Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Road South, from "The Adorations"

(When is somebody going to start reading this book, to which I devoted a decade of my life?)

The Road South
There was a new poster on the corner of the boulevard and the Rue de Seine. It was another of the countless warnings issued by the Occupying Forces, but this one was outlined in blood-red and black, with especially large print intended to draw the eye, as it drew Stefanie’s. She crossed the boulevard to read it.
I have observed that the majority of the French population in the occupied zone continues to go about its business calmly, in an orderly and respectful way. However, it is precisely this very order, this calm, this peace enjoyed by the majority of French citizens, that is gravely endangered by the attacks and acts of sabotage and destruction undertaken by the British and the Soviets and their agents and directed against the Army of Occupation. I am determined to guarantee the French populace, amid war and upheaval, that the continuance of their calm and peaceful existence is my highest priority; but I could not help remarking that it is the close relatives and friends of those commiting these acts of sabotage and destruction who have helped them before and after the attacks.
Consequently, I am announcing the following penalties;
1)    All close male relatives in ascending order, as well as brothers-in-law and cousins over 18 years of age, will be shot.
2)    All close female relatives of the same degree will be sentenced to forced labor or shot.
3)    All children, of 17 years of age and under, of all men and women affected by these measures will be taken to reform institutions; those over 17 will be shot.
I therefore call on all law-abiding citizens to prevent attacks, sabotage and other disturbances by promptly notifying the German or French police of any suspicious activity. Great consideration will be given to this patriotic duty.
Paris, 10 March 1942
Der Höhere SS- und Polizeiführer im Bereich des Militärbefehlshaber in Frankreich
     This was not just another in a series of pompous proclamations. It was a declaration of war on the civilian population. In the summer of 1942, especially after the Vel’ d’Hiv’ raid when 1500 Jews were forced from their homes by Paris police, the number of families without a relative either interned or in the resistance was dwindling by the day. Under the terms of this order, with Sami a member of the resistance Stefanie and Mutti were subject to the ultimate penalty, enforceable at any time, anywhere.
      But like the expression of an age-old geological fault, the earth under the Germans’ feet was beginning slowly to shift. People were beginning to think that there was no longer any excuse for turning a blind eye, not with this open threat, and most definitely not in the face of the devastating reports of “resettlement”—extermination—coming out of the East. Stefanie’s former paramour was opening the gates of Hell, not just for Germans and Poles, but for all Europeans.
      To be precise: Jews first, then everybody else.
      The time to act had arrived. The Devil had locked the door, but God had shown the way. The fiend must be destroyed.
      That same evening Stefanie was accosted on the rue de Sèvres, coming from the Duroc metro station. On the corner of the rue Dupin a broad-shouldered man with thinning hair and round spectacles contrived to bump into her and drop his spectacles, and while retrieving them introduce himself with charmingly insincere effusiveness as “Luc,” an old friend of “Paul—the rugby coach?”
    She was swift on the uptake. It was Jean Lussac, Blum’s man, former minister in the Popular Front government. Except for the round spectacles and the sad eyes, now even sadder, as if a veil of weariness and anxiety had fallen over him, Stefanie barely recognized him.
     “I am so sorry that the match was cancelled, Monsieur…Luc,” she said. “I was looking forward to it. How is dear Paul? Is he still as keen a footballeur as ever?’
     “All right, Madame,” muttered Lussac. “No need to overdo it. No one’s listening. Café Banco, Rue Monsieur le Prince, in two hours. Six o’clock pile, hein? I wait five minutes, that’s all.”
      Lussac shook her hand and disappeared into the metro station. Two hours later he was checking his watch when Stefanie entered the Café Banco on the Rue Monsieur le Prince in the heart of the Fifth Arondissement. It was a neighborhood of narrow streets, isolated courtyards, a network of escape routes, numerous clubs and secret societies, and a population traditionally anarchic and subversive. But in the event of uprising the district could be sealed off from the adjacent boulevards, so patrols were few, and the Wehrmacht tended to avoid the area, which, in consequence, still retained something of its avant-guerre Bohemian atmosphere. Stefanie saw nothing in the faces of the other customers in the seedy, boozy Banco but the glow of youth’s self-love, fueled by alcohol and lust. She had a blanc; Lussac declined. He had little time, he explained. Indeed, he was perched on the edge of his chair, very much a man in a hurry. He smoked, too, like one pressed for time: quickly, jerkily, in short, sharp gasps. He apologized, but first…and of course it seemed quite absurd, as they had met already, mais à la guerre comme à la guerre… he had to make sure she was who she said she was. Stefanie showed him her ration card and national identity card. He peered at them and at her. Very well, he said. Of course she was herself. Who else could she be? Now they could talk seriously, but he had to be sure she was trustworthy. If she was, she would be an ideal agent; Sami said so. If not, well ….
      “Sami doesn’t trust me?”
      “But madame, of course he does. But we feel he may be moved by, ah, sentiment. Personal feelings. As for us, eh bien, how shall I say it? You and I have met, certes, and M. Blum has a high regard for you, but he is now a prisoner of les Boches, and therefore probably doomed. And we know that you have been seen consorting with members of the occupying forces, an SS trooper named Kohler…”
       “In the café downstairs from my flat, yes, I don’t deny it, we met for dinner, I knew him in the old days, but he was working for the other side, your side…”
       “Ah yes, the other side, well you can’t believe everything the Boches tell you. And you, you have a certain background, and certain connections, that we cannot ignore. Even if Sami says they would be great advantages to us…”
      “Where is he?” she interrupted, avid for news. “How is he?”
      “He’s well. He’s in the south. I can’t tell you where, in case…well, I’m sure you understand.”
