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From the The Mexico City College Collegian. Wednesday, September 3 & October 29, 1947. Permission to reprint being sought.
The Last Time I Saw Paris
MCC’s Mme. Dauchat Relates War Experiences
(Editor's note: Recently some friends of Mme. Germaine Dauchat, French instructor at MCC, suggested that we interview her on her war experiences. Our reporter, after listening to her thrilling and fascinating story, said he felt that our readers would be deprived of an exciting odyssey if we were to print her story in the conventional interview form. Thus, with Mme.Daudiat's permission, we are printing the article in the first person, essentially as she told it to our reporter).
By GERMAINE DAUCHAT
When the war broke out in 1939 I was teaching Latin and German in a boys' high school in Pontoise, a small town on the Seine 60 kilometers northwest of Paris. Pontoise was a railroad center and had a military barracks, and thus German planes were bombing the area quite frequently. Many Parisian parents sent their children to this small city, feeling they would be out of danger away from the metropolitan area, but it turned out that it was more dangerous for them in Pontoise than if they had remained in Paris. Fortunately there was a large cave near the school and this served as a convenient shelter during air raids.
Eventually we had more teachers in the school than students. The minister of the interior, Paul Reynaud (later premier), had issued a decree forbidding teachers to abandon their posts. Nevertheless parents withdrew their children one by one. I commuted every day from Paris until it was no longer possible to travel to Pontoise. How well I remember that last day!
It was June 11, 1940 and the Germans were only a few miles from Paris. My train was stopping every few minutes. The bridge over the Seine was barricaded and I found it necessary to get off the train and climb over the barricade. There was a terrible bombing going on, and the Germans were using incendiary bombs. I could see houses blowing up as though they were made of playing cards.
It was impossible for me to get to the school so I went to an air raid shelter. After the raid was finished I had to find a way to get back to Paris. It was impossible to get back by train, so I hitchhiked to Paris. Knowing I would be punished for abandoning my post, I went immediately to the Academie de Paris to report my inability to reach my school. Just then an inspector said a decree had been issued closing all schools. I suggested that I might go to another part of France, and the inspector agreed with me. "By all means, get out of Paris", he warned.
There was a terrible atmosphere in Paris on my last day there June 13. There was hardly any traffic in the streets, and I met only one person, an elderly woman with a dog. During the last day or two, there was only one thing people said to each other: "Are you leaving or will you stay?" The old lady said; "I'm an American. Nothing will happen to me." Nevertheless, I decided to leave and prepared to take what belongings I could. It was impossible to buy any luggage anywhere, since for several days all the stores were all sold out. I went to the large department store, Galerie Lafayette, but nobody would wait on me. All the clerks were talking with each other about whether they would join the "exodus." I could find no valises so I helped myself to what your American sailors call a duffle bag. To tie it together, I picked up a dog leash. Since nobody would take my money, I threw the bag over my back, like a soldier, and walked out.
My first wish was to join my fiancé, who was a soldier. I didn't know exactly where he was, but I was confident I could find out. I wanted to take a train, but found all the railroad stations closed, with soldiers guarding them. I decided to take the "Metro" (the subway) to the last station and take a chance on getting a car ride from there on. I couldn't get to the end of the line, but only to the second to the last stop, Place d'ltalie. There was no more electric current. The Germans were only a few hours away, and all the utility workers had deserted their posts in the general panic.
I found myself walking along the highway to Fontainebleau. There were thousands of civilians and soldiers streaming along the road in the wildest disorder. I walked all night (the night of June 13) and it was a terrible spectacle. People were getting lost from each other and were shouting in the darkness to reestablish contact, and children were crying everywhere. I was alone, and was noticed by three soldiers. One of them, an exceptionally gallant young man, offered me his protection, pledging: "I will never leave you."
Our first hope was to find a horse. We saw a horse-drawn kitchen convoy carrying women and soldiers and we climbed on one of the wagons. I seemed to have a nice soft seat, and then realized I was sitting on a dead lamb. We had some good wine and the soldiers were nice people, and I felt good after walking so many miles. On the wagon I became acquainted with two girls, who were to be my constant companions for many days. Therese was a big, brawny servant girl, and Odile was a stenographer. The three soldiers who had become our companions wanted to get our wagons off the road (to escape the Germans) but our horses were tired and it was impossible to get them to go through the fields and woods. (The fact that France was using horses shows how ill prepared she was for the war.)
