Marcels letters, p.6

Marcel's Letters, page 6


Marcel's Letters

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  I began second-guessing every precious fact I thought I knew. Perhaps Marcel was not even French. Maybe he was from Belgium or Luxembourg. Those were French-speaking countries too, and thousands of civilians fled from Belgium and Luxembourg into France.

  But why would Marcel have painted blue and red stripes on his letters if he wasn’t French?

  I looked up the flags of Belgium and Luxembourg. Luxembourg’s flag was blue, white, and red, too. The thought of not even knowing one thing for certain—Marcel’s nationality—made my head ache even more. So for the moment, I clung to the assumption Marcel had been French.

  A few nights later, I stumbled over a three-letter acronym that changed everything: STO. As soon as I understood what those letters represented I knew that was why Marcel had been in Berlin.

  Within Germany, approximately twenty million working-age men had been transferred to military units on the eastern or western fronts. Initially, German women filled jobs left behind in factories, mines, and farms. But when women could not fill the need for manual labor, Hitler empowered his Commissioner-General for Manpower, Fritz Sauckel, to acquire new workers “at whatever cost.” Some of the first workers were brought by cattle car from Ukraine to work on German farms. Other workers were swept up in raids, or abducted, then deported en masse. Some were as young as ten years old.

  By the end of the war, more than five million workers would be brought into Germany. By the Germans’ own admission, fewer than 200,000 were there voluntarily.

  In mid-1942—two years after Germany invaded France—Sauckel demanded 250,000 French workers. To fill the quota, the Vichy government announced the Relève, a campaign that encouraged French citizens to volunteer for the German war effort. Radio broadcasts promised favorable wages, comfortable living conditions, and assured prospective workers that the Germans respected everybody, “be he a manual or intellectual worker.” As extra incentive, the Germans agreed to release one French prisoner of war for every three volunteers.

  One Relève propaganda poster showed a hand thrusting a key skyward with a headline that proclaimed, “You have the keys to the camp; you release prisoners by working in Germany.” Another included an illustration of a burly, broad-shouldered man in overalls, a gear and the Eiffel Tower in the background. It promised, “You will be the ambassador of French quality.” Another showed German and French workers shaking hands while standing on a curved-Earth illustration of Europe. “Come to us!” it read. “You will be well received, you will make money.” Small text at the bottom promised the Germans would “take care of you after your departure.” Another poster featured an illustration of a canary-haired German with an enormous smile and a sledgehammer balanced on one shoulder. “German workers invite you to join them,” the text proclaimed. The German looked so carefree—so downright giddy—that if the sledgehammer had been a golf club, it would have been a perfect advertisement for a country club.

  Many of the first French “volunteers” were from the fringes of society: petty criminals who chose Germany over prison; the “idle” who had been rounded up at cinemas, cafés, and racetracks; foreigners living in France; and women who were pregnant by German soldiers, or who had no other way to support their children. Reports even swirled of the Vichy government deporting children on public assistance.

  When the number of volunteers filled less than half of the quota, the Vichy government needed a different strategy. The pretense of voluntary recruitment was abandoned, and Service du Travail Obligatoire—STO—was implemented.

  A chill shot through me as I realized what that meant: working for the Germans was no longer optional.

  The first STO provisions were published as the “Law of 4 September, 1942, on the Use and Orientation of the Workforce.” “Among the French and French nationals residing in France,” the law stated, “and whose fitness has been medically certified, any male person over the age of eighteen years and less than fifty years, and any female person, single, over twenty-one and under thirty-five years, may be subject to carry out all work that the Government deems appropriate in the best interests of the nation.” My heart sank as I realized “in the best interests of the nation” did not refer to France—but to Germany.

  Thirteen articles outlined technicalities of implementation. The formal terminology, official-sounding department titles, and references to employment contracts provided an “air of legality”—despite the fact that making “conquered peoples … work for their conqueror’s war effort” was prohibited by international law. In a letter Sauckel wrote to Hitler, he explained, “I have ordered the introduction of labor employment commissions … this way makes a complete control and intensive utilization of the French working potential possible.”

