Histoire Through Histoires

utahbeach

 

In French, the word “histoire” means both “history” and “story.”

Now that I’m an adult I realize how fortunate I have been to have several French teachers and professors who taught histoire through histoires.

The best histoires I heard about French histoire, however, came from my parents.

 

Today marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

OuestFrance

My dad is no longer here to tell me another story about the war he never forgot.

 

Both my parents grew up in small villages in Normandy, an hour away from the coast. Children during WWII, they understood early on the meaning of the words “enemy” and “occupant” and the need to be resourceful, but they remained children, acting like children, despite the war.

My dad and his friends invented their own coded language that they used when passing German soldiers on their way to school. With polite smiles and nods, they were in fact insulting them. When school closed because of the frequent bombing, they wandered around and got to know some of the soldiers who having left kids at home missed them and played with the little French kids.

When his mother was ordered to kill her hens, chickens, and ducks for a banquet in honor of a German officer, my dad managed to hide two chickens in a box. Panicked, the birds started to cluck loudly, triggering a soldier’s attention. To distract him from searching, my father imitated a chicken and started to cackle and squawk even louder. His imitation made the soldier laugh and he stopped looking around.

During the war my grandfather hid a radio in the loft about the barn where he listened to the news that kept the French updated on the war. One day, toward the end of the war, a German soldier asked my grandfather if he listened to the radio. My grandfather said that he didn’t understand what the man was talking about, implying that the soldier spoke broken French. My dad, believing that his father would be in trouble, blurted out that he could walk the soldier to the loft. Fortunately, the soldier’s French was indeed poor and he didn’t pay attention to my dad.

On D-Day deafening sounds woke up my dad. He was afraid of storms and ran to his parents, already up and outside, eyes lifted to the sky where planes could be seen and heard.

“It’s today,” my grandfather told my dad. “The Allies are coming. The war will end.”

The battle raged and my dad told me that although he was scared, he was also a kid who believed what his parents told him. So as bombs exploded and planes zoomed through the sky, he waited and waited for the war to be over.

My mom’s stories were more dramatic because she had lost her father when she was a little girl. My grandmother was taking care of her seven children with the help of my great grandmother. Without a man at home, my mom had less physical freedom than my father.

My great grandmother had known WWI and decided to flee at the beginning of the war when she heard that the Germans were back. It was a Sunday and she loaded the family, precious belongings, the pot of hot cocoa she only prepared on Sundays in the horse carriage, and took off. She said that the Germans would never drink her homemade cocoa. However they were ordered to go home when they bumped into the Germans making their entrance in town.

Later on, the family had to evacuate a few times when bombing was too dangerous. Once when they returned home, my mom found a German soldier lying on the floor in one room of the house. She didn’t realize that he was dead and thought he was asleep. My great grandmother carried him out of the bedroom herself. My mom never asked what she did with the corpse.

At the liberation, my mom was considered too young to go dancing but she chewed her first gum and her older friends smoked their first cigarettes. Her young uncle prisoner during the war returned home. My mom was overjoyed to see him but disappointed when he called her mademoiselle. Four years had passed.

When I grew up I laughed when my mom blocked her ears whenever a plane broke the sound barrier. One day she told me why, and I stopped making fun of her.

My dad took me often for long walks on the Normandy beaches where he told me about growing up during a war. The beaches there are lovely and lively in the summer.

My children were shocked to see people play, swim, sunbathe, and just have fun, where so many young men died on D-Day.

My parents told them that life has to go on and be lived, and that it isn’t disrespectful to enjoy the beaches so many years after the end of the war.

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In 1994, when my parents visited my family, recently settled in California, my dad brought something for me in his suitcase.

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Histoire is alive through histoires.

Comments

  1. Your parents stories, and now yours, brought to life the reason we remember this day. It is a sad day for my mom when she remembers the young men in her neighborhood who didn’t make it back to California.

    • Originally I thought of writing more about my profound gratitude toward the Allies troops. Then since my father passed away, almost a year ago, I remembered of his stories and how my love for words comes from so many different places. Thank you, Mona, for reminding all of us of the young men who died for freedom.