Then came a terrible night. Everywhere I saw villages burning. Italian planes were strafing us with machine guns every few minutes, and we women, not having steel helmets like the shoulders, had to put greasy dish pans over our heads to serve as helmets. It was dark and in the confusion I got back into the wrong wagon and found myself the only woman among a load of Senegalese soldiers. I spent the whole night crying, and wondering if the day would ever come.
Morning did come and it was ironical to find such a bright, beautiful day amid all the desolation. We found ourselves in an abandoned village, and I was able to join Therese and Odile again. We went to a farm and had a party. We gathered all the loose poultry and the women cooked them. I found myself seated next to an officer, the only one among all the soldiers. He remarked to me that I didn’t seem to speak the language of all the others, and I explained that I was a teacher. We proceeded to have, in this very rustic setting, a true drawing room discussion. Then we started traveling again and found the roads filled with peasants laden with all their possessions. There were many old people resting alongside of the road. One of the most tragic things I saw were the burnt-black corpses of many old people who were too feeble to take cover from the strafing of the Italian planes. Out little group was quite lucky. We never got hit once.
The next day was another beautiful day–too beautiful for what was about to happen. All of a sudden we found ourselves surrounded by Germans. They seemed to mushroom from everywhere. This was a terrible thing for our men [male] companions, who were immediately taken prisoner. All this was accompanied by terrible bombing and strafing. The women were told to go into the ditch. While all the terrible noise was going on, I was in the ditch destroying any papers which might prove embarrassing. During all this I saw some real human ugliness, too. I saw two low-cultured women tearing each others’ hair out over a can of sardines. Then there was a girl who had been professing her love to one of the French soldiers. As soon as the battle died down, she got out of the ditch and joined the Germans. The Senegalese soldiers suffered a terrible fate. They were sent to the Ruhr after the last war and the Germans hated them. On my way back to Paris I saw many of their bodies hanging from trees.
Being the only one who spoke German, I climbed out of the ditch after the battle cleared and asked what we were expected to do. A German officer said we could return to Paris if we wished, but not for another 24 hours, so as not to interrupt German movements. In other words, we were to keep quiet for a day.
The night of June 17, the eve of the Armistice, we slept in an abandoned village. We slept in stables on piles of hay. Being the only one who spoke German, 1 was placed in charge of 27 women.
We had reached Sully-sur-Loire, about 150 kilometers south of Paris, and unoccupied France was just across the river. But being so close did us no good, since the bridge had been blown up. So with unoccupied France within our own vision, we had to turn around and return to Paris.
While we were in the stable, a German officer summoned me out to speak to him. We had a strange conversation. First of all he ordered champagne. (The Germans seemingly went crazy over champagne during their stay in France). I had to toast with him, although my heart was bleeding and full of hate. I had to tell him all about my beloved Paris... where he could buy the best clothes and perfume for his sweetheart in Berlin.
Next I sought out Therese and Odile and we made plans for our return to Paris. It was going to be tremendously difficult, because there was no regular transportation. We had some blankets' and luckily we found a wheel barrow, and we put all our possessions in it. But we were most lucky in Therese, the servant girl. Odile and I were so frail and tired we could hardly carry our own things, but big, good natured Therese was a godsend. Without the slightest complaint, she pushed the wheelbarrow all the way back to Paris—150 kilometers.
Wandering through the woods, we found treasure upon treasure. Scattered through the woods were furs, silver, elegant clothes—left there by people who had to flee their cars during the strafing raids. They had become public property, so we helped ourselves. Like a fable with a moral, our treasure became a real burden to us. People with cars refused to give us rides, since we had so much impedimenta with us. We came upon a truckload of the most beautiful electric irons we had ever seen, but we couldn’t do a thing about it. Gradually, like an airplane pilot being forced to jettison his cargo piece by piece, we discarded all our treasures. The only thing we kept was a hat. Therese had never had one in her life.
