Jacques sat on a tall bench, his young legs swinging to the beat of the tune in his head. The blond, blue-eyed boy wore shorts, like any ten-year old kid in summer time. Today was a weekday and he would not be going to mass, yet he sported his Sunday shirt. The sun shone high in the sky and the air was heavy, so he had unbuttoned the collar. His mother would not have approved, but she would never know.
Jacques was waiting for the train, and the train was late.
Normally, the boy would be immersed in the heroic tale of some knight, explorer, or conqueror. He loved books the way other kids his age loved playing ball, fishing, or truancy. Normally, he would keep reading until the train entered the station, piercing through the dream world and pulling him back into reality in a thick cloud of steam. But today was not a normal day, and this train was not a normal train. Not to the ten-year old boy sitting on this bench.
Normality. Such a simple notion had become an abstract concept. Was food rationing ‘normal’? Was hiding in the attic to listen to a forbidden radio broadcast ‘normal’? Was waking up at night to the sound of propeller planes, dropping bombs, and artillery ‘normal’? As World War II raged on, the absurd was the new normal for Jacques and millions of his compatriots. It was June 1943. France had been occupied by Germany for close to three years. The boy’s distant memories of the days before the war were inexorably drifting away towards oblivion, remnants of another life.
Still no train. Jacques often travelled to La Rochelle, the nearest city, to see the doctor for his bad back, and the boy knew that trains rarely ran on schedule. One time, he was reading a book sitting on a bench, very much like today, waiting for the return train to Niort, where he would connect to his final destination, the village of Saint Liguaire. In the Express from Paris idling at the next platform, someone screamed with pain (or was it with terror?) Jacques lifted his eyes above his book and spied two men in Gestapo uniforms pulling a young woman out of the car, then dragging her on the platform, each of them holding one arm. Crowds parted. Most people looked away, pretending not to hear the captive’s desperate calls for help. Some were brave enough to watch, but everyone knew that challenging these two men would lead them at best to a prison cell, at worst to torture and death. Fear was the Gestapo’s most powerful ally. Many reasons could make a train run late, and even on a warm summer day, some of them made Jacques shiver.
He had come to the station in a peasant’s cariole that usually served to haul produce from the farm. City folks had to either queue up to get meat and dairy or pay a fortune on the black market, but such problems did not exist in the countryside. Usually, Jacques would walk the few miles from his house to the train station, but the farmer was glad to help him out. Not only the boy bought milk and cheese from him every week, but today he was on an important mission, and the man took pride in playing a part in it. Like so many common folks, he had not joined the Resistance but still considered himself a patriot.
A locomotive blew its whistle in a distance. All three departing passengers stood up and gathered their luggage. A puny man with gummed hair tossed his cigarette and straightened his jacket. A plump woman wearing an elegant dress fixed up her hair. A nun crossed herself and drew her bag closer. The farmer, who stood by his carriage and chewed on a piece of straw, gave Jacques a knowing grin. The boy’s legs stopped swinging. His heart was suddenly pumping so hard he felt the blood pulsating in his fingers. He had been hoping for this moment for three long years, almost a third of his life, and now he wished for more time to get ready. Huffing and puffing, the train finally entered the station, then came to a stop in a final hiss.
Jacques stood up. With cotton legs and a knot in his stomach, he scanned the scene.
Two little heads popped out of a window to take a peek, then popped right back in, disappointed by the triviality of the Saint Liguaire station. The short man helped the nun and the plump woman lift their luggage and themselves onto the train before hopping in. Jacques wondered if this was indeed the right train, and the thought slightly loosened the knot in his belly. Towards the end of the platform, a tall and skinny man slowly stepped out of the last car, carrying a small suitcase in one hand. His uniform could probably have fit two men like him. His large head seemed mismatched to such a frail body. His cheekbones protruded, his sad eyes sunk deep inside their sockets, and his pale skin seemed to melt with the collar of his white shirt. He curled forward and let out a raspy cough. Out of breath, the sickly man stood still on the platform for a moment, gathering his strength before straightening up. His sky-blue stare locked in on the eyes of a kid peering at him.
Jacques started running. The man dropped his suitcase and kneeled down just in time for the boy to jump into his arms and whisper “Papa”.
Jacques’s father, Maurice, was one of nine hundred and twenty-seven prisoners sent back to France by Germany the week before. Like so many of them, he wished he could erase the past three years, but he would never forget, and never forgive, what had happened since he had left his family, a lifetime ago. The shame of surrendering to the enemy. The two letters “K.G.” on the back of his shirt, abbreviation for the only two words in German he would ever let himself learn: Kriegsgefangene (War Prisoners). The barbed wire and watch towers of STALAG XVIIA. The humiliation of forced labor at the sawmill, day in and day out. The sickness. The weakness. The hopelessness.
He would not have admitted it to anyone except in confessions to the chaplain, but Maurice had been resigned to spending the rest of his life in captivity. Every day at the sawmill had drawn more life out of him. His spirit, for so long indomitable, had felt weaker and weaker. When the German doctor had diagnosed that his chronic bronchitis would kill him within a few months, Maurice had accepted the inevitability of his fate. But prison camps like STALAG XVIIA had no use for sick men, and he had been sent home to end his days. Thus, he had made peace with death, the ultimate instrument of his freedom.
And yet, at this moment, in this empty train station, hugging his son and feeling the warmth of the little boy’s embrace, Maurice knew he wanted to live.
Cedric Brehaut, August 2017
Inspired by the true story of Maurice and Jacques