“Sometimes we hate the things we are afraid of,” she said.
I made a face like she was talking crazy.
She took my hand.
“I know what it is like to be afraid, Julian,” she said, holding her finger up to my face. “There was a little boy that I was afraid of when I was a little girl.”
“Let me guess,” I answered, sounding bored. “I bet he looked just like Auggie.”
Grandmère shook her head. “No. His face was fine.”
“So, why were you afraid of him?” I asked. I tried to make my voice sound as disinterested as possible, but Grandmère ignored my bad attitude.
She just sat back in her chair, her head slightly tilted, and I could tell by looking into her eyes that she had gone somewhere far away.
“I was a very popular girl when I was young, Julian,” said Grandmère. “I had many friends. I had pretty clothes. As you can see, I have always liked pretty clothes.” She waved her hands down her sides to make sure I noticed her dress. She smiled.
“I was a frivolous girl,” she continued. “Spoiled. When the Germans came to France, I hardly took any notice. I knew that some Jewish families in my village were moving away, but my family was so cosmopolitan. My parents were intellectuals. Atheists. We didn’t even go to synagogue.”
She paused here and asked me to bring her a wine glass, which I did. She served herself a full glass and, as she always did, offered me some, too. And, as I always did, I said,
Like I said, Mom would go ballistic if she knew the stuff Grandmère did sometimes!
“There was a boy in my school called … well, they called him Tourteau,” she continued. “He was … how do you say the word … a crippled? Is that how you say it?”
“I don’t think people use that word anymore, Grandmère,” I said. “It’s not exactly politically correct, if you know what I mean.”
She flicked her hand at me. “Americans are always coming up with new words we can’t say anymore!” she said. “
, well, Tourteau’s legs were deformed from the polio. He needed two canes to walk with. And his back was all twisted. I think that’s why he was called
, crab: he walked sideways like a crab. I know, it sounds very harsh. Children were meaner in those days.”
I thought about how I called August “the freak” behind his back. But at least I never called him that to his face!
Grandmère continued talking. I have to admit: at first I wasn’t into her telling me one of her long stories, but I was getting into this one.
“Tourteau was a little thing, a skinny thing. None of us ever talked to him because he made us uncomfortable. He was so different! I never even looked at him! I was afraid of him. Afraid to look at him, to talk to him. Afraid he would accidentally touch me. It was easier to pretend he didn’t exist.”
She took a long sip of her wine.
“One morning, a man came running into our school. I knew him. Everyone did. He was a Maquis, a partisan. Do you know what that is? He was against the Germans. He rushed into the school and told the teachers that the Germans were coming to take all the Jewish children away. What? What is this? I could not believe what I was hearing! The teachers in the school went around to all the classes and gathered the Jewish children together. We were told to follow the Maquis into the woods. We were going to go hide. Hurry hurry hurry! I think there were maybe ten of us in all! Hurry hurry hurry! Escape!”
Grandmère looked at me, to make sure I was listening—which, of course, I was.
“It was snowing that morning, and very cold. And all I could think was,
If I go into the woods, I will ruin my shoes!
I was wearing these beautiful new red shoes that Papa had brought me, you see. As I said before, I was a frivolous girl—perhaps even a little stupid! But this is what I was thinking. I did not even stop to think, Well, where is Maman and Papa? If the Germans were coming for the Jewish children, had they come for the parents already? This did not occur to me. All I could think about were
my beautiful shoes. So, instead of following the Maquis into the woods, I snuck away from the group and went to hide inside the bell tower of the school. There was a tiny room up there, full of crates and books, and there I hid. I remember thinking I would go home in the afternoon after the Germans came, and tell Maman and Papa all about it. This is how stupid I was, Julian!”
I nodded. I couldn’t believe I had never heard this story before!
“And then the Germans came,” she said. “There was a narrow window in the tower, and I could see them perfectly. I watched them run into the woods after the children. It did not take them very long to find them. They all came back together: the Germans, the children, the Maquis soldier.”
Grandmère paused and blinked a few times, and then she took a deep breath.
“They shot the Maquis in front of all the children,” she said quietly. “He fell so softly, Julian, in the snow. The children cried. They cried as they were led away in a line. One of the teachers, Mademoiselle Petitjean, went with them—even though she was not Jewish! She said she would not leave her children! No one ever saw her again, poor thing. By now, Julian, I had awakened from my stupidity. I was not thinking of my red shoes anymore. I was thinking of my friends who had been taken away. I was thinking of my parents. I was waiting until it was nighttime so I could go home to them!
“But not all the Germans had left. Some had stayed behind, along with the French police. They were searching the school. And then I realized, they were looking for me! Yes, for me, and for the one or two other Jewish children who had not gone into the woods. I realized then that my friend Rachel had not been among the Jewish children who were marched away. Nor Jakob,
a boy from another village who all the girls wanted to marry because he was so handsome. Where were they? They must have been hiding, just like I was!
“Then I heard creaking, Julian. Up the stairs, I heard footsteps up the stairs, coming closer to me. I was so scared! I tried to make myself as small as possible behind the crate, and hid my head beneath a blanket.”
