Between 28th February and 23rd May there is an unexplained gap in the correspondence. Toutou and Zézé kept a list of their brothers’ letters and cards, scrupulously noting both the date of dispatch and that on which each was received, but numbers 24 to 30 have not survived. When the correspondence takes up again at the end of May Riri has worrying news to report about his brother. Fonfon is ill, he’s anaemic and has been unable to work for the past fortnight. He has been “demobbed” and is awaiting transport back to France. There is a lot of bureaucracy involved and things are not easy. Riri explains: “If this had happened a couple of months ago he would already have been back at home with you. He has all the necessary visas from the Labour and the Health authorities, but the police, who run everything here, will not authorise his transport because, in view of the heightened danger of invasion, the border between France and Germany is closed. So he’s stuck for the moment . . . but I think he should be able to leave within a week or two. I sincerely hope so because he will recover much faster with you than he could here.”
Riri writes that he will be lonely without Fonfon, but his brother’s health is more important. He says that he will do his best to keep his spirits up and assures his sisters that for the moment he’s still doing well. He is now working 55 hours a week. After Whitsun – which fell on May 28th in 1944 – this will increase to 60 hours and “by mid June it will be 72 hours a week. I don’t know if you can imagine what that is like. It means 13 hours on the night shift, seven days a week, including Sundays. My God, what a life!” He adds “There’s a good chance that Fonfon will be back with you by the time you receive this letter and he will able to fill you in with more details about our lives as exiles.”
He hasn’t forgotten about his shoes though: “I’m still waiting impatiently for my black shoes from Arlebosc” and he adds a request for “two or three tins of black polish and a photo of you both, two copies of each”. A picture for each brother to slip into their wallet and take out from time to time, to look again into their sisters’ eyes and hold them close for a moment.
The girls received this letter eight days after the Normandy landings, preparations for which had been shrouded in secrecy and disinformation, keeping Hitler guessing to the end as to where the expected invasion would take place. Operation Mincemeat, in which a body was dumped off the coast of Spain, dressed in the uniform of a Royal Marines Officer and carrying documents purporting to relate to plans of an Allied invasion of Greece and Sicily, had been implemented in May, just when Fonfon needed transport home.
Simultaneously the hugely successful Operation Fortitude South was in full swing, involving the creation of a fictitious army, stationed in south east England under the command of General Patton. Fake landing craft, concocted out of scaffolding pipes, canvas and large empty steel drums, were deployed in harbours and estuaries around the south-east coast, with dummy tanks and vehicles on land and a huge volume of misleading radio traffic being transmitted and received by mobile units in the area. Whilst attempting to second guess what the Allies were planning Hitler was particularly anxious to protect his routes into France and the Low Countries, which must explain Riri’s reference to the border being closed.
Momentous events were afoot and the whole of France must have been in a ferment of excitement at their impending liberation after four long years under the Nazi jackboot. But Toutou and Zézé’s thoughts were far away in Dresden with their brothers. Although they must have been worried to hear that Fonfon was ill, they write an excited letter looking forward to having him at home very soon, when they will be able to care for him and nurse him back to health.
But on June 1st Riri writes that his brother’s condition has deteriorated and he was admitted to hospital five days ago. Riri wrote a postcard that day, but forgot to send it. Now he’s filling his sisters in but he’s obviously exhausted and his words tumble over each other. “He was in a bad way the first few days, he’s doing a little better now. The day after he was admitted he ran a high temperature. His temperature has gone down a bit just now, these last days.” Fonfon is being well fed “They give him good, nourishing food: white bread, eggs, milk, butter etc. and properly prepared vegetables”, which is quite remarkable considering the severe food shortages at the time.
The hospital was founded in 1888 and is now a day and residential care home for seniors. Despite the alterations it’s easy to see the original building on the far right where Fonfon was cared for.
Riri is still hopeful that his brother may be able to return to France and it is true that the Reich had no interest in feeding unproductive workers. “There’s been talk lately of a ‘train sanitaire’ but I don’t have any precise details. Anyway … he would need to be in better shape than he is now and that won’t happen overnight”.
Riri writes out the address of the hospital, in Löbtauerstrasse, close to the factory where they first worked. It’s forty minutes away, but Riri goes to visit as often as he can. He’s working 60 hours a week – no wonder he’s exhausted.
But that letter doesn’t arrive until June 14th .
Before then comes the hammer blow. On June 3rd Riri sends a telegram. Fonfon has died. Toutou and Zézé did not even know that their brother was in hospital.
It is almost unthinkable for us today to imagine such a delay in communication. We are so used to receiving a stream of information in real time that we are prone to panic if our nearest and dearest don’t send out regular signs of life, and in an emergency we expect to be updated minute by minute. That Fonfon had died and was buried before his sisters even knew he was in hospital seems immensely cruel. After that telegram they received no more news for ten days, during which they must have been tortured by so many unanswered questions.
Meanwhile the eyes of the world were turned to Normandy and the D Day landings, launched on June 6th. That same day Lamastre was liberated by the local Resistance. A new day was dawning in France and, although a highly unstable and dangerous period of reckoning was still to come, the end of the nightmare was in sight. In the midst of all the relief and optimism these two young girls had to grapple with their own personal tragedy, and our own personal tragedies are always the worst they can possibly be.
On the 15th the girls receive second letter, written the day after their brother died, describing Fonfon’s final hours and giving the date of the funeral, June 7th – too late for them to have been able to join with their thoughts and prayers in the lonely ceremony. Despite his own grief Riri tries to comfort his younger sisters – les petites. “God tests those he loves. This thought should sustain us and help us to bear all these endless blows.” Riri knows that they will be reading his words about ten days after they were written and he is at pains to tell the girls exactly how Fonfon’s life ended. “Last Sunday, when I went to see him, I thought he was doing better, but on Wednesday I realised that in reality he was getting worse and worse. I stayed with him for about forty minutes and he drifted in and out of consciousness. For brief moments he didn’t recognise me, and then we could go back to chatting normally”.
It was the last time that Riri would speak to his brother. When he returned on Friday Fonfon was in a coma and the doctor told him that it was only a matter of hours. “He received the last rites on Thursday morning. We must hope that the Holy Sacrament was a comfort and help to him at the end of his too short life here on earth”. Riri received a telephone call on Friday morning informing him that his brother had died in the night. “From what I can understand, he had contracted meningitis at the end . . .” This letter, neatly written in blue fountain pen has been folded and unfolded so many times that it has had to be stuck together with sellotape. The ink has run in several places, as though splashed with tears. Are they Riri’s tears or his sisters’? Or both?
Header Image: The Alabama Journal June 6th 1944
Photos Haus Lobtau, source Cultus.de
Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.