  Five months after the September STO law was published, after Sauckel demanded even more French workers, a second law subjected men who were in their early twenties—those who had been born in 1920, 1921, or 1922—to work in Germany for two years in lieu of fulfilling traditional military service. The second law, published in February 1943, also outlined increased penalties for evasion and non-compliance. In a later letter to Hitler, Sauckel explained, “I left no doubt … if the demands for furnishing necessary manpower are not fulfilled, further stronger measures will be taken.”

  I did not have a single shred of proof, but deep in my bones I knew that was what had happened to Marcel. STO was the first thing that made any sense. It explained why, four months after the first law passed, Marcel might have been in Berlin. It explained why he sounded like neither a soldier nor a businessman, why he referenced barracks and his status as a prisoner, why he might ask for beans and a comb. And it seemed to be the only explanation for why he had been so far from the people he loved.

  Yet, it seemed impossible to make sense of the situation, and I had to take a few minutes to process the information. STO meant almost anyone—regardless of religion or political affiliation—could be forced to work for the Nazis. To work for the enemy.

  By the end of the war, 650,000 French civilian workers would be deported.

  Tens of thousands would not return.

  I began scouring the Internet for any STO record that might confirm my suspicion and reveal what happened to Marcel, but the only record that seemed to exist was the first one: the reference to Marcel Heuzé, pastor, aged forty-eight, with a wife named Simone, who died at Ravensbrück four days before the camp was liberated.

  “Press check tonight?” Aromas of cinnamon and vanilla filled the kitchen as Aaron pulled a sheet of thick oatmeal cookies out of the oven.

  “Type Tuesday,” I said as I hung my coat.

  “Ahhh, right. Geeks’ night out.”

  Craig Eliason, the design professor and type designer who equated letters with bricks, had organized the group. Similar groups of typography lovers quietly met in cities across the country.

  At the first Type Tuesday gathering, I was astonished to learn a small but vibrant community of type designers existed in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area. Their fonts filled magazines and adorned packaging. The designers had shelves of awards and had been featured on television. They possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of typographic history and had a command of the font design software that filled me with jealous admiration. One designer’s font was even the basis of Facebook’s iconic f. I was awed to be in their presence.

  At that first gathering, when someone asked if I designed type too, I shrugged and offered an unconvincing nod. Type meddler felt like a more appropriate claim, but I acknowledged I had a font in the works. When they asked how long I had been working on it, I confessed it had been years. They did not seem surprised. In fact, their shrug seemed to say well, that’s how long they take sometimes.

  We gathered the third Tuesday of most months. Some evenings, members gave presentations on work in progress. Other times we attended lectures, or screened typography-related films. One month we watched an early twentieth-century Ludlow typesetting machine change molten metal into type. A
nother month we looked at slides of sixteenth-century ornamented capitals. As the group ooh’d and aah’d at letters embellished with cherubs, spiraling vines, or mischievous animals—one particularly delightful C included an illustration of a pig playing the bagpipes—I had to confess Aaron’s nickname for the group was spot-on. But I wore the geek label with pride. I speculated that everyone in the group would. And no matter what the evening’s topic was, one thing was certain: I would return home inspired. Often I worked on my font until the early morning hours.

  “The pressure! A room of people fretting over their name tags,” Aaron said. With the quilted oven mitt still covering his hand, he pointed to the rectangle adhered to my lapel. I looked down and slowly peeled it off. The letters of my first name included carefully drawn serifs.

  “You’re an asshole,” I said as he chuckled. “Everyone’s nice,” I added defensively.

  “I’m sure they are. I’m sure it’s a great time—if you think it’s fun to debate how much you love or hate Helvetica.”

