Marcel's Letters, page 1
Copyright © 2017 by Carolyn Porter
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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Control Number: 2017001221.
Cover design by Erin Seaward-Hiatt
Print ISBN: 978-1-5107-1933-0
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-5107-1934-7
Printed in the United States of America
To Aaron, Mon Chéri
“Maybe it was on a list somewhere, the name, where I come from and so on.
But in the camp no names were used.”
—STEPAN SAIKA, SURVIVOR
White Bear Lake, Minnesota
As I lifted the nearly weightless pages off my desk, I was surprised to realize I had forgotten so many things. The decades-old paper felt simultaneously soft and brittle. The ink had faded to a brackish gray. Tiny tears and wrinkles created a feather-like ruff along the edges. Translucent blue grid lines filled the background of one yellowed page. A papermaker’s watermark was embedded into the fibers of another. It seemed impossible I could have forgotten how the handwriting went to the very edge of some pages, and that watery blue and red stripes had been brushed across the background of others.
My eyebrows arched. How could I have forgotten about the postage stamps bearing Hitler’s profile?
Yet I intimately knew the alphabet of letters that filled these five pages. The roundness of each curve, the width and angle of each straight letterstroke: every nick and loop of this writing was as familiar as my own.
No. I corrected myself. I knew this handwriting better.
I turned the top letter over and skimmed past paragraphs I could not read, until my eye landed on the flourished signature in the bottom corner: Marcel. The l looped backward to form a proud, angled line underneath his name. I tried to recall how long these letters had been pressed flat inside the sketchbook in my office closet. Had it been two years? Four? More?
I carefully set the letter down and looked at the next piece of paper. The small postcard had been mailed from Berlin to a place called Berchères-la-Maingot. The blotchy cancellation mark read 1944. “Sprache Französische” had been scrawled in tiny cursive along the top edge. Armed with a single year of high school German, I guessed that said “written in French.”
As I set the postcard down, I focused on the letter that had seized my attention all those years ago. It wasn’t even the entire letter, actually. It was one letter: the M. The left stem of the M in the greeting “Mes chères petites” swept far to the side and ended with a sweet little loop.
The affection infused into that greeting was undeniable, yet I did not know precisely what that meant. My dear? My little darling?
The thought was fleeting, but definitive: I should translate one letter. After all this time, it would be interesting to find out what “Mes chères petites” actually meant. And even if the letter didn’t say anything interesting, I might learn who Marcel was, and why his letters had been mailed from Berlin to France during the depths of World War II.
Aaron and I ate dinner in the living room as we watched the evening news. He sat on the couch; I sat on the chair, as if we had assigned seats. The tsunami in Japan had been four months earlier, but the story still made headlines because of the leaking radiation. Protests in Egypt and Libya were gaining attention as stories about bin Laden, who had been killed two months earlier, had started to fade.
“What’s your plan for the evening?” I asked.
Aaron looked gray and spent from long shifts at the hospital, so I did not expect he would do anything other than watch television. He nestled deeper into the couch, confirming my guess. “You?”
I nodded in the direction of my office. I had been freelancing out of a home office for nearly ten years. Tidying up the day’s loose ends had become a familiar after-dinner activity.
“I’ll take Hoover out later,” I promised, hoping the day’s blistering temperature would dip low enough to safely take our old black-furred retriever out for a walk.
An hour or so later, after wrapping up client work, I slid Marcel’s five letters to the center of my desk. Spending time on personal projects was my reward for a long day; a creative respite from routine tasks. And working on personal projects only after paying work was done allowed me to keep the promise I made to Aaron long ago.
That morning, I had decided not to return the letters to their home, pressed flat under the cover of the sketchbook in my office closet. All day, the five handwritten letters lay on my desk, intermittently covered and uncovered as I cycled through project paperwork.
Instead of opening the font file, I decided to pursue that morning’s curiosity and find out what Marcel’s letter said. I moved the letter with the beautiful swash M in front of me, and typed the first sentence into a website that provided free French-to-English translation. C’est aujour cl’hui, le printemps, et il fait un temps superbe, cet apris midi, Moutardier cloit venir me voir, en l’attendant, je reponds a votre gentille petite lettre qui m a fait beaucoup plaiser. The translation read: “It is cl today, the spring, and the weather is beautiful, this learned midi, successive dentals end must come to see me, in the meantime, I am responding to your sweet little letter which m has done much plaiser.”
My shoulders sank. I had purchased the letters because I knew Marcel’s cursive handwriting would make a beautiful font, but deciphering his writing as words rather than individual letters was a challenge. Lowercase s’s looked similar to i’s; e’s looked like o’s. And since I did not know French, I could not tell whether I was interpreting the words correctly.
