Marcels letters, p.8

Marcel's Letters, page 8


Marcel's Letters

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  At the bottom of the last page, Marcel signed his name with a backward loop that formed a long, bold underline. He had been in Marienfelde nearly ten months, and the signature seemed defiant, as if he were proclaiming: I’m still here. I’m still strong. I haven’t given in. I haven’t given up.

  Tom noted he had spent time searching for information on Marcel, too, but had not found a thing. “Marcel doesn’t give up his secrets easily,” he wrote.

  I slowly nodded. No, no he did not.

  Letter Three

  Marienfelde, Germany

  November 3 (1943)

  My little darling,

  Today, Wednesday, the weather is dreary. So I didn’t go down to the canteen but decided to write you a little letter instead. First I need to wish you a happy Name Day because my letter will probably get to you a bit before November 11th. This is the first time I won’t be with you to celebrate your Name Day. Rest assured that it won’t be long before I return when you will have received this letter, because they’re talking a lot about a departure on November 22nd or 23rd, but it’s always the same thing, nothing official. Whispering in the squares and in the offices. And we’re still waiting. What is certain is that they revealed the names of those who might get leave and that’s all.

  Today I’m going to the office to send you money, maybe I’ll learn something new. Last night I went to the station to get information about the train schedule for my Saturday trip to see Pierrot. I have to leave at 6:30 in the morning to arrive in Eisenach at 12:30. As usual I ran into some cops and they had me show them my papers for 15 minutes. My job isn’t very hard right now, so I can think about writing to you peacefully. My poor dear, this year you won’t have the pain of asking for something for your Name Day. I wanted to buy you something in Berlin, but I couldn’t find anything there. I will make it up to you when I’m in Paris.

  It has been a while since I’ve received a letter. That seems strange to me because when I write to you I like to reread the last letter that I received from you. And the last was from October 15, I know it by heart. The day before yesterday I received a letter from Moutardier. His house has started the process to release him as a father of four children. I would really like to have news from my daughters also, now that they’ve gone back to school, they should really write to their father. And Lily, does she go with her sisters? I have some good news from Uncle Joseph who says his children are misbehaving more and more and he doesn’t have the means to control them. It’s probably because winter has started. Here we haven’t yet gone below zero and now it looks more like rain. Unfortunately again at noon someone got sick on my ladle. It took some work to find another, luckily I still have two in stock. The first one that shines too much, watch out for that one. I just went to send 100 marks and to look for my permission to go see Pierre. It’s 3:30, now I will work a little. Since I last heard from you I think Grandma must have gone to Berchères, I was thinking I could go see them there. I can’t wait for 7 o’clock to see if I have a letter or a little package. My buddy Maurice says hi to you and also asks you to think about the chicken. He’s asking how that is progressing.

  Here we are at the final page of my letter, and this morning I didn’t really know what to write. I have a friend who is supposed to get his permission the same time as mine, he’s the former client of the Boss. One strange guy here is the Sports Director. He already has plans to find work in the countryside. So if he is forced to come back he will come back with me, but not where we are now.

  My little wolf, I will finish this letter for tonight. If I have news, I will write you again tomorrow. Give my little girls big kisses from me, and to Mother too. Your big boy who sends you, for your Name Day, the most tender kisses, always looking forward to be able to hold you in his arms. Your Marcel who loves you always and who says maybe see you soon. In one hour it’s supper. Your big boy, Marcel

  Chapter Eight

  White Bear Lake, Minnesota

  February 2012

  I immediately emailed a message back to Tom: “What’s a Name Day?”

  In France and other European nations, Tom replied, it is a special day, kind of like a birthday, but it is celebrated on the day of the saint for whom a person is named. Tom, for example, celebrated his Name Day on July 3, the day designated for Saint Thomas. People often give friends and family small gifts or flowers, he noted, and in some places, Name Days are celebrated more widely than actual birthdays.

