Marcel's Letters, page 7
Aaron’s expression mixed sorrow and pity with something I could not make sense of. Should I have known that information already?
The most backbreaking work was often completed by Russians, Poles, or Jews; those groups were considered more disposable than Western European laborers. Disposable. Treating people as a resource to be used, then tossed like garbage, was what enraged me. And it wasn’t just Daimler and Bayer and Krupp. It was BMW, Siemens, Volkswagen, Porsche, Audi, and Kodak. It was Hugo Boss, who used forced labor to sew German uniforms. It even included Ford’s German division, Fordwerke.
Hundreds of individuals were put on trial after the war, I had read, including Hitler’s Commissioner-General for Manpower, Fritz Sauckel—the man who had been in charge of recruiting and distributing laborers. Sauckel was hanged for crimes against humanity, though any justice in his execution was too late for the thousands of forced laborers who died working for I.G. Farben, or for the starving Siemens workers returned to labor camps once they became too weak to be useful, or for Daimler workers executed after they “hesitated to obey a work command.”
I did not tell Aaron the specific calculation that ran through my mind while I unleashed anger on the stove’s black enamel: by the time Marcel had written the second letter, he had already survived fourteen months—four times longer than the average laborer. He had beaten the odds. But I did not expect he could be lucky indefinitely.
Lucky. As soon as that word formed inside my brain, a flood of shame washed through me. Surviving fourteen months in a camp where people were starved, beaten, and forced to build tanks for Nazis did not represent any shade of luck.
Lucky was definitely not the right word.
I sensed Aaron’s growing frustration with the time and emotional energy I had been devoting to the search. To make time for the three of us—Hoover, Aaron, and me—he scheduled a long get-away weekend. Aaron had not said so explicitly, but I knew Marcel was not invited. So, despite the thoughts that swirled inside my head during the five-hour drive north, I was careful not to utter Marcel’s name.
Our destination was a family-owned resort on a lake that straddled the Minnesota–Ontario border. The property included twenty or so cabins nestled along a frozen shore, a boathouse, and a sprawling main lodge. Thick wooden beams crisscrossed the lodge’s high ceiling, and a moose head crowned with enormous antlers stared down from one wall.
On Friday morning, as we ate breakfast in our cabin, several white-tailed deer sauntered past our large picture window. Hoover looked at the deer, then swiveled to look at us with wide eyes, as if he were asking, what the hell kind of giant dog is that?
“Shake the bag, they’ll come running,” the man behind the front desk said later that morning as I filled a paper bag with scoops of dried corn kernels.
“If you’re lucky they’ll eat out of your hands,” a guest standing nearby added. I carried the corn back to our cabin and tried to lure the deer in, though none would come closer than ten or fifteen feet.
For hours that afternoon, the three of us trekked the lodge’s maze of snow-dusted trails. I kept a hopeful eye out for timber wolves or moose, though the only wildlife I saw was a snowshoe hare with back feet so out of proportion to its body, it reminded me of a child trying to walk in their parent’s shoes.
Back in our cabin, we curled into the couch as logs in the fireplace crackled and roared. A week earlier, I had begun reading a new book on Vichy France, but I left it at home and brought a work of fiction that did not have anything to do with war. That night, I slept better than I had in months.
On Saturday morning, I pulled on my boots and parka and headed to the lodge for another bag of corn. The small herd was gathered in a thicket at the end of the property, and after offering exaggerated shakes to prove I had what they wanted, a few deer wandered my way. I held a cupped hand mounded full. It took a long while, but one deer eventually ate out of my hand. As she nibbled away, Aaron stood behind the cabin’s picture window, making a silent clapping gesture. Hoover seemed frantic with jealousy I was giving treats to someone else.
That afternoon, we went on another hike deep in the forest. “Don’t you dare,” I warned as we walked through an enchanted grove where snow balanced on evergreen branches like thick swirls of frosting.
