Marcels letters, p.10

Marcel's Letters, page 10


Marcel's Letters

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  “Why do you think Wolfgang wants them?” Aaron and I sat in the living room, finishing dinner as the news played in the background.

  “Do you think he wants to bury them?” Aaron asked.

  “That’s what I’m afraid of,” I confessed.

  Wolfgang contacted me twice more making a case for Daimler’s acquisition of the letters. “For our archives only. We would handle them strictly confidential,” he assured me. “We want to do all to keep the memories of this chapter of our company’s history,” he said in another email. “The contents of Marcel Heuzé’s letters from Berlin-Marienfelde are very important.”

  It was unthinkable. Giving Marcel’s letters to Daimler would be returning the one thing Marcel had control over—his private thoughts and feelings—to those who imprisoned him. If Daimler had custody of the letters, could they hide what happened inside their camp? Could Daimler make the only tangible proof that seemed to prove Marcel even existed disappear entirely? What would giving Daimler the letters mean for the font? Could that mean I might not be able to release it? Could that mean I might never be able to mention Marcel’s handwriting as the source?

  Aaron’s eyes lit up with a familiar spark of mischief. “What?” I asked.

  “See if you can trade ’em for a car!” I drew in a breath of fake indignation and hissed his name as we laughed. I knew he had been kidding. Or, I hoped he had been kidding.

  I would never trade them. I stole a glance at Aaron.

  I was not as sure what he would do.

  His idea was not entirely far-fetched. I probably could trade them for a car. What would a car—even one that cost $50,000—be to Daimler? I envisioned a shiny black Mercedes pulling into our driveway, carrying a team of corporate lawyers wearing bespoke suits. “We’ll give you this car right here right now if you give us the letters,” I imagined them offering. Then I imagined them demanding.

  The next day, I took Marcel’s letters to our safe-deposit box.

  “On one hand, I question whether Daimler should benefit in any way from such personal letters,” I wrote to Wolfgang. “On the other hand, at the core, these letters are a testament that love can transcend any situation. Once I release the contents of the letters to you, the company can do whatever they choose with the contents, and I am trying to consider the ramifications of that. You said the content would only be used for archival purposes, and I believe your intent. But that isn’t to say someone else couldn’t make a different decision.”

  I marked my calendar for six months from that day, and promised Wolfgang I would check back with him then. It seemed impossible to believe it would take another six months to find out if Marcel lived.

  But I had already been searching for six months and had barely found a trace.

  The promise I made to Aaron to work on the font only after client work was done extended to the search for Marcel, too, I figured. But it was getting harder to keep that promise. I searched for him first thing each morning. I wedged fifteen minutes of time between client projects. I took Hoover for a quick walk, then searched as I wolfed down lunch. Often, by the end of each workday, a list of places to look would be scribbled on a scrap of paper. As often as I could, I would devote entire evenings to finding Marcel. When Aaron worked long shifts at the hospital, I searched until the wee morning hours.

  At times, Marcel felt so present it was as if he were in the room, watching me search, patiently waiting to be found.

  Aaron occasionally asked if I wanted to go out to dinner or a movie, but I usually suggested we have a quiet night in. He would watch sports on television; I would sit on the couch, my nose buried in my laptop. It was unfair to Aaron, but searching for Marcel was the only thing I wanted to do.

  I began writing letters. Lots of letters. I drafted each letter in English, then used the online service to translate it into French. Each letter began: “Avec le plus grand respect, je suis en espérant que vous pouvez me aider avec une recherche.” With utmost respect, I hope you can help me with a search.

  I outlined what I knew about Marcel and posed the core question: do you have information on his fate? Letters were mailed to museums, war organizations, and archives in France. A few letters went to Germany, with the all-too-familiar apology for errors translated into German. Inquiries were mailed to museums and archives in the United States, too.

  Sometimes the search for Marcel felt like trying to find the end of a roll of cellophane tape. The end had to be somewhere, even if I could not see or feel it. Meanwhile, I scratched and picked and spun in circles, knowing once I finally found something to grab onto, I could unroll and unwind it until I reached the core.

  I began repeating the mantra “people do not just disappear.”

  In France, births are recorded at La Mairie. Local town halls had been the keeper of civil records since the 1700s. If I was lucky, I heard, additional information such as a person’s marriage or death might be scribbled in the margin. Some registers, apparently, had wide margins filled with annotations about a person’s life.

  My problem was that in France, personal records are private for one hundred years after a person’s birth. Marcel had been born January 26, 1912. In theory, Marcel’s information should have been made available a month earlier. But there was no telling how many years it might be before 1912 records would be digitized and posted online. And I could not wait years for an answer.

  “It’s a meat Ho Ho,” I said as I tapped my chin. Aaron pretended not to hear me. “It’s the perfect way to describe it,” I added with a whine. When he still refused to acknowledge the accuracy of my description, I gave him a playful swat.

  We were having four friends over for dinner: Laura and Adam, and Karrin and Jim. Laura was the first friend I made when I moved to Minnesota as a teenager, and most of my high school memories include either Laura or Karrin. The first time we got drunk, cruel boys, bad haircuts, band concerts: those were the memories we shared. We went to colleges in different cities, but we remained friends in the way a river can split into braided channels, then flow back together in one swift and seamless rush.

