Marcel's Letters, page 23
Marcel’s references to leaves had always confused me, but I would learn promises of furloughs after six or twelve months of satisfactory work had been dangled in front of French workers as a way to encourage compliance. Leaves had been granted for some of the earliest workers, but according to some accounts, only 5 to 10 percent of Frenchmen returned to Germany. As a result, leaves were canceled because the Germans were unwilling to lose their workers. In other cases, leaves were promised, but made logistically impossible by a “maze of regulations” and complex train schedules.
The morning after sending the translated text, Louise called. With unusual formality, she announced, “I would like to make an edit.”
As my mind scrambled to identify what might have been wrong, she said, “I should not have written ‘goose shit.’ Will you change it to ‘poop’?” I nearly laughed aloud, but recognized the gravity in her voice. “Shit” felt like a crass way to translate Marcel’s description of his brown suit, she explained. “Don’t you think poop is better?”
I disagreed, though I could not bear the notion of arguing with her. “Shit” seemed to be the best possible word to describe everything about Marcel’s situation.
The dates on the last two letters—May 8 and June 10, 1944—meant six and a half months had transpired since the previous letter. Marcel had spent two and a half of those months imprisoned in Spandau.
The May 1944 letter looked similar to others: butter-yellow paper, a return address of Lager D4 West, censor numbers scribbled in pencil. The blue and red stripes were accompanied by a third translucent stripe that made the blue ink it was brushed over feathered and watery. The page bore scars from folds and creases. Drops of blood stained one frayed edge. The letter was dirty. Worn down. It was as if even the paper fibers were exhausted.
Clear cellophane tape held the final letter together. One line of writing was obscured by the repair, but it seemed certain any attempt to remove the tape would have destroyed the fragile paper. I told Louise to do the best she could.
The final letter had been written four days after British and US troops landed on the beaches of Normandy. Berchères-la-Maingot would bear witness to tremendous carnage before France would be liberated. Allied planes, shot down by Germans in nearby Chartres, would plummet into the fields surrounding their cottage. Renée would confront a German soldier. The girls would have a rifle pointed at them. They would have to abandon everything and hide in the woods. But the end was finally in sight.
Letters Sixteen and Seventeen
May 8, 1944
My darling little wife,
This evening I’m writing you a letter to talk to you about the events a little bit, and to give you some news. Since the operations have started, we don’t know much about how they are proceeding. The newspapers don’t say much. Today we had the L’Écho de Nancy, so we have a description of the beginning of the landing. This time I think it’s for good. It must be frightening for those who stayed there; it must be enough to drive you crazy.
I don’t think I have any more recommendations to give to you, except be careful and don’t panic. We still have very difficult moments to live through. With God’s help we’ll get through the great storm which is hitting our France one more time. For me, here things have been fine because we haven’t had any alarms for the last two weeks; I assure you that we feel the better for it. If the mail worked better, the morale would be better too and everything would be real fine. I don’t have any news from anybody.
They told us that we could take our leave in Germany. I’ll wait a little while and maybe I’ll go visit André or Emile. Today I managed to send you 200 marks—what can I do with those here? If they arrive that will be a good thing, because these days they find a way to take them from us. I told you in March that they had given me a suit for work, and today I have to pay for it 13 marks per week for four weeks. I still have 200 marks, so you see, with the wages coming, it will work. It is 10:15, you must go to bed at this time. During the day you must be glued to the radio to learn how the operations are going. It seems that they’re on their way to Paris. And fast as they’re going they’ll be there in no time. It must not be fun to get food, especially since the attack is going on in a rich region. I would give a lot to be with you, you know, especially since you must wonder how it’s going to end up. You remember 40. I am very anxious. I’d like to be two weeks older. Don’t mind my writing; the thoughts are bumping together in my head, and I have a hard time writing them as fast as I’d like. I don’t know if you’ll receive this letter. There must be such turmoil at this time. We are all nervous, and as you can imagine, the conversations are all about that. In spite of that, write me as often as possible, one never knows; and don’t be afraid to tell me the truth. My little sweetheart, I’m going to leave you because it’s eleven o’clock. The little chat is finished already.
I see you sleeping with your girls. You remember when I used to watch you sleeping. Sleep well, my little treasure, and think of your big guy with confidence, he who is gathering all his courage so he can find you again with his little brood. Good night, my little girl. From your husband who loves you receive the best kisses and the sweetest caresses. Kiss my little ones and take good care of them. Your big guy who adores you says goodnight.
