Photo: Betty Sew Hoy
By Joan Gurfield
L’Isle sur la Sorgue, France, 1943
At night that summer the sounds of the piano, especially the low notes, rang out, sonorous, in the dark. Maddie’s grandmother had set an old brass candelabra on the baby grand so they could see the music, and usually her grandfather sat outside on the front porch, to make sure no one came up the long front drive while they played. Maddie was learning to recognize certain pieces: a Mozart sonata, a Chopin nocturne. The word “nocturne” sounded just like the music did — deep and lonely. Daniel was better at the piano than she was, but his fingers were longer, because he was eleven, and he’d been studying with Maddie’s grandmother for three years, while Maddie had just started. She was eight, so her grandmother said she was old enough to take the lessons seriously. Her grandmother was pleased to have a pupil as talented as Daniel, and she asked him to play for them most evenings, while she shut her eyes and leaned back in her chair. The thrumming of the instrument and the scent of night-blooming jasmine — that was what Maddie would remember, the rest of her life.
Her mother had insisted that Maddie be good and obey her grandparents while she was away, so Maddie made the beds every morning and dried the supper dishes with the worn yellow and white checked dishcloths every night. Maman had said this new kind of life in the war would last just a short time, but it seemed to Maddie as if it had gone on forever. She could only remember bits of Before. Her father had been at the farm with them before, walking behind the plow, or sometimes, in the winter, putting a special harness on the horses, with sleigh bells that jangled as he drove the whole family to visit friends further out in the country. And her mother had always been in the kitchen, humming, as she baked bread or a cake. But her father had been taken, and then her mother had gone away. Nobody would tell Maddie where they were.
Daniel’s family had been taken, too. She was supposed to watch over him, even though he was older. She and her grandparents were acting like his family.
When they grew up, she and Daniel would get married, and Daniel would be a pianist or a farmer, and she would be an airplane pilot. Meantime, the two of them ran around all day, playing “chase,” building mud and straw huts in the fields behind the house, and digging for worms in the garden. Then at night, when she went up to her room, he went out to sleep in the hayloft.
She’d overheard her grandparents arguing about him. There was some secret they worried about.
“We can’t run the risk of sheltering individuals,” her grandfather had insisted. “We need to focus on the larger picture. If we’re caught, it all falls apart.”
Her grandmother said, “If we don’t help the people we know, who are we? He’s a child, Jean.”
Maddie thought her grandfather was worried about the men who dropped from airplanes every few weeks. They were British. Or at least they didn’t speak proper French. Her grandfather and his friend Loiselle were in charge of them and their supplies, which also dropped onto the fields in huge, heavy boxes. Another farmer, a friend of theirs, came with a cart to pick up the men and the boxes. It was not something you talked about, to anyone, ever.
Her grandmother must have won the argument about Daniel, because he remained with them all summer, while they weeded the kitchen garden and canned fruits and vegetables. Her grandmother taught Maddie and Daniel to make strawberry jam with sugar she’d gotten at the black market. It made the whole kitchen hot and strawberry-smelling for hours.
During the daytime, her grandfather plowed, sowed, and harvested the crops, but on the days he and his friends expected a plane for a nighttime drop, he would stop work early and take a nap, so he could stay up late to meet the men from the airplane.
Her grandparents never took Daniel into town, even when they took her, and they kept reminding him not to run around near the road or anywhere he could be seen by passersby. And Maddie had to make sure he was careful. If anyone asked, she was to say that he was her cousin, visiting from Nantes.
But nobody ever asked her about Daniel. Hardly anyone came out to the farm besides her grandmother’s piano students, and there were only two of them left, now that money was so scarce because of the war. That’s why Daniel played with her, even though she was younger. There was no one else.
The day had hardly begun, a morning like all the others that summer. Daniel and Maddie were in the field closest to the house, sitting side by side near the big pink abelia bushes in a patch of sweet-smelling brush and chickweed while he showed her how to braid thick weed stems to make a mat. Then they would lash a bunch of mats together as a blanket for her rag-doll. Daniel didn’t mind that she still played with dolls.
The scraping sound of a car’s rubber tires on pebbles came from the long drive as a vehicle drove down it and pulled to a stop in front of the house. It was probably some friend of her grandfather’s.
She heard gruff men’s voices and the barking of a dog. She sat up and stared towards the house.
“Who is it?” Daniel sounded worried.
She peered through the brush. “Milice – the Vichy police. And a German shepherd.”
Daniel scrambled away from her, deeper into the brush and bushes.
“Where are you going?”
He didn’t answer.
The two officers wore heavy, scratchy-looking black uniforms and black berets. They held rifles. In front of them, the dog strained on its leash, pulling in her direction. Her grandmother followed the men, talking in a high-pitched voice that didn’t sound like her at all.
The men glanced at Maddie, but then their heads moved back and forth as they scanned the field. “Where did he go?” one of them asked her. “The boy, where is he?”
