Authors: Charles Belfoure
Maurier never allowed them out of the pit, but they didn’t care. It was better to be alive underground than be a corpse aboveground. Marie, Maurier’s niece, brought them food every day and pulled up and cleaned out the chamber pot. She washed their clothes. Marie did turn out to be an angel. Geiber swore that if he survived this, he’d pay back her kindness a hundredfold. Now, the Geibers would be back on the road, begging for help. He laughed to himself. The son of a wealthy businessman who owned an enormous aluminum works, Geiber had never once in his life worried about money or food or where he would live. Now, he wondered if God was teaching him a lesson—this Nazi hell in exchange for the years of privilege and happiness. Thank God his sons had immigrated to England in the ’30s. What he’d thought was a curse then had turned out to be a blessing.
Geiber jerked his head up as he heard someone approaching. Every hour of the day, he expected the boards to be yanked away and to see Germans soldiers in their gray-green uniforms, smiling down at him as if they’d unearthed a buried treasure.
“Monsieur Geiber,” said Marie.
“I once worked as a maid in the house of a very rich man. He may be able to help you.”
“It’s so overdone. You don’t need all that glass, and what’s this tower at the front? For chrissake, this is a factory, not a goddamn cathedral.”
Lucien was enraged, and without realizing it, he got to his feet. He was about to begin defending his design to Colonel Lieber when Major Herzog walked leisurely over to the drawings, which were tacked to the wall of Manet’s office. Lucien sat down, realizing that he had almost done something quite stupid. He had to remember that he wasn’t dealing with a normal client but one who could have him deported on the spot. He looked down at his shoes in embarrassment as Herzog began to speak.
“Colonel, the tower contains the mechanical equipment for the plant, plus it’s the front entrance, where the workers will clock in. All that glass brings in sunlight. Indeed, the whole design is quite functional; everything you see helps productivity. And isn’t that what the Reich insists on—to produce the most in the least amount of time?”
Colonel Lieber didn’t look convinced as he pulled out his gold cigarette case from his tunic. “Well, Herzog, if you say so. But a lot of the outside design seems unnecessary. I think we could do with a plain concrete building with a few windows. Something that could survive an attack from the Americans.”
“The entire structure is done in reinforced concrete that’s been strengthened to withstand a bombing,” said Herzog, in a tone of voice one might use with a recalcitrant four-year-old. “And you must remember, Colonel, that this factory will be used by the Reich after the war is won. So it shouldn’t be a slapdash affair but a permanent, well-designed building, like all our factories in Germany.”
Lieber waved his hand as if he were swatting away a fly, meaning the matter was settled and the design approved. Lucien could tell Lieber knew absolutely nothing about construction or armaments. This surprised him. He thought that the well-organized Germans would make it a point to pick qualified men for positions of responsibility. But, like the French government, they chose dolts who had to depend on men like Herzog to get the job done. Still, Lucien knew he was lucky to be dealing with these men. They belonged to the Wehrmacht, the regular army, not the Waffen-SS.
Lucien was simultaneously embarrassed and flattered by Herzog’s defense of his design. He felt both bad and good that someone was sticking up for him when he should’ve been the one doing the talking. He had failed many times in the past when trying to defend a modern design. It had inevitably been altered into something more classically inspired—either change it or lose the job and the fee. He was committed to the new modernism but not that committed. One had to eat and pay the rent.
The meeting continued with discussions of electrical service to run machinery and the cheapest way to heat the building. Lucien had cleverly run steam pipes behind the horizontal mullions of the ribbons of windows, a fact that did not escape Herzog’s notice. Throughout the meeting, Herzog piled compliment upon compliment on Lucien. Praise, Lucien discovered, negated his fear of being in the lion’s den.
At the two-hour mark, Lieber cleared his throat and rose from the plush, upholstered armchair Manet had provided for him, signaling that the meeting had come to an end. Everyone then looked over at Herzog, who also stood up. As had become routine, he would do his summation at the conclusion of a meeting.
