"The French Look So Healthy"
by MONICA STIRLING
THE damaged station at Havre did not look so sordid as it was. This was because sunlight the color of Normandy cider was pouring through the fissures made by our bombs. But because it had none of the conventional station bric-abrac — no buffet, no porters, no little trucks loaded with newspapers — it lacked verisimilitude. It might have been a discarded film set. Along the remaining outer wall were surprisingly unfaded posters, their bright, nursery-colored text inviting one to visit Brittany and Normandy and Rouen Cathedral (of which only a lovely lace skeleton remains). On the wall above the posters were scribbled the names of American soldiers, sometimes with the names of their home towns added; below, there still remained a few German names.
Drawn up alongside our train was a train preparing to go in the opposite direction. It was laden with newly arrived soldiers. They looked clean and, in both the literal and the slang sense of the word, fresh. Their field jackets were hardly creased, and as the boys going on leave looked at them I imagine that they could not avoid drawing the comparison, its pathos as terrible as it was banal, between their present appearance and the one they would acquire in the foxholes.
After the snowy, mutilated towns of eastern France, with their panoply of tanks and trucks en route for the front, this town seemed, at first, a long way from the war. Streetcars, yellow and squeaking, were running; Les Hauts de Hurlevent (Wutheritig Heights) was being shown at one motion picture theater; newspaper kiosks were selling Paris papers as well as Le Havre Libre; the sun was shining with dazzling effect on a smooth gray-blue sea.
It is extremely difficult to convey the effects of bombing. Those who have never lived under bombardment cannot fully apprehend it. How badly most of us focused the pictures of the Spanish Civil War can be proved by the different way in which we now see the same pictures. And those who have lived under it long enough have their sensibilities blunted. The damage in Havre did not, at first, shock me, and this was not because it is not shocking, but because living in London accustomed me to shocking sights.
Aware of this deficiency in my imagination, I bought some picture postcards in a little shop in the suburbs that constituted, I later discovered, the only normal-looking parts of Havre. These postcards, brown with glossy surfaces, had been printed several years before the war. With them to help me, I made my way from the Fort, which was like a huge cheap toy, through ruins which, because Havre was once an opulent commercial town, were full of traces of handsomeness that made them approximate the ruins of antiquity.
One of my postcards showed the Promenade at its most conventional, and sunlit. Unindividualized crowds were gathered round clumsy bathing boxes; outmoded cars were parked in front of the ugly, ornate casino; and rather plain civilians in summer clothes and white canvas shoes were strolling over the smooth surface of the undamaged sidewalk. And the sum of all this banality was something exquisite, because it was based on an acknowledgment that the demands of pleasure are legitimate and must be acceded to.
Even its visual aspect was enchanting when compared with the dissimilar scene that now lay beneath similar sunlight: the soiled, bombed casino flanked by ruined villas; the sidewalk messed up as if by pigs with iron snouts; the beach bereft of white palings, bathing boxes, and cheerful crowds, and littered with debris and rusty girders amassed by the Germans to prevent the Allied landing; the red brick pillboxes still marked “Interdit aux Frangais.” Another postcard showed a charming little theater with a neat garden in front of it and cafes on either side; of this there remained only a few fragments of pillars, jutting through the rubble like broken teeth. And the wildest surrealist could not have done more with the center of the town than paint it realistically.
The worst section, a square mile of rubble, abounded in fantastic detail: attached to one of the surviving trees was a notice saying that the office of Monsieur Dax, the lawyer, had been temporarily transferred to other premises; a ruined garden contained an undamaged statue of a man and a woman, he frock-coated and she voluminously skirted, engaged in a chaste embrace; across the inner wall of a wrecked house was pasted a large and crudely colored picture of an ancient Roman interior; in the background stood the prettily pompous facade of a pillared edifice marked Museum d’Histoire Naturelle. The only object in this part of the town that had not been destroyed was the 1914-1918 war memorial, now flanked by the fresh graves of bombed civilians.
OF THIS great European port, once touchingly proud of being the best-lighted town in France, two thirds is now destroyed: the port by the Germans or by French patriots, the town by Allied bombers. There were a hundred and twenty Allied bombing attacks on Havre before the one that presaged the invasion. During this final attack 4000 persons out of the 80,000 who remained in the town, out of a normal population of 160,000, are known to have been killed — bodies are still being unearthed and the injured are not yet numbered.
It is estimated that the rebuilding of Havre will take twenty years. The people of Havre have already started the rebuilding. Since glass, slate, and cement (together with food and shoes) are among the town’s major deficiencies, they are reconstructing with usable fragments from the surrounding ruins.
