The event that most influenced my teen years was World War II. I was not quite 12 years old when the German army marched under the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysses. Shortly before the invasion, Maurice’s daughter Josette, whom we called Gady, and I had been sent to live with some people who knew Gady. To them I was a stranger. I was 11 and Gady was only 4! During our stay there with these people, l’exode, the “exodus” occurred. All over France, people left their homes to get away from the oncoming Germans. The sights I witnessed, I will never forget. While people were walking, the German planes would fly over and shoot at them. We would see everyone drop to the ground to avoid being shot. Sometimes they wouldn’t get back up. There were bodies of dead livestock, horses and cows in the passing fields.
L’éxode was bad on many levels. There was little food or water, no place to use the bathroom. The people who had left their possessions behind often had them stolen when their homes were looted. Those who tried to bring their cherished possessions, like photograph albums, with them on the exodus either had them stolen, or got tired of carrying them and abandoned them to scavengers. The roadsides were littered with household linens, sheets, towels and photographs. It was an unimaginable time.
Astonishingly, this family who was supposed to be taking care of us—left us behind. Or tried to, anyway. Of course, we were without the proper papers and probably could have caused trouble for them if we were caught, but nonetheless, one does not simply abandon an 11 year old and a 4 year old. Well, I wasn’t about to be abandoned. I had a “poussette”(a stroller). I bundled my little charge into it and followed them. I became her caretaker. They tried to lose me, but I wasn’t about to let these people out of my sight.
I walked until there were big holes in my shoes. One day, in one of the villages we passed through, we broke into a store and got some shoes. Knowing me, they were probably pretty, but because they were the wrong size, my stolen shoes gave me blisters. Next door to the shoe store, was a liquor store where I discovered some Marie Brizard liqueur, a very sweet, white cordial. Yum, yum! I liked it pretty well, so I gave some to Gady. And then I gave her some more. Later on, I kept wondering why she wouldn’t lift up her head. We were both slobbering drunk. The next day was some party—I was hung over and blistered. We ate and drank whatever I could get my hands on. We gorged ourselves on raspberries, which were plentiful that spring.
One day, while walking, I heard the steps of German soldiers. I was pushing the carriage with my 4 year old charge along the side of the road. They were so big, and so many and Gady and I were so small. All I could think was, “I’m dead.” My heart was pounding so hard. The officer in charge raised his baton, and like the Red Sea parting, the columns of marching soldiers split down the middle and allowed us to walk through. It was something I will never forget.
All during this time of walking, Mom had no idea where I was. Germans or no Germans, she had had no choice but to work, so she remained in Paris. There was no telephone or postal service, so we had no way to contact one another. She thought I was still with the family in whose care she had placed me. Finally, a charcutier in the village allowed us to use the phone and I was able to place a frantic call to my mother. When she found out what had happened, she was furious.
Eventually the autocars were reinstated and I made my way back to Paris. I should have gone back to school, but because I had been previously pushed so hard by the stern village schoolteacher, I signed up for the exam to get my diploma. Everyone told me that I was too young to take this test. I was only 11 and the normal age to take this exam was 14, but I was determined to take it anyway. First prize was an electric iron, which I brought home and proudly presented to my mother. She had never had an electric iron—she used one heated by gas. It really shook her up—not only had I passed the exam, but I had taken first place. Mom was almost illiterate, so her daughter taking this prize must have flabbergasted her. To this day, I am not sure if I actually graduated from high school.
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