It was Souba, also, who brought me news of my uncle not long after that. He came to see me one Sunday, "indiscreetly" dressed, as he himself would have put it. As an officer in the Reserves (a fact he never missed an opportunity of mentioning) he dreamed of a uniform: the true French uniform, to be worn "open to the skies". As to rank, he was never precise, doubtless to preserve for the future the stripes he aspired to. Beret, boots, cavalry trousers and khaki sweater; he was a large man, always with a scowling face - the fury he had felt at the moment of the capitulation seemed to have etched itself into his face for ever in this expression of anger. He sat down heavily on a stool, and without any introduction declared in a rough voice, "He's in Buchenwald".
At that time I knew precious little of the death camps. For me, the word "deportation" still hadn't assumed the full weight of its horror. But I had believed my uncle content in the Cévennes, so this came as something of a shock. Souba shot me a glance, and got up to restore my composure with a glass and a bottle of calvados. "Come now, pull yourself together!"
"But what had he done?"
"Something about Jews", Souba muttered somberly. "Jewish children as far as I can make out. It seems a whole village in the Cévennes was involved. I forget the name. A Huguenot village. Those people have had plenty of persecution in their turn and so they took the thing on, and as I'm told, are continuing to this day. Anyway, the children (Jewish or not) evidently congregated around your uncle soon enough, with his kites. And that stuff."
He touched his head. "That stuff. Everyone has a certain grain of something at a time like this. You've got to be crazy to risk your life for others. And we'll need more of that if we're to see a liberated France. Except, in my case, it's not in the head..." He touched his stomach. "It's in the guts. I can't do otherwise. For me, if it was in the head I'd act like Duprat... In the end", he continued, returning to my uncle, "they deported him. He was caught in a pincer between Lyon and the Swiss border."
"With the children?"
"I know damn-all. For the details I'll introduce you to someone who can fill you in. Off your backside! Let's go!"
I followed him on my bike, my nose streaming. Try and stop the tears serves nothing when they come. At Clos, he presented me to M. Terrier, who was waiting for us. During a bombardment he had taken the uniform of a German soldier who had been killed, and thanks to his "complete mastery of the language of Goethe, which I used to teach at the Lycée Henri-IV", had made his escape. He described what he bizarrely called "the life of the camp", adding that even surrounded by the worst trials, my uncle never allowed himself to fall into despair.
"It's true, he stood a chance at the beginning..."
"Chance? What chance?", I cried.
M. Terrier explained to me. It so happened that one of the camp guards had spent a year in the region of Cléry and remembered Ambroise Fleury's kites, which the Germans used to come and admire and would often purchase in order to them home to their families. The camp commandant had the idea of using the skills of their prisoner, and provided him with the necessary materials. So my uncle was ordered to start work. At first, the S.S. took the products for their own and their friends' children, but then they had the idea of selling them. My uncle ended up with quite a team of assistants and so it was that you would see kites in all sorts of bright colours floating over that camp of shame, as if proclaiming the inextinguishable hope and confidence of Ambroise Fleury. My uncle worked from memory but he had succeeded in reproducing the likenesses of Rabelais and Montaigne, which he had assembled so many times in the past. But the pieces most in demand were simple ones in the form of children's book illustrations. Indeed, the Nazis even provided my uncle with a whole collection children's books and fairy stories to spur his imagination.
"We were very fond of old Ambroise" said M. Terrier. "Certainly, he was one of a kind, not to say a bit crazy, otherwise, at his age and under-nourished as we all were, he never would have been able to give those little creations such bright and care-free forms and colours. He was a man who didn't know how to despair, and those amongst us who awaited no other deliverance than death itself, felt themselves humbled and challenged by such a spirit. I'll never forget the image of that indomitable figure, dressed in our striped camp outfit, and surrounded by the debris of human lives, as he himself clung to life through something without a body. Nor can I forget the memory of him guiding a ship with twenty white sails on the end of a line as it fluttered over the cremation ovens and the heads of our torturers. Now and then a kite would break loose, and our hope would follow it towards the horizon. In the course of those months, your uncle must have built a good three hundred kites, mainly, as I told you, drawing on subjects from the children's stories that the camp commandant provided him with. Those were the most popular. But then it all turned bad. You won't have heard of the affair of lampshades made of human skins. You will! In short, this creature Ilse Koch, a guard at a women's camp, had lampshades made out of the skins of dead prisoners."
I shook my head in disbelief. "Don't look for proofs", he continued. "No matter how much evidence you might find, it won't prove anything. But let a Jean Moulin or an Estienne d'Orves return to speak for the defence. And so it was that this Ilse Koch had the idea: having found a finely tattooed human skin, she came to ask Ambroise Fleury to make her a kite out it! Of course, he declined. Ilse Koch regarded him fixedly for a moment, then said 'Denke doch'. 'Think about it.' She left, with her famous riding whip, and your uncle followed her with his eyes. I believe that enemy of mankind understood what the kites meant, and had decided to break the spirit of this Frenchman who knew not how to despair. We argued with him the whole night. After all, the thing was hardly what it had been. And anyway, the owner was no longer inside. But there was nothing we say to change his mind. 'I just can't do that to them', he kept repeating. He didn't specify to whom, exactly, but we understood well enough. I don't pretend to know what his kites represented for him. Perhaps some invincible spirit."
M. Terrier fell silent, slightly embarrassed. Souba got up abruptly and went to discuss the bill at the counter. I understood.
"They killed him!" I declared.
M. Terrier hastened to reassure me. "Oh, no, no! They didn't do that!" He paused. "They transferred him to another camp."
"In Poland. Oswiecim."
At that time, I was unaware that Oswiecim was destined to become better known around the world by its German name: Auschwitz.
-- oOo --