Several of my faithful readers have remarked that there has been a long break in the telling of Riri and Fonfon’s story, for which I apologise. The summer has been busy and writing the last part is, as you might expect, the most difficult.
Postal communications between France and Germany became increasingly disrupted after the liberation of Paris on August 26th . On their list the sisters note four letters, two in August and two in September which were returned to them, followed by three “messages” sent on 9th October, 29th November and another on 2nd February 1945, none of which have a date marked in the arrival column. Did they reach Riri? He sent a message on November 9th , which the girls only received on 8th March the following year, but we do not know how these messages were sent and in any case nothing has survived to tell us how Riri was getting on.
The atmosphere in Dresden had changed completely now that Germany and the German people were under massive pressure – inevitably about to lose the war, but with Hitler still demanding ever greater sacrifices, promising a secret wonder weapon and hysterically insisting that that the Fatherland should be defended to the last man and woman. Losses were so great that boys as young as 16 were forced to enlist and were sent to the front. Hitler ordered that anyone who was not prepared to fight should be court-martialled, and thousands were executed. The fear of what was to come, specifically fear of the advancing Soviet troops, led thousands more to leave their homes in the East. Dresden was packed with refugees and food and fuel were in critically short supply. In the increasingly desperate atmosphere the suicide rate soared.
Meanwhile, British and American bomber fleets based in Britain began to step up operations against Germany. Raids on aircraft factories and the Peenemünde facility where the deadly V1 and V2 rockets were made drastically reduced their production capacity. By targeting factories and oil refineries the Allies crippled the German war effort and left Germany exposed to ever more devastating losses.
The policy of only bombing legitimate military objectives had been blown apart by the London Blitz of 1940 to 1941. From hitting strategic infrastructure, industrial plants and ports, raids had now been extended to civilian areas, with the specific aim of destroying German morale. Now that the Allies had effectively shot the Luftwaffe out of the skifes, the intensity and frequency of these “thousand bomber raids” increased dramatically.
And then on the night of February 13th, twelve short weeks before the end of the war in Europe, came the attack on Dresden.
I cannot bear to go into details of that dreadful night and the following days. They are not hard to find. If you type the word Dresden into a search engine this horror is what will come up. Despite the city’s glorious past, the art, the architecture, the people and their everyday lives, Dresden has come to symbolise above all, like such places as Hiroshima and more recently Srebrenica, the abominations of war. And perhaps it is right that this should be so. The glorious past and its architecture has been revived and rebuilt but nothing can bring back those thousands of ordinary people, 25 000 at least, who lost their lives in the inferno.
On March 11th, right after the bombing raids and no doubt frantically worried for Riri’s safety the sisters sent a message to Dresden. Three days earlier they had received Riri’s message, written in November of the previous year. Perhaps, superstitiously, they took it as some hopeful sign that he had survived. But no reply ever came.
And within just a few months the war was over. Amid the general rejoicing, Toutou and Zézé, together with thousands of others, searched desperately for news of their loved ones.
In his letters Riri has often mentioned MD – possibly a cousin – in Paris, saying that he hopes to be able to see her when he passes through the capital on his return from Germany. Perhaps they contacted her and she joined the crowds of people at the Hotel Lutetia, scanning lists, photographs and the faces of those returning, searching for news. For four long years this grandiose left-bank hotel had been the headquarters of the dreaded Abwehr, the German intelligence gathering agency, now it served as a clearing point for returnees, managed by the Red Cross.
As the trains from the East rumbled into Paris, bringing with them confirmation of the worst fears of atrocities in the camps, there were some happy reunions, but for many the searching was in vain. For their part, returnees often did not want to answer anxious questions, unwilling to break hopes and hearts. A trickle of STO workers and POWs too began to filter back to France, although for those held in the Russian sector of occupied Germany the return home took longer – sometimes up to five years.
But there was no word of Riri.
Toutou and Zézé were determined to persevere for as long as it took to find out what had happened to their brother.
Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.