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. 

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

 
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Great Grandma Barmcake.

The most incongruous things spark off memories of people. In films, a piece of sappy music, a sunset or the smell of a flower stop the picture-perfect heroes in their tracks. None of the things that set me off down memory lane are particularly poetic, and they would be a total flop in a film scenario. Imagine Julia Roberts on screen, dramatically wiping back a tear and saying “I’m sorry, darling…… my emotions got the better of me. The sight of that slug reminded me of when I negotiated with my grandmother to bring my plastic ice cream tub of pet slugs into the house for the night”.

A limited number of simple things can catapult me headfirst into my childhood each and every time I see them. I think about Grandpop when I see an unusual postage stamp or a globe. My Grandad when I see a chocolate easter egg. My Aunty Laura (-my maternal grandmother, who refused to be called grand-anything at all-) when I see ladybirds, slugs, Ryvita or melted chocolate ice cream.

I think about Grandma when I see swallows and house martins, whisky and the colour purple. I particularly think about her when I’m ironing. Halfway through one of P.F’s shirts this week, I realised with a lurching tum that Grandma would have celebrated her birthday this weekend. She would no doubt have pulled out a bottle of Vimto and a pile of baps, and whopped together her legendary sausage barm cakes. Great Grandma Barmcake – or GGB for short – positively rocked in my son’s esteem after he tasted this bread bap stuffed full of sausages, covered with whatever sauce floats your boat. Mini-Bigfoot admired her to such a point that he felt bad about asking me to unpick the Noddy sewn on the woolly hat that she had sent him for Christmas years before, so that he could continue wearing it to school at the age of six without his schoolfriends taking the mickey out of him.

I saw her every summer as a child when she got on the train and crossed Britain to see us, and I have a huge pile of memories. Memories like asking her again and again to tell me how it felt to work on a sweet factory production line and not be allowed to eat any. Like watching her iron a shirt in less time than it took Flash Gordon to get to planet Mongo. Grandma reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to me at bedtime, with her throaty smoker’s voice and comforting mancunian accent. Chatting on the back step in summer as she smoked her cigarette and sipped her small daily glass of whisky and water, whilst swallows and house martins looped and screeched through the evening sky above our heads. Seeing her carefully picking coins out of her purse for our «spends» to buy sweets at the weekend.  My pride when she enthusiastically ate the breakfasts I took her in bed, only for her to admit with a chuckle – once I had grown up – that she couldn’t stand the milk and honey that I systematically put in her coffee and on her toast.

Back in 1980, St Winifred’s school choir spent a staggering 11 weeks in the charts with the ultimately cheesy « Grandma we love you ». By the time it had been N° 1 for two weeks, it was driving my mother up the wall (incidentally, I must remember to fix a date with my sister to line the kids up with their cousin and sing it to their grandmother, just to see how she reacts now that she is a grandmother). The song was force-fed to us on local radio, enchanting grandmothers nationwide – except mine, who grinned and told me I was a “daft bugger” when I sang it to her in my own off-key, off-the-wall way a good ten years later.

But one little piece of this song has now taken on a certain significance: “And one day, when you’re older, you’ll look back and say: there’s no-one quite like Grandma, she has helped us on our way”. There was certainly no-one quite like Grandma, and she’s still helping me on my way. Every time I hesitate about the right thing to do, I apply her sound philosophy on life:  « Always look after number one, ‘cos no other bugger will ».

Sometimes I take a sneaky peek at the sky to see if she’s sitting on the edge of a cloud, with a whisky glass in one hand and a Silk Cut in the other. I hope so. Happy birthday, Grandma.