Authors: Charles Belfoure
“Oh, look, it’s Suzy,” she said to Lucien. “Hello, my love,” Adele called across the room. “You be sure to come to my salon this week. I won’t forgive you if you cancel again.”
Lucien turned around to see the actress Suzy Solidor sitting at a table with a half-dozen people. She raised her glass to Adele and smiled. He’d seen other famous actors and entertainers, those who hadn’t fled in 1940, at this restaurant before. Established stars like Maurice Chevalier, Sacha Guitry, and rising stars like Edith Piaf and Yves Montand had stayed in Paris and continued their careers. They enjoyed the nightlife as if there wasn’t a war on at all, to the disapproval of some Frenchmen. Adele loved her connections to the movie world and crowed about them all the time. She was glad the stars had stayed. Lucien knew the only celebrity she wished had left was Coco Chanel, whom she loathed, because Parisians thought Chanel was more talented and chic than Adele, and it drove her mad.
“Suzy’s coming in to look at some sketches, and she may bring Simone Signoret. Isn’t that wonderful?” Adele said excitedly. “And they
said they’d definitely come to my show.”
Slowly sipping her wine, she ignored Lucien while she took in a 180-degree view of the entire restaurant, admiring the glamorous clientele and surroundings as one would take in a view of the Alps.
“As I said, there’s a reward waiting for you to collect at my flat, so let’s get going,” said Adele, finishing off the last drop of wine.
On their way out, they passed a table where six German officers were seated, wolfing down omelets, roast chicken, and lamb chops with gusto and washing it all down with champagne. Lucien was relieved that he didn’t recognize any of them from his meeting at Manet’s factory. They’d be suspicious about how an architect who got paid a pittance by the Reich could afford such a fancy place.
Lucien and Adele took their time as they walked along the rue Monsigny. It was a beautiful July night. Before the war, one of the pleasures of Paris had been strolling its streets and looking at the window displays in all the shops, but now there was no reason to stop and look because they were empty due to the shortages. The wine shops still had displays of bottles, but the bottles were empty. As usual, the streets were practically deserted, with a few people hurrying by to make it to the Metro before the midnight curfew. The Germans were quite clever, thought Lucien. The curfew wasn’t just a security measure but a form of psychological control over Parisians, far more powerful than brute force. People were scared to death to be caught outside after midnight. He could see the anxiety in the faces of the people who passed them. There were no cars on the roads. Only a
, a kind of bicycle rickshaw driven by a young man that carried two women passengers, passed by. It was a very popular means of transport just now in Paris because it didn’t need petrol or a horse.
“My friend Jeanne just got an incredible fur coat that once belonged to a Jew,” Adele said, touching the necklace. “Pure mink, knee length.”
“The Jews have lost everything. I hear many have gone into hiding.”
“Ah. They can hide under the smallest rock or in the tiniest crack,” she replied, “but the Boche will find them. That’s for sure.”
“Not many of them made it out of the country before the surrender, so there must be tons of them still around,” Lucien said. “I hear thousands were deported last month.”
“Now real Frenchmen can control their own economy. I know how the kikes took over the clothing and fashion industries. Dirty swine.”
Lucien was surprised at the venom spewing from Adele’s mouth. He had never seen this side of her—but the subject of Jews had never come up before. The Occupation, Lucien realized, hadn’t just bred hatred of Jews, it had brought out the very worst in human beings. Hardship had bred pure self-interest, setting group against group, neighbor against neighbor, and even friend against friend. People would screw over each other for a lump of butter.
“Just last week, Isabelle, a model from work, found out that her father had been arrested for hiding a Jew in his attic at his home in the country near Troyes,” Adele said. “Can you imagine risking your hide like that?”
Lucien looked down at his feet as they walked. “So what happened to Isabelle’s father?” he asked.
“Poor Isabelle doesn’t know where he is or even if he’s still alive. You know damn well he’s been tortured to death. She was lucky as hell she wasn’t brought in by the Gestapo. A good-looking girl like that could be sent to a brothel in Poland or someplace.”
“That’s a shame about her father.”
