Toutou and Zézé, the search for Riri

In 1945 Toutou was 22 years old and Zézé was 20.  They were living with their Uncle Emile at La Fabrique, the family property on the edge of Villevocance.  It is a former mill, set on the banks of the river Cance.  We went to look at La Fabrique this spring; the buildings are now flanked by a busy road but they retain an air of calm and serenity, with the mill race bubbling past green lawns and flowerbeds.  Toutou’s family still live there and Brice is anxious for us to meet, but before we do I need time to finish the story of Riri and Fonfon.  

I need to imagine the sisters at their crochet on the terrace, walking into town on errands or to Mass on Sunday.  Writing to their brothers in unimaginable Dresden.  Waiting to hear back from them.  Receiving Riri’s telegram with the dreadful news of Fonfon’s death.  Following the progress of the war on the radio, reading in the newspaper about the Normandy landings and the Liberation of Paris. And, after learning of the Dresden horror of February 13 and 14th waiting, always waiting for a word from Riri.

They would not, could not believe that neither of their brothers would ever come home.  With arms outstretched and hands open they searched for any scrap of hope, of life.  But the gossamer threads that bound them are broken, how could they survive that inferno?

And they never found any proof of what had happened to Riri.


For years after the war was over the two sisters moved heaven and earth to try to discover what had happened to him.     

They wrote to the head of the Agricultural College Don Bosco where Riri had apparently been studying before the outbreak of the war.  In reply they received the address of the parents of one of his classmates and the suggestion that they might contact them for news.  The college principal wrote: “We have prayed without ceasing for our former students since they left for Germany . . .” and adds tellingly, ” . . . and more particularly during the fighting and the difficulties of the Liberation. We continue to do so, during this month dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  May He return them to you with all speed.”  The letter ends with “réligieux et dévoués sentiments”, which I hope were of some comfort.

They contacted Riri’s former colleagues in the STO and anyone who might have known him in exile.  In reply one of them writes “If there is any further help that I can give you do not hesitate to ask and do not feel that you are bothering me.  I would do anything for your dear Frédéric who was like an older brother to me, always ready with a smile and good advice.” 

They applied to the Association de Prisonniers de Guerre, which organised two separate announcements on national radio, the second in January 1946, asking for any information regarding Riri, and they made a separate application to the depressingly entitled Sous Direction des Fichiers et Statistiques in Paris, all to no avail.

Early on in their search they receive a long letter from FM, the seminarian who had met up with Riri and Fonfon in Dresden.  He is now back at the Grand Seminaire, the theological college in Viviers, where he is due to be received into the rank of the two ‘minor orders’: acolyte and exorcist, a step towards ordination as a priest.  (These were renamed ‘ministries’ in 1972, when the ministry of exorcist was dropped).  It is now four months since the bombing of Dresden and he has been waiting anxiously for news of “le cher Frédéric”; he prays daily that he will be returning soon and in good health.  “Last Wednesday I learned that Abbé JV had returned.  He was in Dresden during the bombing but was then evacuated to Czechoslovakia. ‘Oh how wonderful it would be’ I thought ‘if Riri was in the same convoy!’ I wrote immediately, hoping for news of him” and he gives the address where the girls can contact the Abbé.  He thinks of Fonfon every day, having placed his Mémento in his missal “in that way we are reunited daily in prayer and remembrance”. 

An example of a Mémento, inviting prayers for the deceased.

The letter continues: “I have been back from Dresden for just over a year now.  How I had hoped that I could bring Fonfon home with me: right up to the day before my departure I believed that it might be possible, but the police were absolutely intransigent.”

He is looking forward to the ordination ceremony later that month.  All the seminarians who were called up for STO have returned, as have the priests who had been incarcerated in Dachau Concentration Camp.  They still have no news of four POWs, but life is moving on.

The letters are all kind and as positive as they can be, encouragng the sisters not to give up hope, although they are written in the formal style of the period and are often very heavy on pious sentiments.  The contrast with Riri and Fonfon’s letters home is striking and highlights once again the privilege it is to have this window onto their thoughts and feelings, through the letters they wrote to their closest family, their sisters.

Riri seems to have been in hospital at one point but then another colleague says that he saw him in good health just before the raids.  Or he may have been evacuated towards the East.

But the sad truth is that he probably did perish in the bombing.   And when finally all hope was gone the date and time noted on his death certificate were 13th February 1945 at 7.10 pm


Transcription of Riri’s death certificate

Toutou and Zézé also applied to authorities to have Fonfon’s body repatriated, but that attempt came to nothing for reasons I have not been able to discover.  So the only tribute they could raise to their two brothers was in the form of this plaque on the base of the war memorial in Villevocance. 

We happened to visit on 8th May, which is a national holiday in France commemorating the end of the war in Europe in 1945.  The tricolor was flying and a wreath of blue, white and red flowers had been laid at the foot of the monument.

Like so many of their generation and the one before it Riri and Fonfon were denied the chance to grow into adulthood and live ordinary unspectacular lives.  To dance in the village square on the 14th of July, to marry and found a family, to bring in the harvest and press the grapes at the vendange.   To catch crayfish in the river and walk home in the moonlight. To fall out with their neighbours, worry about their children, complain about high taxes and grumble about the weather.  To see peace return to Europe and the nations unite for their common good.  To enjoy their Gauloise and a chat in the café over un canon de rouge.  To play at boules on dusty summer afternoons and belote in the long winter evenings, to spend a veillée at a neighbouring farm, cracking walnuts and gossiping.  To laugh and play with their grandchildren, to grow old, surrounded by those they loved and finally to rest in the village churchyard, back in the land of their birth, amidst the nurturing hills and valleys of the Ardèche.

We paid our respects to the two young men whose lives we have followed and whose story we have shared and set out on the long twisty road home. 

5 thoughts on “Toutou and Zézé, the search for Riri

  1. This is such a sad, but expected outcome. Thank you for sharing this story of hope, courage and loss. We all learn of the hardships suffered by civilians during this war, but the first hand accounts, and the fabulous writing accompanied by background information, makes this story very impactful.

  2. Wow Kate, So beautifully written! I really enjoyed reading your chapters (and I am so sorry this very insightful story ended, but you are probably happy finishing this involved and time consuming project!) I hope you get this put in book form. You are a well researched and engaging writer! I found it fascinating and especially in view of this current war in Ukraine! Sadly history has not taught us much!!

    Peace and happiness and keep writing! Much love, Hanna

    Sent from my iPad


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