In addition to the postcards, I bought a local daily paper in order to see what home-town news enlivened the average person’s day here. The miniature sheets — half the size of our daily papers — were not without cheerful content: heavy type announced the imminence of a “grande matinee de basket” (basketball match) to be played by American and Havraise teams in order to raise money for the homeless.
There was an account of a bicyclist who had been knocked down by a truck — “his bicycle was rendered unusable, but disappeared shortly after the accident”; of the formation of a society “to group together old soldiers and the victims of the two wars”; and of the activities of that most pathetic of contemporary French adolescent groups, the “anciens resistants.” There was an announcement that lack of coal would shortly cause electricity to be limited to a period from 5,00 P.M. to 11.00 P.M., and of stoppage of the streetcar service. There was a list of the food rations: 11 ounces of bread a day, 9 ounces of meat a week, 5 to 5½ ounces of ersatz coffee a month, 1 pound of sugar a month, no milk, flour obtainable only by surrendering bread tickets, and allotment of foods not on the constant ration (butter, cheese, potatoes, vegetables, fruit, eggs) varying according to locality and ration card. There are eight types of ration cards, ranging from infants (under 3) to aged persons (over 70). A paragraph called the attention of Frenchmen between the ages of 18 and 47 to the fact that, for the time being, volunteers would be accepted for the colonial armies only.
There were scores of tiny advertisements insert ed by persons wanting not houses, nor apartments, but rooms. A Monsieur Fresnais begged to inform his clientele that he was now selling cider “as before,” and several persons expressed the wish to buy bicycle tires. In the middle of the paper, setting the tone of contemporary daily life in Havre, were two columns headed: “Bombardment of 5th September, 1944,” and consisting of a list of victims buried in the Place Gambetta. Beginning with an unknown person described as “human debris found on the Quai George V,” the list continued with a Monsieur Marette Maurice, aged 55, whose body had been found in a butcher’s shop, to culminate in Mademoiselle Guerin, aged 23, whose body had been found in the market place. On the back page were sixteen small paragraphs in which the families of persons killed in the bombardment thanked their friends for condolences.
The family that had invited me to lunch was one that had played a creditable part in the successful struggle for French survival. Neither aristocratic nor of the “Workers of the world, unite!” school, these people were of the often abused and as often praiseworthy bourgeoisie. Jacques, who had not been old enough to fight in 1939, had spent the war in Paris working for the resistance and was now a liaison officer with the American Army. His relations with the foreigners among whom he worked were as admirable as his industry, and the Americans liked him too much to patronize him. He was a dark, pleasant-looking boy, whose only obvious eccentricity was a passion for an English town named Bradford, where he had stayed as a schoolboy. The friendship of his new associates and the fraternityhouse atmosphere of the mess were giving him a taste of the innocent juvenility of which the war had hitherto deprived him.
His elder brother, Olivier, in whose room we lunched, had spent the war in Havre. He was thirteen years older than Jacques, and more saturnine. Throughout the war he had continued with his profession, which was dentistry, and this work, hard and embittering in its revelations of irremediable damage to the health of the nation, had intensified the ardor he put at the disposal of the resistance. He and Jacques were both fervent nationalists, but their nationalism was regulated by common sense rather than chauvinism.
Olivier’s wife, Paulette, a pleasant young woman, was busy frying potatoes in an adjoining cubbyhole that served as kitchen (a portable stove) and bathroom (a tin basin). Throughout the occupation she kept her husband’s secrets, harbored his friends, uncomplainingly accepted the horrible dangers in which he involved her — she told me that she had never been afraid of bombs, all her capacity for fear being assigned to the footsteps on the stairs, the knock at the door that might mean the Gestapo — without ever permitting this mode of life to strip her of the gayety that made her love so valuable to her serious husband. Like Olivier, Paulette was not deficient in practical sense.
The fact that their only child, a girl of eight named Joscelyne, looked plump and healthy was due to Paulette’s having twice a month, over a period of two years, bicycled thirty-seven miles to a farm whose owner had once been a patient of Olivier’s and who in consequence supplied butter, eggs, and occasionally a piece of bacon, most of which were kept for Joscelyne. A score of rabbitskins from the same source had made the child a fur coat. She was wearing this, over a pair of her father’s trousers, cut down, which were gathered at the ankles and tucked into flannel socks and wooden sabots, when she ran in from school, her cheeks rosy, her temper jovial, her appearance the essence of health.
WHILE I helped Joscelyne lay the table, Paulette told me how lucky she and Olivier had been in keeping the family together during the occupation, and how sad she had been when, anticipating the Allied landing, Olivier sent her and Joscelyne to a farm outside Havre. But it was fortunate he did so, since their house was completely demolished. He himself was among the few Red Cross workers who survived the bombardment without injury.