Her grandmother’s face was trying to signal something to her, but Maddie couldn’t tell what it was.
The German shepherd sniffed the ground and yanked the man holding him in the direction Daniel had gone. The dog began to bark wildly.
The man spotted Daniel, who was trying to wriggle deeper into the brush. “There! Over there!”
The men trampled on newly planted blueberry bushes as they ran to where Daniel crouched behind a large abelia. “Get up! Come out of there,” one of them ordered.
Maddie remembered what she was supposed to say. “He’s my cousin, from Nantes.”
“My great-nephew,” her grandmother added.
“Should we take down his pants?” the man asked in a mean voice. “See if he’s circumcised?”
Daniel stood. His face was pale. “I’m Jewish.” He glared at the men. He drew himself up so he looked almost like an adult. He spoke to Maddie, “The Milice are no better than the Nazis. Worse, because they’re ours.”
One of the men grabbed his arm.
“No!” her grandmother protested.
The man turned to her. “Madame, another word from you, and you’ll be next.”
Her grandmother clutched Maddie and held her tight, while Daniel walked slowly between the two men towards the truck.
Her grandfather brought potatoes and swedes to the Thursday market in town, as usual, and he spent a long time piling them into heaping mounds on the table in their stall. He said “hello” to his friend, Loiselle, and to some of the other farmers. When he began chatting with customers, Maddie slipped away. She rushed to the train station, just two streets away.
Crowds of people milled around inside the station. Her grandmother had told her that Daniel would be taken there, along with other Jews that the Milice had been able to find. Then they would be sent away, but no one knew where. Her grandmother didn’t understand the Nazis’ hatred of Jews. She couldn’t explain it. Maddie didn’t understand it, either. It was as if you decided you didn’t like all people with red hair, or all people who were taller than you.
The large main room of the station was crowded. An echo rang out from so many voices talking and shouting. Maddie climbed up on a wooden bench at the back wall, so she could see over people’s heads. She didn’t spot Daniel or anyone else she recognized, but there were a few children crying, and anxious-looking adults carrying suitcases, and a woman screaming, “Emma! Emma!” All the sounds were magnified.
Vichy policemen with rifles urged people down to the tracks and into the train cars.
Finally, she saw Daniel standing by himself, a whirl of people around him. He wore the shorts he’d been wearing the other day, when the Milice had taken him. He looked lost, not as big and brave as when he’d talked back to them. A policeman motioned him to climb up into one of the train cars. Daniel shot a glance in her direction, but Maddie didn’t think he’d actually seen her. He mounted the steps to the train.
Where were they going? She hoped it wasn’t someplace cold. He didn’t even have a sweater.
A minute later, standing at the entrance to the car, Daniel turned, scanning the crowd. He noticed her up on the bench and gave her a sad half-smile and a wave. He motioned with his hand that she should leave the station.
She wanted to shout something to him, at least to tell him, “Goodbye,” but a guard with a gun ordered her to get down from the bench. She climbed down and lost sight of Daniel because there were so many people between her and the train.
Milice soldiers brought more people into the station, pushing the newcomers into lines with the points of their rifles, and crowding them towards the waiting train. Maddie was shoved into a line behind a woman with two small children.
Should she get on the train? Maybe it was going to the place where they’d taken her father. She doubted it. But if she got on, she’d have a chance to talk to Daniel. She’d tell him to come back for her, later, when they were both older, so they could get married. Once she’d spoken to him, she’d get off.
It was difficult to climb the high steps, but the woman in front of her reached back for her hand and helped pull her up.
The train car was packed. Bodies pressed against hers, so many people she didn’t know. It was hot and there were no windows. A sharp, unpleasant urine smell came from one end of the car. She smelled the harsh odor of sweat, and someone near her was wearing a sickeningly sweet lilac perfume.
Daniel’s car was in front of hers. She tried to push her way to the door connecting the two cars, but there were too many people blocking her way. “I have to find Daniel,” she explained to two women standing near her, pointing to his car.
They let her squirm past them, but there were so many others. Some people rudely elbowed each other to get more space, but one man near her apologized to another for banging into him. “Never mind,” the second one said politely.
Right near her, a man and woman were kissing each other and moaning. In front of everyone! Her grandmother would give them a talking to. That wasn’t the proper way to behave.
Beside the kissing couple, an older woman with short gray hair cried softly. Nobody was helping her.
On one side of the car, an old man with long, white curls in front of his ears, a black hat, and all-black clothes, swayed back and forth, praying and mumbling. People close to him listened.
She didn’t know anyone. None of these people knew her or cared about her. There were too many of them. She wouldn’t be able to get past them and into the other car to reach Daniel. This had been a mistake, a big mistake. She shouldn’t have gotten on the train.
She needed to get off.
A phrase from a Chopin nocturne that Daniel played hummed in her mind as the heavy wooden doors creaked closed. An iron bolt thudded. Metal bolts slammed down, locking the doors.