On November 29th Riri writes to his sisters to say that Fonfon is back at work and his hand has healed well. “Ah if only Uncle Louis and Aunt Augusta could be cured so easily!” The girls are keeping their brothers up to date with everyone’s health at home, but the news is often worrying and Riri’s normal optimism is a bit dented, he sounds wistful. The potato shortage means that they are reduced to swedes and pumpkins which they don’t much like. On the upside, the bread ration has been increased by 250 grammes, they now receive 2 ½ kg each a week “but since we work 55 hours, we’re not going to get too fat on that” he says. They haven’t seen FM for a while, they’ve received no reply from Charles and they are obviously feeling lonely and homesick. The parcel has arrived with the coats and sleeping bags and they are happy to be able to sleep in sheets at last, but Riri writes sadly “when I think dear Toutou, that in your letter of October 4th you said there would not be time for the parcel to get to us since we would be home by Christmas”.
“Fonfon thinks this nightmare will be over in a couple of months …. we’ve now been here for 6 months – half our time, because we signed a one-year contract … and Christmas is almost here”. His thoughts turn to all the sad Christmases they have spent together or apart. Last year they were away at the Chantier, then there was Christmas 1937 “when Papa was taken from us forever” and the year before that, when they went back to school after the holidays leaving their mother suffering with her last illness. What a world of loss and grief these young people have already known! Zézé is only 17 and Fonfon, the oldest, 22.
None of the letters that the sisters wrote have survived but, even judging from just one side of the conversations, it is so clear how close they were. They share in-jokes, and the girls tease their brothers about smoking. A short while ago Toutou decided that she wished to be addressed as Maryelle and there would be a fine of 10 sous for anyone who didn’t obey. The boys think this is hilarious and point out that the fine where they are would be 2 pfennigs not 10 sous.
Thinking no doubt of his sisters, and how they too must be sad, Riri pulls himself together: “Allez!” he says, “I’m sure that next year we will all be together for Christmas.”
And Fonfon adds a note at the end of the letter “Now that Riri has covered all the emotional and other information, let me just add some practical points”. In the next parcel please send: darning wool (urgent), razor blades (we have run out), pocket calendars for 1944, seven or eight handkerchiefs each, and then he adds “If you are in Annonay please buy, at Hervé’s or any other bookshop, a copy of the Assimil method ‘L’Allemand Tout Seul’.” He warns her that it will cost 60-80 Frs, definitely under 100 Fr and adds that if they can get hold of a copy on the black market in Dresden they won’t hesitate to buy it.
Created in 1929, the Assimil method is by far the most successful self-teaching publication in France and is still going strong, offering tuition in over 100 languages. The book Fonfon is after is really called L’Allemand sans Peine, German Without Tears, and there was a new edition published in 1943. I could not find a picture of it but here’s the English version.
It seems unlikely that they would have come across a copy in war-torn Dresden but the sisters did buy and send one. The book eventually arrived at the end of January, having been held up for ten days by the censors, who were presumably searching the pages for hidden coded messages! Once again Riri and Fonfon are determined to make the best of things and to learn where they can, but I doubt if they had the time or energy for “4 to 5 months of work at the rate of 30 to 40 minutes per day” which the method recommends.
In a PS Fonfon adds that they have written to Uncle Firmin at les Sarziers asking him to send a bottle of gnole, the fiery spirit distilled from grape skins, since they have discovered that such a request is authorised. Will the bottle get through the censors intact and un-sampled?
A week later Riri is feeling more cheerful, although some of the news in his letter will have alarmed his sisters. There is now a 9 pm curfew in Dresden and all the cafés close at 8 pm. “I have no idea of the reason for that.” There have been several air raid warnings but they have not experienced any direct bomb attacks “For the moment we just hear bombs falling in other areas” he notes calmly. It is cold, -13C, there is ice on the river Elbe and they are glad to have their winter coats. On Sundays now they go to the theatre or cinema rather than on excursions out of town and they have most recently been to the famous Sarrasani circus.
Founded in 1902 by a German clown with the stage name Giovanni Sarrasani, the circus moved into its permanent home in Dresden in 1912 and became world famous in the inter-war years, frequently touring to South America. From 1941 onwards the circus was directed by Sarrasani’s widowed daughter-in-law Trude and her partner Gabor Némedy, a Hungarian acrobat. A ravishing young horsewoman, Trude performed dazzling numbers on white Lipizzaner horses and navigated a similarly perilous relationship with Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister for Culture and Propaganda. Although Goebbels promoted Trude as an icon of national identity he nonetheless had her arrested in 1944, when she was denounced by one of her employees for hiding Jews in the circus building. She was released, out of political expediency, but her partner remained in detention as an incentive for her to toe the line.
The circus’s splendid rotunda was completely destroyed in the bombing of 1945 and never rebuilt, but Trude and Gabor survived, sheltering in the basement of the building. After the war they emigrated to Argentina, where she re-established the circus in Buenos Aires as the Circo Nacional Argentino.
I hope that Riri and Fonfon enjoyed watching the performing elephants and the displays by Sioux Native Americans for which the circus was famous. Such numbers are no doubt unacceptable by today’s standards but can we begrudge the two boys this brief moment of relaxation and escape from the relentless monotony and stress of their life and work in Dresden?
And there’s been something else to lift their spirits. “Last Sunday we were able to drink a glass of wine, and not just anything – it was a red Burgundy 1928! Oh how wonderful it was, after six months without a taste! It was such a pleasure that we have asked Uncle Firmin to send us a litre of his own wine from les Sarziers.”
Header Image: SZ Archiv
Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.