The bench was perfect—small, quiet and empty. Its auspiciousness was exactly what I needed to eat my croissant avec du fromage. It sat surrounding a fountain in the center of town. I sat while the Church of Notre Dame stood solemnly to my back and noticed I was the only person around—fine by me. I had been in Bourg-en-Bresse, France for an hour and welcomed the chance to shed the backpack that marked me as much a tourist as there ever was.
I pulled out my lunch and a journal and began to alternate between eating and writing. In between I listened to the sounds of the city—the church bells, the cars motoring a few blocks away and laughter of the girls heading into the cinema to see the latest Harry Potter movie. What I didn’t hear, was the shuffle of feet of the elderly man who was now sitting next to me. Despite being the middle of July, he was dressed in long pants, an argyle sweater and a fedora. I gave a polite nod and went back to my writing. He sat there, complacent for a few minutes, before breaking the silence.
“American,” he asked?
“Yes,” I replied, “I’m here for the Tour de France.”
“Thank you,” he said, “for liberating us over 60 years ago.”
Then his story began…
His name was Henri. He was a 15 year old growing up in Paris when the War broke out in 1939. Despite Germany’s successful invasion of Poland, being a naïve teenager, he assumed France and England would be too powerful for Germany to overtake. He definitely didn’t see the French Army falling as quickly as they did to the Germans in 1940.
His family was Catholic and didn’t worry about the stories they had heard of their Jewish counterparts. His father owned a small bakery and his mother stayed at home with her three boys. For two years, his family was able to go on as if all was normal. They turned a blind eye to the German-influenced Vichy Government. They felt that as long as they remained inconspicuous, they could stay under the radar.
Yet, he wasn’t oblivious to the happenings around him. Even before 1940, his Jewish classmates and families were fleeing France for the likes of the United States or anywhere else that was as far away from Germany as possible. As the German occupation droned on, laws were being passed to limit the rights of the Jewish people and in some cases, remove their French citizenship. It was getting harder to live like it was still 1938.
In 1942, reality came. He lived just a few blocks from a stadium called the Vélodrome d’Hiver. In July of 1942, the French rounded up Jewish families throughout Paris and moved them to the Stadium. They eventually were transported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps. At first, no one knew what had gone in the early hours of the roundup, but leaks occurred and rumours spread of what had happened. Henri was bothered about how he could live so close to such atrocities, but be completely unaware of the doings of his own puppet government.
At 18, he finally accepted that things weren’t fine and normal. Spurred on by the roundup so close to home, he joined the underground resistance. He had quietly voiced his concern to a friend of his who worked for his father, who happened to have been an active member of the resistance for the past year. This friend got Henri involved in the underground world of Paris. For a little over a year he used coded-poetry to spread anti-Nazi propaganda.
In June of 1944, the Allied forces invaded Normandy, followed by the invasion and liberation of Southern France and finally, the liberation of Paris in August. He recalled his admiration for the American and British forces that moved through his city. He felt that the parades weren’t enough to voice his admiration, and that when given the chance he would voice his thanks the rest of his life.
Henri finished his story and before I could take the chance to ask questions, he thanked me again and said he must head on home. He stood from the bench, shook my hand and bid me adieu. As quietly as he came, he had left. I sat on the bench and immediately wrote all I could remember down.
Finally, two hours after I had sat down, I packed up my things and left. As I walked away, I turned back to look at the bench. What started as a quiet place to eat had turned into 60 years of history voiced by one man. It was no longer just a bench to me, but a window into the past that I hoped others would be able to look through.