Marcels letters, p.27

Marcel's Letters, page 27


Marcel's Letters

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  Tiffanie’s mom, Valentine, and her uncle, Philippe, greeted us with kisses. “Enchantée,” I said directly to each of them, self-conscious about my pronunciation.

  “May I take your coat?” Philippe said. In perfect English. Aaron and I peeled off our jackets. My wet trousers stuck to my thighs.

  “Come in here,” Valentine said. She took a couple of steps down the entry hall and gestured for us to enter Denise’s living room. “Have a seat.”

  Valentine offered apologies that neither Eliane nor Marcel would be joining us. I speculated the reasons Valentine provided for their absence were untrue, but I appreciated the gentle way she delivered the news.

  Watercolor cityscapes hung on the living room wall. A patterned rug lay over a parquet floor. A collection of ceramic owls sat above the fireplace. A wooden cabinet held books, knickknacks, and what appeared to be an urn. Butter-colored leather chairs and a matching couch were positioned around a long coffee table.

  I sat at one end of the couch, Aaron sat in the chair nearest me. I dried my glasses and tried to discreetly determine if anything could be done to rescue my hair; the rain had turned the hairspray to glue. Aaron must have sensed my skyrocketing self-consciousness because he leaned forward and touched my knee.

  Half-packed cardboard boxes ringed the room’s perimeter. The disarray seemed incongruous with the space’s orderliness; it was like a designer dress with an unfinished hem. Aaron and I would soon learn Philippe was in town to help pack Denise’s apartment. Her declining health meant she needed more care—in two months’ time, she would move across France to be near Philippe. I was filled with gratitude that Dixie had found Denise when she did; in eight weeks, Denise would be nearly untraceable.

  Just then, we noticed Denise herself. She was tiny, silent as a feather, and she had already taken a few steps into the room. Aaron and I jumped to our feet. Denise’s alert brown eyes darted between the two of us. Wispy brown hair with auburn highlights ended at the nape of her neck. She reminded me of a bird: a house sparrow, perhaps a finch.

  I stepped to Denise and kissed her cheeks. Enchantée was not a full enough reflection of the emotions that filled my heart. I regretted not asking Louise to prepare a statement that would have expressed more than “nice to meet you.” I wanted to tell Denise it was an immeasurable honor to meet one of Marcel’s “little darlings.”

  “Enchantée, Madame,” Denise said. She enunciated every syllable in a way that made the words sound regal. I suddenly no longer cared about my rain-wet pants or my sticky hair. In that moment, nothing else in the world seemed to matter.

  “C’est mon mari, Aaron,” I said as I stepped aside.

  Aaron leaned down to kiss her. He touched her carefully, as if she had been made of glass. Later that night, Aaron speculated her petite size might have been a result of malnutrition during the war years.

  Valentine gestured for us to sit. Philippe sat on the couch to my left. Tiffanie sat on an ottoman on the far side of the coffee table. Denise sat in the chair at the opposite end of the table. Despite proper posture and a smile that seemed to reveal a younger, stronger version of herself, Denise looked fragile. A camera crew invading this space would have been unimaginable. I was glad I had stood my ground.

  Valentine stood next to Denise, arms folded tight over her chest. Valentine was fifty-three years old, five years older than her brother. She was a school administrator, and had spent years as headmistress at a French school in Shanghai. She radiated authority, and despite seeming to welcome us warmly, she was standing guard. As it dawned on me who Valentine was protecting Denise from—me—I sat a little straighter and folded my hands in my lap. I suspected Valentine questioned the motives for our visit.

  Aaron thanked them for their hospitality and handed Valentine one of the bottles of Burgundy. Aaron explained his nursing background and acknowledged we knew about Denise’s Parkinson’s. He asked Valentine and Philippe to please tell us if our visit became too much for her. “We’ll leave immediately,” he promised.

  Valentine asked where we were staying, so we told her about our little apartment with the coffin-size elevator. She asked about our week, so we listed the sights we visited. I did not want to spend this precious time talking about Paris, but I understood we needed to pass this interview before we would talk about anything else.

