The feelings I recall from D-Day and the months that preceded it, were a mixture of joy, fear and sadness. Being Jewish and not having declared ourselves as such, my parents and I went into hiding in a tiny little village named Torigni-sur-Vire in Normandy. We kept a low profile so as not to arouse suspicion and, since there was no school that I could attend in Torigni, I had to ride my bicycle an hour to another village to attend a boarding school. I came home on Sundays.
As I came riding home one such Sunday in October of 1942, a farmer hailed me from his open window "Monique, don't go home. They took your parents and they're looking for you" and closed the window behind him. I was 13 at the time, and a very young 13 at that. Panicked and not knowing what to do I rode my bike back to the school. I found out later that my parents had been denounced. I never saw them again. They died in Auschwitz.
The school's director sent me to live with her cousins in Villedieu-les-Poeles, a town in Normandy, 25 miles from St. Lo. Their name was Monsieur and Mme. Lemarchands and they had 2 sons a little older than I. It is through their good graces that I survived. My name then was Monique Kraus, not a very French name. So they made me false papers changing my name to Cros, saying that I was a relative and listing me as being from Evreux, where the town hall had been destroyed and records could not be checked.
Monsieur Lemarchands was a builder and the house had an extra room so the Germans requisitioned one of the rooms and a German officer occupied the one next to mine. It was a dangerous time and I lived in constant fear. Had I been found out everyone would have been deported. But there is more.
Monsieur Lemarchands was a nondescript individual but he was the head of the underground for the area. Every night at 8 o'clock we would go down to the cellar and listen to the BBC on a clandestine short-wave radio. The program always started with dot-dot-dot-dash, the first four notes of Beethoven's 5th symphony, V for victory, followed by the announcer with the messages for the day, messages like "The eagle flies by night. We repeat. The eagle flies by night". Each was only meant to be understood by the intended receiver.
On Thursday June 1st, 1944 we were gathered around the radio which crackled as usual when the 1st of the messages came through. "L'heure du combat viendra." (The hour of combat will come). It was a message of warning, a message of hope, the invasion was to take place soon. The following day the 2nd message came. "Les sirenes ont les cheveux decolores". (Mermaids have dyed hair). The landing would be in 36 hours. That meant Sunday. Monsieur Lemarchands sent out word throughout the area that "the cousins will arrive Sunday morning". Everyone understood and there was joy and excitement everywhere. But it was premature. The message "The children are bored on Sunday" canceled the expected arrival and exhilaration gave way to disappointment.
On Monday the 5th the message "The dice are on the table" revived our enthusiasm. That was the final message. It would be the following day, Tuesday, June 6th, 1944. That night, bombers by the hundreds flew overhead to drop bombs on their target and on the morning of the 6th rumors abounded. They've landed on the beaches at Granville, some said Cherbourg, some said LeHavre. There was no way of checking because the electricity was out and all means of communication had been cut. But we knew the allies had landed and we were overjoyed and expected to be liberated within a couple of days. After all we were only 40 or so miles away. Little did we know it would take nearly 2 months to cover the distance.
In the morning a reconnaissance plane circled overhead for a long time and Monsieur Lemarchands awaited paratroopers with weapons and ammunition as well as orders. At noon the schools were closed and the children were sent home. The town had 3000 inhabitants and the German military presence was just a few hundred men. All municipal functions had been performed for the last 4 years by Frenchmen who were now shaking in their boots because they were tagged as collaborators.
New regulations prevented travel of any kind and we were restricted to walking or bicycling from place to place. All vehicles had been confiscated by the Germans, even cars without wheels or batteries. But food was plentiful. Normandy is France's utter, and milk, cheese and meat were abundant.. So, like all good French people no matter what the circumstances, we prepared a sumptuous meal to celebrate our soon-to-be liberation when the sky filled with the noise of scores of American Flying Fortresses, followed by whistling sounds and then one, two, three, four, five, six bombs exploded in town. The dust settled over a dozen houses that had been hit but no one was hurt.
For the next few days the town was bombed over and over again. It seems that there was a German fuel and ammunitions depot at the RR station and it was targeted for destruction. Unfortunately, the American Flying Fortresses flew at high altitudes making it difficult to find the target, so they hit many, many homes and killed a few people but completely missed the depot.
On going to get milk I was startled to see crowds of townspeople, men, women and children, with carriages, all fleeing to safety in the countryside. "We are all going to get killed" an old lady sighed. But there was no bitterness, no resentment at the bombs that destroyed our homes, because "They" came out of the sea to liberate us.
Monsieur Lemarchands enlisted the aid of a few people to dig a shelter in the solid rock hill behind the house. We were not leaving. We were going to stay to welcome our liberators.
So we waited. We buried the Limoges dishes, the Baccarat glasses, and the good wine, and waited. For days, for weeks on end we waited. The sounds of war could be heard coming closer and the Flying Fortresses kept dropping bombs on the elusive target. Soon there were only 40 of us who had not fled to safety and several times a day and often at night we huddled together in the shelter. A few bombs dropped on our house tearing out the interior walls and all the doors and windows and we waited. The butcher slaughtered a pig and the 40 of us sat around and feasted on roast-suckling pig with shallots, greens, and vintage wine and we waited. In the next town eleven members of Monsieur Lemarchands's FFI group were caught and shot and we waited, mourning our dead and praying for the allies to break through to us.
By mid-July we saw German tanks rolling through town. They were going the other way. They were retreating. We took heart and waited. Toward the end, two young German soldiers, they were no more than 15, in oversized scraggly uniforms came to our door to ask for food and water. They were lost. We had no pity. We chased them away.
Then, on Sunday August 1st someone we knew came running down the road shouting "They're here! . . . They're here!". And we all got into our Sunday clothes and rushed out to greet them. And they came, just like out of a Hollywood movie they came, Americans, Americans, rifle in hand, single file on both sides of the road, the one we now call Liberation Road, and we kissed them, and threw flowers, and buried our dead and began the tedious task of reconstruction.
(These recollections are based on a day-to-day journal I kept at the time)
Published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat June 1994
POST SCRIPTUM: 15% of the French people collaborated with the Germans. 85% did nothing. They looked the other way while their friends and neighbors were deported to their deaths in concentration camps. But there were some who risked their lives to help. Monsieur and Mme Lemarchands were among those and it is because of their courage that I survived. They have passed on now but their deed is written up in the Book of the Righteous in Jerusalem and a tree to honor them is growing in Israel.
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