Authors: Charles Belfoure
“I thought the Jewish elders forced Pilate to condemn Christ to death,” Schlegal said. “They wanted him out of the way.”
“Mm…some theologians make that case. It could be true.”
“So why risk your life for a bunch of Christ killers?”
“You don’t understand, Colonel, that we’re all brothers on this earth.”
“Brothers.” Schlegal let out a great laugh. “What a load of bullshit.”
He had nothing but contempt for the old priest or any gentile who tried to hide Jews. Yet there were many who risked their lives to help them. It puzzled him to no end. Why die because of this human vermin? Frenchmen who had no connection to Jews before the war all of a sudden hid them in their attics or barns, knowing full well what would happen if they were caught. To risk one’s life for these thieving scum, who had brought nothing but misery to the world, was incomprehensible. Just last week, during a raid on Rue Saint-Honoré, a gendarme had lent a Jew his cape and hat so he could escape. Both were caught and shot on the spot. And the crazy thing was that the French cop didn’t even know the man. No, the planet would be a far better place if all the Jews just disappeared. And in Paris, he and the Gestapo were trying their hardest to make that happen.
“How many children have you helped to escape into Spain, Father?”
“I’m proud to say that it numbers in the hundreds by now.” Father Jacques gave him an ear-to-ear smile.
The priest’s smug expression angered Lieutenant Voss, who’d been standing in the shadows, and he punched Father Jacques in the side of the face so hard that the old man landed hard on the floor.
“Please, Voss,” said Schlegal. “That was quite unnecessary. Father Jacques has outwitted the Reich and is naturally quite proud of it. Let him have his moment of glory.”
Voss snorted, yanked the priest by his collar, and threw him back into the chair, then walked behind Schlegal and folded his arms.
“You must forgive Lieutenant Voss, Father. He’s grouchy because he hasn’t had his breakfast. So, if you could just confess your sins, he could go and eat.”
The priest rubbed the side of his face, then defiantly looked directly into Schlegal’s eyes. “Then I’m afraid Lieutenant Voss will have to wait until hell freezes over for his breakfast.”
This impressed Schlegal, who despised the priest for what he’d done, yet had respect for the old man. He wondered if a younger priest would be as defiant as an old man near the end of his life. With all those years of living ahead of him, would he act the same?
“So I guess if I let you go, you wouldn’t stop doing this,” asked Schlegal with a great smile.
Father Jacques shook with laughter for a few seconds. Schlegal laughed along with him.
“Colonel Schlegal, you’re a most amusing fellow. I could almost like you if you weren’t such a Gestapo swine.”
Schlegal laughed uncontrollably at this remark. Voss looked on with disapproval.
“Ah, Father Jacques,” said Schlegal, tears welling up in his eyes, “you almost make me wish I was Catholic.”
“But you do have your own church, Colonel. It’s run by Satan himself—Herr Hitler.”
Schlegal walked up to the priest and stooped down to face him. He placed his hand on the old man’s knee.
“So, Father, you’ve been working quite hard these days hiding these Jewish brats. It must have been an enormous strain on you. So I’m going to do something special for you.”
“Convert to Judaism?”
Voss started to lunge at the priest, but Schlegal waved him off.
“You need to take a trip, Father. You need a rest. So I’m arranging a vacation for you.”
“What a nice thing to do.”
“Have you ever been to southwestern Poland? Very beautiful country. I think you’re really going to like it. Fresh air. Trees. Nature. It’s kind of a retreat. One with lots of Jews, and since you like Jews, you’ll really feel at home.”
“Sounds wonderful. I’ve got a feeling I’m going to leave right away.”
“Indeed you are. In about two minutes you’ll be on your way. But one last thing. I suppose you won’t tell me if there were any others besides Father Philippe in Carcassonne helping the Jews?”
Father Jacques just smiled. “I can’t say it’s been a pleasure, Colonel, but I did enjoy talking to you. I even hope that when you die and your ass is burning in the fires of hell, you won’t suffer too much. In fact, I’ll pray for your soul, my son.”
