All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

He nothing common did, or mean...

Paul Schmidt, (center) interpreting between Ph...Image via Wikipedia
A great man died this week. Not well known outside his own area, but a man of his place and a man of his time.

Known to the children and young people of the schools he visited as 'the grandad in the cardigan' he was a quiet man with a story to tell who put to shame the professional 'storytellers' who infest the public sector of education and the arts......the exploitative children of the middle class who suck in the milk of public subsidy supplied by the people they insult with their puerilities.

He was a young man, helping his father with their own farm and the business they had lately undertaken, when the French government surrendered to the Germans in 1940.
While the government and 'le tout Paris' fled to the south to escape the fate of those they left behind, with little thanks and no recompense for the troops who died to secure their safe retreat, he was working in his father's vines.

The Germans arrived, their vehicles circulating as they wished on the roads under the high hill upon which he worked.
An intrusion he could not accept, despite all the appeals of Marshal Petain...the man who played on his reputation for killing less men than other French  generals in the First World war to bring France to its' knees in the face of the German Blitzkrieg which ran over the French defences like a knife through butter.

Marshal Petain, allied with the Catholic bourgeoisie who thought that the soul of France had been massacred when workers achieved not only the right to holidays, but holidays with  pay!

Our great man could not accept that 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity' had been replaced by 'Family, Work, Fatherland', the slogan of the Petain regime.
He had grown up in a household which held firmly to Republican Church schools, no interference by the Church in State class subjection.
He and his family were easy meat for those who envied them their improved position in society and the rise to power of the Petainists, the collaborators, gave the opportunity.

He and his father had sought contact with the local, vestigial, Resistance, and were given the responsibility of running the drops made by a Lysander aircraft from England...delivering radios and arms to help the local groups.
They and a few friends organised well, lighting the landing field they had chosen at the last minute, always conscious that the Germans manning the posts on the hills around could descend on the landing ground in less than twenty which time the gallant pilot had taken off again, leaving our great man and his friends to dispose of the bounty....often bicycles were their only means, riding through the dark lanes with radios strapped to their carriers.

But, of course, the they were betrayed.
By neighbours jealous of their farm and their business.
By neighbours who could justify what they had done because the people they denounced were people they had been taught to think of as contemptible, beyond the pale of the Church and not acceptable in respectable circles.
And those who had taught them this were now the people in power.

His father was taken.
He was taken three days later.
He was taken from a wife he had married only three months before by French policemen, and dumped in a French prison.

Thence he was sent to Buchenwald and, eventually to DORA the site where the V2s...the precursors of the moonrockets... were fabricated.

Theses V2s were aimed at Great Britain..and when they struck, the devastation was terrible.

The men forced to work on these monsters knew their devastative power and attempted to sabotage, one morning coming to work, our great man saw seven men hanging from a gantry, slowly strangled to death.
It is not only story of the officer's revolt against Hitler that needs to be told...but also the revolt by the hopeless, those slaves who had only once choice...slow death by overwork, or the bright spark of revolt..with the inevitable bitter ending.

He was lucky. He survived. He came home.

Home, where his wife had struggled against all the odds to keep their vignoble working.
Where he had to live alongside the people who had denounced him.
Where he could have pointed the finger.

He did nothing of the sort.
Knowing who he was, and where he had been  he did not approve of the backlash of the liberation, the settling of scores, the shaving the heads of those girls who had had German boyfriends...
He knew the loneliness  of being away from home, family and friends...
He knew the drear misery of life for girls in rural France..those without a penny of money to spend on themselves.
He did not condemn those girls.

What he did condemn was the fate of the children born of their relationships...plonked into orphanages by family pressure and brought up as third class persons.

What he did condemn  were the people who had collaborated actively and, at the last minute, had turned their coats to maintain their power.....and he condemned the political impulsion which supported these people.

Once home again, his  sole idea was to make his vines productive again.
But the locals had other ideas.
They wanted him to become maire of the commune.

There were a lot of communes where a new maire took over after the war, part of the effort to sweep under the carpet the Occupation years, and his commune was one of them.
A new council, too, to make a clean sweep.

As maire, he was returned time after time, but, as the years wore on, the old families who used to control the commune started to be elected as councillors again....but any dubious proposals would be crushed as he raised his head and stared steadily at the man concerned. There was a lot of history in that stare.

