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Wednesday 27 May 2020

Letters from Lockdown

The hilltop graves

In a quiet corner of the French Alps, two resistance fighters lost their lives to the Nazis. Recently, Janine di Giovanni has been visiting their resting place – and remembering

I am leaving confinement, as it is called in France, the time of quarantine. For eight weeks, I have been in a village in Le Vercors, a remote part of the French Alps where tourists rarely come, which was heavily fought over during World War Two.

The bloodiest battles began in July 1944 between the rural fighters known as Maquis and the German forces. The Germans were initially pinned down in this impregnable fortress of mountains; there were significant air drops by Allied forces.

Morale was initially high amongst the French – there were about 4,000 Maquis – until the Germans assaulted the Vercors beginning on 21 July. They came full force: with Panzers, SS police, Ukrainian troops from the Eastern front, glider-born paratroopers, and heavy weapons. Hundreds of villagers lost their lives; the Maquis was brutally disrupted.

Some escaped, but the Germans tried to hunt them down one by one; led by a commander who was determined to kill them all. In late July, they found a Red Cross hospital hidden in a cave and run by a priest and two doctors. They executed the patients, the ones who could walk, and the ones who could not.

The house where I lived during confinement is called Le Foyer and has belonged to my ex-husband’s family for four centuries. During World War Two, it was commandeered by the German Army. It’s an old place, heavy wooden furniture, heated by one large fireplace in the salon, full of cobwebs, history, memories and ghosts of all those ancestors who slept in these beds before. On the wall are height markings of all the cousins and aunts and uncles going back to the 1920s.

I have been coming to this place for many years, but only recently learnt a war story from one of the villagers. On 28 July 1944, two Maquis fighters came wandering down a hill on our land where I often wander to lie in the sun and read a book. These fighters had been in the mountains for days and were hungry. They were also looking for fresh water.

The father of Michel – still the local farmer here – saw the men coming down the mountain and tried to warn them off.

“There are Germans in that house,” he said, pointing in the direction of Le Foyer. “There are guards posted.”

But the Resistance fighters, two young men called Louis and Marcel, were determined they could handle themselves, and continued in the direction of where they could find food. They never made it. Less than a year before the war ended, they were shot by the German soldiers. The soldiers made them dig their graves on our hill before executing them, then pushed their bodies into the rich soil.

Those graves are still there, near a small brook where water rushes down from the mountains. These mountains are sturdy and their history goes back to the 15th Century, when it is said (or so the village legend goes) that mountaineering was discovered on Le Mont Aiguilles in 1492, the year Christopher Columbus landed in America.

One autumn day here in 2006, long before quarantine and corona, I learnt of the death of my brother, Richard. He had been ill for some time, and suffered greatly. But still, nothing prepares you for the loss of a sibling. When I hung up the phone that bore the terrible news, I had a strong visual image of my older brother. But I did not think of him as I last saw him, wasted from disease and miserably lonely in a hospital bed.

I thought of him as a sunny teenager; an elegant athlete, a brilliant mathematician, a boy who at eight years old could take apart a television set and put it back together again. Why do we wait until people die to remember them in their best version?

My husband and I were still not separated then. He walked me silently to the place where Louis and Marcel were buried. I did not know their names. I just knew that some “cousins” had been shot on our land and were buried near a brook.

We climbed the hill, knee deep in yellow and blue wildflowers. No words were spoken. But I understood then the expedience of life. How efficient and fast it runs, how short a time we spend here. And how, in death, we simply return to the earth like everything else in nature.

On my last day in the village during this quarantine, I went for a walk down a particularly lush twisted road that leads to a deep plain where you can see the village of St Guillaume. It was there on a hot August day in 2003, during the canicule, the heat wave that rocked Europe, where I said my marriage vows. Nothing is permanent.

On the way back from my last walk, something caught my eye. There is nothing in our village – no shop, no post office – but there is a small stand at the entrance with a glass window where you can post papers: lists of the times of the masses in the church in the next village; marriage vows; and the names of the local elected officials, the elus.

For the first time in nearly two decades coming here, I saw a granite stone carved with the names of Louis and Marcel. I quietly memorised their names and saw them as two young men, not just anonymous resistance fighters. Someone had placed a large bouquet of lilacs beneath it the stone. Then I remembered it was Veteran’s Day, marking the end the war.

I often think of my mother, who was born in 1919, just before the Treaty of Versailles was signed. She came into this world at a time when 22 million people died in the Great War and, later that year, the Spanish flu killed 50 million more.

Her childhood was far from Le Vercors, but she grew up during the Jazz Age, then the Great Depression. Her family were better off than others: they lived in a multi-generational house with grandparents and aunts and uncles, and always ate well, but unemployment in the US hit 25 per cent, global GDP dropped 27 per cent. She then lived through World War Two, where 75 million people perished. She lived through the Korean war, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam war, the time of AIDS, and now Covid.

Despite the global earthquakes, Mum went on to live a full life, bear seven children, bury three of them. When I look at her today, I see the sturdy mark of generations before – those who survived, perhaps by resilience, perhaps by luck. Mum survived. My brother Richard – and four years later, another brother, Joseph, also died – did not. The same for Covid. This virus is a rotten lottery: some of us made it through, others did not.

My last day of confinement in Le Vercors was a long walk through a small road lined with bushes of white and purple flowers and fields of wild asparagus. I stopped again at the graves of the two Resistance fighters. What were they thinking before they died? Would they know, 76 years later, a woman would sit quietly near the place where their bodies lay, with a branch of lilac, remembering, forgetting, remembering?

Janine di Giovanni is a Senior Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute, a Guggenheim Fellow and the author, most recently, of The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria.


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