  I wanted our meeting to begin on a positive note, so I shared the news about the woman who claimed to have more of Marcel’s letters. When Philippe translated the announcement, Denise smiled and her eyes lit up. They wanted to know how it could be true, so I explained how she fit into the winding story.

  “Thank you for letting us come here to meet you,” I said when the time felt right. I explained I had spent so much time looking at Marcel’s letters, but knew little about him other than what I had seen by peeking through a tiny keyhole of time. I told them I would be grateful to hear any story or look at any photo they would be willing to share.

  Valentine and Tiffanie retrieved two boxes from the edge of the room and lifted them onto the coffee table. Photo albums filled one box; the other was half full with loose photos and papers. I wanted to dig through the photos in the same way Hoover burrowed through piles of dirt, but I remained still. They looked at images first, then handed over photos they thought we should see. A black-and-white photo of Marcel shucking oysters followed a color Polaroid of him surrounded by grandchildren. A photo of Marcel and Renée on a beach followed a photo of Denise as a young woman embracing her brother. As the minutes passed, Denise, Valentine, Philippe, and Tiffanie began to laugh and smile. Old snapshots began to elicit stories about what had been happening when the photo was taken.

  Philippe handed me a black-and-white photo of Marcel holding a bird and a shotgun.

  “Is this Berchères?” I pulled the photo close to take in every detail: the stucco wall, the windows flanked by shutters.

  Other photos from Berchères-la-Maingot showed the narrow, vertical pieces of glass in the entryway, the steep pitch of the cottage’s roof, the brick and stone barn, the tall stone wall along the road. I lingered over each image before passing the photos to Aaron.

  They showed us wedding portraits of Suzanne and Claude, Denise and Jacques, Eliane and André. Dresses billowed with tulle. Baskets overflowed with flowers.

  “How do you say ‘beautiful’?” I asked as I held Denise’s wedding portrait.

  “Belle,” Philippe said gently. The word got Denise’s attention. A photo album spanned Denise’s lap; before looking up, she laid her hand flat across the page as if she wanted to stop time. Jacques had died of a heart attack three years earlier; they had been married fifty-three years.

  Philippe showed me a photo from Eliane and André’s wedding. A dozen or so people stood on the steps of the city hall. Marcel and Eliane were front and center; one of her gloved hands wrapped through the bend of her father’s elbow. Extended family gathered behind them, and Valentine identified who was who. Renée’s brother, also named André, stood near the back. He had been sent to work in Germany during the war, too, I would learn. He refused to ever speak of it.

  “That is Jacqueline Gommier,” Valentine said as she pointed to a woman with short dark hair. “You know her, yes?” I smiled, amazed to be matching a face to another name.

  Valentine’s face erupted into a smile as she looked at a photo of herself as a young girl with Marcel. They had the same color ice-blue eyes, she said. Marcel had called her “ma petite fille aux yeux bleus.”

  An hour or so into our visit, I felt Philippe and Valentine—especially Valentine—relax. Perhaps she realized my interest in Marcel was sincere. Perhaps she saw me study the detail in each old photo. Perhaps she finally understood I did not seek anything other than information. Whatever the reason, the change was palpable. She now sat on the floor and warmly handed photos across the coffee table.

  Valentine’s father, Jacques, and Marcel had a very compatible friendship. Their families—Marcel and Renée; Denise, Ja
cques, Valentine, and Philippe—often vacationed together. “Within fifteen minutes of arriving somewhere new, Marcel would have made friends,” Valentine said with quiet wonder. “He’d learn which restaurants to go to, or who to call if he needed something.” People in the country did not usually receive Parisians warmly, but Marcel’s affable nature immediately put people at ease. “People were drawn to him. Know what I mean?”

  Yes, I wanted to say. I know precisely what you mean.

  “Those qualities might have helped in camp,” Aaron said. “The ability to get along. To figure out who had connections for supplies or food.” Valentine and Philippe nodded. I looked at Aaron, surprised at his insight.

  Marcel always stayed current on world news and politics, Valentine added. He felt it was important to be able to talk to anyone about something.