“How very kind of you. It’s been a pleasure meeting you, Father. It’s not often I meet a brave man. Voss here will direct you to your train. I’m afraid you may find the train trip a bit cramped and uncomfortable.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that German train accommodations are not up to French standards. Rumor has it that you can get two hundred into one car.”
“Ah, in war, one must make sacrifices.”
Father Jacques knew it was time to go and rose from his seat. He bowed slightly to Schlegal and turned to Voss. “Herr Voss, I’m ready for our trip to Drancy.”
“Good news, Father,” Voss said with a smile on his face. “You can bypass Drancy and get on your train right away.”
“Yes, I’ve gotten you a berth on an express run,” added Schlegal. “It’s a long trip, but I hear you can get a nice hot shower when you arrive at your destination.”
“Did you fall into the pot and drown?” Alain yelled.
He heard Pierre flush the toilet and unlatch the door. Alain was leaning against the wall as he came out.
“What the hell were you doing in there? Sounded like you were talking to yourself in gibberish. What language was that, boy?”
Pierre just smiled at Alain.
Alain had disliked him the minute he’d laid eyes on him. Pierre was just supposed to clean up and fetch things, but then Lucien started giving him drawing lessons, saying the boy could take some of the drafting load off Alain, and he did. Once, to Alain’s great annoyance, Lucien said that the kid might have found his calling as an architect. The truth was that the twelve-year-old was a quick study, and he could quickly handle increasingly complex tasks. His line work was becoming quite good, and he was very detail-oriented, an important quality in an architect.
Pierre went back to his drawing board and began drawing a mezzanine plan for the Tremblay factory. After he’d finished his business in the WC, Alain walked over to Pierre.
“Your wall lines aren’t dark enough,” he told him.
“Yes, you’re right. They could be a lot darker,” answered Pierre cheerfully. It irritated the hell out of Alain that Pierre was always grateful for his advice. Alain ordered Pierre around and cursed at him on a routine basis but always out of earshot of Lucien.
“So what were you muttering in the bathroom? Sounded like Chinese or something,” asked Alain, leaning on Pierre’s drawing board.
“I was just saying a Hail Mary—in Latin.”
“Didn’t sound like Latin to me. I was an altar boy, and I know Latin when I hear it.”
“Well, it was Latin.”
“Do you always pray in the can?”
“It’s the only private place to pray in the office, don’t you think?”
Alain stared at the boy. There was something odd about the whole situation. Him popping up out of nowhere. Lucien telling him that Pierre was the son of a friend who died in the fighting in 1940. He tried to connect it to the strange goings-on with Manet and the cottage. Alain still couldn’t figure that one out. He’d followed Lucien a few times, but he hadn’t discovered anything. At least once a week, he’d gone through Lucien’s desk to look for any odd scraps of details like the one of the fireplace, but he’d found nothing. It was hard to snoop around with this damn kid hanging about all the time.
“So you’re a Catholic?”
“What did you think I was? An Arab?” answered Pierre, with surprising bravado.
“Where did you go to school before you came to Paris?”
“St. Bernadine in Toulouse.”
“How did your father know Lucien?”
“They had been friends in Paris and served together in the 25th Division when the Germans invaded.”
“The 25th Division? Where was it stationed?”
“On the Maginot Line.”
“What was your father’s rank?”
“So you have no family left.”
“No one. Both my mother and father are dead, and so is my brother, Jules.”
“That’s tough. What’s going to happen to you?”
Pierre shrugged his shoulders.
Alain walked back to his desk. He wanted Pierre out of here but knew that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Alain had no choice but to put up with him. But he might as well take full advantage of the situation. His family had never had servants, but now he had one.
“Hey, shithead. Go downstairs and get me a pack of cigarettes.”
“I’m going to hinge this pilaster at the top so that it lifts up. It’s almost a half a meter wide, which is big enough for a hiding place behind it. I hope your guest isn’t fat.”
Manet and Lucien stood in the salon of a grand townhouse on the rue de Bassano. It was incredibly lavish, with beautiful white and gold paneling and gleaming parquet floors. The classical pilasters, a kind of flat column only fifteen centimeters deep and almost four meters tall applied to the face of the walls, divided the paneling into wide sections. The moment Lucien stepped into the apartment and saw the pilasters, he knew exactly what to do.
