Read The Paris Architect: A Novel Online

Authors: Charles Belfoure

The Paris Architect: A Novel (3 page)

“Twelve hundred francs is most generous, monsieur.”

“No, I said twelve thousand.”

There was silence. Digits formed in Lucien’s mind as if a teacher were writing them methodically on a blackboard—first a one, then a two, a comma, and three zeros. After he mentally verified the number, he said, “Monsieur, that…that is more than generous; it’s ludicrous!”

“Not if your life depended on it.”

Lucien thought this was such an amusing comment that he was obliged to let out his great belly laugh, the kind that annoyed his wife but always delighted his mistress. But Manet didn’t laugh. His face showed no emotion at all.

“Before I give you a little more information about the project, let me ask you a personal question,” Manet said.

“You have my full attention, Monsieur Manet.”

“How do you feel about Jews?”

Lucien was taken aback. What the hell kind of question was that? But before giving Manet his gut response—that they were money-grubbing thieves—he took a deep breath. He didn’t want to say anything that would offend Manet—and lose the job.

“They’re human beings like anyone else, I suppose,” he replied feebly.

Lucien had grown up in a very anti-Semitic household. The word
Jew
had always been followed by the word
bastard
. His grandfather and father had been convinced that Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer on the staff of the French Army headquarters back in the 1890s, was a traitor, despite evidence that a fellow officer named Esterhazy had been the one who’d sold secrets to the Germans. Lucien’s grandfather had also sworn that Jews were responsible for France’s humiliating defeat by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, although he could never provide any real proof to back up this charge.
Whether
one
hated
them
for
betraying
the
country, for killing Christ, or screwing you over in a business deal, all other Frenchmen were anti-Semites in one way or another, weren’t they?
Lucien thought. That’s the way it had always been.

Lucien looked into Manet’s eyes and was glad he’d kept his true feelings to himself.

He saw an earnestness that alarmed him.

“You’ve probably noticed that since May all Jews over the age of six are now required to wear a yellow Star of David,” said Manet.

“Yes, monsieur.”

Lucien was well aware that Jews had to wear a felt star. He didn’t think it was such a big deal, though many Parisians were outraged. Gentiles had begun to wear the yellow stars or yellow flowers or handkerchiefs in protest. He’d even heard of a woman who’d pinned a yellow star on her dog.

“On July 16,” said Manet, “almost thirteen thousand Jews were rounded up in Paris and sent to Drancy, and nine thousand were women and children.”

Lucien knew about Drancy. It was an unfinished block of apartment buildings near Le Bourget Airport that an architect friend, Maurice Pappon, had worked on. A year earlier, it became the main detention camp for the Paris region, though it had no water, electric, or sanitary service. Pappon had told him that Drancy prisoners were forced onto trains to be relocated somewhere in the east.

“One hundred people killed themselves instead of being taken. Mothers with babies in their arms jumped from windows. Did you know that, monsieur?”

Lucien saw Manet’s growing agitation. He needed to redirect the man’s conversation to the project and the twelve thousand francs.

“It is a tragedy, monsieur. Now what kind of changes did you have in mind?”

But Manet continued as though he hadn’t heard a word.

“It was bad enough that Jewish businesses were seized and bank accounts frozen, but now they’re banned from restaurants, cafés, theaters, cinemas, and parks. It’s not just immigrant Jews but Jews of French lineage, whose ancestors fought for France, who are being treated in this way.

“And the worst part,” he continued, “is that Vichy and the French police are making most of the arrests, not the Germans.”

Lucien was aware of this. The Germans used the French against the French. When a knock came at a Frenchman’s door in the middle of the night, it was usually a gendarme sent by the Gestapo.

“All Parisians have suffered under the Germans, monsieur,” Lucien began. “Even gentiles are arrested every day. Why, on the way here to meet you, a…” He stopped in mid-sentence when he remembered that the dead man was a Jew. Lucien saw that Manet was staring at him, which made him uncomfortable. He looked down at the beautiful parquet floor and his client’s shoes.

“Monsieur Bernard, Gaston has known you a long time. He says you are a man of great integrity and honor. A man who loves his country—and keeps his word,” said Manet.

