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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