Monday, November 7, 2022

1944: Nearly Liberated: A Woman's Experience

    One difficulty I've had when writing Biscuit - most of my information is from my grandfather, and the story focuses primarily on his (the soldier/husband) point of view. But wherever I could, I tried to show my grandmother's world.  Her stories -- the few that I have -- were often quite powerful.

    One involves her experience just before her area of France was liberated, and she encountered American soldiers and German soldiers in the same day.  The info I have about the story is actually from my grandfather (I don't recall my grandmother ever telling me the story herself) who said in the recordings:

    By the way, Roma could tell you the story. She was in the village, in the town of Beaumont, and Americans came -- A jeep or two, and people were extremely happy and women kissed them, and everyone was enthusiastic, fantastic. And then they disappeared and a few hours later, the Germans came. The Germans came. 

    And a German told her, asked her: “Where is your husband?”

    “He is working in Germany.”

    And he said then, “I don’t believe you; he is with the French Forces of the Interior. Here is the Armband of the FFI, and when we see them, we kill all of them. Maybe your husband is like him.”

    But in any event it was very unpleasant. 

I turned it into a chapter from my Grandma Roma's point of view, and fleshed it out a little, and discovered that the story took on incredible power when the reader experiences it along with her. Here's the chapter:

Trophies
—25 August 1944—

    Roma was working on the books for the town of Beaumont-Lès-Valence, and Liliane was playing quietly on the floor nearby, when they heard a commotion outside city hall.  Roma went to to the window, and peered outside, then jumped a little when she saw men driving small open military vehicles pull to a stop just outside the building

    Then she saw that the soldiers were foreign uniforms, and there was a white star on the door of the vehicle. Were they … Americans?  Then she saw a woman —her friend Thérèse — rush to one of the vehicles, and kiss the driver on the lips.  Yes, they had to be Allied soldiers.  

    “Liliane, come here, little one!” Roma said, and scooped up her daughter and rushed outside.  

    Within moments, it seemed the whole town had turned out to welcome these soldiers, and there was cheering, and men were shaking the Americans’ hands, and women and even children were hugging them, and pressing tiny gifts into the men’s hands.  Roma saw several people pass the soldiers bottles of wine that they’d been carefully saving and hoarding since the war began. 

    The Americans were enjoying the attention, but it was clear that they wanted to ask questions but they didn’t speak enough French, and the townspeople didn’t speak enough English.  So, taking Liliane by the hand, she walked up to the men, and said in English, “Hello, you have questions?” 

    The man looked relieved. “Yes, ma’am.  Can you please tell us if there are any Germans in this area, and if any are billeted in this town?  And are there any ammunition or fuel dumps?”

    “Speak slowly, please.”

The soldier repeated his questions.

    “Billeted? I do not know that word.”

    “Living here, in people’s homes,” he answered.  Liliane had been peeking at the men, sending them grins from behind Roma’s skirt. He winked at the little girl, and she giggled.

    “Oh … No, none live here.  And I do not think weapons or fuel are here, but I must ask the … important people of the village.  Germans are here sometimes, though.”

    “Thank you, ma’am. Yes, please ask.”

    Roma smiled at the man, picked up her daughter and went to find the mayor and town council. They confirmed that they knew of no ammunition or fuel caches, and Roma returned to the soldier to report her findings.   

    “Thank you, ma’am.”

    Roma then held out her hand. “Thank you. It is good to see you here.”

    The man grinned and briefly shook her hand.  

    But before they could go, Liliane said, “wait, Mama!” and she too held out her hand to the soldier, who gravely shook the little girl’s hand.

    “Beautiful little girl,” he said, then he and his men drove out of Beaumont-Lès-Valence.

    An hour later, Roma had finished working on the books and visiting with her friends, and was preparing to go home, when a small convoy of Germans came through.  She stood and watched them impassively, as they walked past her, boldly entering the town hall.  One stopped and looked at her, his gaze slowly sliding over her breasts and hips, before returning to her face. He glanced at the little girl standing next to her, hand held firmly in Roma’s. 

    Roma pushed Liliane behind her slightly. That seemed to annoy him.

    “Where your husband?” The man asked in bad French.

    “He is working in Germany,” Roma answered, just loudly enough to be heard.

    “I don’t believe you,” he said with a slow, ugly laugh. “He’s with the French Forces of the Interior.” 

    Roma’s heart started to pound and her stomach roiled. “What?” she asked, weakly.

    The man pulled out a wad of FFI armbands from his pocket and held them up. There were three of them, and they unfurled downward from his fist like tiny wrinkled French flags. The buckles clinked together, a muffled chime.  “Here are their armbands.  When we see them, we kill all of them.  Maybe one of these is your husband’s.”

    Roma’s heart skipped a beat, and she managed to stifle a gasp, but she couldn’t stop the involuntary tears from filling her eyes.   She couldn’t find a single word to say.

    The soldier seemed satisfied with the effect his petty cruelty had on Roma, gave her a mean grin, and then followed his officers inside.  

    Roma turned toward home and started walking as quickly as Liliane’s short legs would allow.  

    She was halfway home before she realized the armbands he held were a different style than Arthur’s.  She stopped, ignoring Liliane’s questions, and closed her eyes and breathed a long sigh of relief.  “Oh, Arthur, please come home to me.”