  2. Thank you for these “histoires”. You tell them with a lot of sensitivity.

    My grandma was a teen during WWII. She often told me her memories, but theirs was more about the resistance that happened in French Alps (we came from a city near Grenoble). She told me once “Never forget this: resistance was as violent as the war itself. By the acts, of course, even if it was for “the good cause”, but also by retaliation from German forces”. She really lived in the countryside and one day, a group of men of the next village blowed out a storehouse. The following night, half of the village was massacred. They didn’t know who did that, so they killed almost everyone and burn the houses.
    The reciprocy was true as well. Once someone was assumed “collabo”, even if it was just rumors, he was threaten…or worse.
    Even when I was a little girl, I wanted her to tell me how it was, not just war, but the conditions of living, people going to hide in the mountains to escape the camps, including the one who will become my grandfather.
    Even know, she still makes nightmares, but at least now they are just nightmares. The caves in the mountains are hidden by the trees, but the village was never rebuilded.

    Sorry for that block 🙂

    Anyway: as long as people remember, let’s hope that it will never happen again.
    It’s a bit too optimistic, almost naive, isn’t it?
    See you !

    • I wish I had known people in the resistance, called terrorism by the enemy. Your grandmother’s right about the violence, but it was targeted violence with a valid goal. WWII is perhaps the last war that had a purpose. The French Alps have had their share of horrors during that time. I feel for your grandmother who has nightmares about the atrocities, so many years after.
      You are also right about the importance of remembering. Hopefully it will help us and future generations to act before a war explodes somewhere.

  3. I have read and read and watched “stories” about WWII, both in Europe and in the Pacific, but I only have ever heard a few that were personal stories. Thanks for sharing this one. It’s impossible to imagine what it was like to live through invasion, occupation and then invasion again. It helps to hear your story. It helps to put human faces behind the scenes.

    • My parents told lots of stories, if I was careful to listen. Above all, they were deeply grateful to the Allies who gave them back the freedom they had before the war. In my native Normandy, today is a day of remembrance. Fewer and fewer men who were there that day are still alive, but their sacrifice and courage are very much alive. My sister lives on the coast and she told me that it is an emotional day for everyone in her small town.

  4. What amazing stories, Evelyne. This is why it’s always so important to gather the oral histories of people who lived through war. Yesterday (4 June) was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Rome – and I’ve enjoyed seeing all the amazing photos from the time of the tanks rolling by the Colosseum – but, of course, that victory news was short-lived with the Normandy invasions taking place the next day. I’ve been to the beaches and the cemetery and the D-day Museum in Arromanches – just amazing! Thanks so much for the personal reflections.

    • I agree with you about oral stories, Kimberly. I will always regret not having asked more to my grandparents who were adults during WWII. I was too young to understand the importance of personal memories. In Normandy the events lasted for a week, ending today. All of Europe has incredible stories to tell about that period of time and great books have been written about it. I’m glad that you got a chance to visit some of the museums and cemeteries. My children understood more when I took them there. See you soon.

  5. cardamone5 says:

    This is truly a lovely story. It brings those times to life, and makes those of us for whom they are just stories more appreciative of the sacrifices made. Hurrah to you for this post, and to your family for their struggles and triumphs.

    I have a feeling this might go viral. It has that potential, but just in case, you might want to send it to a newspaper or something. It’s lovely. Reblogged on my site. Hope that’s OK.

    Fondly,
    Elizabeth

    • Nice to see you, Elizabeth. Perhaps before my father died almost a year ago, I find myself digging through everything he told me. He didn’t talk much, preferring jokes and laughter. But he still shared meaningful moments of his life, so different from mine. Thank you for the reblog.

  6. cardamone5 says:

    Reblogged this on Breaking the Cycle and commented:
    Evelyn Holingue is a truly wonderful storyteller. I was so moved by this piece, I had to share. I encourage you to check out her site at evelyneholingue.com

  7. What an amazing account of history that touches all of us. Thank you for sharing Evelyne – it’s a solemn reminder to not forget.

    • Forgiving is a must to go on with life. Remembering so that wars don’t happen is important, you’re right, Mary. Because I am from Normandy, I think it was easier for me to understand what happened. But my parents’ stories gave reality to the facts.

  8. What a vital living history. We can never forget. I am re-blogging this and sharing on my Facebook page.

  9. Reblogged this on bemuzin and commented:
    I don’t usually reblog, but this is a compelling living history in honor of D-Day told by http://evelynholingue.com

  10. Reblogged this on my page as well. Powerful, powerful post. Thank you so much for taking the time to share this with us. You have a new follower.

    • Thank you, Melinda, for stopping by and taking the time to write a comment. I love all kind of stories. When shared orally, they are often very personal and trigger emotions that stick to the mind. See you soon.

