|WEB EXCLUSIVE: Bastille Day through the eyes of a French survivor
Bastille Day is the name given in English-speaking countries to the French National Day, which is celebrated each year on July 14. In France, it is formally called La Fête Nationale (The National Celebration). It commemorates the 1790 Fête de la Fédération, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789. In France, independence day is July 14, the day the French people overwhelmed the notorious Bastille, symbol of the imperial government
I met Madame Germaine C. at LeGare restaurant in Santa Rosa; she and owner Gladys Praplan were planning a Bastille Day party. I asked Germaine to give me her thoughts on the second liberation of France. Germaine is soft spoken, her perfect English is heavily accented. She was an adult, living in Paris in 1940. She has a unique perspective of what happened in France during World War II.
Nazi Germany invaded France on May 10, 1940. Hitler's' modern forces quickly overwhelmed the French army and advanced toward Paris. The Italian government also declared war on France that day and attacked from the south. The French government began to crumble under the onslaught, and civilian and military officials panicked.
I was living in Paris at the time and contacted a good friend. He was a car insurance agent, and he wanted to leave Paris with his family. I was 21, thought I knew everything and saw the trip as fun. His family agreed I could accompany them in their old Citroen. We collected as much as we could carry and left the city early in the morning on June 16. The day quickly warmed as we picked our way through the throngs of people escaping the city. Rumors had the Germans moving on to Paris, crushing everything in their path. The highway was flooded with people on bikes, pushing carts and carrying their children in a panic to leave the city. French soldiers were running everywhere, their regiments had collapsed.
By late afternoon, we were stuck in a gridlock on the bridge crossing the Loire River to Nevers. People were leaving their cars and walking across the bridge. Traffic was stopped dead, we got out of the sweltering car and started off on foot. We had just made it to the other side when the 12-year-old boy suddenly pointed to a small group of planes approaching. "Mother! Mother! Look! They are going to bomb the bridge" There were people screaming all around and running as the first wave of bullets strafed through the panicked people. A huge explosion blasted us from behind; the mother covered her son and took a piece of shrapnel in the leg, severing her foot. I was also hit. Shrapnel below the knee savagely ripped both legs. We could not move, we lay bleeding and stunned on the roadway. People pounded past us in their rush to safety. Behind us, the bridge and the cars on it were all in the river.
No one would stop and help, people were dead and wounded all around us. I lost track of time, my legs were a mess. I thought I would bleed to death. At one point a woman came by and just screamed, pointing at the bloody mess. That evening some people organized a rescue force and helped us. I was taken in a makeshift ambulance, we drove a long time. At one point, the ambulance was stopped, the doors flung open and a German soldier commanded us in heavily accented French, 'Get down! You are all prisoners.' He walked through and saw that we were not a threat and allowed us to proceed. I was not able to keep up with everything that was happening around me. I was taken to a convent and spent six months there. Eventually a German doctor gave me a serum to prevent gangrene. My legs were swollen and an angry red color. The pain was unbelievable.
The Germans were unable to advance onto Paris because the roads were tied up with abandoned cars and trucks; people had just dropped everything and ran. Roads were clogged with dead horses, dead and wounded people and junk.
One of the nuns befriended me, and I told her my name and my mother's name. She must have given it to the people who were trying to reunite families. They would broadcast names and location on the radio. This is how my mother eventually found me.
My mother persuaded me to go live with my grandmother in Dieppe, Normandy. She could not feed me in Paris, where she lived with my stepfather.
The train was available to citizens but very dangerous. The Germans used the trains to move troops and material, this made them targets for Allied bombers and open to attack from the French resistance.
Grandmother lived on a small farm. It would mean we could raise some of our own food and have fewer people breathing down our neck. I took the train from Paris and arrived without incident.
The Germans formed a puppet government of French people sympathetic to the Nazis. The Vichy government slowly increased pressure on the French people. All radios were taken away; to be found with a radio could be immediate death. The Germans were trying to prevent words of hope and encouragement from England.
People began to turn on each other, you couldn't trust anyone. The Germans pushed the Vichy government to reward traitors and severely punished those who just stood by or failed to expose their friends and neighbors that may have aided the resistance or otherwise did not comply with German demands.
The Jews had it the worst. They could only shop in special stores, they had less food and fewer choices. Jews were forced to wear a yellow star on their clothing. If they did not comply and the Germans found out, it meant immediate arrest and possibly death on the spot. We knew several Jews who did not wear the star; they were at great peril of being turned in. I knew one man that hunted Jews for the government. Within days after France was liberated he was captured and publicly executed.
Food was rationed, clothing had to be patched and gasoline was for the German military with a bit for the French government. We walked a lot, rode bicycles or traveled by train.