Lucien was now completely confused. What in the hell was this man talking about? Gaston really didn’t know him at all, only on a professional level. They weren’t friends. Gaston had no idea what kind of man Lucien truly was. He could’ve been a murderer or a male prostitute, and Gaston would never have known.

Manet walked over to one of the huge windows that overlooked the rue Galilée and stared out into the street for a few moments. He finally turned and faced Lucien, who was surprised by the now-grave expression on the old man’s face.

“Monsieur Bernard, this
alteration
is to create a hiding place for a Jewish man who is being hunted by the Gestapo. If, by chance, they come here looking for him, I’d like him to be able to hide in a space that is undetectable, one that the Gestapo will never find. For your own safety, I won’t tell you his name. But the Reich wants to arrest him to find out the whereabouts of his fortune, which is considerable.”

Lucien was dumbfounded. “Are you insane? You’re hiding a Jew?”

Normally, Lucien would never speak so rudely to a client, especially an enormously rich one, but Manet had crossed into forbidden territory here. Aiding Jews: the Germans called it
Judenbegunstigung
. No matter how wealthy he was, Manet could be arrested and executed for hiding Jews. It was the one crime a Frenchman couldn’t buy his way out of. Wearing some dumb yellow star out of sympathy was one thing, but actually helping a Jew wanted by the Gestapo was sheer madness. What the hell had Lucien gotten himself into—or rather, what had that bastard Gaston got
him
into? Manet had some set of balls to ask him to do this for twelve thousand or even twelve million francs.

“You’re asking me to commit suicide; you know that, don’t you?”

“Indeed I do,” said Manet. “And I’m also committing suicide.”

“Then for God’s sake, man, why are you doing this?” exclaimed Lucien.

Manet didn’t seem put off by Lucien’s question at all. He almost seemed eager to answer it. The old man smiled at Lucien.

“Let me explain something to you, Monsieur Bernard. Back in 1940, when this hell began, I realized that my first duty as a Christian was to overcome my self-centeredness, that I had to inconvenience myself when one of my human brethren was in danger—whoever he may be, or whether he was a born Frenchman or not. I’ve simply decided not to turn my back.”

“Inconvenience myself” was a bit of an understatement under these circumstances, Lucien thought. And as for Christianity, he agreed with his father: it was a well-intentioned set of beliefs that never worked in real life.

“So, Monsieur Bernard,” continued Manet, “I will pay you twelve thousand francs to design a hiding place that is invisible to the naked eye. That is your architectural challenge. I have excellent craftsmen to do the work but they’re not architects; they don’t have your eye and couldn’t come up with as clever a solution as you could. That’s why I’m asking you for your—help.”

“Monsieur, I absolutely refuse. This is crazy. I won’t do it.”

“I’m hoping you’ll reconsider my proposition, Monsieur Bernard. I feel it can be a mutually beneficial arrangement. And it’s just this one time.”

“Never, Monsieur. I could never agree…”

“I realize that making a decision that could get you killed is not one to be made on the spot. Please, do me the favor of taking some time to think about this. But I’d like to hear from you today by 6:00 p.m., at the Café du Monde. I know you need to make a closer examination of the apartment for you to decide, so take this key and lock the door when you finish. And now, monsieur, I’ll leave you to it.”

Lucien nodded and tried to speak, but nothing came out.

“By the way, at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow, I’m signing a contract to produce engines for the Heinkel Aircraft Works. My current facilities are much too small to handle such a job, so I’m planning an expansion next to my plant at Chaville. I’m looking for an architect,” said Manet as he walked toward the door. “Know of one?”

3

The room started spinning around, and Lucien became so disoriented that he couldn’t keep his balance. He sat on the floor and thought he was going to vomit.

“Christ, what a day!” he muttered.

Normally, Lucien would do anything to get a job, no matter how despicable. Like the time he slept with the very overweight wife of the wine merchant, Gattier, so that she would persuade her husband to select Lucien to design his new store on the rue Vaneau. It had turned out beautifully—not one change had been made to his design.

