanks
  5. They made Cointet Elements parts (probably the rollers at the base of the Cointet Elements; if you have an interest in tank traps, and how people tried to stop Panzers)
  6. They worked on converting British trucks left behind after the battle of Dunkirk in 1940, for use by the Wehrmacht (see the description below).
  7. The plant/factory was sold to a collaborator in 1940 or 1941, and there was anti-German sentiment among the workers - they sabotaged their own products by putting abrasive powder in the fuel tanks.
  8. Grandpa was a foreman there (he would have started working there between 1935 and 1940) with 150 men who worked for him.  He was also an engineer working on coal liquefaction technology (synthetic fuels), so maybe they produced synthetic petrol, too?

     So the work which my department had to do – hundreds, maybe thousands of trucks, small trucks which the Germans took from the British, or the British abandoned them before Dunkirk. Before going to England they abandoned everything, and Germans had only very big trucks which were good for good highways in Western Europe, but not for places like North Africa, so that the British, small versatile trucks were useful to them. So what we had to do is get rid of everything pertaining to British weapons and everything which was welded and got a ranger truck, so it could carry both German ammunition and German weapons like machine guns; etcetera, etcetera. Hundred of them passed over there.  Well, okay, nothing to be done; we did it. 

Here is their reply (in translation - it was written in Flemish/Dutch):

Dear Cathy,

In response to your inquiry, we would like to send you information regarding your grandfather and the factory where he worked.

Can you provide us with the following information about your grandfather: correct surname and first name, place and date of birth and death?

In the meantime, we are doing our best to gather some information about the factory where he had a leadership position. We know the following about the factory:

In 1923 the company started as an independent company “Werkhuizen Vanderstraeten”, production of small household items and galvanisation.
In 1937 the name was changed to “Werkhuizen van Boechout”.
And in 1941 the company merged with “Ethablissement Thirion” and the name was changed to “Verenigde werkhuizen van Boechout & Thirion”.

The manager was severely punished for his collaboration with the German occupier.

Later on, other mergers were made and there were changes in the naming. The company closed in 2011. The company was completely dismantled and a new residential area was created on the company grounds.

We hereby send you four photos that can also be consulted on our image bank.
Kind regards,

C-- H-- & R--- D--- 

DB04607 input port

DB04661 director's house, demolished in 1991

DB04557 plan of the factory 1936

DB04559 group photo frame and staff, is grandfather in it?

Click on the photos to enlarge them. The last photo is the most exciting, but it's too low resolution for me to be able to identify my grandpa. When I enlarge it enough to see facial details, it's too pixelated to see details.  I answered their email and provided my grandfather's name and the other info they asked for. I also asked for a higher-resolution image, or a direct link to the photo in their archive, which mostly does seem to have high-resolution scans (they have over 900 pages of images taken in 1939 alone so hopefully they'll tell me how to find it, so I don't have to page through them). 

As always, this is really exciting.

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

May 1940: My grandparent's apartment and super cool modern technology

 Really, this is just a continuation of my making connections down through time article, about how there are generous people are willing to help complete strangers with research.  And the cool tech that helped me this time: Google Streetview, and a historical arial photography website for the city of Brussels. They both gave me information about locations and neighborhoods.

Anyway, I wrote to a historical society in Brussels that is devoted to the history of Woluwe-Saint-Lambert, the township in Brussels where my grandparents lived.  More specifically I wanted to know if this apartment building in Brussels had been built before the war (hence, it is the actual building they lived in?), or after the war (so not the building they lived in)?

In other words, if I describe THIS building in my grandparents' stories, would it be accurate?

286 Avenue de Mai
Note the curved sunroom on the right. 
That's how I placed which building it was in the photos.

Here's the answer I got:

Dear Ms. Weeks,

 This building was built during the interbellum, probably in 1935-1936 (permit from June 1934). The houses nr. 286, 288 and 290 constitute an ensemble built by three different owners. Number 286 was built by the architect who designed the ensemble, Paul Aernaut. There are indeed three apartments in this house.

I invite you to check on Bruciel (it would be “Brusky” in English), you will see an aerial photography from 1930-1935 of this very building being built!

 My department is responsible for the ‘duty to remember’ in Woluwe-Saint-Lambert. We make a lot of research about occupation and resistance during the war, so I would love to hear more about your family’s history. Also don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you have any further question about WWII in Brussels.


S---- F----- 

Ok, this is excellent news! And so YES, that is indeed the apartment my grandparents lived in, when my aunt was born. That makes me very happy.  

Here it is in on the map. Note the pink heart pin - that's 286 Ave de Mai.

Ave Herbert Hoover and Ave de Mai
make a wedge-shaped neighborhood.

Bit of a surprise that there is an Avenue in Brussels named after an American president, but whatever.

Note the wedge-shaped neighborhood.   They are close to the narrow end of the wedge, and in my stories, I'd written that they grew vegetables in the courtyard behind the building, but ... that doesn't look like there's much space for a garden there, particularly if you consider the building on Herbert Hoover that is directly north of my grandparents' apartment.   So, using Google Streetview, I looked at that building. Is it modern or old? Is my understanding of the size of the space correct?  

In the picture below, the building north of 286 Avenue de Mai is the one on the right with the gray wall, with the back of my grandparent's building peaking through the gap between it and the next building:


Wait? Grandpa and Grandma had a balcony? Did people grew food in containers on those balconies?  But ... yeah. Not much space and maybe not much sun exposure - that space behind the building is on the north side of the building.  Given the food shortages during the war, I'm sure that if there WAS any usable green space, that it probably would have been used to grow food. 

So then I decided to look up the historical arial photography site the historian sent me, and ... whoa. Pay dirt!!  Take a look:

1935 or 1936 - during construction. Lots of open space. But that building behind it wasn't there.

1944: The building behind it appears to be there. I suspect that new construction
probably didn't happen DURING the war, so my guess is that it was built prior to 1939.
But, note that there appears to be open space to both the left and right.

1953.  Much clearer picture, but little change from 1944.  That is definitely open space to left and right. 

And, I wondered if maybe people really did grow veggies in those open spaces. Here's are two closeups of the 1944 photos, and ... maybe? They are patchy looking. Maybe they are vegetable gardens? Click on the images to enlarge even more.

1944 closeup of the open space to left of building.

1944 closeup of the open space to right of building.

Here's the Belgian arial photography site if you want to play with it.