So Riri is now alone in Dresden. He’s just 22, working immensely long hours and living in fairly primitive conditions in the barracks and yet he manages to keep his spirits up, at least in the letters he writes to his sisters. Reading between the lines I think he was a sociable young man with a sunny and basically optimistic nature. I feel that I have got to know him a little better than Fonfon, probably because it was usually Riri who wrote, his brother just adding his love or a few words at the end of a letter. Riri obviously got along well with his comrades in the camp and he was clearly equal to dealing with the authorities and able to handle all the arrangements to do with Fonfon’s funeral and the aftermath of his brother’s death.
In any case, what else could he do? His sisters frequently ask whether he might be coming home on leave, but each time he answers “impossible before the end of the war. Don’t bank on it and don’t build up false hopes . . . We just have to be patient! This all has to end someday!”
The letters are his lifeline, connecting him to everything holds dear. Now that he is on his own Riri thinks more and more about his family in France. He worries about “Pépé and Malou” who have pneumonia: “there is so much sickness everywhere, I do hope that they will all recover very soon”. But he is pleased to hear that Uncle Firmin at les Sarziers is doing much better under the care of a new doctor. “If I could just see him again as well as he was in the summers before the war (I know that in the winter he is always a bit depressed). (Firmin was to die in March of the following year, aged 58). “And how is Tonton Emile?” Riri is frustrated that he cannot be of use to his uncles. “It was my birthday a few days ago, I’m 22 now and I think I’m pretty capable. If only I was in France I would be able to do something … to help them manage our property and their own. You can’t imagine how frustrating it is not to be there to help when I know how useful I could be to [Oncle Emile] and to Tonton Firmin as well”.
It is impossible to over-state the importance of letter writing at that time; it was the only way of keeping in touch for most people – telegrams and the telephone being reserved for the well-off. The postal service was cheap and reliable and it was not uncommon to write every day or even more frequently, since in the larger localities there would be two or more daily deliveries. In France in 1940 one of the first tasks of the occupying forces was to control this incessant flood of information, which could threaten their hold on the country, and correspondence between the Occupied and Free Zones was immediately forbidden. By September the authorities had produced cards pre-printed with the most basic information: “we are well, tired, wounded, dead … ” to be crossed out by the sender as appropriate. The choices did not make for very lively correspondence. Only an absolute minimum additional number of words were allowed and there were just two lines at the end for further remarks. The censorship was ferocious, as in the case of this card, which was returned to the sender as unacceptable because the words “affectueuse” and “souhaits et voeux” had been written below the line.
The cards cost 90 centimes and were pre-franked to prevent secret messages from being written under the stamp. In May 1941 the authorities felt confident enough to issue a new version, with seven blank lines for family correspondence, and all restrictions were lifted in August of the same year.
International mail was also suspended. This letter, posted in Burlington Vermont on 30th September 1940, was returned to New York, where it languished until September 1941 when it was finally delivered.
Being a foreign worker, Riri was, ironically, considered by the Reich to be free agent and as such, unlike POWs and the military, had to buy his own stamps and use the normal postal service.
The red Ae stamp on this post card, which he sent on 13th July (number 39) indicates that it has been vetted by the Auslandsprüfstelle, or censorship offices for foreign post. Each one had a different identifying letter: e was for Frankfurt, the bureau through which all correspondence from the STO passed en route to France. The red number stamp identifies the individual censor who had checked and passed the mail.
Riri doesn’t have a lot of news, but he describes any incident to his sisters in the most light-hearted way possible. There has been “a hunt” in the barracks he tells them “a bed bug hunt, as these insects had taken the liberty of attacking us in serried ranks. We were victorious: the enemy was repulsed, leaving numerous corpses on the battlefield. But in view of the determination of the assailants and the warm weather we are expecting hostilities to recommence in a month or two. Last winter we were attacked by a division of fleas, which we successfully repulsed. We have not seen them since.” In the same letter he makes a passing reference to a problem with his leg. It is swollen, with raised blisters which he has been successfully treating with a cream and he expects to be back at work in a few days. “It’s a result of overwork. When you have to stand twelve hours a day at your work station performing exacting tasks it’s not surprising”.
In fact he was off work for four weeks in total. He sees three different doctors who diagnose “eurythème” and advise complete rest, warning Riri that he is at risk of developing phlebitis.
Riri does not understand the term “eurythème” and nor do I – a cursory search just turns up a very pretty butterfly – but hunting a little deeper I discovered that his condition may have been the result of a viral infection or possibly the symptoms of a type of tuberculosis, either of which would not be unexpected, given his living and working conditions. “Don’t be anxious” he tells his sisters “I’m being a good boy and taking it easy. I’m not worried and not in any pain at all. Ah! How nice it is to be able to do nothing.”
The fact that the postal service became so erratic in the summer of 1944 makes more sense when you realise that the large areas of France which had now been liberated – including the Ardèche – lay, from the German point of view, in enemy hands. Correspondence between France and Germany was seriously disrupted from the end of July onwards and letters from Germany to France were no longer handled, with the exception of those sent by POWs. Riri, as we have seen, although a forced labourer, was not included in this group and was therefore ineligible for the protection of the Geneva convention governing such matters.
You can follow the progress of the Liberation through successive issues of postage stamps.
This one, issued in April 1944 to celebrate the 88th birthday of Marshal Pétain, was the last to bear his image. To the face value of 1fr 50 an extra 3Fr 50 has been added as a contribution to the war effort. The stamp was withdrawn on July 29th and, unusually, was ‘demonetised’ on November 1st and no longer usable from that date.
The plan was to replace it with a new one, created in America, but things did not go smoothly.