He was not a vengeful man, but he wanted to make sure that what had happened to him, and to France, should not happen again.

In a period when France was inventing the legend of 'every Frenchman was in the Resistance' he started visiting schools and talking to the children, from primary age up to the lycee pupils.

He warned of what happens when a nation becomes divided into interest groups who place their own welfare before that of the country as a whole.

He warned of the brutality that people permit themselves once they can stop regarding people as people. When they can replace the idea of  'a human being like myself' with a label.....'Jew', 'Gypsy', 'Handicapped', 'Agitator', which entitles them to treat those so labelled as they please.

Aware of the ease with which France pushes aside unpalatable facts, he started to collect the reminiscences of all those genuinely engaged in resistance, and with the help of others like himself, started a small museum which showed what had happened in the area from the German invasion in 1940 to their retreat in 1944.
Consultation of the archives was open to everyone...and most revealing.

For over sixty years he bore witness to what happens when a society forgets its' values.....and generations of children in his area have been able to ask direct questions of a man who had suffered the worst that life can offer and be helped to understand that ignoring something does not make it any less real while doing nothing allows evil to triumph.

'The grandad in the cardigan' has gone and with him the soul and conscience of the area.

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  1. What a fabulous post about a truly great man, Fly. I'm so glad that children had the chance to hear him speak an often unpalatable truth about France during the war years. My childrens' school was named after a Resistant, Damira Asperti, who was the 'courier' of her brigade. She was arrested in Toulouse and sent to Ravensbruck. She visited the school in my childrens' last year but did she speak to the students? No! They just led her around to say 'Bonjour' to the students, most of whom had no idea who she was. What a huge wasted opportunity. I was aghast. Our area had much to be ashamed of during WWII.

  2. He was a wonderful man...very much a patriot in the best sense of the word and determined to do what little he could to help children understand what had happened and why.

    Such fun to be with, as well...dry asides about politics and local people and events...straight faced when he was pulling your leg...and truly kind hearted.

    I'd like to see some schoolteacher try to lead him round like an attraction at a fair! He'd just have stopped dead and started to talk to whoever was there.

    But now he's gone they can get on with shovelling the past under the carpet again.

  3. Zuleme, didn't you know someone in the resistance?

  4. A great man - great most of all for his compassion and empathy and kind outlook. The world is lessened without his sort around.

  5. Steve, you've got it exactly. Kindness itself, but as tough as they come. He didn't care much for a few local bigwigs got some dusty answers in their time..

  6. Thank you for writing this. The world needs more of his ilk.

  7. What a wonderful tribute to this man, Fly. One of the last things I read in our Breton local paper was of a woman with a similar background who also went round to schools telling the truth about what happened. Not many left now and when they have gone France will be free to rewrite things.

    It's funny you mention how every Frenchmen of that era lays claim to being in the Resistance. I went to the little local library here yesterday and there was a display of WW2 memorabilia from the region - together with elderly Albert, the Spitfire pilot. Mr FF reckoned all men in their nineties would lay claim to such a thing.

  8. What a truly wonderful man! make history so interesting...a thoroughly enjoyable read.

  9. e...he was a wonderful man...with every right to be vengeful, he rose above it and tried to help youngsters to see what was right and wrong in life.

    French Fancy...every Frenchman in the resistance....pull the other one, it's got bells on! Locals soon put me right on that!

    Ayak, I was so lucky to have known him.

  10. He sounds a great guy. Pity there aren't more like him in the world. It's an even bigger pity those there are are the 'other' kind, seeing how rare men of this calibre are...

  11. Sarah, he was a super chap.
    Mark you, as he often said, if he had not had his wartime record, but was just an ordinary Joe,he would have been steamrollered just like the other ordinary Joes once the old clique got their hands on power again.
    He put his 'status'...not the way he would have described work so that what he wanted to say was heard.

  12. What a remarkable man was the Grandad in the Cardigan. There are far, far too few of him in the world and we're the worse for it. It shames me to think of the times in which I haven't shown the courage I was called upon to show. And to have gone through such remarkable years of tumult and to come out with such an attitide is astonishing. Thank you for this story, dear friend.

  13. mrwriteon, yes, when I think how I've backed down on things I should have continued with...I am ashamed.
    He held his views without being bigoted, but was not shy of defending them either!
    A lovely man.