"I hate this place."
"I hate that you're such a brat," Danielle said to her little brother.
"Why do we have to go? Ma-mère doesn't even speak English," he whined some more.
"She does, too." She reached over and smacked him just because she could. "You're just too stupid to understand her."
"Dani, don't antagonise your brother," her mom scolded from the front seat of the mini-van.
"They don't even have a Playstation!"
Good God, just shut up! Danielle thought to herself. Before she said anything else that might get her in trouble, she plugged her earbuds in and turned up the volume on her iPod to drown out her sibling's lamentations.
For her part, she loved visiting her grandprarents and great-grandmother. Ma-mère still lived in the same house where she had raised her family after the war (the second one), and Grandma and Grandpa lived a couple of blocks away. Danielle liked it because it was quiet. She liked perusing through her great-grandmother's voluminous library and listening to her stories of France and Germany and England and lands far away.
It also drove her brother bonkers, and that was just an added bonus.
The drive from Charlotte took almost all day when they finally pulled in to Ma-mère's driveway. Danielle thought she was beautiful. Still slender and always immaculately dressed, she was the envy of women two decades younger than her 88 years. She was standing on the porch along with Danielle's grandparents, Ma-mère's daughter and her husband. Her curly white hair glistened in the setting sun. She was fit and spry for her age, but still had to lean on her son-in-law's arm to walk down the steps to greet her grandson and great-grandchildren.
"You've gotten so big!" Danielle stood half a head taller than her great-grandmother, but never minded returning the loving hug she knew was always coming. Ma-mère's spoke perfect English, but she was never going to lose her melodic French accent. Marie's colloquial name literally translated as "my mother", which is what her children called her, and the subsequent two generations just kept using it, even though "Grand- mère" may have been more appropriate. "Come in!"
The seven of them went inside, her father and grandfather retrieving the family's bags. The adults were visiting and her brother was playing with his Nintendo DS when Danielle slipped away to her favourite room at her great-grandmother's house: the library.
Years ago, she had been given free run of the place, except for one glass-enclosed cabinet of antique leather-bound books. On the family's frequent visits, Danielle had read through some of the collection. She liked the history and travel books, and eschewed the romance and fiction novels.
"I see it didn't take you long to find you way here," Ma-mère called from the doorway, a wide smile on your face. Danielle blushed slightly. "Come sit with me, Dani. I have something to show you."
Too big to sit on her great-grandmother's lap, she settled for the next best spot: on the soft couch under a reading lamp. On the coffee table was a box of pictures, a photo album and two small, worn books.
"You have always been interested in my history books, Dani," Ma-mère reached for the photo album. The pictures were discoloured under the yellowed plastic page covers. "I want to show you some history of my own. Your mother tells me you're studying French in school? Good, I have something to help you with that."
She turned the first page and Danielle's eyes grew wide. One of the people in the first picture was clearly her great-grandmother. The other was older, with a full, white beard. They were standing in front of a small stone cottage.
"You were beautiful, Ma-mère," Dani whispered.
"This is me and my father outside our house in France, right before the war." There was a sad, wistful tone to her voice. "You are fifteen now, yes? That's how old I was in this picture."
There were several more of Ma-mère and her family.
"Who is that?" Dani pointed to a very handsome man in an army uniform.
"That is your great-grandfather." The corners of Ma-mère's mouth turned up into a sad smile. "This was in the spring of 1944, right before the Americans and the British came."
"Great-grandfather was a German?" Danielle blurted out. There was no mistaking the distinctive uniform of the Wehrmacht.
"Yes, he was," Ma-mère whispered, a flood of memories overtaking her. "That's why we had to come to America. No one back home wanted us there."
"For many reasons, Dani, many of which I still don't understand." For the first time that she could remember, Danielle saw her great-grandmother frown. There was a flash of anger and hurt in her eyes.
"Do Grandma and Grandpa know?"
"I told them a long time ago, but no one else in the family wanted to talk about it," Ma-mère sighed. "It's the one family secret everyone wanted to go away."
"You loved him." It wasn't really a question.
"Yes, I did. I still do." She flipped back to the end of the album to a family portrait. Ma-mère was seated in the middle along with four children, one of whom was her grandmother. A handsome man sat next to her, but he was not the man in the German army uniform. "After he died, I married again, and I loved this man, too. But not as much as I loved my Christof."
"What happened, Ma-mère?"
Marie didn't say another word. Instead, she handed her wide-eyed great-granddaughter her diary. She wiped a tear from her eyes, took a deep breath and left Danielle on the couch to read through the chapter of their family history that was shrouded in secrecy.
There was very little for the French to be happy about in the summer of 1943. It was the third year of the German occupation, and in all of the villages along the northern coast of France, they were preparing for an invasion by the Americans and the British. The puppet government in Vichy controlled the southern part of the country, but in Marie's village, a German Major was the prevailing authority.
Before the war, it had been a small farming village along the Normandy coast. But with a looming assault from across the English Channel, it was simply another gun battery post along the coast in Hitler's Festung Europa—Fortress Europe—which stretched along the coast from France to Denmark.
Marie never had any problems with the Germans. But then again, she was a pretty young woman who was only fifteen when they arrived to take over the town, and had just turned eighteen when she was pressed into the French Resistance.
For the most part, the Germans who came to the town left the French people alone, as long as they didn't cause trouble. It seemed as if they were trying to be friendly. They paid a fair wage for work and didn't try to humiliate or torture the locals. Of course, when the SS came in, tensions rose, but they were a small, sleepy town that most people just passed through on the way to somewhere else.
Many of the German soldiers who came weren't really German, they were Ostlegionen, conscripts from the eastern front who were supervised by German sergeants and officers. They did a lot of physical labour, but they were also trained to man the guns and mortars that were zeroed in on the beaches in the case of an invasion. Most did not speak French, German or English, and they generally stayed to themselves.
Of the Germans who came, some were elite armoured or parachute regiments, but many had been injured in Africa or Russia, or were otherwise too infirm to fight on the front lines. And then there were men like Christof.
He was the son of a former German Navy Captain from the First War, who also happened to be a prominent Nazi supporter. Like all parents, he wanted to protect his children, so before the war, he arranged for Christof to be given a commission in the Army, and was then subsequently transferred to a staff position. Until he arrived in France, Christof had spent much of his time in Bavaria at a supply depot.
When she first saw him, Marie immediately noticed his handsome blue eyes and charming smile. He was reporting for duty at the major's house, and she knew he was important because he had a driver and a staff assistant. Their eyes met for a second, and he smiled at her, making Marie blush unconsciously.
For just a moment, she considered that if he hadn't been a German, it might be nice for him to call on her some time.
Summer turned to fall and then to winter. The Germans were busy building bomb-proof shelters and gun emplacement for howitzers which would repel the invaders. When their conscripts from the Ukraine weren't enough for a task, they would employ the locals to help, some times on a more compulsory basis than others.
Marie saw Christof a couple more times. Once, he even stopped to talk to her, although she did no more than exchange pleasantries with him. He spoke fluent French and English, with only a slight accent.
Her father's hatred of the Germans was no secret, although he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut around them, lest he "disappear" like some other men in a village a couple of kilometers away. The rivalry between the French and Germans went back for centuries, and it seemed to always spring up every generation or two, whether it was the Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War or the First World War, giving new fuel to the fires of hatred, intolerance and misunderstanding.
It wasn't until one night in March of 1944 that Marie learned the lengths her father would go to see the Germans driven from French soil.
.... There is more of this story ...