At one time we came upon a car in which we found an old lady and her dog. “Have you anything to eat?” the hungry old lady asked. We gave her some sugar, but her dog snatched it out of our hand and devoured it in one gulp.
We spent the next night in another abandoned village of not women, which was full of women trying to get back to Paris. One professional clairvoyant was quoting Nostradamus to the effect that the Germans would go away, but she didn't say when.
We were so tired that we were about to give up the idea of pushing a wheelbarrow back to Paris. There were two men in the village and they had found a big truck full of merchandise. There was no gasoline to be found and the men were trying to find horses to pull the truck back to Paris where they could sell their booty. They promised us a ride.
We stayed there three days and all the women did the men’s work. We began to suspect that these two men, one of them a White Russian, were merely exploiting our labor, and we decided to resume our wheelbarrow trip to Paris.
The following night we spent in an abandoned farm house. We needed some meat, but didn’t have the courage to kill the chickens we found roaming about. So in sign language (we thought it best) we asked some Germans soldiers to kill the chickens. Then we found some black bread the German Army had discarded and we were lucky to get that.
Here for the third time we saw a Czech (drafted into the German Army) trying to escape. The poor fellow wanted to become a French prisoner! We also noticed French soldiers who had been able to change into civilian clothes so as not to become prisoners of war. We saw the Germans catch one French soldier trying to change his clothes.
After days of hay, rats and mice, we finally reached Paris early on the morning of June 26. I had a little house near Cité Universitaire full of modern paintings and statuaries. Therése never saw such things before and her first impulse was to put her fancy hat on the head of one of the statues.
Paris was in a terrible state at this time. The disruption brought a cessation of all transportation and there was hardly any food available anywhere. I had no trouble getting a teaching job since so many teachers had fled Paris. (Also the French decided to reopen the schools immediately in order to prevent the Germans from occupying the buildings.)
Ordinarily boys and girls go to separate schools, but here they went together. But it was an awful job for the director—he had to enforce regulations against boys and girls conversing together. On the other hand he had, for his own part, to keep the students from coming in contact with the German supervisors. Teaching was a terrible ordeal at that time. We were being watched by the Gestapo and we never knew if we were saying the right thing in class.
The nights were something terrible. The Germans immediately put in “war time” so that it was daylight until almost 11:00 p.m. Nevertheless, we could not be on the streets between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. Anybody caught on the streets after 10:00 p.m. was taken to a German Army headquarters and made to shine boots of soldiers.
There was a rigid blackout and if a thin ray of light exposed itself the soldiers would shoot through the window. Then all through the quiet of the night we could hear the heavy boots of soldiers marching up and down the streets. Sleep was all but impossible because the Germans sent over planes almost scraping the roof tops in an attempt to impress the people with their power.
During all this time I had but one aim—to find my fiancé. One day I received a card (there was still mail service between the occupied and unoccupied zones), from a place near Grenoble in the south of France, saying “I am here.” I recognized the handwriting.
I had to have permission to leave Paris, so I went to the German Oberkommandantur. I spent the whole day there without any success, and a policeman suggested that I come there the next morning at dawn, which I did. I waited until 11:00 a.m. and then was given a number and told I would be notified when I could be interviewed.
Then I decided to take a new approach. I went to the Academie de Paris. Very obligingly they arranged a “special mission” for me. I had to go to Lyon (in the unoccupied zone) to “bring back some test papers for the Sorbonne.”
I took my papers to the railroad station and was lucky to get a reservation. I found myself in a compartment with women, all of whom had some position with the Germans. When we reached the terminus of the occupied zone at Chalons, a German officer and interpreter entered the train. I arranged to make myself the last person to be inspected.
Fortunately the Germans are impressed by important titles and high sounding language. The interpreter told the officer: “Let her cross over. I can translate her letter, and she has a very important function.”
So I went on into the unoccupied zone and got off the train at Ardeche. I saw a note on the wall at the station: I am at Le Cheylard.” Again I recognized the handwriting.
So I went to Le Cheylard and found my fiancé, without a franc. I learned that his card was one of the last pieces of mail to get through.