  Despite professing apathy for typography, Aaron had picked up enough over the years to know good type from bad. He occasionally called out horrible kerning, or questioned a typeface selection. For years he had playfully threatened to engrave my tombstone with a font I despised, saying it was the single best way to ensure I would outlive him.

  “What was tonight’s compelling topic?” Aaron did not even try to disguise his sarcasm. I opened my mouth to answer, then closed it, opting not to provide more ammunition.

  “We’ve been invited to a party,” I eventually said.

  “One of the type people?” His tone implied we belonged in a category of curious odd fellows: people who bred exotic orchids, or people who built replica cathedrals out of toothpicks, or people who cut intricate patterns into eggshells.

  A long silence filled the room. “Why don’t you want to go?”

  “I don’t …” he fumbled. After another long silence, he confessed: “I’m scared of the type people.” A laugh burst out of my lungs. “You’re too intense,” he explained. “You get excited about serifs and upset about kerning. You can spend a half hour talking about the dot on an i.”

  “It’s a …” My shoulders caved in as I let out a long sigh. “The thing over an i is a tittle, not a dot.”

  “You’re making my argument for me, you know,” he said with a chuckle. I gave him a playful scowl as he pulled another batch of cookies out of the oven. I got up and poured two glasses of milk.

  A faded navy blue T-shirt with holes worn through the seams hung from his shoulders. Crackled fragments of the silk-screened words “White Bear Lake Fire” sat over his heart. He was no longer in the department, though he had been a volunteer firefighter for seven years.

  “How fucked up is that?” I asked as I stared at the degraded white letters. “You’d rather run into a burning building with the guys than go to a party with my friends?”

  He offered a hint of a smile. “Truth hurts, babe.”

  As 2011 drew to a close, evenings and weekends were devoured by end-of-year deadlines, work on the font, and the search for Marcel. Before I knew it, Christmas had arrived. I had not set up a tree or hung a single decoration. Gifts had been purchased online and wrapped in haste.

  As Aaron and I gathered first with his family, then with mine, a nagging guilt consumed me, though guilt did not entirely make sense. Guilt implied I had done something wrong, and from the best I could figure, the guilt was for what I had not done: I had not found whether Marcel survived. It was as if the answer’s absence left him locked inside the camp, lost in time, never returning home, never growing old. Marienfelde seemed to be a Neverland of unknowns.

  Maybe the guilt was because Aaron and I were surrounded by bowls of chocolates and candy. Carols played on the stereo. Shiny bows decorated boxes. The aroma of fresh bread permeated the air, and tables were filled with more food than we could eat. Every one of those things felt unnecessary. The abundance seemed shameful.

  Or maybe the guilt stemmed from the fact that neither Aaron nor I were consumed by the deep yearning for family Marcel expressed. I would have loved gatherings to be filled with embraces so long and tight I could not breathe, laughter that made my belly hurt, expressions of love that would echo in my memory for decades. But that was not the reality of either of our families. Weeks, sometimes months, elapsed between phone calls. A quick hug good-bye after wrapping ourselves in thick winter coats would be the extent of physical contact.

  No one asked if I was working on anything interesting, and I did not offer a word about Marcel’s letters or my search for answers. School for our nieces and nephews, and the weather; those were the safe, neutral topics discussed.

  As we went around the room, opening practical gifts of kitchen tools, socks, or cash pressed flat inside a card, my mind wandered to Marcel. How had he spent Christmas Day 1943? Did he even celebrate Christmas? Had Marcel been able to eat something that reminded him of home? Did his girls send him a card? A small gift?

  I hoped for Marcel that he made it home by Christmas 1944. But a sinking feeling washed through me, and I realized I did not even know if he was alive for Christmas 1944.

  Chapter Six

  White Bear Lake, Minnesota

  January 2012

  I knew about the cattle cars, the trays of gold fillings and wedding rings, the mountains of shoes and hair, the gas chamber selections. I could rattle off the camps’ death-filled names: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Treblinka.

  But it did not take long to realize how little I actually knew.

