From the forthcoming memoir by Phil Hall Steinhardt, Tony and Eve.
My heroine of very early days was Joan of Arc, whom I loved passionately. I dreamed of martyrdom and detested the English soldiers who burned her at the stake.
Every Friday afternoon I used to wait for my mother outside my boarding school, buttoned up snuggly into my Petite Madeleine uniform, a double breasted navy coat with shining brass buttons, a sailor hat trimmed with white ribbons, and knee high white socks. I usually held a posy tightly in my sweaty little hand, to give my mother as she swooped down to kiss me. At the worst of war times in Paris people sold flowers and I always saved my little bit of pocket money.
She smelt lovely, better than my favourite snow drops. Her soft blond hair tickled my neck, her velvet skin stroked me, her large blue eyes enchanted me. She was so beautiful and fair, and I was her dark little changeling. I wondered how she could love me, but love me she did. I had proof of this seventy years later when, peering at a photograph taken of me then, she said in a puzzled voice: “But I thought you were so beautiful!”
I usually had a gleaming white and gold medal pinned on my chest: best in my class again this week. But sometimes, I only wore a blue medal, second best, and I couldn’t bear the look of disappointment on her face then. Second merited “Good girl”, the white and gold “My wonderful clever girl”. I never got third class red.
Opposite the pensionat there was a huge field that the Germans used to launch barrage balloons. It was fascinating to see it float down, to watch the soldiers trample down the enormous spread of grey cloth flat, to see it gradually swell and slowly float into the air. I watched these different stages while my mother and my teacher spoke of my great future. My mother’s German accent wasn’t mentioned. The school staff had been told my history, that my German mother had been brought to France by my heartless French father, who had abandoned instead of marrying her. The poor thing, so young, so pretty. Strangely, neither my mother nor I were victimized or bullied in any way for our German connection, never called “sales boches” by teachers or pupils. She charmed effortlessly. None knew that my father was Jewish, but I believed it would have made little difference.
The teacher never mentioned my lack of appetite either. If my mother asked, she was reassured that I ate the butter and cheese my mother had got for me from the black market. It was probably through absent mindedness rather than malice that she didn’t say I gave away the food to keep my classmates, all quite older than me, well disposed. It was the custom to put the food brought by the girls on the dining room tables, so that all could share the meat and fruit pupils brought from the countryside, or butter and jam on the black market. But the teachers focused only on my grades and my exercise books, they had great plans for my future and took no notice at all that I was malnourished and unhealthy.
I was one of the youngest girls in the school and younger by more than a year than any girl in my class. I remember little of the way I was taught – and I probably excelled at learning by rote. When a distinguished visitor appeared, I was presented to recite, to multiply, to conjugate, to sing (although in another school, in another country, in another language, I was asked unkindly to “mouth the words, don’t sing them” in music lessons). The visitor approved, the headmistress approved, my favourite teacher beamed at me. None saw that I was lonely and pining. Luckily, I liked learning and I worked hard.
My mother had great faith in this school. A lot of her salary as an interpreter at the local maternity hospital went to the school fees. I had a place there only because the mayor of our suburb was her close friend. But she worried that I slowly lost weight. I came back to the pensionat at the end of every weekend with a stomach well purged of worms and more and more butter and jam and pate that plumped up the girls in my dormitory. I didn’t mind that they gulped down all my food. I wasn’t hungry, and I warmed a little at the casual thanks they gave. Any bullying they meted out was casual, I was too small and young for them to be jealous of the petting and the praise the teachers gave me.
A bus, when it was running, took us home through the edge of the Bois de Boulogne?……..to Surennes
Why there was war, and why who was on whose side, was surely puzzling for any seven year old child who chose to think about it, but it strikes me from the memoirs of those times that few did. I was probably the most confused child in France during the war. I knew that Germans, Germany and anything that was German was really and truly bad. I knew my mother was German, and came from Germany, but no one seemed to speak badly to her or against her, although they patently hated Germany and all things German and spoke constantly about les sales boches. The German soldiers in the streets were feared and hated by all, including my mother. She was in a singular friendly German category of her own.
To this singularity there was the confusion surely presented to all children in occupied France, We recognized immediately the drone of a friendly engine – American and English, its make, its capacity to harm. But, although we rejoiced, it was precisely when we heard those engines that the alarm sirens rang out and we hid in cellars and were terrified. On the other hand, when we heard the sound of a German plane, we hated it though we knew it meant us no harm.
The liberation of Paris added to my confusion. In those first few days my mother and I stayed at home, as everyone else did in the apartments around us. As I remember, the streets at first were eerily empty, with little noise except for shouts and shots of snipers. I remember that Madame Petit, in the flat below us, narrowly escaped death as she lay on her bed and a bullet whizzed over her head and buried itself into the wall. She was hysterically excited at her escape and came rushing into our flat to grab my mother by the arm and drag her to look at the bullet. She and my mother had quite a tussle before we could pushed her out the door promising to come “in a little minute”.
It was probably during these few days that my mother’s life was most in danger. The underground emerged, making flat to flat searches, looking for collaborators and spies. It was then that my mother was most at her neighbours’ mercy. We were searches several times. In each case, a neighbour or two (presumably in the underground themselves) slipped into our flat, and spoke for my mother, gesturing her to be quiet.
As the members of the underground emerged, so did the abandoned German soldiers. My mother and I leant out of the window, along with our neighbours, booing and making farting noises. Until sniping started again and we ducked down. I remember all this distinctly as fun, with one miserable German soldiers squaking past on a bicycle with no tyres. I wonder, now, if my mother felt any pity for her miserable compatriots? Did she see them as compatriots then, after six years of dodging and ducking them?
A few friends arrived. Four or five of them came through with the British army, splendid in uniforms, far removed I suppose from the looks of the miserable refugees who had slipped through to England and Canada several years before. (They had better luck than the refugees from Austria and Czechoslovakia, who spent their war years in detention camps). A few came from America, Charley the most memorable guest.
My mother and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating our evening meal of grey pasta. As my mother told it, Charlie came in and saw us and swept this miserable meal off the table and out of the window, crying the while, and starting unpacking goodies. He was a Captain, I don’t know what limits there were to his access to sweets, but I was the drooling envy of all the children in our apartment block.
My mother and Charley celebrated late into the night. Charley had brought a lot of whiskey. I sat on his lap and cuddled him sleepily for hours, thinking dreamily how wonderful it would be when I finally saw my father. We had just gone to bed, Charley in the spare bed in the sitting, me as usual with my mother in the bedroom, when we were woken up by several men of the underground. The men walked straight into our bedroom, looked around astonished at the litter. Is there anyone else here? Any arms? Said the leader gruffly?
My mother must have drunk too much whisky. “Come with me” she beckoned and led them to where Charley slept. I slid past them and into the bed next to Charley, terrified. My mother pointed to Charley’s revolver. Charley sat up, and swore at them energetically in French. “Sorry Captain” the leader said and they saluted as they jogged out. My mother heard one say to the others: “strange: he sleeps in bed with one child, and she sleeps in another bed with the other child.
Words by Eve Hall
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