“Well, if Monsieur Bernard will make these small revisions to the design plans, which we will need in one week,” said Herzog, wearing a great smile. “I know that’s an incredibly unreasonable amount of time, but I’m sure you can do it.”
“Thank you so much, Major Herzog,” said Manet. “My men are ready to move on this immediately. The site work can begin at once. You did say you could procure at least one earthmover. It would be so much more efficient than hundreds of men with picks and shovels.”
“Of course. In fact, I may get you three. Berlin has given this work a high priority. Do you think the number of workers you listed is adequate? You know I can provide you with a work force if you wish.” Herzog spoke in his most charming manner, as if he were offering Manet the use of his umbrella.
Both Lucien and Manet knew that the work force Herzog was talking about consisted of political prisoners from Drancy and the other internment camps around Paris. Emaciated men who were “volunteered” to work for the Reich.
At the beginning of the Occupation, Lucien had been worried that he and all other Frenchmen would be turned into slave laborers, but to his surprise, workers were paid. This, of course, added salt to the wounds of the defeated—most of the French now depended on the Germans for their incomes. Many worked directly for the Germans, especially in construction, where a quarter of a million worked for the Todt organization, which was building fortifications along the Atlantic coast to protect against an Allied invasion. Thousands of French, mainly the scum of the working class, had volunteered to go to Germany to work in factories. The Germans paid higher wages than French employers, but the work was backbreaking—plus, one could get killed by Allied bombing. Manet’s men knew they weren’t getting paid as much, but they would be treated well.
“That won’t be necessary at this time, Major.”
“This building is to be constructed in less than two months, Manet. Your men will work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Berlin is expecting no less from you,” Lieber stated in a bullying tone. “I don’t care how many men it takes.”
“Well then,” replied Herzog, who turned to Lucien, “this is a very successful start. And I believe Monsieur Manet may have mentioned his new armaments facility for the Luftwaffe?”
Lucien turned to Manet, who gave him a slight smile. Herzog picked up his cap and gloves and followed Lieber out the door. Manet watched them leave. He had a look of disgust on his face that surprised Lucien, given that the meeting had gone so well. “Lieber is a pig,” Manet said. “I know he’s going to be trouble.”
“But our meeting seemed so successful, monsieur. What’s your concern?”
Manet looked at Lucien coldly. “Your design may have won the day, but the Boche are squeezing me on my compensation and on the schedule. Lieber won’t listen to reason. He wants me to know that the French are under the heel of the Germans and always will be. In the end, I will have to use their labor to finish on time. It turns my stomach to use those poor bastards.”
“Once production is under way, they may be more flexible,” said Lucien.
“Monsieur Bernard, it’s evident that you don’t know a damn thing about Germans.”
Lucien looked down at the floor.
“And yes, I will be making guns for the Luftwaffe. The Germans have appropriated a large estate in Tremblay to build on. It may be a project you’d be interested in. But I have a small problem I’d like your advice on.”
“Why yes, I’d be glad to help.”
“An acquaintance of mine has decided to let some friends use his country home in Le Chesnay for a while. But there may be some complications with the Germans. There is a need for some arrangements if the Germans do come to call on them.”
The smile on Lucien’s face disappeared in an instant.
“This plant in Tremblay will be almost twice as large as the one you just designed. And it will adjoin a small airfield where fighters will be fitted out with the new guns to test fire,” said Manet. “So you’ll be designing a small airport as well. I hope you’ll be interested. I’ll send a car for you.”
With great reluctance, Lucien reached into his jacket pocket for his notebook to write down the appointment time. But while he was writing, he was envisioning the design of the small control tower for his new airport.
Lucien sat bolt upright in bed as if someone had doused him with a bucket of ice-cold water in the middle of the night.
He rubbed his face with both hands to make sure he wasn’t dreaming, then prodded Celeste, who was sleeping soundly on her stomach.
“Did you hear that?”
“It sounded like a—”
A loud rapping on their apartment door interrupted Lucien. He began breathing heavily. When the rapping started again, he began to tremble uncontrollably. He drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, and started rocking back and forth. He shook Celeste’s shoulder violently, and she rolled over on her side.