The next sentence resulted in an equally garbled, worthless translation. I shook my head, stood up, and returned the letters to the sketchbook in the closet.
I settled back into my chair and rolled to face the two large side-by-side computer monitors. As the font file opened, a familiar grid of tiny black letters appeared. I opened the Preview Panel—the window that allowed me to view and test strings of letters or whole words—and stared at the blank screen. I positioned my hands over the keyboard and slowly typed the only words that came to mind: Mes chères petites.
As I scrutinized the grave over the è and the sweeping lead-in stroke of the p, I decided to have one letter professionally translated. Throwing away hard-earned money on a translation I did not need to read just to satiate a curiosity was folly, an impractical waste of money. I understood the translation might not serve any purpose other than providing a momentary diversion from the seemingly endless rounds of tweaks and revisions. But after being reminded of the letters’ raw beauty—full of color and texture and history—my curiosity had been piqued.
The next day I began to search for a translator. Most of the translation service providers I found seemed to be brokers who sent documents who knew where to be translated by who knew whom. I preferred to find someone local. It even crossed my mind to hire a college student who might work for
“I am a local graphic designer,” I wrote to names on a list of potential translation vendors provided by a French language school in Minneapolis. “I have a handwritten letter from World War II that I would like to have translated. It is two pages long. I can pick out a few words, including Paris and cinema, and a reference to 1,300 kilometers.”
Responses trickled in. One person’s curt email just listed a per-word translation rate. Another person expressed interest, but the error-filled email did not bolster confidence in the quality of his work.
The email that caught my attention was from a man named Tom. “A personal letter will be a nice break from the birth certificates and academic records that are the bulk of my translation work,” he wrote. “I will need to see the letter to give you an accurate quote. Price depends on word count and vocabulary. Please scan and email the letter to this address. I will, of course, treat it confidentially.” I appreciated Tom’s fair approach to pricing, and took comfort in his proactive promise of confidentiality.
I retrieved the sketchbook from the closet and withdrew the letter with the big, beautiful M. The surface of the tissue-thin yellowed paper had a faint ribbed texture. One corner was dog-eared. The ink had probably once been black, though it was now a faded gray-brown. The sheet of paper had a distinct horizontal crease across the center; I assumed that meant it had been folded in half before being placed inside some long-lost envelope. Watery, parallel blue and red stripes—proud colors of the French flag—extended down the entire page. At least, I guessed the stripe had once been red; it had faded to a rosy pink. The numbers 4220 were jotted in pencil near the top. I tried to recall whether that had been some inventory number scribbled by the antique shop where I purchased the letters.
The handwriting in this letter was neater and larger than the writing on any of the other letters. It was as if Marcel had written slowly and taken the utmost care. Some lines had as few as five words; other lines had seven or eight.
After scanning the front and back, I emailed the files to Tom. He outlined his price, sixty dollars, and an estimated turnaround time before summarizing the content: “It is a sweet, loving letter from a lonely father to his daughters.”
My head snapped back. It’s to children?
All these years I assumed the letters had been from a man to a woman. I had hoped for romance! I had imagined the flourished greeting was followed by confessions of affection from a heartsick soldier to a faraway girlfriend. Or that the page had been filled by a husband, resting between military maneuvers, lavishing his wife with words of love. It had never once crossed my mind it might be a letter from a father to children, though the large, careful writing now made sense.
Despite the twang of disappointment, I approved Tom’s estimate. I confirmed his suggested turnaround time of a couple of weeks was fine, and assured him a check would go out in the next day’s mail. If nothing else, I figured, I would learn a thing or two about the man whose handwriting I knew so well.
Sunday at three o’clock
You can tell Mom that today I’m eating the last of the beans and that she can send some more. Love and kisses from Papa to everyone.
My dear little girls,
Today it’s springtime and the weather is excellent. This afternoon Moutardier should come to see me, so while waiting for him I’ll reply to your very kind letter, which pleased me very much. Before writing to you I did my laundry. Once it’s dry I will have quite a bit of mending to do. It would be great to have one of you two with me.
So I see that you had a good time at Mardi Gras. I hope that you didn’t scare Lily or little Jacqueline. In the meantime you should go pick violets in the Billé woods.
This morning I had some bad luck. While combing my hair, my comb broke in my hand. You can tell Mom that she can send me another one.
Denise, I would like to receive a letter from you, so you can tell me what you did in Montreuil. Did you go to the movies with Mom? Did you go shopping by yourself?
And what about you, Suzanne? Were you the one getting the milk and bread while Mom was in Paris? As for Lily, I’m glad that she’s no longer sucking her thumb. I recommend that she doesn’t pick the blossoms from the cherry tree or the pear trees. She should wait until the fruit is ripe.
My dear little ones I don’t have much else to tell you today. I recommend that you be on your best behavior.