  Their families routinely ate Sunday dinner together. “Anytime Marcel learned someone was alone on a Sunday, he invited them to join us,” she said before adding a firm, “family or not.” I wondered if his need to make sure no one was alone had roots from his time in camp, too.

  “He was a nice dresser,” I said as I cradled a scallop-edged photo of Marcel in a tailored suit and a fedora.

  “Always,” Valentine said, full of pride.

  Photos of Renée confirmed her elegant beauty. “She was always fashionable,” Tiffanie stated in admiration. Before the war, she worked in Paris’s flagship department store Galeries Lafayette.

  I asked what Marcel and Renée were like together. They complemented each other, I was told. In public, Marcel was a bright light, and Renée was proud to let him shine. In private, Renée was the center of his world.

  “He’s so serious,” I said as I examined a photo of Marcel seated at a small table, a kitchen table perhaps, surrounded by friends. He scowled at the camera.

  “Oh yes.” Valentine threw her head back in a laugh. “He took his cards seriously!” I imagined Marcel offering the exaggerated scowl for the camera, then erupting in laughter after the grimace had been committed to film.

  The scowl made me realize something: in almost every other photo—which at that point had numbered a hundred or more—Marcel had been smiling. My heart could barely contain the swell of joy. I did not know what scars Marcel might have silently carried from his time in Berlin, but after the war, life had been full. He had laughed. He had been happy. He had been surrounded by love.

  Philippe stepped to the bookcase along the far wall and retrieved a small painted case. As he walked back to the couch, he removed the lid and dumped three metal discs into his hand, then passed one to me. I did not know what it was, so I held it flat in my outstretched palm. It was the size of a quarter, though thicker and heavier. It had holes and sharp, precise ridges.

  “Marcel made that,” Philippe said as Denise, Valentine, Tiffanie, and Aaron looked on.

  I looked down, still unsure of what it was. The guess that came to mind was some kind of gear from inside a clock. I swung my hand to show Aaron.

  “Oh!” he said. “A threading die.”

  “Yes,” confirmed Philippe with a smile and a nod.

  I looked at Philippe, then Aaron. “What does that mean?”

  “You take a smooth metal rod; a pipe or something,” Aaron said as he pointed to the silver disc, “and you use that to cut grooves to make a threaded rod.” I looked close, trying to understand the mechanics of that process.

  “Marcel made this at work?” I asked. Philippe nodded.

  “After the war?” Philippe nodded again.

  “Did he work for a car manufacturer?”

  “No,” Valentine answered. “A tool and die shop.”

  “As a turner?”

  “Yes, but more than that,” she said. “They did custom metal work. Companies would go to them when they needed a specialty replacement part or a one-of-a-kind die. They were the best in the business.”

  “Moutardier was his boss.” Valentine nodded to confirm I understood who she was talking about. Moutardier had been referenced in several letters: the father of four, the friend he picked cigarette butts with, the man who worried about Marcel when he had not heard from him.

  “How long did he work there?”

  “His entire career,” Valentine said, adding the sobering caveat, “except when he was in Germany.”

  In the weeks before our trip, I had tried to figure out how to ask about the timing of Marcel’s departure. The timelines and details of the various labor requisition laws were tangled inside my head, but I did not think the STO law from September 1942—the one that applied to any man between the age of eighteen and fifty—took effect until mid-March 1943. I had never been able to figure out why Marcel had been in Berlin in January. Unless he had volunteered. I had considered different turns of phrases, different ways to pose my question, but nothing sounded right. Every question seemed too sharp, too knife-like. Even in the second before I asked whether Marcel might have volunteered, I was unsure which words were going to come out of my mouth.

  Valentine’s response was immediate and unequivocal. “No. He never would have left Renée and the girls.”

  That was what I hoped to hear. More than hoped—her confidence validated everything I believed. No matter how hard things might have been in Berchères, Marcel could have provided the fundamental thing he could not provide from far away: protection.

  But the question lingered. Why had he been there in January?

