Marcel's Letters, page 2
I told Tom I did not have an answer.
Sunday The 12th
for the class and by the will of God. Hugs and kisses from Papa who thinks about you a lot. Papa
Today, Sunday, it is one-thirty and I am in the barracks with Marcel, Mimile and Bernard. We don’t know what to do, so with Marcel we decide to write. The weather is terrible, one minute some beautiful sun that invites us to go for a walk, but a few minutes later it starts snowing. I wanted to go to the movies but then, because we’re not sure we can get tickets, I stayed here. Mimile is in the corner by the fire, like an old grandfather, and he sings to us, the Song of the Mason by Maurice Chevalier. In a little while there will be a soccer game behind the camp. If the weather holds I’ll go for a walk over there. Yesterday I sent you a card but the mail lady didn’t feel like working, and when I went to the post office to mail the letters, she was already gone. So the mail won’t go out until Monday afternoon. Some guys who were on leave have come back, and they said that in Paris they learned that their leaves were canceled. I’m quite happy
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at the same place, too bad for those who are lower on the list. The last one happened Wednesday, they demolished a bar about four kilometers from camp, a funny piece of work. Since then we sleep nice and quiet. Besides that, there’s not much news. Oh yes, today is the twelfth, exactly 14 months since I started working at Daimler, and today they were supposed to give us some tobacco, but they stuck their tongues out at us, another exercise to lighten our pocketbooks. Too bad that will be for next Sunday. Yesterday I received a letter from the boss, that’s depressing, all the letters I get say that they are waiting impatiently for me. That gets me down, growing two weeks older, but I shouldn’t think about that too much anymore. Okay enough with all the drama. Spring is here, and this year the gardens are in early. Will you be able to easily find a hired man, and did you get the trees put back in the garden? And what about the little plum trees that we put in at the beginning, will I maybe have the honor of eating some plums this year? I also received a letter from Dad. He says the peaches are still waiting for me. When I go there the weather will be nicer than it is now, and I will be able to tease the little fish a bit in the ferns and also in the pond at Gommier. As for me, you see, they thought that by this time there wouldn’t be much in the gardens and we wouldn’t be able to easily find food. I’ll stop here because I can’t think of anything else to tell you. I’ll leave my letter here but will return to it tonight. Today it’s me who is
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this you can see that I’m not making this up. For the past week we’ve been living the good life. I should explain a little bit. In the square there’s a guy from Amiens who has some tricks to get food. You can imagine how we are three big mouths, Mimile, Marcel, and me, we are served. It’s the wallet that finds this the funniest, because a one thousand bill only represents a little more than one kilo of bread. Yesterday we ate one kilo of cake, which was worth much more than one simple crêpe with blackberry jam. Actually that fills the stomach all the same. Speaking of crêpes, I decided to make some, since a friend gave me some flour. There you go just a little flour and water, with nothing to cook them with, funny looking crêpes. I also have to tell you about how I got a work suit yesterday. The work office gave them to us, but you should see me with, just imagine, the heavy fabric to wash like what we had before the war, and the same color, it’s made in Poland. All the French here will be wearing the same thing, just like the Russians who got them, so that now we won’t be able to tell each other apart. Let’s talk a little about the alerts. Our paper, the brave Écho de Nancy, talks about that, like a nice little tall tale, what a funny farce. Certainly they mistook the planes for crows. At the factory they told us that when the sirens go off, we can do as we please. Also you will see how we act like crazy little kids in the country because now they drop a whole bunch
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I will tell you what I did to them. I forgot to tell you that this is the first Sunday I’m spending in the square, because up until now I was working on Sundays. So this morning I took advantage of it, I got up at 9 o’clock. I started to read a nice book, but it got me dizzy because it was only talking about eating and beautiful women, all the things that are not allowed. I’ll write more tonight, because if I continue now I’ll run out of room. I sorted through my mail. I tossed all my letters because when we leave here, I’ll have to leave them at the border. Here’s a big kiss while waiting for tonight. We’re going to the game. Mimile says he’s going to send you the holes in his socks, so what can I say. I think the censor guy will have some work to do. Okay now I’m writing again after having eaten. I made them a blanquette of veal with the veal bones that a friend gave me, and a small piece of lard, we stuffed ourselves, with potatoes, not with meat. Mimile acted like a dog, going after the bones. At the moment he’s doing the dishes but not like Tommy. The sun was shining bright when we were leaving for the soccer game so I made a crease in my pants. That didn’t last long, not the crease, the sun, so Marcel and I came back at halftime because we were cold.