  I nearly leapt out of my chair when I realized what that meant. So far, I had only known Marcel’s wife as “my little darling” or “Madame Marcel Heuzé”—but I could determine her name by looking up her Name Day!

  Within moments, I was reviewing a French Name Day list. November 11 was the day for Saint Vérane.

  I had never heard the name Vérane before. I turned it over in my mind and tried saying it out loud: first with an emphasis on the é, then with an emphasis on the n.

  She finally had a name!

  And I had another name to search for.

  Once the jubilation subsided, I read Tom’s translation again. Then again. I scrutinized each line for clues.

  I considered the way Marcel referred to Berchères-la-Maingot, and had a renewed sense it was not home. I let out a sigh. If that was true, where was he from?

  The passages about traveling to Eisenach and shopping in Berlin were surprising. Was he really able to leave the camp?

  The reference to the ladle was unusual. I read the line over and over. Coded messages were sometimes hidden in benign-sounding phrases such as “the dice are on the mat,” “It’s hot in Suez,” or “John has a long mustache.” I could only guess whether “the first one that shines too much, watch out for that one” actually referred to a ladle—or if it alluded to something else entirely. In the days that followed, I searched for ladle-related coded messages, but did not find a thing.

  I thought of Pierrot, Maurice, and Moutardier, along with the men Marcel mentioned in the second letter: Marcel, Mimile, and Bernard. I did not know anything about them other than their first names, but I was grateful for their presence. It was reassuring to read that Marcel was surrounded by men he considered friends. There had to be benefit in having people watch out for each other, having people to provide camaraderie and moral support.

  Finally, I thought of Marcel’s confident hopefulness. It warmed me to my core. I admired the fact he told Vérane he would buy her something “when I’m in Paris,” not “if I come home.” Did Marcel truly believe he was going home in a few weeks? My heart ached because I knew it was untrue; from the date on the postcard, he would be there at least five more months.

  The next morning, I sent Tom scans of the fourth letter and the postcard. I did not care how much it would cost to translate them. I had to know if the letters held answers to Marcel’s fate.

  After scanning the letters for Tom, I shuffled through office supplies until I found clear plastic sheet protectors. One by one, I slid Marcel’s letters between the pieces of plastic, then carefully pressed the sleeves flat under the sketchbook cover. It was the least I could do to protect them.

  When Aaron and I lived in Dallas, I bought a charming pear-shaped teapot at a neighborhood antique store. The handwritten tag claimed the teapot was decades old, which made its fifteen-dollar price seem like a bargain. A chip marred the handle, but I did not mind. The flaw seemed to provide proof of years of cozy gatherings. After bringing it home, I placed the teapot in the center of our small kitchen table.

  Weeks later, when I was in a megastore and saw the exact same teapot, new and unchipped, on clearance for a few dollars, I was furious at myself for being so gullible. I got rid of the teapot soon after. I could not bear to keep a reminder of how easily I could be deceived.

  I am aware of my gullible nature. I vigilantly avoid people who break promises, and I try to guard myself from people who do not have good intentions. I try to keep foolish optimism in check, yet every once in a while I fall for something.

nbsp; When the thought materialized that Marcel’s letters might not be real—a question whispered, I assumed, by my inner, self-protective skeptic—the familiar knot began twisting in my core, and I berated my foolishness. Who the hell finds handwritten letters from a World War II labor camp at an antique store in Minnesota? Why hadn’t it occurred to me before now these letters might be forgeries written on artificially discolored paper, or that twenty variations might have been sold in antique stores across the Midwest? Instead of being written to Suzanne, Denise, and Lily, maybe other versions had been written to Sarah, Diane, and Rose from a man named Martin. Or to Simone, Danielle, and Iris from a man named Michel.

