THE SUPERFLUOUS MAN
The Superfluous Man begins with a curiosity: how did a small-town Ohio hardware salesman find himself watching trains of Jews leave the woeful transport camps in southern France? The full awareness of Burritt Hiatt’s situation comes to him when a small girl in one of these camps implores him as she is herded into a waiting boxcar. Standing helplessly by, he is bereft. I have felt the bottomless evil in the world, he writes in his journal. And so he has.
But there is a plan. It involves a thousand visas promised by the U.S. State Department, maybe five times that. There is, however, the malignant collaborationist Vichy government, which must approve them and goes about thwarting the plan at every turn. Thus, there is an unofficial plan.
Both plans, official and unofficial, are halted by the invasion of North Africa when Hiatt and his Quaker relief workers are rounded up by the Germans—along with most of the few Americans remaining in France, including the entire American diplomatic group. Story lines diverge: not all of the Quaker workers are arrested; a trio of resourceful women in the Toulouse office go to ground and continue their rescue work surreptitiously. Two Jewish boys, their intended recipients, begin a perilous cat-and-mouse game with the Gestapo across France.
Hiatt and the others, meanwhile, find themselves hostages in Baden-Baden, the German spa city in the edge of the Black Forest. There, the group is ensconced in the Brenner’s Park Hotel, internationally renowned for its service (its staff once honored a request to press a guest’s shoelaces). Now, however, the accommodations are spartan, and nearly every night the internees are ushered into the hotel basement as the Allied bombing runs drone overhead. Their presence is resented by the townspeople, and rumors circulate that they will soon be moved somewhere deeper into Germany. Before, they had not been afraid. Now they are.
From his window, Hiatt can see across the narrow street and into an apartment where a young girl plays her piano. He learns that her name is Christa, that she lives with her grandparents, on reduced rations. Avoiding the Gestapo guards, he smuggles food to her. She wishes to go to America and become a concert pianist. He could not save the child in Rivesaltes who had implored him. Perhaps, he thinks, I can save Christa.
Conditions deteriorate for the two Jewish boys in France. The Allied bombing runs increase, and the guards in the hotel watch every move of the hostages. The building is rife with claustrophobia. Will the rumors—that they are headed for a much more difficult existence behind the wire—prove true?
As the war winds down, the internees are exchanged at last, and the Jewish boys are still alive after an implausible series of escapes. There is a powerful vindication—for all of them. Hiatt returns to Europe, seeking answers to what happened, and finally there is an incredible revelation, lost as people on two continents went on with their post-war lives.
This book has left me stunned and amazed. It’s a wonderfully balanced and restrained narrative which holds the historical and the individual in suspension, moving so easily from one to the other, and from place to place and person to person with such transparency that one seems to inhabit each in turn and somehow all simultaneously. It’s as if the narrative exists in its own dimension that has instant access to each and all of the others—people, places and multiple moments in time. If this is history, it’s how history should be written, if a novel then what Tolstoy would have contrived in the 20th century but stripped of his philosophical/religious baggage.
—David Ackley, poet and writer, former editor, Greensboro Review
Tremendous research, writing that glitters, wonderful characters. The streets of this book are all paved with gold. Unique and moving.
—Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock and The Temple Bombing
The Strangest Pilgrimage, late autumn, 1942
How small man is when chance plucks him out of the routine and places him face to face with the great
and mysterious forces of life.
And so the Americans were driven toward Lourdes. In the manner of animals responding to the sensations of light and noise, they moved in patterns more predictable to the hunter than the hunted. The Germans were masters at such movement. For a decade, they had been creating the machinery of vast migrations that were both physical and psychological.
There were not many Americans left in France by the late autumn of 1942. Only two months before, the Germans had rounded up fourteen hundred Americans in Paris. The women—Americans of every stripe from French war brides to milliners and prostitutes—were taken to the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulgne and stuck in the monkey house. Their friends on the outside were amused that by paying five francs admission they could visit their caged friends. Some were released; others were sent on to Vittel, a handsome spa in the Vosges Mountains where they were ensconced, not entirely uncomfortably, with the Englishwomen of Paris who had been there since early in the Occupation.
As the months passed, the younger ones felt the unspooling of their youth. “How bored I am!” they said each morning upon awakening. The Americans tended to disparage the Senegalese prisoners who brought them firewood. “Those lazy niggers are getting fresh again,” they complained. The men were packed off to Compiègne where they played Monopoly on homemade boards (even though owning real estate was now a distant consideration).