We had a delicious dinner (there was plenty of food in the rural regions, and this place was especially noted for its trout). While we were eating, some of his comrades interrupted us and told my Charlie: “You must go at once. The Gestapo are looking for you.” (The Gestapo had a complete record on Charlie. He was a disciple of the anti-Nazi Henri Barbusse and as, a resident of the Saar region, he had made many journeys into Germany to deliver propaganda to the anti-Nazi underground.)
So we had only one day together. I had brought many things for Charlie and had to leave them in Le Cheylard. Before dining we took a walk through the mountains and every few minutes a beautiful car loaded with Germans would come speeding by. We had to hide in the bushes to avoid being detected by their lights. It was a terrible ordeal for Charlie. Even the Vichy police were looking for him.
I had a friend in Aix-en-Province, in the region back of Marseilles. I called her on the telephone, and asked one question: “Is the mayor nice?” She understood what I meant and answered, “Yes, he is nice.”
So we went to Aix. The first two men we saw on the way were civilians being taken away as prisoners. We wondered if we would be next. On the bus in route police got aboard and inspected papers. They got only half way through and stopped. Luck was on our aide once more. Later an Army comrade of my fiancé, a rather nice young fellow, came up to my fiancé, threw his arms around him and said: “Charlie Dauchat, comment ailezvous!” Charlie answered, “I think you are mistaken. You must have someone else in mind.” The man went away thinking he was crazy. It hurt Charlie to do a thing like that but it was absolutely necessary.
Although we realized it would be terribly difficult without having Charlie’s identity discovered, we had hoped to get married as soon as possible.
After getting to Aix we waited for our chance. We found quarters in the home of a widow, who immediately asked us for our papers. She said that the police were insisting on identification of all guests. I invented a long story about how against the wishes of my parents I was running away to get married and that if we gave our names the whole scheme would be upset, since my parents were looking for me.
She was somewhat sentimental and accepted my story and cooperated with us.
We were later introduced to the mayor who gave Charlie a new set of papers with an impressive French aristocratic name. We were safe, but we couldn’t work. We lived in a little community outside of Aix in which each of us had a different task to carry out. But neither of us had any money, and it was impossible to have money sent to me from Paris. So I decided it would be necessary to go back.
This was about Christmas time in 1940.
Charlie was fortunate in making fiends with a man who was able to give him a job giving him the isolation he needed. The man had a huge estate near Aix and he gave him a job as game watcher on his hunting grounds. The only obstacle was that he had to live with an Italian guide.
The Italian had married an ugly old woman, but nevertheless he became insanely jealous of Charlie’s presence and began to drink and get in a terrible temper. Since Italy was at war with France there was no telling what the Italian might do in a moment of rage.
As a game watcher, I don’t think Charlie was in a position to do a very good job. When he found persons trespassing on the property, instead of arresting them, he would, to their surprise, give them a polite warning to leave as soon as possible. Before long Charlie began to feel uneasy over the large amount of visitors to the estate, and also considering the attitude of the Italian, he decided to leave this job.
Meanwhile, I was back in Paris. It was terrible for me.
Every day the police would come and ask for Charlie or for my younger brother, Roger, a promising young author, who was working in the underground as a de Gaullist. My father was suffering from heart trouble and died a few months after as a result of the constant mental strain.(Eventually the Gestapo caught my brother while posting bills at night. They took him as a hostage, and I didn’t know until a year ago what had happened to him. From people who had escaped from the same camp I learned that he had been taken to the horrible murder camp at Auschwitz and was executed on July 14, 1942. So now July 14 doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does to most French people.)
I couldn’t send any of our money from Paris to Charlie. A friend gave me an idea. I was able to hide a number of 1000 franc notes in a silver hair brush by taking off the top and putting it back again. By putting bills in my powder puffs and other personal articles, I was able to hide 50,000 francs.
So I was ready to leave again for unoccupied France, this time without permission of any kind. Since they took care of me the previous time I went back to Academie de Paris, but they could do nothing for me since they were being "terribly supervised." Then I went to the Dominican Friars, who, it turned out, were to do so much for Charlie and me. They couldn’t arrange papers but they gave me a lot of good advice.
