I didn’t see Lila again for some months.
The Summer of 1942 was a watershed in the clandestine operations. In a single night in the Fougerolles-du-Plessis region, “the devil passed over six times”, according to the coded message. This represented six parachutists, but more importantly, limpet mines, bazookas and mortars. The material had to be hidden away within a few hours. At Sauvagne, my class-mate André Fernin was taken with fifty incendiary devices on him; he had time to swallow his cyanide. This and other stories are well known today, but many others are forgotten. Searches in the region followed one after another, and la Motte itself was not spared, whether indicated by informers, or whether the Gestapo sensed in Ambroise Fleury a natural enemy. None of these searches revealed anything. For example, the hideout in the boxwood where Bruno found refuge, continued to function until the victory. In the workshop, Grüber found our old Zola, forgotten in a corner, with the words “J'accuse” (“I accuse”) radiating in all directions from his head in a halo. Failing to recognise the image, he asked “Who does he accuse? der Kerl?”
“It’s the title of a very well known song from the turn of the century” replied my uncle. “The wife leaves with her lover and the husband accuses her of unfaithfulness.”
“He doesn’t have the head of a singer.”
“Be that as it may, he had a very fine voice.”
In a friendly gesture, and not without a smile on his face, the commissioner of police at Cléry himself had forewarned Ambroise Fleury. The very idea of this gentle pacifist being mixed up in subversive action seemed to him comical.
“My good fellow Ambroise, no doubt they imagine you’re going to fly a Lorraine cross in the sky at any moment!”
“Me? You know... such things as that...” replied my uncle.
“I know, I know.”
But dreamers were not well regarded; dreams and rebellions go hand in hand. We were watched, and our cache of arms became useless. They were hidden under the dung heap and the cess pit, which we were kept from emptying for several months.
And so it was during this particularly dangerous period for us that my uncle let slip an insane act. At the end of July 1942, news of the raid at Vel’ d’Hiv’ reached Cléry. That evening we were at Clos Joli; one of those get-togethers around an old bottle, to which the master of the place frequently invited his friend Ambroise Fleury. Duprat, who was a bit of a poet, would sometimes read one of his alexandrin verses. But that particular evening, he seemed in a particularly sombre mood.
“You’ve heard the news, Ambroise? The raid at Vel’ d’Hiv’?”
“What raid is that?”
“They rounded up all the Jews and deported them to Germany.”
My uncle said nothing. He didn’t have any kites for a moment like that. Duprat thumped the table.
“And the children as well” he growled. “They even sent the children. No one will ever see them alive again.”
Ambroise Fleury held his glass in his hand. This was the only occasion of my life when I saw his hand tremble.
“Well, there you are, Ambroise. It’s a bad day for Clos Joli. I suppose you’ll say, what’s it got to do with Clos Joli. I’ll tell you, everything. Absolutely everything. To accept a thing like that, for a man like me who tries to preserve a certain image of France, it’s not bloody-well possible! You understand? Children sent to their deaths! You know what I’m going to do - I’m going to close for a week, as a protest. Of course, I’ll open again afterwards, because nothing would give the Nazis greater pleasure than for me to close for good. They’ve been trying to break me for a long time. All they want is for France to renounce herself. But I’ll close for a week, that’s decided. Clos Joli, and handing children over to the Boches, just don’t go together.”
Before that day and ever since, nobody ever heard Duprat use the word “Boches”.
My uncle placed his glass on the table and got up. His face had turned grey and seemed to have acquired twice its former number of wrinkles. We rode throught the night on our creaking bicycles beneath a splendid moon. In front of the house he left me without a word, and shut himself in his workshop. I couldn’t sleep. I suddenly understood something about the many Germans, and even Nazis we dealt with in our daily life. An idea had lodged itself in my mind long before that I could never get rid of, indeed perhaps never would get rid of entirely. The Nazis were human. And what made them human was their very inhumanity.
I left la Motte at 4 o’clock the next morning: I had to go to Ronce, see Soubabère, and with him, locate the new landing strips on a map. I also had to warn the comrades to avoid la Motte for a while. As I left the house I saw that the light was still burning in the workshop. I told myself, not without some irritation, that you had to be a truly pigheaded Frenchman to build kites at such an ungodly hour. Children had always been his best friends. It seemed to me that if Ambroise Fleury took it into his head to fly his Montaigne or his Pascal at such an hour, the sky would spit it back in his face.
