They arrived in record time, after a journey of 25 hours almost non-stop and their next letter, addressed to their sisters Toutou and Zézé and posted on 8th June, is full of information about their trip and their first impressions of Germany. They were distressed to pass through Metz and Forbach in Alsace, now part of the territory annexed to the Reich under the terms of the armistice, but are excited to have arrived in Dresden, a city of over a million inhabitants and evidently “une ville d’art et de musique beaucoup plus qu’une ville industrielle”.
They have been installed in the camp where they will be living: it will be just like being in the Chantiers they say, “and we even run up the French tricolor every morning!” Once the administrative formalities are over and they have their “ausweiss” (sic) they will be allowed out on the town after work from 7pm to 11pm. For some this could be viewed as the imposition of a curfew but Riri and Fonfon are definitely seeing the glass half full rather than half empty.
This is quite a messy letter with lots of additions squeezed in as afterthoughts by each brother. Fonfon reminds his sisters that letters will take two weeks to get to them and about the 4 franc postage and he repeats their address. “Keep the German stamps for me” he says in a hasty PS, “1000 kisses, le moral est bon!” Being good Frenchmen however, they cannot help but comment on the food! They give details of their daily menus, noticeably heavy on the potatoes, and comment drily that you have to have experienced German cooking to properly appreciate French cuisine.
They are not hungry they say, but it is chilly and they ask their sisters to send them extra shirts and jumpers. Riri wants his brown jumper and his red one and Fonfon his red jumper and the new blue one. Already their lives are far apart, Zézé and Toutou in rural France and their brothers in a big foreign city, but these domestic details are the threads that will hold them together. The girls will go to the cupboard to fetch the jumpers, perhaps one of them has only just finished knitting the blue one. They will pack them up, carefully transcribe the unfamiliar address, take the parcel to the post office to be weighed and stamped. It will take forever to arrive and there are constant discussions in the months to come about delayed or missing parcels, but this is the only tangible link there is between them. When the jumpers do eventually arrive they will smell of home: their sisters’ knitting needles produced them, clacking away by the fire in winter or out tending the goats in summer.
Just a jumper, but what associations it must have brought with it!
A week later, on June 14th they write to their uncle Emile, with whom the sisters are now staying. Some of their news is surprising. On Sunday, they and 240 of their comrades, in uniform, formally paraded through the streets of Dresden for over an hour. They even sang the Marseillaise! Fonfon is astonished that this is permitted and so was I on first reading the letter. He has observed that French workers are treated much better than those from other countries and this was certainly the case, but in addition to that, the fact that the brothers are housed in a French camp under the auspices of the JOFT undoubtedly means that their living and working conditions were especially favourable (under the circumstances). Frequently chefs de chantier volunteered to leave for Germany with the young men who were requisitioned for STO and to run the residential camps. They were often able to keep groups together and they looked out generally for the welfare of their charges. Such patriotic displays as these marching parades with banners and music were designed to keep up morale and, subliminally, to uphold the spirit and the outward appearance of the Révolution Nationale.
Back to the food – it has improved a little and, in any case, if they are hungry after the camp meals they are allowed to frequent the restaurants and pubs in town, where they top up with soup, sauerkraut, more potatoes and even mussels, paying in cash, since they have no ration coupons. The beer is especially good and prices are lower than in France, with a bowl of soup costing the equivalent of 5 Frs and the best beer 4 Frs.
Even so, they were pretty much taken aback by a special dessert which they were served for Whit Sunday: “a hot pudding made of tapioca, red currant jam, flour and some other weird stuff …”. They were not allowed to go to Mass on that day but in future attendance will be possible. Riri and Fonfon came from a devoutly Catholic family and it becomes apparent as time passes that their faith is a great and necessary support to them.
They have been exploring the town and are impressed by the “innumerable palaces and chateaux“. They would like their uncle to see these marvels of architecture but they are not allowed to send picture postcards. I was able to find some, dating to 1900, but even forty-odd years later this is probably very much how the city looked to the two brothers.
“We have really no cause to worry about bombing raids, Dresden has never yet been bombed. There are just occasional air raid warnings, we got our first last night at 2 am and had to go and kick our heels in the shelter for half an hour”.
In their first week in Dresden they have begun their apprenticeship at the Eisen und Metall Fabrik, which they say is not actually a factory but more of a training establishment. There are German, Polish and Russian workers but they are kept apart from all those who are not French. So far, they have been learning mechanical adjustment theory which they describe rather vaguely as technical drawing of specific parts.
The letter ends with family matters: how are Uncle Louis and Aunt Augusta? They send them best wishes for a speedy recovery and ask for the address of their cousin Charles from Morlanche (today Brice’s home) who is a POW and to whom they are allowed to write, using a special form.
“Everyone agrees that we will be home before Christmas and it will all be over by then”.
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