One can’t help asking the “what if” questions. Would Fonfon have made it back to France if he had fallen ill a few months earlier, before the invasion panic, as Riri thinks? Would he have survived the journey? Would his sisters have been able to nurse him back to health? If he really did contract meningitis, only very early treatment with antibiotics would have saved him. As it happens, the first dose of penicillin was administered on 19th May 1944 when, after years of experimentation, the United States Army Medical Corps authorised it for use in all military hospitals. But these are just “what ifs”.
Fonfon was laid to rest on June 7th. “To think that he was buried here in Dresden today at 11 am and that we arrived last year on exactly the same date and at exactly the same time . . .” writes Riri. What sad thoughts and memories must have filled his mind as he stood by his brother’s lonely grave so far from home.
The burial fell on a weekday “so not many people could come. It was a short, sad affair – a wartime funeral indeed”. Even so, there were about forty people present, including the head of the French delegation to the German Labour Front (DAF), representatives from the state employment office (Arbeitsamt) and the JOFTA – the French youth organisation which had helped the brothers settle into their new lives as workers in Germany. There were speeches from the dignitaries and eight wreaths, supplied by the different workers’ organisations, both French and German, in addition to Riri’s own and one sent by his colleagues at the camp. “And the weather was befitting the circumstances – it rained all morning” he notes mournfully.
“I wasn’t able to organise a funeral mass – you can’t do as you like here – just the absolution and blessing before the interment”. The DAF supplied the officiating priest, whom Riri happened to know and like. “By good fortune it was the priest from Scharwitz, a parish in the suburbs of Dresden. That is where we always went to make our confession, so he was Fonfon’s father confessor. He is very kind and speaks good French … next week I will arrange for him to have masses said for Fonfon.” I think Riri was referring to the district of Zschachwitz, a pleasant leafy suburb to the southeast of Dresden, easily reached on subway lines 1 and 2 or by bus.
The brothers would have attended the original church of the Holy Family, dating from 1925, the current modern one was consecrated in 1981.
But convenience was not the only reason that the brothers had sought out this particular church. The resident priest, Dr Ludwig Baum was discreetly opposed to the Nazi régime and allowed a French abbé, Pierre de Porcaro, to hold illicit masses in French and generally minister to the spiritual needs of his compatriot foreign workers.
Since the DAF was involved in the funeral arrangements, it was probably father Baum who officiated at the burial and, mindful of the censor, Riri would not have wanted to make any mention of Abbé Poncaro in his letters.
Pierre de Porcaro was born in Brittany in 1904 and ordained in 1929. He was called up at the outbreak of war, captured with his unit in 1940 and held for over a year in a German prisoner of war camp, during which time he celebrated daily masses. Upon his release he served as a military chaplain in the parish of St Germain en Laye just outside Paris.
In February 1943, after the law on compulsory STO had been announced, the Council of Bishops organised a clandestine contingent of priests who left for Germany specifically to minister to the forced workers. This was a dangerous mission but Abbé Pierre de Porcaro accepted willingly, declaring “I desire to help Christ to carry his cross: my departure [for Germany] has no other motivation”. Employed in a corrugated cardboard factory by day, he wore a scouting belt to signal to other workers that he was secretly a priest. He pursued his ministry at night holding popular masses at the Church of the Holy Family with the complicity of Dr Baum. Despite the constant danger he even established a clandestine branch of the Christian Youth organisation the JOC.
After five months in Dresden his foot was badly broken when a heavy crate of cardboard fell on it and he was repatriated to France. Whilst he was there the notorious Kaltenbrunner issued a decree against “Catholic actions relating to forced workers in Nazi Germany” but, nothing daunted, Abbé Porcaro returned to Dresden once his injury had healed, knowing full well the risk he was taking. He was denounced to the Gestapo by a French worker just a few months after Fonfon died and arrested on 11th September 1944. Initially imprisoned in Dresden, he was sent to Dachau concentration camp in January 1945, where he continued to minister to his fellow prisoners until his death from typhus in March of that year.
I was captivated by the story of this undoubtedly saintly man, the more so because I am sure that he was the “father confessor” mentioned by Riri. It is comforting to know that the brothers were able to benefit from his dedication to sustain their own faith and give them courage.
Riri has a lot to attend to: “Tomorrow I will order a cross, and flowers to plant on the grave. From now on my Sunday outings will be a sort of pilgrimage to reflect and pray at the tomb of our brother”. But he doesn’t forget to think of his dear ones grieving in France. He writes a special note to le petit Jacques. “The few words you added to the letter from ‘les petites’ gave me so much pleasure and I wanted you to have your own special reply. … God has recalled Fonfon to Him, you will not see him again; he is watching over us from On High”. Brice has not been able to identify le petit Jacques, but it sounds as though he is a much younger cousin, possibly Riri’s godson.
There are comforting words as well for Toutou and Zézé: “Well we must do our best to bear this new trial as good Christians, it is not for us to rebel against God’s will and His intentions for us. We belong to Him before we belong to ourselves.” Riri is still only 21 but it is so clear how much the experiences of the past year have matured him and that his Catholic faith is what is sustaining him in his grief.
A week later Riri writes a card (he’s used up his letter allowance for the month – no compassionate exceptions) giving details of the cross that he has ordered for the grave. It will be in plain varnished wood with Fonfon’s name and the dates of his birth and death inscribed on it. Riri finds the cost of the cross and upkeep of the grave rather high, but he adds “For 1945 and the following years I will only pay 20 Marks per year. You see, even if I do come back to France in 5 or 6 months once the war is over, I will definitely pay for the upkeep for 5 or 6 years before I leave. Because I do not want [the grave] to be abandoned. That way, there will always be some flowers and no weeds”.
In the light of what we know was coming to Dresden within a few short months, these sentences ring as particularly tragic. With Markus’s help, I contacted both Catholic cemeteries in Dresden to see if we could discover any trace of Fonfon’s grave. Frau Hemm the archivist was extremely helpful, providing us with the entry in the burial register and even going out on a chilly autumn day to take a picture of the section of the cemetery where Fonfon’s grave had been located. She wrote “I am sorry to say that the area is now a wild meadow (‘eine wilde Wiese’)” although she was able to confirm that it had not suffered damage from wartime bombing.
In fact it is perhaps fitting that Fonfon’s final resting place has returned to the wild: overgrown, uncultivated and supporting the type of trees he knew in his native Ardèche. After all he never really was a city boy.
Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.