  A couple of years after college, Laura and I rented an apartment together. It was a horrid beige, two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment near a freeway. Furniture had been picked up at garage sales or borrowed from family. We occasionally had to hot glue the kitchen floor tiles back into place, but we relished our first taste of independent adulthood. Aaron and I met a few weeks before Laura and I signed the lease, and as the months progressed, the three of us spent countless hours together. Aaron once remarked Laura was the closest thing he had to a sister.

  Laura, Adam, Karrin, and Jim were foodies, and Aaron wanted to impress. He prepared a roasted squash soup with homemade croutons; a beet, apple, and chèvre salad topped with hand-candied walnuts; and the meat Ho Ho, which was a pork-belly roast rolled so that it looked like the chocolate and vanilla-creme snack cakes we had as kids.

  For an hour after everyone arrived, we visited in the kitchen. The conversation meandered from politics to headline news. Karrin told us about her new job. Laura and Adam announced their plan to move in together. Eventually, we moved to the dining room. We had more wine and savored Aaron’s exceptional dinner.

  When Karrin asked how work was going for me, I told her about a multi-month corporate rebranding project I had been hired to spearhead.

  “How’s the font coming along?” Laura teased. She knew it was not done.

  “Getting closer.” A lilt at the end of my answer made it sound more like a question than a statement.

  “That’s what you said last year!” Laura added with a laugh as she grabbed my arm. It was as if she had caught me telling a lie.

  Neither Jim, Karrin, nor Adam knew anything about the font, so I explained what it was based on. “This is going to sound like an excuse, but I haven’t worked on the font lately because some interesting things have happened with the letters.” I outlined what I had learned so far. As I recited some of Marcel’s tender
words, Laura and Karrin cooed in unison.

  “It makes me want to cry,” Laura said as she held her hand over her heart. Laura turned to Adam and asked if he would write her love letters like that. He gave her a quick kiss and told her yes, he would be happy to.

  I looked at Aaron, then swiveled back to Laura and shook my head. “There’s no point in asking.”

  I confessed I had become obsessed with finding out if Marcel made it home. “Obsession” is not a bad thing for graphic designers; it makes us good at what we do. I’ve obsessed over the color of camel-brown paper, the tone of silver ink, the width of pinstripes, the position of clear wafer seals. None of that is weird or unusual for a graphic designer. So, being obsessed with Marcel’s fate did not seem unusual. At first. But the obsession had grown uncontrollably. It had expanded like foam to fill every crevice of spare time and energy.

  “Daimler, as in the car company Daimler?” Jim asked.

  “They made tanks during the war,” Aaron said.

  “Marcel’s family was in Germany?” Jim asked as he cocked his head.

  “No. They were in a village in the French countryside, though I don’t think that was home. I’m guessing they might have been staying with family during the war,” I said.

  “And you don’t know if he made it home,” said Laura.

  “Right! That’s what I’m trying to find out.”

  “Was he Jewish?” Jim asked. My heart lurched as I thought about the hand-drawn swastika.

  “I don’t think so.” I had wondered that, too. I had even searched for Marcel in Holocaust databases. But the more I learned about STO, the more it seemed Marcel had been summoned because the Germans needed his labor, not because he was, or wasn’t, Jewish. I also did not sense Marcel worried his family would be deported.

  “Where did you get these letters?” Jim asked.

  When I said “Stillwater,” Jim’s eyebrows shot up. “Eight, nine years ago now,” I added with a shrug.

  “Why were they in Stillwater?” he asked.

  “I have no idea!” I said through a laugh. I doubted any of them could guess the amount of time that question consumed. “Considering what’s in them, I can’t believe family would have gotten rid of them. But maybe somebody decluttered their house and the letters were inside of something. Maybe they got rid of them without realizing it. I don’t know …”

  “Or there was an estate sale, and everything was sold,” Laura offered.

  “Right. Or the family had to abandon the house near the end of the war. Maybe they never came back and the house was cleaned out.” After a pause, I offered another scenario: “Maybe Marcel survived, but no one else did.” My heart sank at the notion he might have returned to a burned-out, bombed-out shell of a house that would never again echo with the laughter of his young girls. But if that had been the case, Marcel might not have needed—or wanted—to keep his own letters.

  I drew in a deep breath and offered yet another scenario. “Even though his letters are full of love, maybe the war ruined him. Maybe no one wanted the letters because they were a reminder of who he had been before the war, not who he was after.” I paused, saddened by the thought anyone who could write such beautiful, loving messages could be irretrievably broken. “It’s possible, right?” War could destroy people.

  “Maybe someone in the family needed money, so they sold them,” Adam offered.

  “That’s my theory,” Aaron muttered.

  “But I bought the letters for something like five bucks each. So the store had to buy them for a buck or two. If someone is going to sell a family heirloom, I’d hope they’d get more than that.”

  “If some college kid wanted to buy a bottle of wine, they might not think twice about selling anything they could,” Aaron said. He had offered this scenario before. I refused to believe it.