     In case the Gestapo tried to torture the information out of her. Well, well, she thought. Perhaps her Calvary had merely changed address. At the thought, a furious joy flared in her heart, reminding her that she truly did believe, in spite of everything; and she offered a silent prayer to Mother Mary.
      “Anyway,” said Lussac, looking down at the cigarette between his yellowing left index and forefinger, “Paul—let’s call him Paul—yes, it’s ridiculous, but you know—has a friend in the embassy in Madrid who is working with us. Now, this person has a contact in the German embassy here with incomparable access to important information…”
     “Yes. I just had a demonstration of that.” Stefanie described Sami’s telephone message and Herr Epting’s echo thereof. Lussac seemed momentarily upset, but quickly recovered his equanimity.
     “A bit obvious, I fear. Perhaps to reassure you? Paul’s idea, I’m sure. Anyway, our contact has access to documents concerning German troop movements, plans of attack against resistance targets, names of Allied prisoners held in France, where they will be moved to, the exact location of French concentration camps, and so on.”
     He blinked expectantly. She shrugged.
    Et puis alors…?”
    Et puis alors, we need someone to take these documents for us to the Allied embassies in Switzerland.” He flicked his cigarette onto the floor and extinguished it with a quick heel-twist. “Urgently. Our previous courier lost her nerve at the last minute. Believe me, I understand, the nerves can go. Especially in a lady.”
    “In a lady and not in a man? Oh no. I’d say merde to you, Lussac. If I take the assignment it’s because I can do it.”
    This was as much bravado as truth, but it made an impression. Lussac inclined his head respectfully.
    “I’m glad to hear you say it, Madame. As you will be posing as an agent for the Germans, you will have the ideal camouflage.”
     “Now for all you know I could leave this place and directly go and tell my German friends…”
     “And then you know what would happen?” He grimaced and chopped at his throat with the side of his hand. “Or your mother…?” He repeated the gesture, then shrugged. “I know it sounds barbaric, but when you’re fighting barbarians…”
     “I understand, Monsieur.”
     “So you accept?”
     “I accept.”      
      They parted. She heard nothing for a week or ten days, during which time she assumed “they” were confirming her trustworthiness, one way or another. She was certain, for instance, that she was followed, once or twice. One night the telephone rang and she heard a muffled muttering on the other end of the line. And on another day there was a strange man looking through the window of her classroom. Then, in early May, instructions began to arrive in the piecemeal fashion in which clandestine communication took place under the Occupation: a note slipped into her hand at the newsstand on the Place du Chatelet; a brief re-encounter with Lussac at one of the bookstalls on the Seine (“I’ll be browsing the German novels,” he said over the phone); phone calls received and made, one, perilously, under the nose of Frau Epting, the others at public call boxes in cafés on and around the Place Edmond Rostand, near Stefanie’s flat; a coded message over the radio, written down by Mutti, who listened eagerly in the kitchen to the forbidden BBC broadcasts from London every night at eight; a stranger in the doorway one blustery Saturday night, requesting a match and revealing himself in its light to be horribly scarred, like a villain in a Hollywood film…
     “Be careful,” he said in the hoarse baritone of such a character. “You may have enemies where you think you have friends. Be very careful, madame.”
     The next morning she was walking to the metro and saw the man again, being escorted by gendarmes into a horse-drawn prison wagon, gesticulating wildly and crying “Aidez-moi, Madame! Aidez-moi!”
     Stefanie, not sure whether she was the “madame” being addressed, stopped and looked, but kept on walking when she noticed one of the gendarmes watching her. In those days Paris was a stage set for morbid and unreal dramas. Great mob surges that momentarily recalled the happy bustle of the prewar years would suddenly part like the Red Sea for Moses and melt into nothingness, revealing a man shot lying face down on the pavement. Or in an empty square a crowd might suddenly coalesce from nowhere—from unnoticed doorways, alleyways, and courtyards— around a suspected stool pigeon or German agent or resistance fighter on the run and sweep him (sometimes her) away to safety or doom down sidestreets along which the throng would flow like a river, then vanish. Or an air raid siren, ignored, would reiterate its jagged wail above the rooftops in the morning sunshine while people lined up with their ration cards in front of a boucherie or patisserie, exchanging rumors and gossip as if they were in the main square of a happy village in the Orleanais or Anjou, obstinately oblivious even when the British bombers appeared in the sky, sneaking forward with their steady, snoring drone, like giant bumblebees. Or the sound of running footsteps and police whistles in the depths of the night in the street outside would wake Stefanie, and she would lie listening to Mutti’s breathing and staring at the dim outline of the blacked-out window and feeling the surrounding universe of sorrow, the anguish of the war’s victims, individuals every one, multitudes across the continent like millions of atoms whose separate identities would forever remain lost to history but whose total numbers contained more tragedy than a single person could ever imagine or bear: that crushing burden borne by millions, each of those multitudinous griefs an individual, particular, unique lament, a tale of misery and sorrow that should have turned out differently. . . as she lay there, she sensed the enormity of the catastrophe all around her in the infinite collective expression of those unique lives and undifferentiated undeserved deaths and all the mourning in dark corridors, dimly-lit houses, half-empty churches, dull kitchens, narrow beds, windy empty fields, and unbearable memories. The suffering of the city, the nation, of Europe, like a herd of frightened sheep pressed in upon her soul.
     So the mission was paramount, and she knew what her Mother required her to do—what all of suffering humanity required her to do. For she, of all people, knew the Antichrist, and she of all people could strike the blow that freed the world…or she thought she could. Certainty was at a premium in those days, except for certainty of suffering. But she was confident that her Mother would find a way.

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