The members of the American consular group were headed toward the little pilgrimage town of Lourdes where, they assumed, they would be repatriated through Lisbon. Lourdes, in the southwestern part of France near the Spanish border, was merely a convenient place to await the processing of papers, of which both the French and the Germans were so inordinately fond.
The initial untoward thought about repatriation might have occurred on the night train from Vichy to Lourdes, where Tyler Thompson, the senior secretary of the American embassy, had been expelled at gunpoint from his own embassy. He and two other diplomats were accompanied south by a French security agent and a Gestapo guard, and at a small train station deep in the heart of France, the conductor said to Thompson, “Someone on the platform wants to see you.”
Who could it possibly be, Thompson thought, and how does anyone know where I am?
Appearing like an apparition on the dim platform was the Princess Gladys de Polignac, an American who had married the owner of the Paris newspaper, Le Petit Parisien. In that hasty moment in the middle of the night, the princess handed her old and astonished friend a package and said, “Where you are going, you may need this more than anything else.”
The package contained four rolls of toilet paper.
Toilet paper? Thompson wondered. And where might it possibly be that we are going?
Bruce Woods, age thirteen, was also on the train from Vichy. His father was Willie Smith Woods, assigned to the office of the Naval Attaché, in Paris. There, Mr. Woods stood on the balcony at the American embassy and watched the Germans march across the Place de la Concorde after the fall of Paris in the spring of 1940. When war had been declared between France and Germany in September of 1939, Bruce’s first thought was that he would get out of school. Mr. Woods, however, while wishing to protect his son from the Germans but not the liberal arts, moved his family to Brittany, a peaceful evacuation zone. He, himself, slept at the embassy.
The Woods family returned to Paris in September, after the Occupation. Once again, Bruce did not miss any school. In March of 1941, when his father was moved to Vichy, he went to school again. Bruce’s best non-educational prospects emerged when the Allies invaded North Africa. The embassy closed and Mr. Woods was ordered to report with his family to the train station. Bruce went off to school and joyfully told his classmates that he was now a prisoner. Bruce was in school on the tenth, got on the train on the eleventh, and was in Lourdes on the twelfth, where he was promptly enrolled in school. Even war could not thwart the academic career of young Bruce Woods.
Paul DuVivier helped his embassy burn its code books—anything else of value had been shipped across the border to the American legation at Bern. One of his friends in the Maquis offered to get him out of the country by boat but he said no. As a consul, he was a bonded officer in a position of trust, and he had given his word. But he thought about it. He pictured himself interned with his superior, the consul-general J. Webb Benton, who lived with his mother, her Rumanian maid, and a disagreeable little long-haired dachshund.
“It was a great shaggy thing,” M. DuVivier explained, “and the maid’s job was to take it out on a leash and air it.”
Interned with the consul-general, his mother, and the dachshund. It was not a picture he wished to dwell on. With trepidation, he boarded the train for Lourdes.
The members of the American group came from everywhere. Thomas Kernan was with the American Red Cross, but he was a journalist at heart. He had been publisher of the French edition of Vogue when the war began two years before, at which time he returned to America. He had returned to France in the summer of 1942 to work with the Red Cross, and now he found himself heading south again, just ahead of the Germans. He thought of the last time, and he hoped this time would be less dramatic.
In the spring of 1940, he left Paris accompanied by what seemed to be most of the population of Europe. Surely, Kernan had thought then, a line would be drawn at the Loire. But it was not. The refugees—he suddenly having become one of them—continued south: Châtellrault, Poitiers, Bordeaux.
Overnight, Bordeaux tripled in size. At nightfall, streets were blocked by thousands of cars, their owners asleep in them while at the Chapon Fin, French ministers ordered seven-course meals and debated with the sommelier the relative merits of the Nuits-Saint-Georges, 1923. Kernan slept on a pool table for two nights and when the German pilots bombed the port, the table shook across the floor. He fled farther south, to Saint-Jean-de-Luz where there was only the Atlantic, and the barricaded frontier of Spain.