  Some camps had functions other than extermination, though those were the only ones I remembered learning about in school. Some functioned as transit hubs, or were specifically for Communists, Roma, or Spanish refugees. Or, as with Ravensbrück, were for women. Others were true labor camps with some incentive to keep workers alive.

  I was surprised to learn that camps in Germany had opened as early as 1933, camps existed in Norway and Finland, nearly eighty camps existed inside France, and 170 camps were located in Berlin. I was surprised to learn an organized hierarchy of camps and subcamps existed, that some were outposts with a “handful of prisoners,” while others had been built to serve specific factories. In total, more than forty thousand camps, ghettos, and detention sites existed. The number felt too enormous to wrap my head around.

  I was also surprised to learn a hierarchy existed among prisoners: Western European prisoners, political prisoners, and criminals received better treatment than Russians, Poles, and Jews—groups considered “subhuman” by the Germans. Western European workers received higher wages for their work and, in some cases, additional food. Some groups, including STO workers, had privileges even prisoners of war did not have, such as the right to unlimited correspondence.

  Most online directories of concentration and labor camps—even ones with lists so shockingly long I had to scroll and scroll to get through them—did not include Berlin-Marienfelde. I was dumbfounded by its absence; I had not expected it would be as difficult to find information on Marienfelde as it was to find Marcel.

  But I kept digging, and eventually found a description within a massive encyclopedia of camps.

  “Berlin-Marienfelde was established as a subcamp of Sachsenhausen in late 1942 or early 1943,” the book said. Marienfelde was described as a collection of “six or seven wooden barracks surrounded by barbed wire.” The SS—the brutal Nazi paramilitary force—guarded the perimeter from watchtowers. An underground bunker was located near the entrance.

  The five to six hundred prisoners in Marienfelde were from all across Europe and the Soviet Union. German political prisoners were even interred in camp. Prisoners cleared Berlin’s streets, repaired and retiled roofs after bombings, and built air-raid shelters. Some were tasked with removing unexploded bombs.

  Prisoners in Marienfelde subsisted on starvation rations of bread and beet soup and had to withstand long roll calls. Beatings were fr
equent, and one particularly cruel SS officer was known for pistol-whipping prisoners.

  In August 1943, the book noted, most of the camp was destroyed in a bombing and subsequent fire. The prisoners who survived were transferred to other camps.

  The description ended with an unsurprising caveat: sources describing Marienfelde were scarce.

  It felt as though I had been holding my breath for weeks. This article was a breath of air—though it felt as if the air was choked with soot and blood.

  Whenever I learned something new, I searched with increasingly specific terms such as “Marcel Heuzé Sachsenhausen,” or “Marcel Heuzé fremdarbeiter” (the German term for foreign worker). One website would lead to another. Hours would disappear in a labyrinth of databases and documents. Whenever I found something promising, I pasted the text into a website to convert French or German into English. It was not difficult; it just added time. Listes nominatives des registres. Lists of names of registers. Ressources biographiques et généalogiques. Biographical and genealogical resources. Inventaires d’archives. Archive inventories.

  But I still could not find any trace of Marcel. It began to feel as if he had been intentionally erased from history.

  “You okay?” Aaron looked at me, then scanned the kitchen for clues to my anger. Scrubbing the stove at midnight was not something he expected to see when he came home after a long shift at the hospital. “Did a client piss you off?”


  “Did I piss you off?”

  “Nope.” I tucked long, loose hairs behind my ear. We learned long ago when to leave each other alone; this was one of those times. I heard the armchair in the living room creak, followed by muffled sounds from the television.

  Forty-five minutes later, I joined him.

  “This evening I was reading about the corporations that used forced labor: Daimler, Bayer, Krupp …” I peeled the rubber gloves off my hands. “I didn’t see a statistic for Daimler, but in other places the average life span of forced laborer was three and a half months. The Germans worked them to death, then …” The words felt sharp as they caught in my throat. “Then they would order more workers.”

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