This 1943 class picture was taken in Mondoubleau, a central France hamlet like hundreds of others. The 10-year-old boy in the back row, fourth from the right, was Marcel, a Parisian refugee living on a farm under an assumed name. He had to – he was Jewish. The French police had already arrested his father in 1942.
[Alternative opening without the picture]. During the darkest years of WWII, there resided in the central France hamlet of Mondoubleau a 10-year-old boy named Marcel. A Parisian refugee, he lived on a farm under an assumed name. He had to: he was Jewish. The French police had already arrested his father in 1942.
Fast forward to August of 1944: After weeks of merciless fighting in Normandy’s hedgerow country, allied troops were barreling south and east in pursuit of retreating Third Reich armies. Mondoubleau folks knew that liberation was imminent, in itself a perilous situation.
German units withdrawing or moving up front routinely massacred civilians as in Thourouvre, a few miles away, on Aug. 13. Nobody could predict when Allied troops would appear or whether the Germans would launch a counter-stroke. People were hopeful and not unreasonably scared.
That year, Aug. 15 (Feast of the Assumption, an important holiday in Roman Catholic France), fell on a Tuesday. On that morning, Mondoubleau’s denizens awoke expecting to see the 25 German soldiers billeted there raising their flag as they had since 1940. The occupiers, however, had left during the night. Within minutes, a joyful citizenry gathered on main street, waving improvised U.S. and British flags.
It was pandemonium and Marcel was in the thick of it.
Mid-morning, however, a scream interrupted the festivities: “Ils reviennent” (they are coming back). People immediately barricaded themselves in their homes and waited.
Minutes later, what Marcel later described as a “funny little rectangular car” stopped in front of the church. Nobody moved.
Nobody except five children led by Marcel who risked approaching the vehicle. The driver motioned for Marcel to get closer and struggled to utter the words “Où sont les Allemands?” (where are the Germans?). Marcel responded with wide hand gestures and matching quizzical face: “Sais pas. Partis” (Dunno. Gone.)
The driver exchanged a few words with his passengers in a language unknown to Marcel and, from a bag by his side, he extracted a handful of treasures: chocolate bars (Marcel had not seen one in years) and a pack of cigarettes (later sold for a small fortune), which he shoved into Marcel’s hands.
Then the car left, headed east at a high rate of speed. Mondoubleau had just been liberated, probably by 79th U.S. Infantry Division scouts. Later in the day, an armored column drove through town without stopping.
In September, Marcel returned to Paris to pick up the pieces of a shattered childhood. His father did not return. Marcel never recovered but led a studious, industrious and honest life. He had three children, including a son now living in the United States. The latter, an Associate Dean at Georgia State University-Newton, would be yours truly.
I have heard it say that the French do not remember the sacrifices of World War II GIs. I recognize my people’s foibles, as I share many of them, but I can tell you that this is not true. We remember.
On Veteran’s Day, as we celebrate American veterans of all wars, I want to thank the anonymous GIs who gave freedom and safety back to my dad. Through them, I salute all American veterans who have chosen to risk their lives so that others, in countless nations, might live free.
And thanks for the chocolate.
A native of Paris, France, Laurent Ditmann has lived in the Atlanta area since 1991. A military historian at heart, he has worked in business, non-profit management, and consulting before returning to higher education at PC-GSU in 2015.