Authors: Charles Belfoure
Even though the high command frowned upon Germans having intimate relations with French women except with registered whores, German soldiers always slept with these working-class French women. Sex became the common language of the Occupation. Still, there were rules. Germans weren’t permitted to walk arm in arm with a French woman in public or to take her back to the barracks. A German soldier of any rank would rarely get the chance to sleep with a respectable bourgeois French woman, most of whom would die before having sex with a German. That was why Schlegal considered his finding Adele a miracle.
Schlegal had been sitting on top of a large wooden desk and now swiveled around to face the opposite direction. Stretching out his legs, he clicked the heels of his shiny black boots, then crossed his arms. In front of him sat an elderly man in a wooden chair with his arms tied behind him. The old man’s head drooped, and drool dripped from the corner of his mouth.
“Let’s see. Where were we? Ah, yes. I asked you to tell me the whereabouts of Mendel Janusky, and you said you had no idea. Then I said you were a filthy lying pig, and if you didn’t tell me, I would teach you a very hard lesson. But you’re in luck, Monsieur Deligny. Because I’m going out with one of the most beautiful women in Paris tonight, I’m in a very charitable mood. So, I’ll give you one more chance. Where is Janusky? You
know who he is, don’t you? Let me refresh your memory. Janusky is a gentleman of the Hebrew persuasion and very, very rich. Maybe the richest man in Paris. The former owner of the Madelin Steel Works. Where you had been an executive since 1932.”
Schlegal held a glossy black-and-white photo in front of Deligny’s face. It was a formal portrait of an imposing-looking man in his sixties, dressed in a suit, standing next to a table. His right hand, which had a very large and ornate ring on it, was resting on a book on the table.
“Do you recognize him, monsieur?”
The old man made a gurgling sound.
“This filthy Jew has an estimated fortune of over 100 million francs and possesses one of the greatest art collections in the entire world, one that Reich Marshal Hermann Göring admires very much and wishes to take off Monsieur Janusky’s hands. Because once we find Monsieur Janusky, he won’t be having much time for art appreciation. We don’t consider this man just another rich, thieving Jew but an
of the Reich. He’s used his millions to help hundreds and hundreds of Jews throughout Europe to escape. Janusky found refuge for a bunch of Hungarian Jews in India of all places. It’s amazing what your client has accomplished. I’m really looking forward to meeting him. So, please tell me where I can find him.”
The old man said nothing.
“I guess it’s time for your lesson.”
Schlegal picked up a small square box with a lever attached to it and examined it closely.
“When I was a little boy in Leipzig, I had a box like this to run my electric train set. I was mad about model trains then, spent hours playing with them. If I remember right, it had a lever just like this to switch on the electric current, and if I turned the lever to the right…”
An ear-piercing scream rang out that seemed to reverberate for a full minute off the white plaster walls of the office. Schlegal’s eyes followed the wires from the box, which ran along the wooden floor, and up to the crotch of the old man, who was slumped over as if someone had punched him in the stomach.
“Heinz,” said Schlegal, “are you sure there’s enough juice coming from this box?”
“Why yes, Colonel,” said a flustered Captain Bruckner, who was sitting on a wooden chair in the corner of the room next to two other officers, Captain Wolf and Lieutenant Voss. “Please, try again. But this time, keep the lever all the way to the right.”
Another scream commenced, and it continued for quite a long time. Schlegal didn’t look at his guest but just stared at the box during the screaming. The old man’s upper body had jolted upright against the back of the wooden chair to which he was tied. When his cries began to produce a ringing in the Gestapo colonel’s ears, Schlegal turned the lever to the left, and there was an abrupt silence.
“Where will I find Mendel Janusky, Monsieur Deligny?”
The question was met with silence.
“I’m sorry, I missed that,” said Schlegal, who then quickly turned the lever to the right and back to the left to produce a short sharp scream.
“Still didn’t hear you.” A turn of the lever and another short scream.
The Gestapo colonel then amused himself by producing a whole series of screams of different lengths and pitches in an effort to create a kind of melody, which greatly entertained his staff officers.
“Did that sound at all like
?” Schlegal asked his staff.