June 10, 1944
My little darling,
Finally, last night I got some news and two beautiful letters with pictures in each one. My two little rascals haven’t changed. I think that Suzanne has grown, and she is beautiful like the day in her beautiful white outfit. I’m proud of my little brood. You, my darling, you’re beautiful too. It had been a long time since I’d seen you dressed up. Lily looks angry, or is it that her hat is too small? And you, my Denise, it looks like you’re happy to be with your sister. I hope that when your turn comes, we’ll all be back home. My dear precious one, you’re right, there will be hard times ahead. And you’ll need to keep cool. It enrages me not to be able to be with you. If sometime you see that it’s getting close to home, don’t panic, hide what’s the most precious, do all you can not to go too far away; you know what I used to tell you when we went to the woods, think about selling [illegible]. Sometimes it’s better to be afraid of the animals for a while in order to save one’s skin. My sweetheart, you might think that I’m seeing things too dark, but according to the newspapers, the fighting is frightening, and the people who are there must be terribly scared, so I don’t know just what to tell you to help you to hang on. By the way, now that all the countries have goats, you don’t say if Grisette had babies.
I asked Maurice if his parents could go to see you, and he is going to write to them so they can contact you. He received another letter last night, and his father says that things are worse and worse. Don’t worry for nothing. You already have enough problems. Ah, what’s great, is I found a tailor who is going to make me a windbreaker with the rest of the suit that I paid 56 marks. That way I’ll be able to use it. You tell me to buy socks; I’d like to, but try to find some! You can imagine that since the bombings, clothing has become very rare. The packages have been arriving in good shape, and you can send some more, at least while it’s possible. My little darling this is the end of another little conversation, and my thoughts are going towards you, always more strong to help you in your work. Kiss my three little rascals that I’m looking at now, and also their grandma. And for you, my beloved one, I always save my most tender kisses. Your big guy, who is burning, kisses you very tenderly.
White Bear Lake, Minnesota
After reading the last translation, I did not feel sadness like I had after reading the last of the first five letters. I felt privileged to read the poetry in Marcel’s words. I felt honored to glimpse his sense of humor when he mentioned his buttons had gone on leave, or when he had joked about needing breasts to fill the darts in his shirt. And
Marcel’s family knew when Aaron and I would be flying into Paris and that meeting them was our singular priority. I told them we were available to meet any day, any time. Aaron and I would fill other days with sightseeing.
When Agnès invited us to her apartment for lunch, I inquired whether Denise and Eliane would be there too, or if I needed to arrange a separate time to meet them.
Her response was unequivocal: one big meeting was never going to happen.
Nadine and Agnès had been frank about the absence of a relationship with aunts and cousins. Before Agnès’s most recent email, I assumed it was a divide caused by slowly growing apart. But it was something bigger. A fissure in the family existed, and I would come to learn it was deep and still raw. It seemed to be a fissure beyond repair, and it raised a bigger question: who would I give Marcel’s letters to?
Asking the family to come to a consensus on one caretaker was an impossibility. If I returned the letters to Denise, Eliane, or the son Marcel, Agnès and Nadine would never see them again. If I gave them to Agnès and Nadine, Denise, Eliane, and Marcel would never see them. I refused to choose sides. I refused to drive the wedge in the family even deeper.
“Rock,” Aaron said, “meet hard place.”
I studied the situation from every angle before determining only one solution seemed to exist: no one. It seemed the best possible caretaker would be an archive or museum in France that would protect the letters forever and make them available to everyone: all generations, all branches of Marcel’s family tree.
Yet it felt unimaginably cruel to make that suggestion.
One evening on my walk with Hoover, as I tried to find a way to broach the topic, I thought back to the week in May when I established contact with Tiffanie and Natacha. Only now did I understand how serendipitous it was that within days I connected with second cousins who did not know each other and whose families had not talked in more than seven years. By establishing relationships with both branches of the family tree at essentially the same time, a type of equality existed that had been absent for years. I could not help but smile. Had the Universe played a part in the timing? Had Marcel?
“It is no problem for us that you keep the letters or entrust an institution of World War II,” Nadine responded after I sent an email suggesting I bring copies, but not the originals. “We agree. A copy for us is enough. We are sure that you treat them with respect. Honestly, we prefer you keep. Without you, we would know nothing of these letters and Marcel’s life as a prisoner. It is better they are at your home rather than astray in the family.” Nadine also said giving the letters to Denise or Eliane was problematic since Denise was “very sick,” and Eliane lived far away.
My head snapped back. What did “very sick” mean? The last thing Aaron and I wanted to do was stress Denise’s health. Tiffanie confirmed her grandmother had Parkinson’s disease and tired easily, but assured me as long as her grandmother could sit, a short visit would not be a problem. As far as the custody of the letters, since Tiffanie did not know Suzanne’s side of the family, she also thought my suggestion was a good one.
I was relieved both sides agreed, yet I was filled with guilt. How could a solution everyone agreed to feel so wrong?
Days later, I received a cheery voicemail from the letterpress printer, Kent, letting me know the custom linen-wrapped case was complete. “It’s perfect,” I said when I picked up the case and wrote a check for his flawless work.
I could not bear to tell him it would never be used.
White Bear Lake, Minnesota
Early October 2012
I carried the seventeen just-printed pieces of paper into our living room and sat on the floor in front of the coffee table. The table held half-assembled pieces and parts for the open house: little placards for the food, still-empty wooden picture frames, freestanding reference cards, empty menu covers.
