It’s now July. Fonfon writes to his sister Toutou on the 2nd and again on the 16th thanking her for the three letters that they have received since their arrival in Dresden. These letters give them so much pleasure and they long for news of everyone at home. They have written to both the uncles, but Toutou is the only person to have replied and they are grateful, although Fonfon can’t resist some brotherly advice: “You really do need to number your letters so that we will know if one goes astray. For your information, your letter dated June 24th is number 3.”
They are settling into their new routine and all things considered their life is not that bad. They work 10-hour shifts on alternate weeks, from 12 pm to 10 pm or 6 am to 4 pm, with half an hour for lunch or supper. They are used to hard work and do not consider these long hours to be excessive. “Frankly I admit I’d rather spend my days filing metal objects than chopping down trees” (in the Chantier) Fonfon says. In their free time there are multiple amusements and events for them to enjoy, along with the beer and the restaurants. They have twice visited the zoo, which they describe as a marvel: “the Tête d’Or park in Lyon is nothing by comparison”. They saw a giraffe, hippopotamus, an alligator, vultures and a bear riding a bicycle. There was also a splendid aquarium. You can’t help but wonder if any of these animals survived the desperate food shortages in the months to come – they more probably ended up as stew. It would be nice to think that the bear escaped on his bicycle, but sadly it’s very unlikely.
There was a visit to a musical evening organised by the French residents of Dresden in the theatre of the Zeiss-Ikon factory and on the following day an amateur folk dance troupe from Aquitaine put on a performance of traditional songs and dances in their own factory. And they are planning a boat trip to Pillnitz, 15 km up the river Elbe where perhaps they were able to visit the castle
or walk in the vineyards and think of their uncle Firmin’s grapes ripening in la grande vigne at les Sarziers.
On the other hand they have had to attend a lengthy and soporific lecture, delivered by Herr Professor Grinun, a deputy in the Reichstag, exhorting them to ” ‘collaborate’ with those who were kind enough to pluck us from the Chantiers and bring us here in order to ‘help’ us gain a living.” The brothers were unimpressed by a chaotic German lesson with a hopeless teacher who did not speak a word of French and was clearly unable to control his class of irrepressible young Frenchmen. “It would take 20 years to learn anything from him, fortunately we are picking up the language by using it daily”.
Although they are never overtly critical of the Reich and the situation they have been coerced into, they are certainly not naïve: “We’re already half way through our apprenticeship and in a few more weeks we’ll qualify as skilled workers. As you see, in “Grosses Deutschland” (sic) you become a model worker in just three months, whereas in France it takes three or four years of apprenticeship – amazing isn’t it!” Either the censor took this observation at face value or else must have been notably lacking a sense of irony.
They have been able to attend mass twice and were pleased to find a Catholic church “not far from the factory”. This was probably the St Antonius church, built in 1923 and just 15 minutes’ walk away from Löbtauerstrasse where the factory was located.
Saxony had been a staunchly Protestant state since the Reformation (whilst, unusually, the ruling family were equally staunch Catholics, which explains why the beautiful baroque Court Church is Catholic). After Catholic emancipation in the 19th C several new churches were built and this is one of them. The brothers remark that the congregation is much better turned out and more respectful than you would see in France. On the other hand the service was naturally conducted in Latin and German and they note drily that the half-hour sermon “whilst undoubtedly very interesting, did not do a great deal for our souls”.
Riri and Fonfon have connected with a sort of informal French population in Dresden in addition to their colleagues in the camp (200 more have just arrived from a Chantier in the Pyrenees) and the other trainees. They twice run into friends from Riri’s Chantier at Miscon in the Diois area of the Drôme department and on the tram one day they get chatting to someone from the south Ardèche: they have forgotten his name but he is the nephew of the butcher in Lamastre.
In a letter to their sisters they also hint at more exciting encounters: “we can’t explain everything in writing but what a lot of unexpected and hilarious adventures happen to us every day!” Could some of these adventures be mildly flirtatious encounters with the Fräuleins? Riri and Fonfon don’t seem to be particularly strait-laced but, as responsible Catholic young men, their experience of romantic involvements was probably pretty limited and perhaps they just enjoyed meeting a wider range of people than they were used to. For German women, any kind of intimate relationship with a foreign worker was strictly prohibited, punishable by imprisonment and later on death, so no doubt nothing of this sort went very far.
The brothers certainly have not lost their sense of humour. “We had a letter from Uncle Firmin, which even included a line from Tante Vitrine. We were astounded, since we had never even seen a line of her handwriting”. I do not think that ‘Vitrine’ is an especially affectionate pet name for their aunt Victorine (it has associations with vitriol). She was definitely not a favourite with the siblings and the two girls were delighted to escape her care when they moved from les Sarziers to Villevocance and their Uncle Emile after their brothers had left for Germany.
And they are still in good spirits and optimistic. Uncle Firmin is using the alphabet to number his letters and Fonfon says that they are sure that he will not have to send a letter Z. “Reading between the lines” of newspaper reports gives them hope that they will be ” liberated” before the end of their contracts. To their sisters they write that they firmly believe they will be able to celebrate Christmas together and they sign off to their uncle “With our hearts full of optimism we kiss you affectionately, your two nephews”
So why were they so optimistic? After initial successes, Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa was a disaster and marked a turning in the tide of war in favour of the Allies. The Axis troops had finally lost the epic battle for Stalingrad on 2nd February 1943 and Riri and Fonfon must have heard that news before they left France.
But what about the series of German military set-backs and disasters which come thick and fast during the spring and summer? The dominoes are falling but how much, I wonder, are they able to deduce from the German press and propaganda machine, or glean on the French grapevine?
In May, Rommel’s Afrika Korps surrender to British and American forces. On July 10th Allied forces land in Sicily and on 17th, after a ferocious tank battle, German troops begin their retreat from the city of Kursk in Western Russia. By now Hitler’s forces are hopelessly stretched. He needs Luftwaffe fighter units to counter Operation Gomorrah, the Allied bombing of Hamburg, which commences on July 24th. On 25th his ally Mussolini is arrested and he has to pour German troops into Italy as it attempts peace negotiations with the Allies. On 8th September Allied forces land in Salerno, by the 1st October they are in Naples.
Throughout the war the German population was fed a stream of propaganda and ever more bombastic morale-building information and disinformation by a totally Nazi-controlled press. One of the most widely read newspapers was Das Reich, founded by Goebbels in 1940. It was less extreme than the Volkischer Beobachter, the official Nazi newspaper, or the virulently antisemitic, rabble-rousing Der Stürmer, but that could have made its views more persuasive to the general reading public.
Each week Goebbels wrote an editorial piece (notably, he missed the week of the Allied landings in Italy) and in September 1943 published an essay entitled 30 War Articles for the German Public. 14 million copies of this text were issued in pamphlet form and sent to party leaders and speakers with instructions to refer to it in all their speeches. Article 30 reads: “Remember in all that you do and do not do, in all that you say and do not say, that you are a German! Believe loyally and unshakably in the Führer and in victory. Remember always that you are a child of the bravest and most industrious people on earth”.
With their rudimentary grasp of the language Riri and Fonfon are unlikely to have been able to read a German newspaper but they could perhaps have picked up news in their discussions with their work colleagues, and the French contingent may have had underground sources of information.
So things are looking pretty positive for them in July 1943 and they are buoyed up by the thought that the end is in sight. What they could not have foreseen was Hitler’s deadly determination to continue the war at all costs, that although the encouraging events of that summer were the beginning of the end of the war in Europe the end was still far, far off: so much more pain and destruction, suffering and loss was to come.
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