Bruckner, Voss, and Wolf laughed hysterically and shook their heads.
“Too bad. Let me ask you one more time, Monsieur Deligny, where is Mendel Janusky?”
The old man’s full head of long white hair was drenched with sweat and hung down over his eyes. He lifted his head up a little to look at Schlegal, who now walked right up to him holding the box, his fingers on the lever.
The Gestapo officer had interrogated many a man since he’d arrived at 11 rue des Saussaies in 1941. Torture revealed a lot about a man’s character or moral fiber, he believed, whether he was French, German, Jew, or gentile. When he’d first started doing this type of work, he’d expected to come across men who wouldn’t crack, even under the most barbarous conditions, but that rarely happened. He wanted to meet some really brave men, but to his disappointment, they always broke down and talked. So he knew what was going to happen next.
With great difficulty, the old man took a deep breath, and in a low, almost inaudible voice, said, “Rue de Tournon, at Gattier’s, the wine merchant.”
“Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?” said Schlegal. He tossed the box on his desk. He nodded to Bruckner, who immediately left the room.
“My goodness, what time is it? Lunchtime already?” asked Schlegal, glancing at his wristwatch. “I’m starving. Gentlemen, will you join me for lunch at the Café Daunou?”
His officers exchanged smiles and picked up their gloves and caps. They knew their boss was in a good mood and would be paying. As the three Germans made for the door, Schlegal stopped and reached over for the box on the desk, turning the lever all the way to the right. “I hope you’ll excuse us, Monsieur Deligny,” he said in a very solicitous tone. “We’ll be back in an hour or two to continue our conversation.”
The screaming could still be heard as they reached the street four flights below.
“I fixed you a real cup of tea.”
Celeste was surprised to see Lucien in the kitchen first thing in the morning. He proudly handed Celeste a cup with a saucer. She remembered her husband telling her that on a trip to England, he’d found out that you never just give someone a cup of tea; it always has to be on a saucer. She smiled at the gesture.
“Real tea?” said Celeste. “Not brewed from catnip leaves?”
“Good God. It is real tea,” she said, holding the first sip in her mouth, relishing the taste. In wartime, Celeste had learned how to be thankful for the smallest pleasures in life. The finest champagne wouldn’t have tasted better.
For some time now, Lucien had been bringing home hard-to-get food like cheese, butter, and coffee. She knew it was from the black market but didn’t ask any questions. The other thing she learned during the Occupation was that law-abiding citizens now turned a blind eye to the breaking of the law. She could see that Lucien was very proud to provide these things.
“Thank you, it’s delicious.”
“Now, I must be off. Lots of work to be done at the office,” said Lucien cheerfully. He gave her a quick kiss on the forehead and grabbed his suit jacket from the back of the stainless steel kitchen chair. “What’s on your schedule today?”
“Nothing much. I heard there’s toilet paper at a shop on rue de Bretagne. I’ll try my luck.” Shopping during the Occupation meant women standing in long lines to try to buy the bare essentials.
“If they run out, I’ll see if I can get my hands on some. See you tonight.”
Celeste sipped her tea and stared at the gleaming white porcelain and stainless steel kitchen cabinets. Though she would’ve preferred wood cupboards, at least these were easy to clean. She placed her cup in the sink and went to the vestibule to get her hat, black felt with a pointy Robin Hood brim and white feather. She was glad she and Lucien had the same taste in women’s fashion.
It was a cool summer morning, and Celeste enjoyed the breeze on her face as she walked along the boulevard de Sébastopol. The Germans had drained the life out of Paris, but at least they couldn’t change its weather, she thought. She continued down to the Pont Notre-Dame and across the Seine. Looking at her wristwatch, she turned east and walked to Notre Dame. There were far more German tourist soldiers than Frenchmen and pigeons in front of the cathedral. Three Wehrmacht officers with cameras stopped snapping away and looked at her as she passed them. They murmured their approval to each other and smiled, but she ignored them. Inside the church were even more German soldiers walking along the aisles, gazing up at the great vaulted ceiling and the tall stained-glass windows. Some were kneeling in pews, praying, which surprised Celeste. She assumed that such people didn’t believe in any kind of God.