In 1942 Pétain broke off diplomatic relations with Washington after the Allied North Africa campaign and France was thus considered by the United States to be a hostile territory. As a result there was a certain amount of tension between the Allied leaders surrounding the Liberation of France. The US AMGOT (Allied Military Government of Occupied Territories) had prepared banknotes and stamps for issue in Italy, Germany, Austria and other countries which would be occupied as the Nazis were pushed back. France was no exception. General de Gaulle was so enraged that he threatened to withdraw his support for the Allied invasion but whereas he managed to get rid of the currency, he backed down over the stamps after the success of operations Neptune and Overlord, when it became clear that the Allies did not propose to occupy France.
This stamp, designed by a team of American lithographers and printed in Washington, shows the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It took a while for the stamps to get to France. Initially shipped over to Britain in cases of 600 000 at a time, the provisional government of the French Republic requested delivery in August and the first stamps appeared in Normandy and Brittany the following month. When they went on general sale in Paris in September it was noted with disapproval that, although the traditional republican motto Liberté Egalité Fraternité had been restored, there was no mention of the Republic, the stamps bearing the single word France. Moreover there was much amusement over the face value of the lowest denomination stamp which was written as 1,50 Francs instead of 1,50 Franc. When people complained to the authorities they replied, justifiably, that they had not been consulted about these stamps which had been printed, with something akin to ulterior motives, in the United States.
In the meantime the series of stamps showing the head of Mercury, which had been in common usage under the Occupation remained in circulation, although with the letters R F stamped on them to emphasise the end of the hated German régime. Simultaneously a new and less controversial stamp was being printed in London. This was the first one to show the head of Marianne, the symbolisation of the French Republic, and was designed by the Anglo French artist and lithographer Edmund Dulac. It went on sale in September and quickly became a favourite. Practically all French postage stamps have borne varying images of Marianne ever since.
Different parcels do manage to get through to Dresden, but the post is very slow and erratic and occasionally items go missing, although not always the ones you would expect – once it was two coat hangers. On June 14th Riri thanks his sisters for the parcel containing his plus fours, a saucisson and biscuits, which has just arrived. They posted it on 6th May so you have to hope that the biscuits were still OK. At the end of June the blue trousers finally show up, together with underwear, work shirts and another saucisson. Riri writes “Thank you too for the ‘madeleines’. I knew at once that it was you who had baked them”. Madeleines are a little fiddly to make, in their special little moulds, and aways seem to me to be a bit uninteresting, although to anyone who knows their Proust it is clear that these little sponge delicacies conjure up the most powerful memories of things past for a French person. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart, an exile who longs so much to see you again”.
By mid July the photos Riri sent have arrived and the girls are glad to have them, but he is still waiting for the pictures of his sisters “it would give me such pleasure to see you again, in a photo . . . until we meet again properly”. For some reason the black dress shoes from Arlebosc still have not been sent. There is a cryptic reference to some difficulty about the house in the village so perhaps the girls were not able to get there to retrieve them despite Riri’s repeated requests for “a pair of respectable shoes, black polish and a good shirt to wear on Sundays”.
But there are some heart-breaking communications too. On June 21st Riri writes “I have just received your letter of 28th May . . . It was so hard for me to read that you were looking forward to seeing Fonfon again very soon. I can just imagine you saying to each other “He might arrive tomorrow or the day after” and then the worst happened . . .” Seven weeks after Fonfon’s death he receives the letter his sisters wrote just after they heard the news and it brings back all his pain: “I could not read your words without crying. I could almost see you both at La Fabrique [where they lived in Villevocance] as you tried to absorb the terrible news and I can understand that at first you could not believe it. It is a heavy blow to us all [but] for you it was such a shock, you never imagined something like that, you were expecting to see him back with you any day. It was different for me, and not unexpected, I saw it coming gradually “.
Riri tries to answer all his sisters’ questions – was Fonfon properly fed and cared for? did he suffer? – all the agonising thoughts that have been torturing them for so many weeks. “I think he had been ill for quite a while without realising it. … He got as much to eat as I did but as he had a weaker constitution he could not withstand [the conditions here]”.
Riri knows that Toutou and Zézé will worry all the more about his own health – he is, after all the only sibling they have left and illness and death have stalked these young people since they were little children. So he is at pains to reassure them about his weight “In June last year I weighed 74 kg, then I went down a bit, but last week, at a medical check up I was back up to 73 kg, which is quite enough. I’m fine and you should not think of sending me food parcels, I know that the restrictions are worse in France than they are here”. And he adds, perhaps with a little twinkle in his eye “as long as I get a bottle of gnole from les Sarziers from time to time I’ll be able to hold out”.
He ends his letter with birthday wishes for both of them. Zézé will be 19 on July 31st and Toutou 21 the following day . “Mon Dieu, how time flies!” He has decided, now that Toutou is officially an adult, that he should address her by her proper name – Marie. “Although at first that might seem a little colder and more distant it brings with it as much affection and brotherly love as if I had written Toutou. Birthday wishes to both of you, even though they will arrive a little late.” This letter took exactly a month to get to Villevocance.
The last card Riri sent reads almost like a premonition and a farewell. It’s dated 1st August and he’s writing to Toutou / Marie. ” Unless I ‘m much mistaken, your feast day falls on the 15th of this month. I would not want [to write] this letter, which is especially addressed to you, without sending you my best wishes for a happy celebration of your name day. May the Holy Virgin, your patron saint, protect you always and everywhere. I know that this letter will probably reach you after August 15th through no fault of mine.” He goes on: “This evening marks the completion of my first year at the factory, where we started work on August 2nd last year. In renewing my best wishes I send you love from the bottom of my heart, and also to Tonton Emile and Zézé.” and he signs off: “Your brother who does not forget you, especially now that he is all on his own.”
Toutou did not receive the card until February 8th of the following year, five days before the Allied bombing raids on Dresden.
Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.