  Karrin had an idea, and when she shared it, I was too stunned to move. “What if the family moved to the US after the war? Maybe no one speaks French now. Maybe they got rid of the letters because no one could read what they said.” The possibilities in this new scenario made my head spin. Why hadn’t I thought of that?

  “How many letters did you get?” Adam asked.


  “There were other letters, though,” Aaron added.

  Karrin’s jaw fell open. “There were other letters?”

  “Oh, trust me,” I said, knowing the thought racing through her mind. “If I knew then what I know now I would have bought every single one. I picked the five letters that provided good raw material for the font. That’s all I cared about.”

  “Which store was it?” Laura asked.

  “Yeah, yeah!” Jim jumped in. “Ask the owner where they got the letters.”

  “They wouldn’t remember something they sold so long ago,” Karrin said.

  Laura interjected. “—Wouldn’t it be cool if they knew who bought the other letters?”

  “The store has been out of business for years,” I said. “I don’t even remember which building it was in. They probably went out of business after 9/11.” Stillwater had been hit hard by the recession. For a while, it seemed every third or fourth building sat vacant.

  After a moment of silence, I looked at Karrin and nodded. “I’ll see if I can find any family in the area. That’s a good idea.” Maybe whatever remained of the family emigrated to the US. Maybe they brought Marcel’s letters along as a treasured relic of all that had been lost. But, sixty-some years and a couple generations later, maybe the letters no longer held sentimental value. Maybe no one alive today remembered how Marcel fit into their family tree. If the family was in the area, it wouldn’t be hard to think of a dozen ways the letters could have ended up at the store.

  The conversation shifted to other topics: Karrin’s teaching job, Karrin and Jim’s family vacation, each of our parents’ health. But in the back of my mind, I was planning how to search for the Heuzé family in Minnesota.

  Hours after everyone headed home, after Aaron and I washed dishes and cleaned up the kitchen, I went into my office and began searching. I did not find anyone in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area, so I expanded the search to greater Minnesota. Then Wisconsin.

  “You’re going to be up half the night, aren’t you?” Aaron leaned on the frame of my office door. I swiveled to look at him and shrugged.

  “What are you going to say if you find the family?” The sharp irritation in Aaron’s voice surprised me. “‘By the way, I bought these letters that meant so little to you that you got rid of ’em’?” Aaron stepped forward and kissed my forehead before turning and walking away.

  He had a point. What would I say?

  I could tell by Aaron’s furrowed brow and the posture of his body he needed to say something. My mind raced to think of what I had done wrong. Had I misassembled the food processor when we cleaned up after the dinner party a few nights earlier? Had I thrown a shirt in the dryer that should have been hung instead? Had I forgotten to put something on my calendar?

  “Just because I don’t write you love letters doesn’t mean I don’t love you,” he said.

  My head snapped back.

  “I tell you I love you all the time.” His face hung with sadness. “When I bring you coffee in the afternoon, I’m telling you. When I fill your car with gas, I’m telling you. When I cook dinner, I’m telling you. When I scrape ice off the driveway so you don’t fall, I’m telling you …”

  We had been married sixteen years. I should not have needed him to point that out.

  It hurt my heart to realize I did.

  The summer Aaron and I began dating, he worked the night shift as a nurse’s aide. As patients slept, he whiled away moonlit hours writing rambling, love-filled letters. They were five, ten, fifteen pages, written longhand on blue-lined notebook paper in ballpoint pen.

  Sometimes he wrote about his patients: a cancer patient yearning to live, or a psychiatric patient navigating some unmapped reality. Other times he described coworkers, or family mem
bers I had not yet met. More than once he described the vivid oranges and fluorescent pinks of the sunrise over downtown St. Paul.

  He made numbered lists of the reasons he loved me.

  He laid bare his dreams for our future with a candor I was unused to.

  He wrote about the times we made love.

  He promised to be true.

  His letters stopped once his college classes resumed in September. The notes he now wrote were hastily printed and left on the kitchen counter: “we need dishwasher soap,” “I picked up an extra shift Saturday,” “Hoover is almost out of food.” Occasionally instead of notes, he would send me a text message or an email.

  One evening, more than a year after learning Marcel’s fate—as I was still trying to make sense of everything I learned and felt—I retrieved Aaron’s letters from a dusty box in our basement and read them for the first time in twenty years. The biggest surprise was not reading his introspective thoughts or his sweetly sentimental words. It was seeing Aaron’s ornate, curled cursive handwriting. The unfamiliarity was jarring; I had not seen him write in cursive in years.

  Chapter Ten

  White Bear Lake, Minnesota

  Mid-March 2012

  I stared at the unopened email. Waiting until evening to read it would have been the responsible thing to do. But within minutes, curiosity gnawed through self-control. I set client work aside and began reading the translated text of the chapter Wolfgang provided.

  At its highest count, more than 3,600 foreigners had been assigned to the Daimler-Marienfelde factory. Workers were from Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, the Soviet Union, Switzerland, and Sweden. Most were involved in production of the Panther tank.


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