  The pit in my stomach grew as I realized how convenient it was that Marcel had only called his wife “my darling.” And that Route de Sr Prest did not exist. The more I thought about it, the more enraged I became. No wonder I had been unable to find him! I had wasted money on translations, then wasted months trying to find a person that did not exist. Someone, it seemed, had made Marcel up with as much ingenuity as Tim and I had used to invent Eliza Steele fifteen years earlier. And I fell for it. I had believed Marcel was real in the exact same way people had believed Eliza had been a pioneer writing in a lantern-lit journal. Who signs letters, “your big boy who sends you the most tender kisses, always looking forward to be able to hold you in his arms”? Or writes about someone singing in a barrack? Far-off bombings? The odd-looking swastika? Painted blue and red stripes? As the list of suspicious elements grew, I berated myself mercilessly. No one can be more cruel than I am to myself in moments like that.

  I wanted to rip up the letters and destroy every shred of evidence of my gullibility in the same way I had to get rid of the pear-shaped teapot. Idiot! How could I have been such an idiot?

  At least I had not gone public with my search, which, mercifully, meant I would not have to go public with a humiliating retraction. I could try to forget about the time and money wasted, the nights I shorted myself on sleep. I could finish the font and never mention where the inspiration came from. Kathy, Tom, and Aaron were the only ones who knew about the translations. When the time was right, I would confess to Kathy and Tom what I had learned. Aaron knew how gullible I could be; I knew he would not shame me.

  That night, as I lay in the blackness, listening to Aaron’s slow and steady snore, I churned through every detail. Every piece of evidence was reexamined.

  Could I put a drop of water on the paper to see if it had been age-stained with tea?

  Could an expert authenticate the Hitler stamps? The papermaker’s watermark? The cancellation mark made by the post office?

  I tried to recall how much I paid for the letters. I knew it had not been much. If they were fake, it seemed like a whole lot of work went into creating something that did not sell for much money. But a devil of doubt whispered a reminder in my ear: the pear-shaped teapot had not been expensive, either.

  Ultimately, I decided if a grain-of-sand chance existed these letters were real, I had to keep looking. I had to find out if Marcel was reunited with his wife and daughters. I decided to continue searching for him—but with heightened skepticism. I vowed not to say a word to anyone else about what I was doing until I could determine with certainty whether Marcel and his letters were real.

  I unceremoniously dumped the contents of the font’s job jacket onto my desk. Every project was assigned a job jacket; it was a way to organize records of budgets and approvals, copies of preliminary and final layouts, and detailed time and expense records. Even though the font was not an official client project, I had assigned the project a job jacket so I could keep the tracings and the progression of test prints in one place.

  I shuffled through the papers looking for the expense record; it would have an annotation with the name of the store and how much I paid. I knew from other visits to Stillwater that the store was no longer open, but if I had the name of the store, I might be able to track the antique dealer down. It seemed possible they might still live in the area. If so, I could ask what, if anything, they remembered about where they got the letters.

  The expense record was blank. There was not a single word or number written on the page. “Fucking figures,” I muttered.

  I went through every piece of paper again, hoping the original receipt might be stuck between the tracings and test prints, but it was not there. I retrieved the sketchbook from the closet and flipped through every page, looking for any scrap of paper that might be a receipt. It was not there, either.

  Had I paid for the letters out of our personal checking account? It seemed possible since “font design” was not yet something I felt comfortable claiming as a business expense. I tried conjuring any memory of the payment transaction, but came up blank. For all I knew, I could have paid in cash and told the saleswoman I did not need a receipt.

  Did I find the letters the summer before I started freelancing? The summer after? Had it been winter? The first entry on the time sheet was May 2004. By then, I was digitizing individual glyphs, which meant none of the time tracing the handwriting had been recorded.

  I had not assigned the font a job number right away since I thought it would be a quick and easy little project. I rolled my head back and stared at a cobweb draping from the ceiling fan as I let out a long sigh. This meant I had neither a record of where, nor of when, I bought the letters. And no clear record of when I started the project.

