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.

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