Adele stopped suddenly and looked Lucien square in the eyes.
“A shame? Fools who take risks like that deserve to die.”
“Still, you have to wonder why someone would do something like that.”
“Lucien, my love, you’re absolutely hopeless,” said Adele, playfully mussing his hair.
They strolled on and Adele chattered away like a magpie, but he didn’t hear a word. The wonderful anticipation of making love to Adele he’d felt as they’d left the café now was evaporating into the warm night air. Just for tonight, he’d wanted to put aside his fear of getting caught for what he’d done for Manet, but now Adele had ruined that with her story.
The dread was back. Lucien loved to walk the streets of his beloved Paris, but now he walked them in a state of continuous fear, always looking around to see if a black Gestapo Citroën was pulling alongside him or if plainclothes Gestapo men were sneaking up behind him to make an arrest.
Yesterday, while walking along the rue du Louvre, he’d felt a hand on his shoulder and had come close to fainting, but it had only been his friend Daniel Joffre standing there. Tonight he was so scared he didn’t think he’d get it up even with the sight of Adele wearing only the pearl necklace and high heels. Lucien was shaken out of his reverie by Adele’s shrill voice.
“Well, my goodness, the streetwalkers
out in force tonight, aren’t they?” exclaimed Adele. She was talking to a woman walking toward them.
“Mmm, that was exactly what I was thinking when I saw you, my dear,” replied the woman.
Lucien was confused by the exchange. The woman, he immediately noticed, was amazingly attractive. Much too beautiful to be a streetwalker.
The three of them now faced one another. “Lucien Bernard, let me introduce Bette Tullard. You’ve heard me mention her, of course. She’s the indispensable right-hand man of my fashion house. I hate to admit it, but if she left me, my business would collapse within twenty-four hours.”
“And that’s no exaggeration, Monsieur Bernard, believe me. Very pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise, mademoiselle,” he said, staring like an idiot at Bette’s beautiful face.
“I never forget a handsome man. I believe I saw you at our show last spring.”
“Why…yes, I was,” said Lucien, flattered to be remembered by such an attractive woman.
“I especially liked your wavy hair. Not slicked down like most men’s.”
“Well, thank you,” said Lucien, running his hand self-consciously through his hair.
“Yes, it’s one of his many fine qualities. Lucien’s an architect, Bette; he designed my apartment.”
“Ah, handsome and very talented. I love Adele’s apartment, even though I’m barely there five minutes when I visit. Adele’s always shoving me out the door,” said Bette, frowning at Adele.
running a business, my dear.”
“Really? I always got the impression that I ran the business,” replied Bette.
Lucien had heard Adele talk of Bette many times, but she had never described her. Now he knew why. He was amused by their relationship. Each time Adele insulted her or snapped at her, Bette insulted and snapped back with equal force. Bette seemed to know Adele could never fire her.
“Of course, with the new show coming up, you’ll be working through the night on the portfolio?” asked Adele with a smile.
“My, what a beautiful necklace, Adele,” said Bette, adroitly changing the subject.
Adele shifted her eyes toward Lucien, and Bette nodded.
“We won’t keep you, Bette darling; you have so much work to do tonight.”
“Yes,” replied Bette, “and I know you’ll be plenty busy as well.”
“God damn you, I told you never to light a candle. You can see the light coming through the boards at night. What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Solomon Geiber jumped to his feet, blew out the candle, and looked up at the ceiling of the pit, which was a crude arrangement of boards nailed together with cross ties. He could make out the figure of Maurier standing above him.
“Please forgive me, Monsieur Maurier; it won’t happen again.”
“You better believe it won’t happen again. You’ve got to go.”
“But you promised we could stay.”
“Tough luck. I must’ve been nuts to hide Jews. You know what would happen to me if they found you?”
“But where will we go?” moaned Miriam, Geiber’s wife.
“Who gives a shit? That’s your problem, not mine. You can stay until tomorrow night,” replied Maurier, who stomped away.