“What?” Aaron said in a who-me?-I’m-perfectly-innocent voice as he tucked his arm behind his back to hide a snowball. He tossed it to Hoover, who tried to catch it mid-air.
By the time we returned to our cabin, we were tired and cold but filled with peaceful wonder. Aaron started another fire, and as we wrapped ourselves in blankets and curled into the couch, all three of us succumbed to naps. Six months had elapsed since I had the first letter translated, and for the day, I was happy to let World War II retreat into history. Every new thing I learned pulled me deeper into an abyss of hate and horror. Spending the weekend free from visions of labor camps was what I needed. Here with my two brown-eyed boys was the only place I wanted to be.
On Sunday morning, as soon as we stepped outside with Hoover, we felt a precipitous drop in temperature. Our cabin did not have Internet access or television, so the change caught us off guard. Aaron marched to the lodge. The woman behind the front desk warned a storm would hit hard by midday and continue for twenty-four hours or more. As quickly as we could, we packed everything into Aaron’s truck. We hoped to get ahead of the storm for the long drive home.
After an hour on an ice-rutted, two-lane road, we made it to Highway 61. Aaron released a long sigh as he merged onto the better-maintained, wider highway.
Highway 61 runs along the western shore of Lake Superior, extending from the Canadian border to Duluth. Some stretches of the road tower high above the lake; other places run low along the water’s edge. The highway runs through tunnels carved from granite and past waterfalls, vertical rock walls, and the one-hundred-year-old yellow-and-white Splitrock Lighthouse.
A staccato plink of sleet hitting the windshield began just as we got caught behind a slow-moving sedan. We followed it for a mile or so, but Aaron could not contain his impatience. He accelerated to pass. As he pulled into the oncoming lane, he hit ice, and his truck skidded to the left. He corrected. We swung to the right and he corrected again. As we swung back to the left, his big truck lilted as if we were a boat going sideways over a wave. Despite this more-severe swing, he corrected again and we swung back to the right. But this time we kept going. As we spun in a full 360 going more than fifty miles per hour, I looked to confirm we were not on one of the stretches where cables attached to knee-high wooden posts were the only thing between us and a 150-foot plummet to the lake. I lifted my hand to confirm my seatbelt was on.
As I listened to the zipper-like whir of tires spinning on ice, I tried to assess what would fly around when the truck flipped: my purse, snow boots, hats, gloves. I glanced to the truck’s back seat. Hoover was on the floor, out of view. I could not do a thing to secure him.
We went off the road. Sideways. My stomach lurched and jerked as we dipped into a ditch, angled up a small bank, then stuttered sideways like a stone skipping across a lake. Branches snapped. Limbs cracked. We careened into trees. Finally, we stopped so hard it felt as if we had hit a cement wall.
Aaron and I looked at each other in silence. Words had not yet caught up with us, it seemed. I glanced to the back seat and watched Hoover lift his blocky head to peer out the window to see what had disturbed his nap.
“You’re okay,” I said as I reached to rub his ear. “You’re okay,” I repeated.
Aaron’s side of the truck was wedged against a tree, making it impossible to open his door. I kicked my door open to dislodge branches and step halfway out.
A semi rolled to a stop on the highway. The driver leaned out his window and hollered into the wind: “Should I call 911?”
I asked Aaron if he was okay. After what felt like an eternity, he nodded. He was okay. I was okay. Hoover was okay. I waved to the semi driver.
He yelled anothe
I squeezed out of the truck and told Aaron what I saw: a boulder in front of the bumper, a collection of scattered limbs and ripped branches.
“Why didn’t the airbags go off?” I whispered. Aaron did not answer, and I realized he had not yet uttered a word. I fixed my gaze on him to confirm he really was uninjured.
After several tries, Aaron’s truck roared back to life. Using every bit of horsepower the truck had, he extricated the truck from the trees, and with careful maneuvering, he got around the boulder and back on the highway.