Here, Kernan witnessed one of history’s desperate moments: Thousands of people huddled on the docks of Saint Jean in a violent storm that had moved in from the Bay of Biscay and suspended itself over the coast. More people arrived hourly. A British convoy lay offshore, protected from the German submarines and aviators by the storm. Bucking the wind and sea, the small fishing boats chugged back and forth, outside the mole and into the channel, sending out, as he would tell it later, the lost causes, phantom governments, and all the gallant and ghostly hopes of Europe.
There were Polish soldiers, the general staff of the Dutch Army, the dissident government of Belgium, the exiled embassies and officers of Czechoslovakia, and belated Englishmen. All of them slept on the dock in the rain, exhausted, and waited their turn. The convoy slipped off for England in the gray dawn of the fifth day as the storm finally began to dissipate.
Those with American passports were more fortunate. The American embassy in Madrid worked tirelessly, providing the endless paperwork demanded by the French and the Spanish. Each day, several hundred refugees came out and waited for hours on the international bridge. As the authorities dictated, they passed slowly to the Spanish side, and headed for Lisbon. The last of them left on June 27, crossing just before the storm troopers arrived and closed the bridge.
And now, thought Kernan, here he was again: C’est du déjà vu, the French would say—old hat.
The Red Cross and the Quakers were located in Marseille, but the workers were scattered across the south of France. Some of them did not come immediately to Lourdes; they stayed in the countryside, doing their work. Donald Lowrie, the relief worker, had gone to Locarno for a brief rest, and while it had been nearly impossible to get into Switzerland, now it was wholly impossible to return to France. This was so even for such a débrouillard as M. Lowrie. On his request for permission to go to Switzerland, he had to declare that he was not transporting carrier pigeons. Where, he wondered, could he have hidden a pigeon?
Lourdes was a small market town in the southwest corner of France, at the foothills of the high Pyrenees. “A small number of grey houses, topped with dreary slates,” it was once described by one of the guidebooks. It was uncertainly old, built around an ancient citadel on an isolated hilltop, and if descriptions of the town were contradictory, then no one disputed the loveliness of its views: seven valleys; the River Gave and its glacial waters; the great, dumb Pyrenees.
If one had been tempted to think of the misery of the mid-century world as a special circumstance, one had only to consider the thick history of this citadel itself, which had, in succession, been held by the Romans—who built it—then the Vandals, Visigoths, and Saracens. It was besieged by the Normans, the Papal Crusaders, the Huguenots, and finally the tourists. The vision of the Blessed Virgin appearing to young Bernadette Soubirous in the grotto was not yet a hundred years old. The single, overwhelming image of Lourdes was not the beguiling story of the miller’s daughter’s visions; it was that the world seemed to have but one small, remote place in which hope was offered to the distressed and, even then, only in season.
The Spanish frontier was fifty kilometers away but there was no road on the Spanish slope of the Pyrenees. There were ten thousand permanent residents of Lourdes, and during the pilgrimage season, which was from May to October, the population doubled. Most of the hotels, even the best ones, were built for summer use. When Tuck, the chargé d’affaires of the American diplomatic group, inspected the hotels the French government had made available, only two of the four could be heated.
The sous-préfet of the Hautes Pyrénées, M. Yves Saint Pierre, explained to Mr. Tuck that the people in the American group were permitted to go anywhere in Lourdes but not to leave the town limits. He then apologized to Mr. Tuck because, he said, his was the only subprefecture in all of France that did not have a bordello.
“You have to understand that with all this overpowering Catholic sentiment here we can’t afford to encourage sin,” the sous-préfet said.
“That’s perfectly all right,” Mr. Tuck replied. “We Americans have great self control.”
“What?” asked M. Saint Pierre. “Aren’t your men normal, like Frenchmen?”
The Foreign Service officers were at the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs including the typist, Dorothy Vandervort. Under her window the River Gave spilled down in a tumult. Two blocks away, almost obscured by the trees, was the famous Lourdes shrine. The leaves were brilliantly yellow and red. Perhaps they would glow after nightfall, lighting my way through the sleeping town, she wrote to her mother in North Dakota. She loved the square pillows on the beds. They were buttoned into pillow cases, with ruffles around the edge. There were gold-colored cotton comforters on the beds, and flowers in a vase. I wish I could tell you how beautifully green the river is, she wrote.
In the afternoon of her first day, she went to the grotto where Bernadette had her visions. There was an altar, and crutches hung over all the walls. With a prayer for her mother, she touched the rock behind the altar.
