Her beautiful boy is looking at her. A single tear is slowly making its way down his plump and perfect cheek but apart from that, he is quiet and still. He seems to somehow sense that immobility is what’s required of him. She forces a smile she hopes is reassuring, tries to pass off this wretched situation as normal. Only it is extremely difficult to do while there is a gun pressed against her boy’s soft temple.
“Names. Now.” says the man in that vile uniform she has come to hate.
She has denied all knowledge until this moment, but the man who is holding a gun to her baby’s head smiles… a slow, almost gentle smile. Panic flutters inside her chest, a trapped bird trashing madly in its increasing desperation to escape – she cannot contain it any longer.
“The baker. He delivers messages late at night. I don’t know to whom… he takes that trail at the back of his house, the one leading into the woods… where he goes I don’t know…
Please don’t hurt my boy!”
This last bit escaped her, she couldn’t help it but what does it matter? The man knows she’s terrified, the man knows she’s weak, the man knows she’ll tell him everything he wants her to now.
The man does look almost bored, maybe he does this so often that the enormity of it doesn’t even register anymore, this thought scares her more than anything – the gun hasn’t moved, it’s still there, dangerously close, oh so close to that delicate temple.
“What else?” he says.
And now the dam has broken, a destructive flood gushes out and she couldn’t stop even if she wanted to.
“The butcher, he shelters resistants sometimes in his barn…his daughter cycles all over the county which is quite strange nowadays…and she used to go with the Chardin boy who’s joined the maquis. That man, Monsieur Pierroux who lives behind the church? (She’s babbling now, words rushing out, anything, anything so that cold hard barrel gets away from the sweet temple) he has counterfeit ration tickets, he sells them and…he listens to the radio broadcasts from the Resistance (what else, what else can she tell him so he leaves her and her baby alone?) And Monsieur Thierry, he didn’t deliver even half of his harvest like everyone has to, he kept back some of it for his family… and the rest to sell on the black market… please, please…”
Finally, mercifully, the gun is lowered….she doesn’t move though…not yet, it doesn’t feel safe yet.
The man in uniform releases her boy who immediately runs to her, she scoops him up into her arms and the relief…the knowledge and feeling that he’s safe is so huge that she’s crying and laughing all at once, on the verge of hysteria.
By the time she looks up again, the man in uniform is gone. Where? She doesn’t know. What is going to happen to those people she told him about? The baker, sweet Monsieur Martel whom she has known since childhood…who used to give her a freshly baked petit four on Sundays… the butcher who’s not particularly liked because he has that awful habit of casually laying his fingers on the scales while weighing meat…sweet lord, so he’s not averse to cheating his customers, but he’s certainly made up for that in other ways, hasn’t he?…and his daughter, whose only crime was falling in love with a man who can’t, won’t, accept the invader, whose only crime has been to help him in any way she can.
She heard about what happens in those cells…torture, often going on for days, torture that goes on even when they have squeezed every bit of information out of you, torture simply because they can, torture until your spirit and body are so broken that you don’t even feel the sweet release of death.
She did this. She gave the names of people she knows… to the enemy…condemning those people to horrors she can’t even imagine. She smells her boy’s head, breathes that unique scent in deeply, closes her eyes and relishes the feeling of his precious body against hers.
Yes, she did this terrible thing she’s going to have to live with all her life…and she would do it again if she had to. She realises this, and the knowledge fills her with a mixture of despair, hot burning shame and defiance.
I have always been fascinated by history, and the Second World War is not yet far enough in the past that it doesn’t still have an impact. As most of you already know, I am French and I have had to endure many taunts from various people over the years (especially in the UK) over the fact that so many of the French were “collaborators” during WW2.
Yes, many were collaborators, many did despicable things, but many others were incredibly brave and resisted the invader. It’s never a conversation that I can have casually because there’s so much to say and I feel so strongly about it. I’ve done a hell of a lot of research on the subject over the years, out of interest at first, and later for academic purposes as I wrote one of my dissertations on conflict and identities.
The long and the short of it is: nobody knows how they would react if their country was invaded, nobody knows what they would do to survive, nobody knows how brave or cowardly they would turn out to be. It’s so easy to say what you would do in theory, but in actual reality? You can’t say because you don’t know. The story I wrote is an extreme example of how your loyalties can be divided, but there are so many other ways it could happen.
There are various levels of bravery, collaboration and treason. Would you welcome the invader into your home if it meant more food on the table for your family? Would you resist and risk your life (and your family’s) everyday to try to liberate your country? Or would you just do your best to survive and wait till it’s all over, letting others fight on your behalf? What would you do if a priest showed up at your door with two Jewish children who needed your help? Would you turn them away because the risk to yourself is too great and never mind that your actions are condemning them to death? Or would you organise to have them sent to safety thanks to a subterfuge involving wine barrels because it’s the right thing to do and never mind what happens to you if they are discovered? My brave great-grandfather did this (there’s a couple of other courageous and generous stories of this kind in my family, which I’m insanely proud of) Would I have done the same? I like to think so, but obviously I have no real idea. Talk is cheap and judging is easy, we should all remember this.
Written by Nathalie, August 2015
Image credit: ppding.deviantart.com