I don’t have much else to tell you for today. I’m going to go to bed and continue reading my book. You see I am reasonable, it is ten minutes before eight. I’ll bet my daughters are not yet in bed. Are they still arguing with you about their bedtime? When I come back they will have a hard time with that. Meanwhile we can talk a bit to try to get the compensation for the accident, because I think that after 14 months they should think about paying us. For the moment I would really like if it were already tomorrow evening at the mailbox. I don’t get much news these days. Please give a big hello to Mr. and Mrs. Gommier and the little Jacqueline, she’s walking by herself now. Do they have any good news from Daniel? Today I thought about Mrs. Jumentier and Mrs. Leduc, I don’t know why. Please tell them hello from me also. My little treasure, I will end my letter due to lack of space. Kiss my little daughters for me, as well as our dear mother. Your big guy who loves you with all his heart, and sends you his best love and kisses.
White Bear Lake, Minnesota
I read the translated text, then read it again. Then I printed it out, walked into the living room, and read it to Aaron.
“Not what you were expecting, huh?” he said.
I tried to make sense of the information. Marcel used the words “barracks” and “camp.” He had been there fourteen months. Russians were there. Sirens went off. A guy had tricks to get food. He cooked veal bones. He had been given a uniform.
Yet, despite all that, his letter ended with tenderness. I sighed as I realized this was, in fact, a love letter. It was not the kind of love letter I expected, but it was a love letter. I did not know anything about his wife, but I hoped for Marcel’s sake she loved him as much as he loved her.
I took a deep breath and thought of that hand-drawn swastika. Why would Marcel, who was living in a barrack and mailing letters from Berlin, have drawn a swastika and written, “for the class and by the will of God”? Why would he have written “Hugs and kisses”? The words seemed inappropriately cheerful to be next to a swastika. Could he have been forced to draw it? Would it have helped the letter get past the censor he mentioned?
I tried imagining a scenario where Marcel might have been sincere, but it seemed impossible. More correctly: I did not want it to be possible.
I returned to my office and emailed Tom a note of thanks. He replied immediately, noting how touching he found Marcel’s words.
I felt oddly conflicted. Reading Marcel’s intimate words felt like an inappropriate violation of privacy. It made me feel like some kind of voyeur. Yet the letter piqued my curiosity, and I yearned to know more.
I typed “Daimler Marienfelde World War II” into a search engine. The first article to appear was on the Panzerkampf
My head snapped back. Marcel was making tanks? But Marcel was French—not German. Why would he make German tanks? I stared at my computer monitor, stunned.
I never imagined it could matter to me where a tank had been made. But the sentence on Marienfelde was like an invisible string pulling me to Marcel, and I wanted to grab hold and pull until I had answers.
“You coming to bed?” I jumped when I heard Aaron’s voice. I had been consumed by the article on Panther tanks and had not noticed he was leaning on the frame of my office door. I shook my head. It would be hours before I would be able to fall asleep.
“Don’t stay up all night.” He stepped into the office and kissed the top of my head.
I brought a copy of the translation and my laptop into the living room, sat on the couch, and read his letter again. And again. Each time, something different caught my attention: singing in the barrack, reading a book, planes being passed off as crows, an accident that happened fourteen months earlier.
Some passages would not make sense for many months, such as Marcel’s reference to “Écho de Nancy.” Later, I would learn L’Écho de Nancy was a French-language propaganda newspaper published during the war.
Berchères-la-Maingot, the place where his wife and daughters were, filled my imagination. Sometimes I envisioned the older girls, Suzanne and Denise, reading Marcel’s letter aloud to Lily and Jacqueline. Other times, I imagined his wife gently whispering his words as the girls slipped into a deep sleep. I envisioned the peach and plum trees, the neighbors who were friends, but not familiar enough to call by their first names.
I pulled up the online calendar again, thinking of Marcel’s proclamation, “spring is here.” The only springtime Sunday that was also the twelfth was March 12, 1944. Marcel noted he had been there for fourteen months. That fit the timeline if the first letter had, in fact, been from March 1943.
There were so many unknowns, so many questions. I took inventory of what I knew: Marcel’s first and last name, the names of his daughters, the address in Berchères-la-Maingot, and that he worked at a Daimler factory in Berlin. I realized I did not even know his wife’s name, since he only called her “my darling.”
There was only one place to start.
I pulled my laptop close, opened a search engine, and typed his name: M-a-r-c-e-l H-e-u-z-é.
Aaron lay on the couch, watching baseball on television. I sat in the armchair, legs propped on the coffee table, my laptop balanced on my knees. Hoover slept on the floor between us, snoring. It was as exciting as evenings got in our home, with two introverts and an old dog.
I had assumed answers to the basic questions—Who was Marcel? Did he survive? How long had he been there?—would be easy to find. But I had searched for weeks and was still seeking the first breadcrumb that would create a trail to Marcel. The only thing I had discovered so far was that “Heuzé” was an uncommon name.
“What’s wrong?” Aaron asked.
“What do you mean?” I looked up in surprise.