During the summer pilgrimage season, Lourdes was swollen with thousands of people on their grievous explorations. It was a town in which the perversity of pain was embraced. Affliction, in this rare place, was not a public malefaction. Here, the stricken became unremarkable, which was the most fervent wish of each of them: to be ordinary again, undistinguished by suffering.
When the Germans closed the border in 1940, refugees had poured into Lourdes. The district had a reputation for trying to help, and at one time there had been eight thousand people in Lourdes. Just after the armistice, one of the journalists met an old French couple on the coast, near Biarritz. They were driving a car laden with luggage that was guarded by a small, very fat dog. The journalist asked them where they were going and the woman said Lourdes. “I am going to pray for France,” she said, “and perhaps I may also get some relief from my rheumatism.”
In winter when the unheated hotels were shuttered, Lourdes contracted and closed in upon itself. In the autumn of 1942, empty of souvenir stands and hawkers of religious yard-goods, Lourdes was spooky.
The American group found things it had trouble finding in the rest of France: matches, honey, Roquefort, even Irish whiskey. The Vichy government allowed the hotelkeepers fifty francs a day for their room and board, under, as Thomas Kernan said, “the quaint illusion that there was a connection between the official prices of food and the prices at which anyone could actually set his table.” A table could be set for that sum, actually, but it would have been set with bread, rutabaga, and an amount of meat so small as to disappear under the shadow cast by the rutabaga. The new citizens of Lourdes did what everyone else in France was doing: they went to the black market.
While the hotelkeeper might have procured black market food and resold it at astronomical prices, he served the official rations and told the Americans he would prepare anything they brought him. It restored Thomas Kernan’s diminished faith in the French. He and some of the others went into the countryside to bargain with the paysans. It was at this time illegal—and highly punishable—for the farmers to slaughter their own animals. Legal mandates, such as they were, required the animals to be delivered to the proper officials, who considered the demands of various organizations, including the German Armistice Commission. Livestock thus died an unnatural death, strangled by the fonctionnaires.
There was one small loophole: if an animal by chance plunged over a cliff and killed itself, then it was deemed an act of God and the farmer was allowed to sell the carcass. The Americans had barely settled in when the local sheep began hurling themselves off cliffs. Chickens toppled off their perches in the middle of the night, and cattle plunged over embankments. An epidemic of suicide swept the unfortunate creatures of the field. It was, Thomas Kernan said, the true miracle of Lourdes.
It was all illegal, of course, but the American shoppers were aided and abetted by the police guards, who accompanied them into the countryside on their foraging trips. The enforcement of black market regulations was the province of the economic agents; the guards in Lourdes were the political police. The black market was not of their concern.
It was the police guards who showed the Americans the actual Lourdes. They introduced the Americans to the back of the city where the little alleys were lined with dozens of shops selling the paraphernalia of Lourdes: rosaries, holy cards, musical virgins, Lourdes water cough drops. The shops had names such as Chez l’Immaculée and Le Palais du Rosaire, presided over by beady-eyed mesdames dressed in mournful black. It was here that the police brought the Americans to St. Laurence O’Toole’s Bar, and it was St. Laurence O’Toole’s—not little Bernadette—who became the salvation of them all.
Its proprietor was Mr. Walsh-Douley who said, yes, there was really a saint of that name, an Irish bishop of the twelfth century. He was honored at Lourdes because the Irish pilgrims before the war surpassed all other foreigners in making treks to the shrine, and because someone had a droll sense of humor, as St. Laurence O’Toole was noted for his abstemious life. Ships from Queenstown sailed down to the Bayonne harbor where buses whisked the devout off to Lourdes, and their impediments were put on holy notice.
St. Laurence O’Toole’s was fronted by a rosary counter where Mrs. Walsh-Douley sold beads and holy images; the bar itself could be found by walking past the rosary counter and taking a left turn just past the prayer books. Mr. Walsh-Douley’s bar traversed the length of the room, and every time he opened a new bottle of cognac he toasted—in a brogue heavy as a paving stone—the image of the sacred heart of Jesus hanging over his bar. The house favorite was a peg of Irish whiskey braced with water from the grotto. The Irish pilgrims raised their glasses to the image of the sacred heart of Jesus and considered themselves doubly blessed.