  11. Hi Evelyne, I also want to reblog your ‘histoire’. I was nine years old on D-Day. I am an Australian now but grew up in Germany. At the time I am sure the average German wanted nothing more than that this war should end. On D-Day we commemorate the Allies’ great courage and sacrifice. It lead to the end of the war!
    Aunty Uta

    • Your comment, Uta, gives me emotional shivers. You are my parents’s age, so you can totally relate to this period of time. I agree with you that many Germans understood that ending the war would be good for everyone. I just saw a clip showing a German and a French men, meeting for the first time today. Both fought on D-Day. They shook hands. France and Germany have moved forward and are now close friends, which is good.

  12. We need to remember, the bad and the good. If we forget, we learn nothing. Thank you for this.

    • Thank you, Marilyn. You’re right. Remembering the bad and the good events in history make our world a better place. I liked your post about remembering D-Day as well.

  13. Reblogged this on Sunday Night Blog and commented:
    Another perspective on D-Day: from the French side

  14. Thanks for the personal history of your family. Only through this we understand the trauma and the pain the “others” went through during the war. I lived through on the other side and I remember a couple of French POW talking to us for probably the same reason you describe the German soldier was talking to the French children.

    D-Day was the beginning of the end of the war. Eleven more months of destruction and death initiated by a mad man.

    • Thank you for reading me and for adding your own words. Wars are the result of adults’ actions and children are caught in between. When my parents spoke about these four years of their childhood, I realized that life went on despite of the conflict.
      You’re right about D-Day marking the beginning of the end of the war. My mom’s young uncle from my post died during the days that followed D-Day, shot during a parade in a nearby village. Remembering wars helps us to want peace instead of war. Thank you again for stopping by.

  15. What an amazing family story you have to share here Evelyne. Again, we share parallels from different countries; my parents of course would have been young children when D Day took place but to know that your family lived in occupied France at that time and the stories you share here are powerful indeed. My grandparents befriended a few Americans who stayed nearby when based in England and they often shared meals with them despite the rationing. The Americans in turn brought treats; stockings for my Granny, cigars for my granddad and candy for my mum and uncle.
    I love your parent’s philosophy about life carrying on and that it isn’t disrespectful for people to enjoy the sea and the beaches so many years later. Yet..we never forget and will always remember the ultimate sacrifice paid by so many so that we might live in and enjoy our freedom today.
    Thoroughly enjoyed your perspective of this 70th Anniversary of D Day and your family’s account, as told through your beautifully told histoires. Thank you so much for sharing them.

    • Thank you, Sherri. Hard times still carry hope and humanity, right? The British people played such a crucial role druing WWII and D-Day. In fact many villages in Normandy were liberated by the British troops while others were by the Canadians or Americans. My mom also told me about the treats the Americans brought with them. In the US, I’ve met several elderly French women who married an American after the war and followed him to the States. Realizing they met because of the war was very moving to me. It shows how love prevails about violence. See you soon, Sherri.

  16. It is always an education to have oral history outside of what is written by historians and the folks in Hollywood. Somehow the horror of the experience by people who lived through it can be more effectively be told by the people themselves. Like the part of your dad with the diversions from the chickens, and your mom covering her ears from the noise of a plane. I know now you are glad you pulled some of this information out of your dad. So are we, thank you for sharing Evelyne.

    • Thank you, Jazzytower, for stopping by and adding your words to my post. Like oral stories, the comments of people who read me allow the conversation to go on, which I find important.

  17. Evelyne, it was both poignant and wonderful to read these personal stories. You’re fortunate to have these memories – and to take that care to listen and not dismiss them as we so often do when we’re younger and don’t realise how important they are.

    • Thank you, Andrea. I did dismiss some when I was younger! But I love story and history, so many stuck to my memory. And yes, as I grew up and specially when I moved to the U.S. I started to pay more attention to what my parents told about their lives in France as I felt a need to remember of my roots through their personal stories. See you soon.

  18. Thank you so much, Andrea. I am blushing. No, my prose is still a work in progress. I appreciate your support, which encourages me to improve my skills. See you soon on your blog.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Evelyne Holingue was born in Normandy but has lived in the US for more than twenty years.  She writes in both French and English on her blog and I’m often surprised that English isn’t her first language, as her prose has a rich, sensual flow to it that I love.  She writes on a wide range of subjects, including writing and life.  Her young adult novel ‘Trapped in Paris’ is available from Amazon. […]

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