“There’s someone at the door,” whispered Lucien.
“What time is it?”
“It’s almost three in the morning.”
“Who’d be at our door at this hour?” mumbled Celeste, burying her head in her pillow.
Lucien knew the answer to that question. There could be only one visitor who’d come calling at 3:00 a.m.: the French police—or worse, the Gestapo. He had heard that they always raided a house in the middle of the night when their prey was asleep. People woke up confused and disoriented, making it easier for the police to cart them away. He couldn’t decide what to do. Face the music or run like a rabbit out the servants’ entry in the rear of the apartment? He felt like an idiot for not having an escape plan, but then what about Celeste? He couldn’t leave her. Lucien looked down at Celeste, who’d fallen back asleep. If the Germans came through the front door with Panzer tanks, she would sleep right through it.
The rapping began again, this time harder and more impatient. He took a deep breath and finally mustered the courage to jump out of bed. An invisible hand in the middle of his back pushed him toward the door. In the six meters it took to get there, the same gruesome image flashed over and over through his mind: a lead pipe splitting his head open like a melon.
By the time he reached the door, Lucien was shaking with fright. He closed his eyes for a few seconds, then calmly opened the door and stood face to face with a man in his forties wearing a dark gray suit and a black fedora. Lucien was surprised to see an actual Gestapo agent instead of a French policeman who usually made these kinds of arrests. He must be in a shitload of trouble, he realized, if the Gestapo was making a personal call. He wasn’t able to see any of the other men out in the corridor with him.
“You must come with me at once,” said the man in a very loud voice.
“May I get dressed?”
Leaving the door open, Lucien turned and started to walk back to the bedroom. He didn’t really want to wake Celeste and tell her, but he had to. This would probably be the last time he would ever see her, so he had to say good-bye. He began to sob.
“And please bring your bag,” shouted the man through the doorway.
Lucien stopped and looked back at the man.
“I need my bag?” So they’d be taking him straight to Drancy, not to rue des Saussaies.
“Yes, bring your instruments. My wife’s condition has worsened. You must come right away.”
“You’re Doctor Auteuil, right? I was told you live in apartment 4C. Please, we must hurry.”
Lucien felt he was about to faint and steadied himself against a bookcase. His chest started heaving. His first instinct was to curse the man out, but he stopped himself. When his breathing returned to normal, he walked back to the doorway.
“Doctor Auteuil lives in 3C.”
A look of panic came over the man’s face, and he turned and sprinted down the corridor to the stairs. Lucien slowly closed the door and leaned against it. He gazed down at the olive and crimson rug in the foyer, his mind a complete blank. Suddenly, he felt a warm sensation about his thighs and crotch. Lucien let out a great sigh. He hadn’t pissed himself in thirty years.
Incredibly tired and emotionally drained, Lucien shuffled straight to the liquor cabinet in the living room and pulled out a glass tumbler and a decanter of cognac. He stared at the glass, then tossed it onto the sofa and drank straight from the decanter.
When he fell back asleep, he dreamed he’d designed a secret hiding place for Manet. It was a box with a lid sitting in the middle of a room. When a button on the front was pushed, the lid opened, and Lucien’s father popped out like a jack-in-the box. He was dressed like one of those orthodox rabbis with a prayer shawl and a yarmulke, and he was laughing hysterically at his son.
“Good, then I can pick you up around eight. Oh no, nothing fancy, just a small private dinner party. Yes, yes, your blue-gray evening dress will be quite appropriate. You’ll be the toast of the evening, my Adele. But now you must excuse me; it’s been a very busy day, and I have to get back to work. I’ve got a visitor waiting here who’s been very patient. Good-bye, my love.”
Schlegal smiled as he put down the receiver. The thought of arriving at the party tonight with Adele on his arm made him quite happy. Every man on the general’s staff would be jealous of him, and that’s exactly the reaction he wanted. He considered himself very lucky to associate with a woman of Adele’s status. Most of the French women Germans came into daily contact with were working-class types—waitresses, shopgirls, and chambermaids, as well as the cooks and laundresses who worked in the homes of Germans.