Tilting at the windmills of inhumanity.

P.F’s grandmother, Marguerite, would have been 105 today. She passed away in 2010 at the grand old age of 102, and was a very special person for me and my family. Today’s post describes one of the reasons she was so unique.

Human existence is short and insignificant in relation to the universe surrounding us, and we are relatively anonymous as we all follow our individual paths, running around in circles like ants. Often, our paths cross, and when this happens each of us can unknowingly mark the existence of someone, somewhere, and stay with that person forever. Some people leave an indelible imprint which goes much further, particularly when a fortuitous encounter at a crucial moment has made an essential difference to their lives, with friendship taking root and growing in adverse conditions.

This is precisely what happened when three such paths – those of a couple named Pierre and Marguerite, and a young man called Jean-Philippe – crossed by chance in wartime Saint-Etienne.

Marguerite took this photograph in 1942. For anyone who picks it up, it’s just another old, black and white picture. But the ageing colours of a dog-eared photograph often hide the most beautiful stories, and this is one of them.

There is no-one better placed to tell this story than André, the little boy you see horsing around whilst his father and Mr Lévy pose for the family album. He is now 78 and still  horses around with his grandchildren, but without the fetching white shorts and hat.

The following text explains the story behind this photo. It was read by André in November last year at the Yad Vashem ceremony in Paris during which his parents were posthumously named “Righteous Among the Nations“. He admits that he was shaky and emotional, and I can understand why.

“My father, Pierre, was a non-commissioned officer in the Avignon 7th Engineer Regiment at the beginning of the 1930’s. He met Marguerite in Bédarrides, and they married in May 1934. He went to the Versailles military administrative school for officers, which was transferred to Nantes in 1940. When he finished his training he was assigned to the Army Service Corps in St Etienne as second lieutenant.

Jean-Philippe Lévy was a young law graduate who taught at Lyon Faculty of Law. He was called up in 1939 as a reserve officer then posted to the St Etienne Army Service Corps after the June armistice. It is at this moment that his path crossed my father’s.

The Statute on Jews issued in October 1940 meant that Mr Lévy could no longer work as a civil servant. He lost his job, and lived from a meagre income composed of the royalties from his earlier legal publications and small salaries earned from precarious work contracts.

I was a small boy at that time, and the memories I have of him are those of a man to whom I could ask all kinds of questions. During our walks in the countryside, my questions concerned things like flora, fauna and the colour of the sky. At home, I asked him about my electric train circuit and mechanics: how did it all work? I was systematically provided with the answers. Although many of his explanations were way over my head, I did understand one thing: Mr Lévy was a scholar. When I asked my parents questions that they found difficult or embarrassing, their answer was inevitably:  “Ask Mr Lévy“!

We lived on the fifth floor at 56, rue du 11 novembre, right opposite the Rullières army barracks. From the balcony I had a bird’s-eye view of the barracks courtyard, and from 1942 onwards, the Nazi flag was hoisted and flew in its centre. I was fascinated by the comings and goings of troops and strange vehicles, and continued to assail Mr Lévy with my endless questions ….

From that time onwards, Mr Lévy only came to our home for dinner. Sometimes he had to stay the night with us when there were curfews, and came down to the cellar with us when the industrial suburbs of St-Etienne were bombed. I remember the comments my mother made in private about Mr Lévy’s appearance and his appetite. It was obvious that some days he didn’t always get enough to eat, and his clothes were in a pitiful state. My mother repaired his shirts, sewing the buttons back on and turning back the collars; it was common at the time.

Mr Lévy left for Toulouse at the end of 1943. He had found a job there in a publishing company, using false documents in my father’s name.

When the war was over, I asked him how he had felt when he walked to our home at night,  passing just a few feet from the soldiers at the entrance to the barracks. He replied that it wasn’t so much the German soldiers that he feared, but the militia and the Gestapo….. It must have taken some courage to walk by…….

At my niece’s wedding in Paris in 2001, my son Pierre was sitting beside me and asked me the name of the part of the chancel which is above the altar.  I didn’t know, and I replied without blinking: “Ask Mr Lévy“. Mr Lévy, sitting on Pierre’s left, answered without a second’s hesitation: “It’s called a rood screen“. Mr Lévy was 90 years old.