Celeste sat in a pew but didn’t pray. She never attended church on Sundays anymore but still liked the contemplative feel of the place. It was a good place to think and reflect, a tiny oasis of comfort in a disappointing life. What was the use of praying for happiness anyway? It hadn’t done her any good. She had been punished with the loss of her child then the abandonment by her father. She couldn’t take any more heartbreak. And her marriage had slipped away. Celeste had once truly loved Lucien, but for some reason, that love slowly evaporated like water in a bowl. It was once full, and now there was just a tiny puddle left at its bottom. No one had tipped the bowl over; it just simply vanished over time.
Celeste walked out of the cathedral and across the Petit Pont to the Left Bank. Just before the boulevard Saint-Germain, she turned onto rue Dante and went into an apartment house. On the second-floor landing, she rang the bell of a unit.
The door opened, and a tall middle-aged man with wire-rim glasses faced her.
“Madame Bernard, so wonderful to see you. We’re ready for you. This way, please.”
“Thank you, Monsieur Richet.”
At the dining room table sat a ten-year-old girl with freckled cheeks and brilliant blond hair in long pigtails. She stood up and curtseyed to Celeste.
“All right, Sandrine, what is your math assignment for this week? Still fractions?” said Celeste, taking off her hat and sitting down next to the girl.
“Yes, Madame, but I still can’t quite add wholes and fractions.”
“You’ll see, my love, in one hour, you’ll be doing it with the snap of your fingers, like magic,” said Celeste, kissing the girl on her cheek.
When the lesson was over, Richet came back into the dining room.
“I can’t thank you enough for your help these past months. Sandrine’s old tutor simply disappeared.”
“Many, many people in Paris have disappeared,” said Celeste.
“Thank you, Madame Bernard, for my lesson,” said Sandrine with a curtsey.
“Practice those fraction exercises, and you’ll see how well you do on the next exam.”
Richet stood behind his daughter, wrapped his arms around her, and kissed her on the top of her head.
“Sandrine, why don’t you go to the park for a while,” said Richet.
“Monsieur, I told you that I wouldn’t be part of this anymore.”
Manet, who was sitting on a plush red velvet sofa, smiled at Lucien, who was pacing back and forth in front of the enormous fireplace in the hunting lodge in Le Chesnay.
“All I’m asking for is a little advice.”
“Advice like that can get me killed. And you, as well.”
“Just take a look around and tell me what you think. I’m betting a man with your creative talents could think of another ingenious idea.”
Lucien knew the old man was just buttering him up, and it was working. As he gazed around the house, his eyes lit up when he saw that there were far more possibilities here than in the apartment. The building was typical of the great hunting lodges built in the seventeenth century for the nobility. Hidden in a dense forest on a piece of land probably a kilometer square, the house, with its steep slate roof and corner towers, was a good out-of-the-way place to hole up from the Gestapo. Properties like these were kept in the family, passed down through the generations. It must have at least thirty rooms, with a kitchen that was bigger than his own apartment.
Manet walked over to Lucien. Putting his hand on Lucien’s shoulder in a grandfatherly manner, he half-whispered, as though there were other people in the room.
“The two guests of this house would be quite grateful for your help—fifteen thousand francs is how grateful they’d be. And I’d be quite grateful.”
Lucien’s heartbeat raced. The first twelve thousand francs were going fast. There were just too many nice things on the black market. Cheese, eggs, butter, real wine, meat, and even chocolate were all available—for an astronomical amount of money. Most of the black market goods, Lucien discovered, came from the rural areas in northern France. The hicks out in the countryside now had the last laugh; they ate much better than city dwellers, and they sold their produce on the black market for fifty times the normal price. City people with kinfolk in the country were lucky; they were permitted to get family parcels of food through the mail. The Germans made things even worse with their plundering. The official exchange rate between the franc and the mark made them instantly rich, and soldiers descended on Paris like locusts devouring crops. First, they swallowed up luxury goods like perfume, then staples like wine and tobacco. When their tour of duty ended, German officers would board trains with dozens of suitcases filled with their booty. Yes, the fifteen thousand francs, thought Lucien, would come in very handy.