“You can do that?” asked Manet.
Lucien heard the concern in the old man’s voice. Ever since the disaster with the fireplace, Manet had begun to doubt him, even though he would never admit it.
Lucien looked the pilaster up and down for a last-minute assessment. “Yes, I can make it work. The pilaster has to be carefully removed then reassembled. The whole thing can be lifted up at the bottom so someone can slip into the space behind it, which we’ll hollow out from the brick. Then it can be latched shut from behind, just like we did with the stair. But this work has to be done with great accuracy to get it to hinge right.”
“You know you don’t have to worry on that account. Just give us a drawing, and we’ll get it done.”
With Manet’s help, Lucien took his measurements of the pilaster and the cornice above it. When he was finished, the men walked toward the front door, and they turned to look at the new hiding place one last time.
“This place is beautiful. Do you own it?” asked Lucien as they got into his Citroën.
“No, a colleague of mine in Paris, who will remain nameless, of course.”
Lucien started the car, but then switched off the ignition and turned to face Manet. “I want you to get word to Father Jacques that I’ll keep the boy. I can protect him. He’s safer with me than trying to smuggle him into Spain or Switzerland. Will you tell him for me?”
“Father Jacques is probably dead by now.”
Lucien wasn’t surprised. It was just a matter of time till the priest would get caught. “When was he picked up?”
“A few days ago. Along with six Jewish kids. Someone betrayed him, and the Gestapo came. They were hiding in the attic, but one of the children started crying, and they found them.”
“Did he tell them anything?”
Manet laughed. “Not Father Jacques. He probably told them to go to hell.”
“Are you positive?”
“Please don’t be afraid, Lucien. We have contacts inside Gestapo headquarters. He told them nothing, I assure you.”
meaning the Resistance?”
“It’s best that you don’t ask questions.”
“I liked Father Jacques. He had balls for a priest.”
“He certainly did,” said Manet with a great laugh. “He’d be surprised at what you wanted me to tell him about Pierre. He didn’t think you possessed a set of balls.”
This comment cut through Lucien’s heart like a razor. He looked down at the floorboards of the car.
Manet immediately understood what he’d done and looked ashamed.
“During war, people who were thought to have no backbone at all turned out to be quite brave. Father Jacques might have been surprised that you decided to hide Pierre on your own. But I’m not.”
Placated by Manet’s remark, Lucien started the car.
“I enjoy having Pierre stay with me. He’s a damn fine boy. Smart, hardworking, and well mannered. I wish I’d been that way at his age. And you know, he’s got real talent; he could be an architect when he grows up. Every day I teach him something about the profession.”
Manet gazed through the windshield into the distance, puffing away on his pipe.
“Interesting how things work out in life. Pierre loses his entire family, then winds up with you, who opens up a whole new life for him. It’s amazing how our lives are dictated by accident.”
“He’s less shy and reserved, and he’s become good company. I like to take him to the cinema. You know, watching him smile and laugh at the screen gives me a lot more satisfaction than watching the film.”
“I’m glad things have worked out between you two. How has Madame Bernard taken all this? She must be quite pleased to have a child to look after.”
At the intersection at the Champs-Élysées, Lucien stopped the car to wait for a small military parade to pass. Every day at 1:00 p.m., rain or shine, the Germans staged a parade, complete with military band goose-stepping down the city’s main avenue, to remind Parisians who was in power. It was an effective psychological weapon just like the curfew, thought Lucien.
To save petrol while they waited, he switched off the ignition and turned to face Manet.
“Celeste and I parted ways just before the boy was brought to the office. I always thought the expression that ‘things always work out for the best’ was a crock. But maybe it is for the best. Look what came into my life.”
“A son you never would’ve had.”
“My wife and I had no children, and it cast a dark cloud over our marriage. But yes, I admit that he’s the son I never had. I enjoy taking care of him.”
“And you’ve saved a life.”
The parade cleared the intersection, and the gendarme waved the traffic through. As Lucien switched on the ignition and placed his hand on the gear shift, Manet placed his hand on his.
“The people you’ve saved are eternally grateful, but there are many more in danger.”
“I’m ready to help, monsieur,” said Lucien as he drove off.