André at the Yad Vashem ceremony.

André at the Yad Vashem ceremony in 2012.

Post scriptum:

On Marguerite’s 100th birthday in 2008, a quiet gentleman had pride of place beside her at the head of the table. She introduced him to me as “a very good friend from St-Etienne”. I was perplexed: the complicity communicated in the look they exchanged at that moment betrayed that they were linked by something far deeper. She never talked about the conditions in which they met, and I think it is because first and foremost, Mr Lévy was her friend, and supporting him in a difficult time had been a gesture like any other that didn’t deserve any superfluous attention.

Yet the refusal of these three friends to accept the injustice imposed on them was far from being an isolated event: the same thing happened again and again throughout this dark period of history. These often unwilling and unprepared everyday heroes showed that you can tilt at windmills and win the battle, if you listen to your instinct and believe in your goal like the three friends you have just discovered.

My children will talk to their own children about Grande Mamie Marguerite one day. They are growing up in a world where atrocities still continue, and mankind continues to judge his fellow-man on the wrong criteria. I hope that the future generations of Pierre, Marguerite and Jean-Philippe’s families will never need the helping hand that linked their families, but that they will be ready and willing to stretch out their hand to help if it is ever necessary, with the same spontaneity and humanity. Happy birthday, Mamie. 


Marguerite and Mr Lévy on Marguerite’s 100th birthday in 2008, nearly 70 years after they first met.


21 thoughts on “Tilting at the windmills of inhumanity.

      • 😀 Thanks… it’s nice to be back. I’ve rediscovered about half the people I used to follow, but between that and the couple days off the ‘net… I have so much catching up to do. That’s what days off are for, I suppose. 😀

  1. I have been moved to tears again, as I was during my terrible speech at Yad Vashem ceremony in Paris.
    Getting older, souvenirs of early life become more vivid and emotional. I don’t escape that rule and remembrance of these days of an exceptionnal period engendering exceptional peoples, all vanished today, moves me as never before…
    Thanks a lot for holding Mamie so deeply in your heart. I hope she knows…
    Thank you for keeping her memory still fresh in my grand children’s minds. Pity they didn’t meet their Grand Papy, so handsome a man on the picture of Rochetaillée, isn’t he ?
    I love your picture of Mamie and Mr Lévy. Writting and photography, two of your many talents and why not associate them in a sort of illustrated novel or else ?
    Thank you, my bru…

    • I didn’t want to make you cry, I’m sorry 😦 I can’t take the credit for the beautiful photo: it was taken by Joël. I like it because it says a lot about how well they knew each other.
      I would have loved to have met your Dad; he looked like a very kind man who Mamie must have kept jealously to herself, as you’re right: he was a real good-looker!
      I travelled the family road for 18 years with Mamie and we got on like a house on fire – once I’d been through the necessary initiation test to check I had enough rebel in me to make a worthy contribution to her family tree 😀 She was one hell of a woman, and I still miss her.
      As for the novel, it’s at the top of my bucket list, and being carefully thought about. Gros poutoux!

  2. a very touching story so beautifully told by you MM. It’s a wonderful way to keep the memories so vivid for future generations.

  3. That beautifully written account left me with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. You really made those people and their relationship live again, aided by the wonderful photographs. Such courageous friendship deserves to be remembered.

  4. Such a beautiful and moving tribute to your remarkable grand mother in law MM! And a marvelous legacy to pass on to your children. Thank you for leading me here with your comment.

  5. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge – Community | The Urge To Wander

  6. I am so pleased Madhu brought me here and so touched at the strength, resilience and ties that bind you write about so well, and what a wonderful woman!

    • Hello Patti, and welcome to MM’s pad 🙂 Mamie was a real phenomenon -independent and strong-willed right through to the end. If she’d got her hands on Hitler in time, she would have slapped him so hard he would have ended up with his underwear on back to front, and there wouldn’t have been a war 🙂

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