I returned to the house the day after next at around 11 o’clock in the morning. I had to walk the last few kilometres, pushing the bike. I had already patched up each tyre a dozen times and it was necessary to treat what remained of them carefully. I had arrived at the so-called Petit Passage, where now stands a memorial to Jean Vigot, sixteen yeas old, taken by the militia after the allied landings with his weapon in his hand, and shot on the spot. I stopped to light a cigarette, but suddenly it fell from my lips.
Seven kites were flying in the sky infront of la Motte. Seven yellow kites in the form of stars of David.
I left my bicycle there and started to run. In the meadow infront of the old place, my uncle Ambroise was standing, surrounded by youngsters from Clos, their eyes raised to the sky where the seven stars of shame were flying. His jaw clenched, his brow furrowed and his face set hard beneath his grey cruewcut and his moustache, the old fellow resembled a figurehead lost from the prow of a sailing ship. I knew all the children, five boys and a girl: the Fourniers, the Blancs and the Bossis, all with grave faces.
I murmured to myself “They’ll be be coming...”
But it was others who came first. Not so many, but there were the Cailleux family, the Moniers, and their father Simon, who was the first to take off his hat.
My uncle was taken away that evening and held for a fortnight. It was Marcellin Duprat who got him out. He explained to them that we were nuts, the Fleurys, both father and son, as was well known. A hereditary madness. It’s what they used to call “the French disease”, and it came from way back. You can’t take it seriously or you'd be laughed at yourself. Duprat pulled all the strings at his disposal, from Otto Abetz to Fernand de Brinon. The day after the arrest, Grüber’s Citroën stopped outside the house, followed by a lorry full of soldiers. They threw all the kites out onto the meadow and set fire to the lot. Grüber, with his hands behind his back, watched as the labour of love of those old French hands went up in smoke.
La Motte was searched as never before. Grüber had recognised the enemy. He himself went about poking his nose in everywhere, looking for anything of substance he could destroy.
My uncle was set free on a Sunday and was brought back to la Motte by Marcellin Duprat. His first words when he saw the workshop empty and all his masterworks burned: “So it’s back to work then.”
The first kite he built represented a village against a background of mountains, superimposed on a map of France, showing the location. The name of the village was Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, in the Cévennes. My uncle didn't explain to me why he had chosen that village rather than any other. He just said "Le Chambon. Remember the name."
I didn't understand
it at all. What intrigued him about this village, which he surely had never
set foot in, and why did he fly his Le Chambon-sur-Lignon kite in the sky,
watching it with a look of such pride? I pressed him. "I heard it spoken of in prison" was all I could get out
My astonishment had hardly begun. Several weeks later, after rebuilding several of his historic pieces, my uncle announced that he was leaving Clos.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"To Chambon. As I said, it's in the Cévennes."
"For goodness sake, what is it all about? Why Le Chambon? Why the Cévennes?"
He smiled. There were by now as many wrinkles on his face as hairs in his moustache. "Because they need me there."
The following evening after supper, he embraced me. “I’m leaving very early tomorrow morning. Don’t give up, Ludo.”
“Don’t worry” I replied.
“Keep on waiting. There will be much to forgive.”
I didn’t know whether he was speaking of Lila or of France. When I woke the next morning he had already left. On the workshop table he had left me a note: “Don’t give up on her”. His toolbox was gone. It was not until a few months before the allied landings that I discovered the answer to the question that was continually in my mind: why Le Chambon? Why had Ambroise Fleury left us for a village in the Cévennes, with his toolbox?
Le Chambon-sur-Lignon was a village which, under the leadership of the pastor André Trocmé, his wife Magda, and with the help of the entire population, had saved several hundred Jewish children from deportation. For four years, the entire life of the village was dedicated to the task. And may I once more write these names of such honour and fidelity: Le Chambon-sur-Loignon, and its inhabitants. And if any should forget, be it known that we, the Fleurys have always been gifted with a prodigious memory, and that I recite the names often, without missing a single one; it’s said that the heart needs to be exercised.
But I was unaware of all that when I received a splendid photo of my uncle from Chambon, a kite in his hand and surrounded by children. On the back was written “All is well here”. The word "here" was underlined.
-- oOo --