The room in which we were talking was one of two, in a dilapidated slum house, found for them by the hospital on whose staff Olivier works. Although it was sparsely furnished — a wooden table, six wooden chairs, a small bookcase containing three shipping magazines, a lamp with its shade decorated by Olivier’s FFI armband, and a small cabinet full of curious little objects that looked like figurines off a medieval Christmas cake — it was far from depressing. Paulette kept it very clean, and the wallpaper was the same color as the sunlight coming in through the uncurtained windows and the Calvados she was carefully pouring into tumblers that did not match.
Although delightfully free from mock modesty, neither Paulette nor Olivier saw anything remarkable about their conduct. And they were right. Their conduct was not remarkable in France. Had there not been thousands of families like theirs, France would not have survived. But that is no reason for us to forget that it was remarkable.
The only one of their immediate circle whom they did find remarkable was a young Parisian to whom they were giving hospitality. I knew something about her since I had been acquainted with her before the war. Her name is Simonette, and when I had last seen her, five years earlier, she was an extremely pretty girl of eighteen, overflowing not only with gayety but with an energy that led her, when war was declared, to volunteer as an ambulance driver. She was an undisciplined little creature in those days, but the companionship of her twin sister, to whom she was devoted, and her appetite for adventure enabled her to endure with hilarity the boarding-school aspects of military life as organized for jeunes filles.
In 1940 she was awarded the Croix de Guerre. When I asked her how she won it, she said, “Everyone was fleeing — and I fled fastest.” Then she gave a defensive little smile and said, “My Jewish degeneracy, no doubt.” Simonette’s father was a liberal as well as a Jew, and for his anti-totalitarian writings previous to the war he and his wife were made political prisoners by the Germans. While this was happening, Simonette’s elder brother, who had been taken prisoner while fighting at Dunkirk, escaped from Germany into Russia. As soon as Russia entered the war, he came to England to join the Free French.
With his story I was already familiar: my brotherin-law, who is French, escaped from a prisoner-ofwar camp in Germany and arrived from Russia in the same group. Simonette’s sister also came to England, via Spain. I could remember her as being very amusing in London about a certain prison in Barcelona which she said you had only to enter to find yourself among old friends calling out, “Hello! Fancy seeing you here. Which way did you come? “Yes, Bertrand got shot coming across the Pyrenees.” “You know, you’re looking very well — where did you get that suit?” “No, our trouble was being denounced. Which Maquis is Julien in? ” The atmosphere was that of a macabre cocktail party at the Ritz.
The two younger children were then only eleven and thirteen, so Simonette stayed in France, spending all her energy, and a great deal of the family’s fortunately adequate income, in looking after them and in finding food to supply her parents with regular parcels, without which they would have starved. But it is doubtful, as Simonette herself observed to me, whether she did well to prevent her parents’ starving. For at the end of a year they were removed from the camp for political prisoners to one for Jews.
This change in their circumstances was not to their advantage. Neither was the next one, which took them to Germany. Simonette has not heard from them for three years; she has learned through the grapevine system that they were moved from Germany to Poland; she has also heard a number of detailed accounts of German atrocities in that country.
After her parents had been taken from France, Simonette joined the Yercors Maquis. Towards the end of 1943 she became ill and was cared for in a Maquis hospital in the mountains, run by two girls who at first had to do all the cleaning and cooking themselves, in addition to trying to tend the wounded with inadequate medical supplies and no sheets or bandages. In September, 1944, Simonette had the pleasure of seeing her brother again, and the pain of hearing that her sister had been capt ured by the Germans.
Traces of what she has endured, and is enduring, are not apparent in Simonette’s person. Her prettiness still enchants by its suggestion of healthiness, her cheeks are as round as a well-nourished child’s, her complexion is clear, her large eyes bright, her curly hair thick, her teeth strong and white; if she has a physical fault, it is that she is a trifle plump. But the reason Simonette is in Havre is that the doctor who treats her in Paris has had to go there for the time being; and the reason she cannot be without this doctor is that he is making an attempt to prevent her from dying of an extreme form of pernicious anemia.
I asked the doctor if she needed food or medicine that could be provided from Allied sources and he said no — there were luxuries which might make her life more agreeable, but the disease had reached such a stage that she was bound to be dead in six months. She is twenty-four, and of the finest moral fiber.
