That afternoon in broad daylight, near Angouleme, we meet Ahasver [the legendary wandering Jew]. For us, the road from Angouleme to Bordeaux is the most unusual of all the French roads we have driven. There are no evacuees. A few hours later we learn that the German army had reserved the road for its march toward Bordeaux and had kept the road free of refugees. They had to go another way. That is why there are only a few refugees who are traveling from the south or southwest toward the interior, which takes them through the area between Angouleme and the south and southwest. The refugees generally returned home once they had encountered the German army and learned that they would not be beaten, but rather well treated. So it was that we are the only car on the road, and we pass only people on foot with a bundle over their shoulder, heading in both directions.
We take a break at a shady spot to eat. It had not been possible to buy a meal in a restaurant in Angouleme. We did buy some canned goods, bread and wine. We sit by the roadside and eat our bread and sardines and drink a light red wine. As we sit and eat, a young man comes along in a gray suit with no hat and a large bundle over his shoulder. Seeing us sitting next to our car and eating so comfortably, he sits down in the grass on the other side of the road and stares at us.
After a while I call over to him in French: “Are you hungry?” He eagerly says yes, and comes on over. I look at him in some surprise as my companion slices some bread and opens a can of sardines and I open a small bottle of wine for him. He is of average height and slender, somewhat ragged, but wearing a good pair of shoes. He is tanned by the sun and has dark black, wavy hair. But that is not all that strikes me—the shape of his face is unusual. His eyebrows, his lips, his nose make me wonder where this refugee comes from. At first I say nothing, and he speaks vaguely. He is going to a farmer to look for work, he has no money any longer and comes from Paris. He fled from the Germans. He sits and looks toward the sun. I quietly say to my companion in German: “Is the boy from the colonies? Look at his face.”
His mouth drops and he runs his hand over his eyes as if he were trying to wipe away some ghostly phenomenon. “You are German?”, he asks in German.
Now we are surprised. I answer cautiously: “Yes, we are German,” but say no more. After a while my comrade asks: “Where are you from?” The lad answers with an unmistakable accent that proves the truth of his words: “Dresden.” He continues immediately: “You still have a car? Didn’t they seize it? Didn’t they lock you up?” We both look at him in astonishment. We suddenly realize that he is an émigré German Jew, and that he thinks we too are émigré German Jews. We give each other a quick glance and are instantly agreed. We will not tell him who we are. We will take advantage of the fact that we are in civilian clothing and are driving a French car. I say hesitantly: “No, they did not catch us.” The young man fishes a sardine out of the can and puts it on a slice of bread. He drinks some wine and, with his mouth full says: “You are clever boys.” We both nod. We are willing to admit that we are clever boys.
We have a lively conversation with the young man, at the beginning of which we have to dodge his questions. He wants to know what sort of passports we have, how we got out of Paris, why we had not been arrested by the Paris police, why the French army had not seized our car, whether we are going to Spain, whether we believe the Germans would let us through, whether we think the Spaniards will let us cross the border. All this he asks quickly and curiously.
I put an end to his chatter by saying that clever boys have to keep silent, or else they would not be clever. That enlightens him somewhat and we cautiously begin asking questions. How are things going for him? Ah, not well at all. Then he begins a long self-history, full of complaints and self-pity.
He left Germany with his parents in 1934. His father had an antique shop in Dresden and moved it to Paris. The antique business did not go well in Paris. Why not? First, there were too many antique shops in Paris, and second the people in Paris understood too much about antiques. He looked at us to let us know that it was to his father’s advantage that people in Dresden knew less about antiques than people in Paris. After learning this, his parents moved the business to London, but he, the son, stayed in Paris.
What did you learn to do?
Learn to do? Nothing. I worked for a printing firm.
Next he shows us his passport, his German passport, probably in the hope that we would do the same. The passport was issued in 1934 and has expired. I ask him: Couldn’t you become a French citizen? He nods, still chewing away, and says that he had several chances to become a French citizen. Why didn’t he do it? He smiles at us and says: “Then I would have had to serve in the army. I might be dead by now, since one can’t always shirk.” My comrade says: “I don’t completely understand you. You would have had a new fatherland, after all. Or did they want to send you to the Foreign Legion?”