Please give my love to your mother, hug her a lot, and the same for Grandma too. Your Papa who sends his love from 1,300 kilometers away. Your Papa who thinks about you all the time.
White Bear Lake, Minnesota
“It’s heartbreaking to hear how much he missed his girls,” I wrote to Tom. I could not tell his daughters’ ages. Lily and Jacqueline sounded quite young. Denise and Suzanne sounded older, though I could not determine who was oldest. How old would someone be to fetch milk on her own? Twelve? Thirteen? “It makes me even more curious to know why he was so far away from his family,” I wrote.
Marcel did not sound like a soldier; a soldier should not have to buy his own beans. He did not sound like a businessman either; a businessman would have been able to buy a comb. And it seemed unlikely a businessman would be wearing clothes that needed so much mending. But if he hadn’t been a soldier or a businessman, why had he been in Berlin?
Tom messaged back immediately. He had only seen the March 21 date, not a year, and wondered whether Marcel might have worked in Berlin’s French sector after the war.
I retrieved the other letters from the sketchbook and examined them for dates and clues. The other letters had been written in 1943 and 1944, so I reviewed an online calendar for springtime Sundays that were the 21st. March 21, 1943, had been a Sunday—the only March 21 that fell on a Sunday between 1937 and 1948, so 1943 seemed to be a safe bet. But that meant Marcel had written the letter two years before the war’s end.
Could he have been a prisoner of war? The thought made me gasp.
I typed “Marienfelde” into a search engine. The first article to appear outlined Marienfelde’s history as the site of a refugee center for East Germans escaping to the west. Had Marcel been a refugee? But, then I read the refugee camp did not open until 1953, a full decade after he had written the letter.
The days that followed were busy with client work, but questions swirled in the back of my mind: Why had Marcel been in Berlin? How long had he been there? How did his letters end up in an antique store in Stillwater, Minnesota?
It would take years to understand why Marcel’s letters secured a place inside of me as they did. The connection had been immediate. Unequivocal. Marcel’s words to his daughters were like fishing hooks that curled into muscle and skin. Men writing tender expressions of love did not exist in my world, and the affection Marcel showed his family was undeniably enchanting. Intoxicating, even.
When Tom agreed to translate a second letter, I reviewed the remaining pages to determine which one to send next. I chose the longest letter, figuring the volume meant it would be most likely to hold answers. The letter was a single piece of paper folded in half vertically to create four pages. I presumed Tom would want to see a scan to quote a price, so I carefully straightened the corners and scanned the front, then the interior left, then the interior right, then the back.
Some aspects were similar to the first letter. The page was the same size—about 5.5” by 8”. Stripes of blue and red had been brushed across the page, though instead of running vertically, these were at an angle, and in places the thick paint made Marcel’s writing nearly indecipherable. A second, horizontal crease indicated this letter had been folded in half, too.
Differences existed: this paper was thicker, whiter, and a papermaker’s w
I was about to email the scans to Tom, but stopped and let out a long sigh.
Then I deleted the first scan from the email.
I opened the original scan in Photoshop and magnified the upper left-hand corner. Using one of Photoshop’s retouching tools, I carefully eliminated every trace of a small, hand-drawn swastika.
On the day I had bought the letters, the handwriting’s loops and curves were all that mattered. The odd little swastika had not been important. Not that it wasn’t important, but it didn’t factor as a reason to buy, or not buy, the letter it was on. To me, the wobbly, intertwined lines were a relic of the era, no different than the Hitler stamps or the cancellation mark from Berlin. But after reading Marcel’s loving words, the swastika now made me confused and uncomfortable—especially since it appeared to be in his handwriting. Marcel no longer felt like just a name—he was a man whose daughters picked violets and went to Mardi Gras. A man who sent love and kisses from afar. It was as if Marcel were on a piece of photographic paper slowly being swished back and forth in a bath of developing chemicals. The image had not yet started to appear, but I did not want the swastika to be the only thing to become visible.
After Tom received the email with the retouched scan, he provided an estimate of $320. I was displeased about the expense, but I approved it. I had been unable to get Marcel out of my mind, and I hoped this letter would answer all my questions. I wanted to put this folly—put Marcel—aside and get back to client work. Practical, paying client work.
Ten days later, Tom sent an email asking whether anything had been cut off of the scans. My heart lurched. How could he have known about the swastika? But, it turned out, he was referring to something else. He wondered whether I mixed up the page order or if I might have cut off a line when I scanned the pages. The sentences spanning the page breaks did not make sense; he had even tried switching the page order. With the exception of the swastika—which I still did not mention—I was confident the scan showed everything. Might another piece of paper have been folded in the middle? That scenario did not make sense either because the writing on the front page should have continued on to the backside of the same piece of paper.