BUT it was not until late in the day that I heard Simonette’s story. Over lunch we talked, at first, of impersonal topics. Despite the rigors of their recent experience, the conversation of this little group, of whom only Simonette was intellectual, was neither bigoted nor puerile. When Jacques brought up the subject of Allied treatment of German prisoners, Olivier apologized to me and said no doubt I was sick of hearing about them, but it was difficult to avoid the topic in a town in which so many prisoners were working among a hungry, homeless population. Before I could answer, they all began explaining the Geneva Convention to each other, to spare me from having to do so.
I am not trying to pretend that all French people are so courteous; it happened that Jacques, Olivier, Paulette, and Simonette were. But their civility did not soothe my confused feelings. I believed we were doing right in abiding by a Convention we had signed; but I knew that if I were a French docker, sitting in a bombed warehouse and eating a roll and — if I were fortunate — a slice of charcuterie, I should not be gratified by the knowledge that the enemies responsible for the ruins around me and the lack of lunch in front of me were being well fed by my friends. And if, after eating my roll, I had to unload K rations, I think I should try to steal some to take home to my family. And yet we are in the right.
And I believe that the reason for the irritation which some of us express by grumbling that people in the liberated countries “expect every American to be a Santa Claus” is due less to demands made of us than to our dislike of the knowledge, implicit in this and many simpler current problems, that being in the right is not, automatically, a solution. I believe that the mistake is not in keeping one’s promises, but in making promises of a grotesque nature; for if one has the self-control to observe rules of war, one has the self-control not to make war. It is useless to draw the red herring, “Ah, but it was only the Germans who wanted war,” since the Geneva Convention is based on reciprocity and it is because the Germans are observing its rules to some extent, so far as our prisoners are concerned, that we are observing the rules with theirs.
We are in the right. But we must not be irritated by the lack of pleasure with which the French view our right-doing. Instead, we must try to remember that 720,000 French people are prisoners of war in Germany; 220,000 are prisoners of war who are being forced to work for Germany; 708,000 are deported civilian slave laborers; 400,000 have been deported as political prisoners; 115,000 — mostly Jews — have been deported because of their race; and 300,000 people from Alsace and Lorraine have been deported and drafted into the Wehrmacht.
My hosts were as aware as the most critical foreigner that not everyone in France is behaving in an exemplary fashion. They compared the Minister for Food with Lord Woolton greatly to the latter’s advantage, and they were bitter about the breakdown in the health services. But they had a healthy interest and pride in some of the ways in which the government is tackling its impossible task: in the municipal elections, scheduled to take place between April 12 and May 13, in the purging of collaborators from the central administrative offices, in the measures to assess foreign securities, and in the superb fighting of the First French Army. Particularly pleasing was their freedom from that most nauseating of snobberies, the snobbery of suffering. For every story of their lives under the occupation they wanted one of the struggle outside, and their feeling for London was extremely touching.
The Calvados heightened the sense of well-being inspired by that rarity, an egg each, and fried potatoes, and towards the end of the meal we talked less of the war and became like any little bourgeois group in which persons of one nationality are proudly describing the merits of their town to another. The only difference was that they had to say “You should have seen,” instead of “You must see.” But they sidetracked this, without selfpity, by saying, “You must come back in ten years.”
Throughout the meal Joscelyne had been staring at me with an ecstasy that I felt could not be directed at me personally. I was right: unable to contain herself, she turned scarlet and whispered, pointing at my uniform, that the dream of her life was to be dressed exactly like that and marry an FFI. When Simonette began to tease her for infidelity, the little girl ran round the table and began to pummel her, until Simonette picked her up and went to the window, threatening to throw her out. They ran to and fro, shouting with youthful laughter, the plump child who had kept on her fur coat because the room was not heated and the first spring sunshine was still no more than a delight to the eye, and the radiant young girl in her expensive 1939 uniform: delightful illustrations of the pretty fancy that the French look so healthy.
After lunch I went to visit, the port: mile after mile of wreckage evocative of the shape of things to come, with here and there an undamaged wall with “White Star” or “C. G. Transatlantique” written across it and reminding one of the forgotten, exquisite qualities of travel whose object is pleasure or work. But the desolation was not unsoftened by hope. Leaving what had been a German E-boat base, until a local boy planted a charge and wired it to the telephone so that, the first incoming call blew the place up, I came upon a patched-up warehouse in which French civilians were assembling American machinery.
Out beyond a solitary fishing boat, incongruously pretty with its russet sails, were Liberty ships. We are doing our best to bring France material — as much for our sake as for hers. But, as Nurse Cavell said of patriotism, this is not enough. France is not a poor relation to be patronized. She is a great power who has endured sufferings from which the Channel and the Atlantic preserved Britain and America, and only if we bring her understanding as well as material shall we be applying the word ally to ourselves correctly.