He makes a contemptuous gesture. “No, I could join the regular army. If I volunteered, I would immediately become a French citizen. I could have joined the Foreign Legion at any time. But you know, a soldier is a soldier. It made no sense.” “Well,” I say, “things apparently did not go well for you in Paris. Why didn’t you move with your parents to London?”
“You don’t seem to know very much,” he answers. “Our friends in London told me that if I went to England, I would have to serve in the army there, too. I would have had to be a soldier, and didn’t want to do that.”
“Hold on, though,” I say, and look for a way to speak cautiously so as not to make the young lad suspicious. “If you live in France or England and want to stay there, if you enjoy all the benefits of the country, when you want to have all the advantages, you have to understand that these countries may want you to help defend their borders.”
He replies in an annoyed tone: “What do you think about me? I have no borders to defend. I am not French, I am not English, I am not German, I am a Jew.”
My comrade says: “OK, but what was the trouble in Paris? You said that things had not gone well.”
The young lad picks up a stone and tosses it across the road. “You seem to have had things good. Or weren’t you in Paris when things fell apart?”
We shake our heads to indicate that we had not been in Paris.
“You probably were hiding in the countryside. Well, I’ll stop asking questions. You can take me along for a while. Maybe you can help me out a bit, since you seem to have a lot of money. I could live a good life for a while after the miseries of Paris.”
Now he speaks softly, as if the wheat and the grass around us had ears. “These French are nasty. Things were OK when we got to Paris. But it got worse, and the other workers in the printing firm were unfriendly from the start. I always said that ‘France is the land of human rights,’ and they laughed and said ‘France is the land of the French. You are taking someone else’s job. You are here only because the owner is a Jew.’ People in Germany always told me that there was no anti-Semitism in France. But they always pestered me and the bureaucrats were always after me when they found out that I did not want to be a soldier. I lived like a dog. And when the Germans attacked they hauled me out of bed early in the morning and locked me up. There were thousands and thousands of our people and it was all over with jobs and freedom, and only those who volunteered for the Foreign Legion were released. I said I would join the regular army, but had to be trained first. I couldn’t join the war before that. I told myself that by that time the war would be over and the French would be in Berlin. But they probably saw through me and said: ‘No, little Jew, we can no longer use you in the regular French army.’ I could not sleep at night with everyone around me howling that they wanted to talk with Minister Mandel. And the guards spit and said tough luck.
I no longer knew if it was Thursday or Monday, or how long we had been there. We did not know much about what was happening outside, only that the Germans were coming closer. Many of us negotiated and begged and cried to the guards that they should let us out, but they were tough chaps, these guards. They always ran their finger across the neck to show us that the Germans would hang us all. We heard the guards calling every two hours during the night and I woke up every time.
One night I wake up. The guards aren’t shouting, and it is quiet. All of our people are sleeping, but I stand up. I can see everything, since there are a few lights. The rest are laying on their stomachs or backs or sides and snoring. I go to the door and open it a bit. I can do that, since the bathroom is just outside. But when I open the door, I see that there are no more guards, and that the gate is open. I go back quietly, get my sack and tie it shut and leave the camp and the city. I do not talk with anyone, or they might catch us all again.
I keep going, and ride a stretch on a truck with some soldiers. I said I was a recruit and was ordered to go to Bordeaux. Later they figure out it was untrue and kick me off. I laugh and kept going. And now you will take me along for a while, yes? Tell me where you were hiding when all of us were arrested in Paris. You will take me along, yes?”
Now he goes over to clean his knife in the grass. He see the car’s radiator, asks what kind of car it is, and steps back. I know that he has seen the small WH on the car. He closes his knife, looks past and speaks into the air: “Thanks” and then softly, “So that’s why.” He picks up his sack, crosses the road and slowly puts one foot in front of the other, leaving a small dust cloud behind him that drifts over the path.
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