The entrance to a state park was a few miles down the highway. I implored Aaron to pull into the parking lot. After rolling to a stop, he let out a long breath and peeled his fingers off the steering wheel. When I stepped onto the pavement, my knees buckled.
There were a hundred ways that could have ended badly, and only a couple of ways that could have ended well.
“You must have a guardian angel,” I said.
If the ditch had been deeper, if we had crashed into a cliff, if we had careened into the water below, if a tree branch had entered the cab, if we had hit an oncoming car. If, if, if. None of those scenarios ended with us walking away.
“I was sure we were going to flip,” Aaron mumbled again and again as we picked branches out of the bumpers. He seemed to be repeating it to convince himself we had not, in fact, flipped over. I attached Hoover’s leash to his collar and had him jump out to confirm he was uninjured. He still seemed irritated his nap had been interrupted.
The drive home was calm and silent other than the occasional question. Did we swerve three times or four? Did we spin clockwise? Piecing together the sequence of events felt like splicing together snippets of film. The swerve-swerve-swerve-spin-fly-land sequence looped in my mind. I told Aaron it was beginning to feel like one of those highly scrutinized, super slow-motion, sports-commentator-accompanied videos of an ice skater preparing for, then completing, a triple toe loop jump.
“Well, in that case,” Aaron said, “I’d get deductions for leaving the road and landing in trees. But you’ve gotta admit, I’d get high marks for the landing.”
I twisted to look at him, unsure of what he meant.
“I landed on all four wheels. I totally stuck that landing,” he said with a nod and a smirk.
“Yes,” I conceded as I cracked a smile, “you stuck the landing.”
That evening we sat on the couch and watched television, though the reality of what could have happened continued to consume our thoughts. At one point, Aaron pulled me close and held me tight.
Hours later, as we crawled into bed, I asked Aaron what he had thought about as the truck slid sideways. “Did you see your life flash before your eyes?”
“No,” he said in a tone so deep and somber I had only heard it a few times in the sixteen years we had been married. “I just hoped the end would be fast and that I wouldn’t feel it.” He drew in a long breath. “How about you?”
I told him I did not remember, but that was not true.
In the second before impact, my final thought had been clear and definitive. And surprising. It should have been about Aaron or Hoover, friends or family. But it wasn’t.
It was about Marcel.
My final thought was this: I can’t die before finding out if Marcel lived.
White Bear Lake, Minnesota
After the accident, Marcel’s fate was no longer a curiosity. I had to know what happened to him.
Until that point, I had alternated between working on the font and searching for answers. To give the search all of my time and energy, I decided to stop working on the font. After years of starting, stopping, then starting again, this was different. This was a stop as definitive as Aaron’s truck slamming into trees. This was putting down years of work until I had an answer. And, depending on what I learned, it was unclear whether I would—if I could—ever finish the font.
I retrieved the caramel-colored postcard from the sketchbook. Familiar stripes of blue and red angled across the card. Several small numbers had been penciled near the bottom: 5265, 4087. A large crimson “Ae” had been stamped over the address.
A mossy green stamp with Hitler’s profile was preprinted in the corner; an adhesive-backed brown stamp with the same engraved illustration was adhered to its left. The illustration’s detail and the formal pose—the portrait’s veneer of respectability—surprised me. And sickened me.
I attempted to decipher Marcel’s writing. The postcard appeared to be addressed to Madame Marcel Heuzé, Route de Sr Prest, Berchères-la-Maingot, jar Chartres, Eure-et-Lou. Despite what clearly appeared to be a dot over a j in jar, the letter was actually a p. It read par Chartres, by Chartres. And the u of Lou was actually an i next to an r. It read Eure-et-Loir.
A satellite map confirmed Berchères-la-Maingot was indeed a village near Chartres in the department of Eure-et-Loir. Vast farm fields and pockets of thick woods surrounded the small village. During the war, four hundred people lived in Berchères-la-Maingot. Seven hundred now called it home.