  Months later, the question of timing still nagged at me. I dug for answers until I came across this paragraph: “Almost half of the 650,000 workers formally required to go to Germany went before the institution of STO in February, 1943 … Those compelled to go under the law of September 1942 before February 1943 were mainly workers (the Germans were particularly interested in skilled metallurgists).”

  That was what Marcel had been—a skilled metallurgist! And the Germans wanted him sooner rather than later.

  His profession, I realized, might have been a blessing and a curse. It was the reason he had been selected to go to Germany, but it also could have been the reason he was sent to Spandau for violating food rules rather than being shipped to an extermination camp. The Germans ultimately might have needed him alive more than they wanted him dead.

  The skill that got him sent to Germany, it seemed, might have also saved his life.

  I reached into my shoulder bag and took out three thick envelopes that held prints of Marcel’s letters. One set was for Denise; the other sets were ultimately for Eliane and Marcel. For nearly twenty minutes they devoured Marcel’s words. They occasionally laughed. Sometimes they read passages to each other in French. They, too, observed how often Marcel wrote about his beloved tobacco. I made sure they knew the swastika was backward.

  I explained how the twelve additional letters came into my possession, and summarized what I had been told about the letters being at Clignancourt. I asked if they knew how the letters might have ended up in Clignancourt. After a pause, Tiffanie offered one suggestion: she had once heard that undeliverable “dead letters” would sometimes be discarded in bulk by the French postal service.

  Valentine, Philippe, and Tiffanie eventually set the letters aside, though Denise continued to read. Her left elbow was propped on the arm of her chair. Her hand cupped the side of her neck, and a gentle smile warmed her face. It was as if the handwritten pages had transported her to a different time and place. I asked Philippe if he would ask Denise whether she recalled seeing any of these letters before. Philippe translated my question. Denise slowly turned to me and shook her head.

  We turned our attention back to the last of the photos and papers in the cardboard box. Valentine reached forward with the single known photo taken of Marcel in Germany. In a somber black-and-white portrait, Marcel sat ramrod straight in front of a plain background, shoulder to shoulder next to another man. Had Marcel resigned himself to the fact he might not make it home? Did he want Renée to have one last photo? I turned it over, hoping to see a fam
iliar name—Mimile, Bernard, or one of the other men he had mentioned—but the back was blank. I asked whether Marcel kept in touch with other workers after the war. Neither Valentine nor Philippe knew.

  Valentine reached forward with a small tan envelope. My head jerked in surprise as I looked at the name and address scrawled across the front: Marcel Heuzé, Lager D4 West S1-21/3, Berlin, Marienfelde. The letter had been written to Marcel.

  The smudged cancellation stamp showed an eagle clutching a swastika tight in its talons. The year was impossible to decipher. Did it read February 1945? 1943? A single piece of paper was folded inside. Valentine nodded permission to take it out. A brief message had been typed in German.

  “Do you know what it says?”

  Philippe and Valentine glanced at each other, then shrugged. I passed it to Aaron. He carefully set it on the coffee table, not wanting to hold the fragile sheet more than necessary. He puzzled over it, then shrugged, too.

  If this letter had been written in February 1945, could it have told Marcel he could go home? It crossed my mind to snap a photo and have the letter translated. But I did not. It felt inappropriate to ask. Yet this mystery letter revealed one thing with absolute certainty: if the family kept this piece of paper for nearly seventy years—a letter no one could read, a letter that might or might not even be important—there was no way they would have knowingly let Marcel’s precious letters go.

  “Lager D4 West was one of the two barracks that housed French workers,” I said as I refolded the paper and tucked it inside the envelope. “D4 South was for Russians.”

  “I remember him mentioning Russians,” Valentine said slowly, as if Marcel’s remark had been a cobweb in a dusty corner of her memory. “He always felt sorry for them. He said they suffered more than anyone.”

  The few things the family knew about Marcel’s wartime experience were like worn puzzle pieces that could never be reassembled. But, relative silence was unsurprising, particularly for STO workers. Silence could have been the best—perhaps the only—way to rejoin a society that regarded deported workers as complicated others: men and women who were neither hero nor victim.


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