I managed to get a train ticket even though I didn’t have papers. At the boundary between the unoccupied and the occupied zones the Germans inspected our papers.
In German I told the inspector that I had a good, well-paying job waiting for me on the other side. (It always flattered the Germans when I spoke perfect German, which I had picked up from studying at the University of Heidelberg and serving with the French embassies in Berlin and Vienna.) As a matter of fact, the inspectors at this point talked to me about Paris and offered me a job there if I would return. So they let me through, and I headed for Aix, where again I found Charlie.
At that time the Germans were coming around and making all the residents fill out long questionnaires, with instructions to bring them to the Prefecture in Aix by themselves.
A White Russian offered to take all the papers at once, supposedly to save us the trouble. But it was a bit mysterious and we declined the offer. We went to the Dominican Friars who helped us arrange to get married—under very romantic circumstances, it turned out.
We couldn’t go to the mayor with a false name, such as Charlie carried. With the help of the Dominicans, we were able to get a special license through Msgr. Archbishop Villa á Rabel, who waived the ban.
So on May 122, 1941, in the home of my godmother in Aix, we were married in secret.
An altar was set up in the parlor. The only witnesses were two Dominicans and two intimate friends. We had a wedding breakfast, with real coffee—a great rarity.
Our witnesses gave us a bunch of white flowers, which we took back to our house. People asked us the occasion and we merely shrugged our shoulders and said: “We just happen to love flowers.”
Now that we had been able to get married, our next desire was to get out of France. Fortunately, I happened to remember an acquaintance I had made in Paris before the war, the secretary of the Mexican Embassy, Alfonso Castro. I telephoned to Vichy and asked if I could see him. I spent three weeks in Vichy telling the Mexican Embassy officials of the desperate situation of my husband who had to get out of France if he wanted to escape death.
The Mexicans treated me wonderfully and agreed to give my husband a visa for Mexico. Then I asked, “How about me?”
The Mexican ambassador replied: “Your husband’s in danger, but you’re not.” I showed him my bracelet with two hearts mated, and asked him, “Could you separate them?”
It apparently touched him as a beautiful sentiment and he agreed to give me a visa for Mexico too.
Our next big job was to get permission to leave the country. So I went back to our good friends the Dominicans. One Dominican father said he had a good friend in the Prefecture in Marseilles. This one official, Mme. Esmiol, had helped many men in danger.
My husband boarded a ship in Marseilles which was going to Oran, Algeria. A German commission mounted the ship, but Mme. Esmiol had fixed it up with the captain so that Charlie didn’t have to show his papers. Then she told me, “You will not lose him.” She was the closest thing to a saint I have ever seen.
I had to remain behind in Marseilles. Meanwhile, I was told that the last ship for Africa was leaving in two days. I had to visit the Prefecture and the Mexican consulate. There was a heavy, incessant rain and when I got through with my work I didn’t even have time to change my wet clothes. Without any luggage, I boarded a train for Port Vendres, which is almost half way to the Spanish border. I was fortunate to get a passage on this last ship to Africa.
The ship, which was going to Oran, was full of farm owners, teachers and rich people who had business in Algeria. I told the people I was going to America and they thought I was crazy. They didn’t think it was any longer possible.
In Oran I tried to get a plane to Casablanca. Each passenger was weighed in and I got passage only because I was so light. It was very warm in Oran, although it was November, in 1941. I had no wrap except a heavy winter coat which I had been wearing in France. The only thing I carried was an oil painting of Charlie done in Aix by Mme. Clarisse Marvro.
In Casablanca I found Charlie waiting for me at the airport. His first impulse was to laugh at my having to travel almost all the way around the world with only the clothes I had on my back. The dress I wore was rather long and as it seemed to get hotter in Casablanca, I found it necessary to make it shorter and shorter.
We could take no money out of the country and after we spent $500 for our passage we had to spend our money as fast as we could. So we hired a fiacre full time and lived like kings until it was time to board our ship.
We sailed on a Portuguese ship, the Serpa Pinto. The trip to Mexico lasted five weeks and we had no bed. But it didn’t make any difference. We had left the land of danger and safety was ours from now on.
My only regret was that I couldn’t be in France three years later to see the Americans liberate Paris.