This, however, was a different matter altogether. Sure, he was broke, but were twelve thousand francs and a guaranteed commission worth the risk of dying? The money wouldn’t help him if he was dead. Actually, it wasn’t the dying part that troubled him. It was the torture by the Gestapo that would precede the dying. Lucien had heard on good authority what the Germans did to those who wouldn’t cooperate—days of barbaric treatment before death, or if the Gestapo was feeling merciful, which was a rarity, internment in a camp.

Parisians had quickly learned that not all German soldiers were the same. There were three very different types. The largest branch, the Wehrmacht, was the regular army that did most of the fighting and had some sense of decency toward the French. Next was the Waffen-SS, the special elite army unit of the Nazi Party, which fought in combat but was also used in rounding up Jews. The last and the absolute worst was the Gestapo, the secret police, who tortured, murdered, mutilated, and maimed Jews—or anyone, including fellow Germans, for crimes against the Reich. The Gestapo’s cruelty was said to be beyond imagination.

People were even scared to use the word
Gestapo
. Parisians would usually say, “
They’ve
arrested him.” The Gestapo headquarters at 11 rue des Saussaies was just around the corner from the Palais de l’Élysée, the former residence of the French president. Everyone in Paris knew and feared this address.

No, no matter how much he needed money and craved a new project, the risk was unfathomable. Lucien had never fooled himself into believing he was the heroic type. He’d learned that in 1939, when, as an officer called up from the reserves, he’d been stationed for eight months on the Maginot Line, the string of concrete fortresses that the French government guaranteed would protect France from a German onslaught. Since no fighting had occurred in France after the fall of Poland, he’d sat on his ass reading architectural magazines his wife had sent him, designing imaginary projects. One fellow officer who was a university professor had used the time to write a history of the ancient Etruscans.

Then on May 10, 1940, the Germans had invaded, but instead of attacking the “invincible” Maginot Line, they’d swept around it, entering northern France through the Ardennes Forest. Meanwhile, Lucien had been stationed inside a bunker on the Maginot Line, never getting the chance to engage the enemy. Secretly, he’d been glad because he was terrified of fighting the Germans, who seemed like super-beings. They had crushed everyone they had invaded with incredible ease—the Poles, the Belgians, and the Dutch, plus forcing the British off the continent at Dunkirk.

After the armistice was signed on June 22, he was considered officially defeated and captured, but Lucien and other officers had had no intention of being herded into a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Uncle Albert, the brother of Lucien’s mother, had spent four years in a German prison camp during the First World War and as a result spent the rest of his life unhinged, doing weird things like chasing squirrels in the park like a dog. Lucien and many other French soldiers had simply taken off their uniforms, destroyed their military papers, and then blended into civilian life with forged demobilization documents. Before the Wehrmacht had reached the garrisons of the Maginot Line at the end of June, Lucien had returned to his wife in Paris.

What he found was a ghost town. Even though Paris had been declared an open city by the British and thus safe from bombing, over a million people—out of a population of three million—fled. Lucien and his wife had decided to stay, believing that it was far less dangerous to face the Germans than the perils of the open road. It had turned out to be the right decision: with millions of other Frenchmen fleeing south, the roads became impassable and many people had gone missing or died of exposure. This mass exodus and the military’s quick surrender to the Germans humiliated France in front of the world. Lucien hated the Germans with all his heart for what they did to his country. He cried the day of the surrender. But all that really mattered to him was that he and his wife were still alive.

No, Lucien wasn’t a hero, and he definitely wasn’t a do-gooder, one of those guys who stood up for the downtrodden. Manet had do-gooder written all over him. And to risk one’s life to help a
Jew
? Lucien’s father would’ve laughed in his face. Having grown up in Paris, Lucien had been around Jews all his life, at least indirectly. He’d heard that there were something like two hundred thousand heebs living in Paris, although he’d never met one Jew at the École Spéciale d’Architecture, where he’d studied. There were hardly any Jewish architects. Lucien had always reasoned that Jews had an innate mercantile talent, so they went into business and professions like law and medicine that would make them loads of money. Architecture, Lucien quickly learned, was not the way to go if you wanted to become rich.

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