Here, Grandmère covered her head with her arms, as if to show me how she was hiding.
“And then I heard someone whisper my name,” she said. “It was not a man’s voice. It was a child’s voice.
the voice whispered again.
“I peeked out from the blanket.
I answered, astonished. I was so surprised, because in all the years I had known him, I don’t think I had ever said a word to him, nor him to me. And yet, there he was, calling my name.
They will find you here
, he said.
“And I did follow him, for by now I was terrified. He led me down a hallway into the chapel of the school, which I had never really been to before. We went to the back of the chapel, where there was a crypt—all this was new to me, Julian! And we crawled through the crypt so the Germans would not see us through the windows, because they were looking for us still. I heard when they had found Rachel. I heard her screaming in the courtyard as they took her away. Poor Rachel!
“Tourteau took me down to the basement beneath the crypt. There must have been one hundred steps at least. These were not easy for Tourteau, as you can imagine, with his terrible limp and his two canes, but he hopped down the steps two at a time, looking behind him to make sure I was following.
“Finally, we arrived at a passage. It was so narrow we had to
walk sideways to get through. And then we were in the sewers, Julian! Can you imagine? I knew instantly because of the smell, of course. We were knee-deep in refuse. You can imagine the smell. So much for my red shoes!
“We walked all night. I was so cold, Julian! Tourteau was such a kind boy, though. He gave me his coat to wear. It was, to this day, the most noble act anyone has ever done for me. He was freezing, too—but he gave me his coat. I was so ashamed for the way I had treated him. Oh, Julian, I was so ashamed!”
She covered her mouth with her fingers, and swallowed. Then she finished the glass of wine and poured herself another.
“The sewers lead to Dannevilliers, a small village about fifteen kilometers away from Aubervilliers. Maman and Papa had always avoided this town because of the smell: the sewers from Paris drained onto the farmland there. We wouldn’t even eat apples grown in Dannevilliers! But it’s where Tourteau lived. He took me to his house, and we cleaned ourselves by the well, and then Tourteau brought me to the barn behind his house. He wrapped me up in a horse blanket and told me to wait. He was going to get his parents.
, I pleaded.
Please don’t tell them
. I was so frightened. I wondered if, when they saw me, they would call the Germans. You know, I had never met them before!
“But Tourteau left, and a few minutes later, he returned with his parents. They looked at me. I must have seemed quite pathetic there—all wet and shivering. The mother, Vivienne, put her arms around me to comfort me. Oh, Julian, that hug was the warmest hug I have ever felt! I cried so hard in this woman’s arms, because I knew then, I knew I would never cry in my own maman’s arms again. I just knew it in my heart, Julian. And I was right. They had taken Maman that same day, along with all the other Jews in the city. My father, who had been at work, had
been warned that the Germans were coming and managed to escape. He was smuggled to Switzerland. But it was too late for Maman. She was deported that day. To Auschwitz. I never saw her again. My beautiful maman!”
She took a deep breath here, and shook her head.
Grandmère was silent for a few seconds. She was looking into the air like she could see it all happening again right in front of her. Now I understood why she’d never talked about this before: it was too hard for her.
“Tourteau’s family hid me for two years in that barn,” she continued slowly. “Even though it was so dangerous for them. We were literally surrounded by Germans, and the French police had a large headquarters in Dannevilliers. But every day, I thanked my maker for the barn that was my home, and the food that Tourteau managed to bring me—even when there was hardly any food to go around. People were starving in those days, Julian. And yet they fed me. It was a kindness that I will never forget. It is always brave to be kind, but in those days, such kindnesses could cost you your life.”
Grandmère started to get teary-eyed at this point. She took my hand.
“The last time I saw Tourteau was two months before the liberation. He had brought me some soup. It wasn’t even soup. It was water with a little bit of bread and onions in it. We had both lost so much weight. I was in rags. So much for my pretty clothes! Even so, we managed to laugh, Tourteau and I. We laughed about things that happened in our school. Even though I could not go there anymore, of course, Tourteau still went every day. At night, he would tell me everything he had learned so that I would stay smart. He would tell me about all my old friends, too, and how they were doing. They all still ignored him, of course.
And he never revealed to any of them that I was still alive. No one could know. No one could be trusted! But Tourteau was an excellent narrator, and he made me laugh a lot. He could do wonderful imitations, and he even had funny nicknames for all my friends. Imagine that, Tourteau was making fun of them!
I had no idea you were so mischievous!
I told him.
All those years, you were probably laughing at me behind my back, too!
Laughing at you?
Never! I had a crush on you; I never laughed at you. Besides, I only laughed at the kids who made fun of me. You never made fun of me. You simply ignored me
I called you Tourteau
And so? Everyone called me that. I really don’t mind. I like crabs!
Oh, Tourteau, I am so ashamed!
I answered, and I remember I covered my face with both my hands.”
At this point, Grandmère covered her face with her hands. Although her fingers were bent with arthritis now, and I could see her veins, I pictured her young hands covering her young face so many years ago.