It was the first time translations of all seventeen letters were together. Previously, each translation existed only as an email from Tom or Louise, or as a print of the email covered with my notes and scribbles. Now, every translation had been carefully typeset using a classic serif font, then printed onto thick white paper.
I shuffled the translations into chronological order. The dates ranged from January 17, 1943 to June 10, 1944; the span represented five hundred and ten days of excruciating separation.
I had to guess where to place the two dateless translations within the overall order. I placed the letter written on grid paper next to the other letter written on similar grid paper. And the water-stained card from Paris was placed near the end.
For weeks, I had racked my brain for the best way to display Marcel’s letters at the open house. I wanted each original to be next to its translation, yet I wanted to avoid an unruly jumble of papers. More than anything, I wanted to protect Marcel’s original letters from wear or tear. When the solution finally came to me, it seemed perfect: clear plastic menu covers. Side-by-side pockets meant the original letter and the translation could be paired together, both the front and back would be visible, and the letters would be safe.
I began inserting the translations into the right-hand pockets. When I got to the March 12, 1944 translation, I let out a long sigh and stared at the words, “for the class and by the will of God.” I knew what was positioned next to those words on Marcel’s original letter: the swastika. It seemed undeniable that the wobbly, overlapping lines had been drawn by Marcel. Yet even after all this time, that mark, those words, confounded me.
Why did you draw that?
I had not intended it to be a question directed to Marcel, but I realized it was.
When I first saw the swastika at Belle Époque, it seemed like a powerless relic; an artifact disconnected from Marcel and his beautiful writing. The symbol now felt like an ugly asterisk, a stain that could forever be attached to Marcel’s name. I feared the symbol—small in size, enormous in its ability to offend—might neutralize, or worse reverse, every positive sentiment our guests might have about Marcel.
I considered displaying the retouched version of the letter I emailed to Tom nearly fourteen months earlier—the version where I digitally erased every trace of the odd little mark. But I suspected our guests would wonder why I showed a copy rather than the original. I considered folding over the corner, putting a sticker over it, masking it with a blot of ink. The thought even entered my mind to rip off the corner and pretend it had always been that way, but I could not do that. Swastika or not, I could not destroy any part of these pages.
I let out another long sigh. Aaron glanced at me with raised eyebrows. I gave a shrug. I still had a day and a half to figure out what to do.
The day before, Aaron drove to a specialty cheese shop and procured wedges of a sheep-milk cheese from the French Basque region, a tangy blue from Auvergne, a double-cream from Rhône-Alpes. At another store, he bought a pork and chicken-liver pâté, along with savory Saucisson Sec aux Cèpes, dry sausage with mushrooms. At a third store, he stocked up on bottles of a rich Burgundy and a case of Champagne.
I typeset little placards, using the font, to set next to the delicacies. As I prepared the placards for the cheeses, I noticed all sorts of details that needed refinement: the B in St. Agur Blue needed to be narrower, the top curve of the s in Fromage d’Affinois needed to be smoother. But I refrained from opening the font file and fixing the glyphs. Too many things had to be done before Saturday afternoon, and I knew all too well there was no such thing as tweaking just a few things.
Aaron assembled a playlist of classic World War II-era songs of love and Parisian life by Josephine Baker, Yves Montand, Charles Trenet, Edith Piaf, and Maurice Chevalier. I asked Aaron to be sure to include the song Mimile sang inside the barrack, “La Chanson du Maçon.” I had listened to that tune often while working on the font. As soon as the trombones began their brassy pulse, or when Chevalier began to w
I returned to my office and printed photos of Marcel and Renée, which I laid into the brown wooden picture frames. I bought the frames special for the event because Marcel had noted his favorite color was brown.
We wanted to make the open house a celebration Marcel would have been proud to attend. That was the reason Aaron went out of his way to buy French cheese and Champagne. That was the reason I purchased blue, white, and red paper napkins. That was why Aaron created a playlist with music Marcel would have known. Yet we knew our guest of honor would only be present through a couple of photos and seventeen sheets of sixty-nine-year-old paper. That was why the swastika remained a nagging problem.
Nearly everyone we invited planned to attend. Most were friends or family, design colleagues, or Type Tuesday people. A few of my clients and a handful of Aaron’s co-workers planned to attend, too.
I still felt bad Kathy, Tom, and Dixie were not going to be there; the party would not be the same without them. Aaron expressed surprise I had not uninvited Tom since I had been so angry he did not translate Kim’s twelve letters. Tom was unequivocally part of this story, I explained; I wanted him to celebrate with us.
I ticked through a mental checklist of things that still needed to be done: we had to pick up white tablecloths from the rental company. I needed to retrieve Marcel’s letters from the safe-deposit box. Aaron and I would pick up the chocolate gâteau Friday evening and fresh-baked baguettes and macarons Saturday morning. Individual bottles of Perrier and mini quiches were already in the refrigerator. Champagne glasses were cycling through the dishwasher.