Dieppe, the town where I lived with my grandmother, was beautiful; it was in the country and very near the sea. We had two cows which provided more milk and butter than we could eat. The extra milk and butter were bartered for food and other things. Big farmers had it made. They had to produce so much to turn over to the Germans; once their quota was met they sold the rest to the highest bidder. There was a special occupation currency we used, a kind of Reich Mark.
We were given allotments for most things. You had to stand in line for bread, a line for meat, a line for cheese. In Normandy, restaurants were open, we had coupons to pay for our food there. If you had money to pay the check, then there were a lot more choices, real food the restaurant had acquired from farmers for cash.
The French people were amazingly creative when it came to shortages. You could not buy shoes, we made our own. You could buy a wooden form for a small amount of money, this was nailed to a workbench and then a discarded, old, heavy woolen coat was cut up. The fabric was stretched over the form and nailed to the sole. They were ugly and the wood hurt your feet but it was better than nothing, especially in the winter. Coffee was made from burned twigs and nut shells, it was horrible, it was dark and hot so people drank it, not me. When the Americans came, we had coffee again. It was the terrible stuff the Army drank, but we thought it tasted like heaven.
The Allies used radio broadcasts to send coded messages to the resistance groups in Europe. One day, I went to visit a lady that lived near my grandmother. She was lying on the floor with the rug over her head. I wondered what she was doing there. I was quickly rushed out of the house by her family and sworn to secrecy.
The government required many French families to house a German soldier. These were mostly very young men. We did not have a soldier at our house, but many did.
The Germans were polite and well behaved. I never, never heard of a German soldier abusing French women. If a German soldier was caught drinking in public he would be arrested and get in real trouble. They had certain places where they could get drunk and act line young men having fun. We never saw soldiers drunk in public until the Americans came, then there were drunks everywhere, French and Americans.
Once when my mother visited from Paris, she told us of a roundup of Jews one night. They were forced into a huge indoor bicycle racing stadium, the Velodrome d'Hiver. People were kept crowded in there for many days, they had no food, no water, no help, they died by the hundreds. Eventually, the survivors were taken to trains and shipped to concentration camps and work camps, some were sent right to extermination camps, we did not know about those until after the war. This roundup was done by the Vichy government, a black day for the people of France. It is not like you could resist the Germans, they had the guns. The Gestapo would shoot you if you looked at them cross-eyed.
It was not far to the sea from our town, we would ride our bikes to the beach. We could see the German bunkers and the soldiers and guns there, they would wave at us. There were these giant, steel girders scattered around in the shallow water near shore, they were there to prevent landing craft from coming ashore in an invasion. This was very near the landing area that the Allies used on June 6, 1944.
One morning, just at daybreak, people in our town heard something outside, there were soldiers wearing uniforms we had not seen before. They were walking toward Paris, this was 20 kilometers from the sea. We thought it might be the invasion we had all hoped for. As it turned out it was a few hundred troops from Canada who arrived in the middle of the night without support from Allies. They landed quietly and in the dark. They took the Germans by surprise too. By noon the Germans got organized and slaughtered all of them.
Editors note: In researching this event, it was fully sanctioned by the British and Canadian governments, it was called "Operation Jubilee" and was intended to draw the Germans into conflict so that they could 'test' the German forces.
More than 6,000 infantrymen landed in the dark, the operation began at 5 a.m. on Aug. 19, 1942, and the order to retreat was given at 10:50 a.m. by the Allied command. Casualties were more than 60 percent that morning, mostly Canadians. The few soldiers that managed to scramble back to the beach reboarded their landing craft and headed back to England under heavy fire. The Germans used the Allied failure as a propaganda tool. German newspapers laughed at the inept effort that morning and crowed over German superiority in the face of the short 'Battle for Dieppe'. They needed good news, in the late summer of '42 the Eastern front was crumbling under Russian defenders.
"One time, the Germans came to a small town in Southern France, Oradour Sur Glane. It was about the size of our town of Occidental. For some reason, the Nazis wanted to make an example of the people there. They rounded up everyone in the town and herded them into different buildings. Women and children were pushed into the church. The Germans killed them all and set fire to the building. Anyone who tried to escape was shot. Today, the town is a memorial...no one wanted to rebuild.
In a town not too far from ours, the resistance attacked the Germans one night, two soldiers were killed. The next day the Nazis were outside a local school, they took each child as they came out the door. When they had 15 children, they killed them with machine guns and left them where they fell. It was a strong statement about reprisals.
Bastille Day in 1945 was huge, people were wild in the streets, and France belonged to the people once again."
The second liberation of France came on Aug. 26, 1944. The Vichy government was violently ousted and Nazi sympathizers who oppressed the French people under the Germans were beaten in the streets to cheering crowds.