Geiber sat down on the plank floor of the dirt pit and held his head in his hands. About two meters wide, three meters long, and three meters deep, the hole they lived in must have once been a storage place for animal fodder. It had been Solomon and Miriam Geiber’s home for the last four weeks. Though it was cold, damp, and always smelled of moldy grain, the pit was a deluxe hotel compared to how they’d lived in the previous weeks.
Warned by a friend in the middle of the afternoon that the Gestapo was on the way to their apartment, Geiber and his wife had grabbed their belongings and savings and escaped into the streets of Paris. After being rebuffed by three friends whom they thought they could count on, the Geibers had had no idea of what to do. In desperation, they’d gone to their longtime pharmacist, a kindly gentile whom they’d hoped would hide them in the basement beneath his shop. But he politely refused and to their horror had offered them free vials of cyanide to take in case they were caught.
Feeling totally abandoned, the Geibers had made their way to the outskirts of the city. After spending a miserable night under a railroad overpass, they’d continued walking west into the countryside, traveling from one farm house to another, begging for a roof over their heads and some food. But knowing the penalty for hiding Jews, the farmers had either slammed their doors in their faces or offered the old couple some scraps of food then shooed them away as though they were stray dogs. Because he’d been so desperate, Geiber had lost all feelings of pride and practically begged on his knees for help. Day after day, they’d wandered with no definite destination, subsisting on handouts and sleeping in the woods or in haystacks at night.
Occasionally, they’d come across some decent people who’d shelter them overnight. They were an odd sight in the middle of the French countryside, an old man in a three-piece English tweed suit and cane, his wife in a fashionable tailored outfit. To avoid capture by the Germans, the couple had steered clear of the highways and only traveled the back country roads. Both were in their late sixties, and the walking soon took a toll on their bodies; Miriam’s legs became terribly swollen, and she could barely drag herself along. There had been times when they thought of turning themselves in to end their misery.
The only act of kindness came when a farmer offered them bicycles that had belonged to his sons, both of whom were now prisoners of war in Germany. Though it had been at least ten years ago, the Geibers had gone on many biking holidays with their children through France and Switzerland. To their delight, they discovered that it was true—that once you learned to ride a bicycle, you never forgot. Biking had been better than walking, but they’d still found no one who would take them in permanently.
One evening, they saw a light in a farmhouse set about half a kilometer from the road. Tired and hungry, the couple rode up and knocked on the door. A farmer with a stubbly gray beard and short cropped hair came to the door. He listened to their plea dispassionately. A girl of around sixteen with a beautiful mane of blond hair joined him.
“We know you’re Jews. We won’t hurt you. Please come in,” said the girl. The Geibers, who were amazed by what they heard, actually thought they had found an angel from heaven. But before the Geibers could move, the farmer barred the doorway with his thick muscular arm then slammed the door on them. Behind the plank door, shouting broke out with the girl pleading with the farmer to help them. He screamed back at her, telling her she was a fool. The argument went back and forth. Dejected, the Geibers had walked away, but the door was thrown open, and both the girl and farmer came out.
“I’ll hide you if you pay me,” demanded the farmer, glaring at the girl, who was about to protest.
“That’s no problem, monsieur. I’d be glad to pay for your kindness,” replied Geiber. Once the Occupation began, he had taken measures to ensure his vast fortune was safe, but he also knew that cash would come in handy, so he kept a great deal of it in his home to take with them if they had to run. Geiber also had Miriam sew gold coins and her jewels into her dresses.
In exchange for five thousand francs, they lived in a pit in the barn with a bucket for a chamber pot. The smell and the dampness worked its way into their skin and joints, and at night they could hear the rats scampering above them looking for food. But worst of all was the Stygian darkness in which they lived. During the day, the Geibers could barely see each other by the light that filtered in between the cracks of the floor boards, which had a light layer of hay on them to camouflage the hiding place. At night, they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces. Several times, they had lit a Sabbath candle on Friday nights until Maurier caught them.
They passed the time by reminiscing about every single detail of their lives—about their sons and grandchildren, their favorite books, musicals, art, and all the films they’d seen. In an odd way, this ordeal proved what a good marriage they had had for forty years; they could converse about anything and entertain each other for hours, the way friends did over coffee in a café.