In the winter of 2009, I had the privilege of helping my friend Josette with the process of dying. She had a lifetime of stories, most of which she had told to her family throughout the years. Her tales had almost become legend, and we wanted to get them written down before they were lost forever. I would go to the nursing home where she was receiving hospice care to record her memories. Most of them, certainly the most colorful ones, centered on her childhood in France. She lived in Paris, and had the misfortune to get caught up in the French exodus, l’exode,in which so many people’s lives were turned upside down as they tried to get away from the advancing German army in June 1940.
I realized that I was completely ignorant of this event, so I searched on the Internet for some sources of information about it. I found Dr. Diamond’s book, Fleeing Hitler, and had my local bookseller order it for me. When it arrived, I began to read with astonishment. Here were stories that mirrored what Josette had been telling me.
During one evening visit, I brought the book with me. As I read excerpts aloud to Josette, I witnessed a transformation, not only in her, but in her daughter. Finally, here was validation and corroboration of all she had told her family through the years. These tales of being on the road had been captured in pictures and repeated in the stories of other travelers. I think at that moment, her daughter and I both realized that Josette had done something true and real, and something well beyond the bounds of our safe, secure lives. Josette closed her eyes and nodded her head as I read to her, and a look of, “See, I have been trying to tell you all along,” passed over her face. Hearing these stories gave her a kind of peace.
Sharing her memories, getting them permanently recorded, became Josette’s focus during the last month of her life. If she’d had a difficult day, she would rally when I came into the room. There was still work to be done, so she’d get herself propped up in bed, ask, “Now, where were we?” and continue to narrate. She thanked me, in a moment I will never forget, for helping her get these stories down on paper. She said that it had made the dying process easier.
Maybe sharing these memories isn’t for everyone, but I saw what it did for Josette. It made her feel less alone, and it made those experiences real for us. For Josette, something was settled. Perhaps this website can accomplish something similar for others, and it will keep the experiences of those who went through this from becoming merely dusty, half-believed legends.
Read Josette’s story, L’Exode