  Aaron got home from work at midnight. I was in bed; the reading lamp created a cone of light over my head. Aaron peeked into the room. When he saw I was still awake, he crawled into bed next to me.

  “Now what are you reading?”

  I snapped the book shut so he could see the cover. Below the title, the famous Mercedes star was positioned above a swastika. Then, as now, Daimler-Benz built Mercedes cars.

  “That’s a book”—Aaron paused as he chose his words—“I never want to read.”

  I suspected he knew I did not really care about Daimler-Benz; I only hoped to learn something that would shed light on Marcel.

  “It’s about management strategy more than anything.” I looked at Aaron and shrugged. “It’s like reading a textbook.”

  “No other motor company did so much for the Third Reich,” the book claimed. In the 1930s, Daimler factories roared to life manufacturing airplane motors and armored vehicles, then tanks, trucks, and rocket parts. As Germany’s military buildup continued, Berlin-Marienfelde management received guarantees they “would be provided with sufficient business with army contracts from the War Ministry for … years.”

  “It has tables on month-by-month factory output,” I growled.

  Aaron rolled his eyes. “I suppose they couldn’t say ‘no’ to what Hitler demanded.”

  “That doesn’t excuse how they achieved it.”

  “No, certainly not.” After a moment of silence, he asked whether the book said anything about Marienfelde.

  I nodded and shrugged; Marienfelde had been mentioned a few times. Pockets of resistance had been found within Marienfelde’s workforce. At least five workers had been executed.

  “Daimler would order a thousand workers at a time,” I said. They could order workers as easily as we ordered pizza, it seemed.

  “At Marienfelde?” Aaron clarified.

  “That was a different factory. Gens-something.” One thousand workers had been ordered from the Ravensbrück and Sachsenhausen camps to work at Daimler’s Genshagen factory. Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen: the names made a shiver run down my spine.

  “Marcel was lucky to be in Germany.” I paused, catching the repeat of my unfortunate word choice. “The worst human rights violations happened in Poland.”

  In 1942, Daimler requested workers for their aircraft engine factory in Reichshof, Poland. Workers were initially unavailable, so German authorities invited factory officials to participate in the next “combing out.” Daimler brought trucks to Debica, where five thousand Jews from the city’s ghetto had been “herded together by the SS.
The Daimler representative handpicked the workers he wanted. Anyone not selected was sent to the Bełzec extermination camp.

  It was quiet for a few minutes.

  “I’m getting you new books,” Aaron said.

  “Why?” I asked with a little laugh.

  “You need to start reading chick lit like a normal girl.”

  Daimler’s World War II activities were not hidden on their website, but the information was not easily found without searching for it.

  I searched for it.

  “Armament production accounted for an ever-growing proportion of the company’s revenues up to the start of the war,” their website stated. “Spare parts production and the repair of military vehicles and engines were also growing in importance. New staff were needed to handle the increased armament production because many workers were fighting on the front line.

  “Initially, the company recruited women in order to cope with the required unit volumes. However, as staff numbers were still too low, Daimler-Benz also used forced laborers. These prisoners of war, abducted civilians and detainees from concentration camps were housed close to the plants. Forced labourers from western Europe lived in guest houses, private accommodation or schools.

  “Workers from eastern Europe and prisoners of war were interned in barrack camps with poor, prison-like conditions. Concentration camp detainees were monitored by the SS under inhumane conditions. They were ‘loaned out’ to companies in exchange for money. In 1944, almost half of Daimler-Benz’s 63,610 Daimler Benz employees were civilian forced labourers, prisoners of war or concentration camp detainees.”

  A handful of black-and-white photos accompanied the text. One image showed rows of aircraft engines propped on frames inside the Marienfelde factory. Another showed a line of spare, single-level wooden barracks along a barren road. The image was of the Riedmühle labor camp, not Marienfelde, and it was as if the photo had been taken after construction was complete to show how clean and tidy Daimler’s accommodations were.


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