I scoured the map for Route de Sr Prest. I found a Rue Albert, Rue du Docteur, Rue aux Fleurs, Rue Gabriel, Rue du Moulin, Rue Panama, Rue Saint-Rémy. There was even a Rue de Préau, so I checked the postcard again to see if I might have misread that too, but the word Prest seemed clear. Could the village have been bombed and rebuilt? Could streets have been renamed or rerouted?
With a quick online search, I found a handful of charming images—old sepia postcards—with photos of Berchères-la-Maingot. On the first, which had been mailed in 1903, brick and stone barns enclosed a courtyard blanketed with a layer of hay. A man, a dog, and a young boy guarded a flock of fifty or so sheep huddled in a pinwheel of thick woolly bodies. Farmers stood in the background, tending to horses hitched to wagons with wheels as tall as a man.
The second postcard showed a dirt road running between brick and stucco buildings. One building had ornate diamond- and herringbone-patterned brickwork and rows of dark and light brick that looked like Morse code. Wide shutters flanked ground-floor windows. Some buildings in the distance had thatched roofs. A dozen people stood on the road. A woman in a shin-length skirt had a hand set high on her hip. Two boys wore tunics and knee socks with boots. A half dozen men wore newsboy caps; worn shirts draped from their shoulders. Their confounded stares made me wonder if that had been the first camera they had ever seen.
A third postcard showed a large pond surrounded by a swaybacked barn and tall stone walls. The heads and necks of two white geese poked above a fringe of grass. A woman sat near the water’s edge; two young children sat nearby. I imagined the woman was drawing water. Maybe she had been doing laundry.
Life in Berchères-la-Maingot did not appear easy, in the way rural life can often be consumed by a never-ending cycle of chores. But I hoped its rural location and small size provided a safe haven for Marcel’s family.
I would have written a letter to the current homeowner if I had a valid address. With luck, someone in the family would still live there. But I only had the name of a street—a street that did not seem to exist—so the only option seemed to be to send a letter to the city office. In a village that small, it was hard to believe someone wouldn’t know something.
My letter included a request for information about the property’s current ownership and, more boldly, asked if someone might know the postwar status of the Heuzé family. I used an online service to translate the short letter into French and added the note: “Je m’excuse pour les erreurs dans la traduction; Je ne parle pas Français.” I apologize for errors in the translation; I do not speak French.
I was confident I would receive a response in a week or two. Three weeks at the most.
I assumed a small farming village would be safer than Paris, but I came to understand that was not necessarily true. In June 1944, the Germans received word that the Résistance in Oradour-sur-Glane—a farming village slightly larger than Berchères-la-Maingot—had captured a German officer. The intelligence was actually about a village called Oradour-sur-Vayres, but the Germans did not seem to care about the mistake. Every resident of Oradour-sur-Glane was rounded up. The men were shot. Women and children were locked inside a church, then burned alive. If the women attempted to escape, they were shot, too. One hundred and ninety men, 247 women, and 205 children were murdered. One baby was crucified. Only one woman survived.
A thought entered my mind that made thick tears pool in my eyes. Maybe the letters had been in Stillwater because Marcel’s wife and daughters did not survive.
Maybe no one in the family survived to treasure his letters.
“Here is the latest from our dear friend Marcel,” Tom’s email read.
Weeks earlier, when I scanned the third letter for Tom, I had to take the utmost care to prevent the fragile center crease from dissolving in two. The letter had been written in opaque black ink on a single piece of wheat-colored paper preprinted with light blue grid lines, then folded in half vertically to create four pages. Dark smudges ran along one of the front edges, though those were the only marks. Tiny numbers had not been scribbled in pencil. Blue and red stripes had not been painted across the page.
I had bought this letter because it included several lovely characters: a sweeping R, a curlicue E, a looping z. But I had failed to anticipate that the nearly vertical writing would make those specific letters a nightmare to incorporate into the angled font.