The leading stories on French news last week were all about the celebration of a momentous event in world history: the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Normandy landing that ushered the end of WWII.
Queen Elizabeth II and heads of states gathered to commemorate June 6, 1944 with all the pomp and circumstance that’s appropriate for such an event. French TV broadcast documentaries detailing the preparation, unfolding, and aftermath of that pivotal day, the carnage on French beaches, the ultimate sacrifice paid by thousands of young soldiers in one single day.
When statistics are mindboggling, I tend to focus on something more relatable. Individual stories that capture the psyche of the moment. Personal endeavors that highlight fear and courage, uncertainty and hope, excitement and dread. I’ve never had to put my own life on the line so I won’t pretend to even have an inkling of the kind of emotions that might rush through one’s mind. But reading about Tom Rice, the 97-year-old US paratrooper who jumped out of a C-47 transport plane and landed pretty close to the very same spot he hit seventy-five years ago, brought a grin to my face and some tears to my eyes. I can only imagine the significance of both these jumps for him.
So what does D-Day mean to me and my little corner of southwestern France? In the wee hours of June 6, in all rural areas of France, a multitude of French men grabbed whatever weapons they could find and regrouped in le maquis. The 2nd DB Das Reich was based in Montauban; on June 8, a long convoy of tanks, trucks, and German troops left the city and headed to Normandy. In Cahors, they split in three different directions. The 1st battalion Der Führer drove through Gourdon and continued on D704 toward Sarlat.
My great-grandparents’ farm was located next to D704, 4 km north of Gourdon. One of the houses on the property –la maison Lafon, named after its builder– sat on the flank of a high cliff. The location had been chosen due to its close proximity to a stone quarry, one of my playgrounds when I was growing up. The house offers a vantage point on the curvy road. It was unoccupied at the time and served as an occasional meeting place for a small group of local maquisards. On the morning of June 8, they gathered to improvise a way to stop (or at least slow down) the column of Germans. They armed themselves with a few hunting rifles. My uncle René –age 18– had joined the group that day and was outfitted with a pistolet; he had never fired a handgun before. The plan was to fell a tree, drag it across the road, and shoot at the Germans.
Word about Das Reich retaliation against civilians was spreading fast. My great-aunt Cécile had heard how massive the column was; she figured that a tree trunk and a handful of “kids” with hunting rifles (and one gun) would be no match for the German tanks that led the move. As a young bride, she had lost her husband in the very first weeks of WWI and her only son had been wounded during the current war. René had spent the first five years of his life with her; the other youths were sons of friends and neighbors. In this particular case, she felt the strike would be pointless and inevitably lead to a massacre. She persuaded them to abandon their hasty plan and to join a more organized group. It was still early morning when the battalion of loud tanks and trucks moved past the house and Cécile’s anxious eyes. Fifteen minutes later, five miles up the road, five maquisards and five civilians were shot to death while trying to slow down the battalion on the Groléjac bridge. Two days later, 642 inhabitants were slaughtered at Oradour-sur-Glane and their village destroyed.
La maison Lafon was inexorably linked to René. When my grandparents split up the property between their four children, he inherited that house and the land around it. In the early 70s, after spending most of his working years in the greater Paris area, he returned to his roots with his family and significantly remodeled the house. The original structure comprised four parts: la cave at the lower level, a real wine cellar that always held about twenty oak barriques; at the second level, a small bedroom and a great room that included a fireplace, a stone sink, and a trap door to dump grapes into the concrete cuve below; a large attic; an open terrace to the southwest. During the renovation, the terrace was enclosed and walls were built up to the attic level; the attic itself was turned into three bedrooms; the main floor now includes two large rooms, a staircase, a kitchen, and a bathroom; the cellar continued to house wine barrels until 1977. The musty smell still permeates its walls today.
Rick and I recently moved into la maison Lafon, which now belongs to my cousin. After a year and a half in a retirement home, Mom decided to return to her own house and we wanted her to enjoy all her space. We “think” our house will be ready for us at the end of June. In the meantime, I’ve settled at René’s old desk, in an office that exactly occupies the location of the former terrace. The French doors and balcony give me a plunging view of D704, albeit through the thick lush trees that have grown between the road and the house. Seventy-five years ago, my young and foolish uncle was watching that same road, holding a pistol in his hand, thinking he might have a chance to become a hero.
I’m only holding a pencil.
P.S. My grandmother turned the gun over to the gendarmerie after the war.
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Le maquis: shrubland; in this context, it also refers to résistance guerilla bands that were hiding and operating in rural areas.
La maison: house
Le maquisard: guerilla band member
Le pistolet: handgun, pistol
La cave: cellar
La barrique; barrel, wine cask
La cuve: vat for grape crushing and fermentation