Without glancing away from the television, he dramatically mimicked the long, slow sigh I had released. I promised to try to contain other loud sighs as I continued scouring search results.
“I think I found something,” I eventually whispered.
Aaron did not respond, so I typed “Ravensbrück” into a search engine and read for another fifteen or twenty minutes. When I learned where Ravensbrück had been located, a lump began to form in my throat. It grew so big it felt impossible to swallow.
“I found him.” My voice crackled as the words came out.
“Found who?” Aaron still did not turn away from the television.
I looked up over the top of my glasses and almost asked who else he thought I was searching for. “Marcel.”
Aaron swiveled his head to look at me. I shook my head and outlined what I found: a French citizen named Marcel Heuzé had been killed April 26, 1945, at the Ravensbrück concentration camp. “April 26 was four days before the camp was liberated. Ravensbrück was only fifty miles from Berlin,” I explained. Moments earlier, when I looked at the map and saw how close it was to Berlin, I had the sickening realization that close would have also meant conveniently located.
“It says Marcel was a pastor.” I had been surprised to see that profession listed, but then recalled he had scribbled, “by the will of God,” next to the swastika.
“His wife’s name was Simone.” Simone’s death had been listed as “sometime between 1979 and 1993,” which meant she had outlived him by at least thirty-four years. I stopped and took a slow, deep breath as a wave of sadness washed over me.
After a long silence, Aaron offered his condolence. He turned back to the television, but a few minutes later he added, “You knew that was probably going to be the outcome, right?”
“I hoped it wasn’t.”
Ravensbrück had been the Reich’s largest concentration camp for women. The 130,000 women who cycled through Ravensbrück represented every country Germany occupied. Beatings, starvation, medical experiments, back-breaking labor, and forced prostitution made Ravensbrück a “special kind of hell.”
Yet, nothing I read had explained why Marcel would have been at a women’s camp.
A small camp for men had been built adjacent to Ravensbrück’s main camp, I eventually learned. For four months in 1945, men gassed the women, then burned their bodies in Ravensbrück’s crematorium. Considering the tender words Marcel had written to his wife and daughters, the thought that he might have been responsible for burning the bodies of women and children made my heart feel as if it had been cleaved in two. How could anyone—especially a pastor—have done that?
How could he have lived with that?
He didn’t, I reminded myself. Marcel didn’t live. As the reality of the situation soaked in, a thick cloud of grief seemed to settle over me.
The record did not show when Marcel had been transferred to Ravensbrück. I hoped he had only been there minutes, or hours, or days. I hoped he had not been there long enough to work the crematorium, or to witness the murder of thousands of women and children.
Aaron turned my way. “If the Germans hadn’t killed him, it’s likely we would have, you know.”
“Why’s that?” My eyebrows soared.
“You told me the factory where he worked made tanks, right? What would be a higher-value military target than a factory making German tanks? We probably bombed the shit out of it,” he said with a shrug. “Collateral damage.”
I did not say anything, and he turned back to the television. After a few minutes, he added more. “A worst-case scenario would have been if he was still there when the Russians took Berlin. They were ruthless motherfuckers.”
I knew he was trying to help me understand, but I wanted him to stop. I did not want to hear another word, yet I felt compelled to ask what he meant. “The Russians suffered under the Germans, right? So, when they took Berlin, they were merciless. If the Russians got him, he might have spent the rest of his miserable life in a coal mine in Siberia.” After a few moments, he quietly added, “Ravensbrück could have been a small mercy over the Russians.”
I read what some Russians had done when they liberated Ravensbrück. Only three thousand women—those who were too weak to take part in the evacuation march—were still alive when the Russians entered the camp. Many women were raped, even if they were pregnant or were Russian themselves.
“You’re not making me feel any better, you know,” I said.
Aaron turned back to the television. The game and Hoover’s snoring filled the void with sound.
It was a desperate, no-win situation every way I looked at it.
The next evening, after cleaning up dinner dishes, I headed to my office, and Aaron retreated to the garage to tinker on one of his projects.
After wrapping up the day’s unfinished business, I opened the font file and stared at a grid of nearly four hundred rectangles, each one filled with a number, an upper or lowercase letter, or two-letter ligatures such as Of, or Fr, or bb. The font represented so many hours of work. Years of work.
How could I not have known?
Guilt surged through me. After scrutinizing Marcel’s handwriting for so many years, it felt as if some how—some way—I should have known Marcel died. It was as if I expected the fibers in the paper would have transferred that information to the muscle fibers in my fingers when I first held his letters.
I should have known.
I opened the Preview Panel and slowly typed the only word that came to mind: R-a-v-e-n-s-b-r-ü-c-k. The letters looked correct: the a looked like an a, the s looked like an s. Yet every curve felt backward, every arc inverted. Seeing that word—the place where Marcel had been killed—written in a font based on his handwriting sent a shiver down my spine.