Gin and whiskey were unknown in this provincial corner of France but St. Laurence O’Toole’s carried an impressive stock, and Mr. Walsh-Douley was ecstatic to see the Americans. He had not seen a gin-drinking pilgrim since the war started. The Americans occupied four different hotels, from the handsome three-star Hôtel des Ambassadeurs to the Hôtel Nevers, which was closer to the train station, and every day an emissary from the hotels walked to the lane of rosary shops and returned with a carton of gin. After the first week or so, Mr. Walsh-Douley’s imposing stock began to dwindle, or so he said. Although he did have only these few bottles he might be able to relinquish one.
“Seeing as how it’s you,” he added.
Burritt Hiatt and the other Quakers arrived in Lourdes after Thanksgiving where they were ushered into a hotel called, appropriately enough, the Golgotha, where he and the others ate dressed in their overcoats, pinned to their crosses of respective uncertainty. The soup cooled immediately on the frosty tables. Even the bedding was of summer weight. Then he was moved to the Gallia Hotel, on the fourth floor, in a room previously used by the hotel servants. The furniture was spartan: iron bed, two straight chairs, small table, washstand. A light bulb hung from a cord. During the day the light leaked in through a small dormer window in an alcove. The floor was bare.
The adjoining roofs came so close he could see only a bit of the garden and river below. The view of the earth was limited but the view aloft rendered in great detail the fort, which overhung the town. The profile of its stone walls was irregular, broken by towers and parapets. It seemed to Burritt unreal, like a castle painted on stage scenery, which was especially true on clear mornings when the dawn came up behind it.
The routine began at eight a.m. when Burritt ate two slices of bread and drank a cup of ersatz coffee. At Lourdes, food, as well as heated rooms, was a matter of rank. Relief workers, therefore, did not eat as well as the embassy staff, who, in addition to the solace of heat, ate more meat and fewer vegetables. The food for the relief workers lacked a certain wherewithal but there was enough of it, and at the Gallia, the plain fare was served on tablecloths, which no one had seen for weeks. There were also white napkins, and fresh flowers in a vase. The waiters were in evening dress, and the courses served separately: Soup. Vegetables. And, finally, for dessert, an apple. No matter in which hotel one lived, one was sure that people in the other hotels were eating better, drinking better, and were more amusing.
Burritt’s confrère, Roderic Davison, became so tired of the vegetable diet that in a play he performed for the internees, white beans—haricot blancs—and brussels sprouts—choux de Bruxelles—were personified as “Harry Coblant and Chouchou Brusell.”
From the hotel balcony, Burritt watched yokes of white oxen drawing loads of wood. The iron shoes on the feet of the oxen clattered on the paving stones. The sidewalks were so narrow that people walked in the street. Many were in clerical garb, black-robed men with little hats and black-habited women with big white ones. The pilgrimage season ended in October, so the streets were no longer filled with supplicants. Those who remained were preoccupied not with disease but with food.
Sometimes Burritt leaned over the balcony and tried to see inside the baby buggies being wheeled past. The grandmothers with their little boys jolted his heart. The sound that he would recall from Lourdes was the sound of the schoolchildren, and the peculiar shuffling noise of their feet, made by their clumsy, ill-fitting shoes.
The word internment was now being used in connection with the American group, which was confined to its hotels, and no one could leave them unless accompanied by a police officer, or a child. This gave the children an unremitting sense of power. They were needed. At first, these rules were regarded as merely inconvenient, only a pro forma issued by Vichy officials. Woody Wallner, the third secretary of the former American embassy, called it “a sop to the German Consulate General.” Then the restrictions tightened. They were forbidden to attend the cinema, not allowed to use the telephone, nor permitted to talk to the French people of the town. Their movements were scheduled and supervised. No one knew exactly what to expect; the rules of diplomacy had been altered. There were still few German soldiers in Lourdes. A few drifted into town on Sundays, pilgrims themselves, from the Atlantic coast town garrisons or posts on the Spanish border. They kneeled respectfully in the grotto, but they kept their rifles slung across their shoulders.
One evening, the diplomats talked of the possibility of ending in a common grave somewhere in Germany. The conversation began partially in jest, but there was sobriety behind the image, as though one had misspoken, absentmindedly introducing an unbidden and darker knowledge. Tyler Thompson thought that while the Germans had not executed foreign diplomats and journalists in the west, they had done it elsewhere. He occupied himself by typing an account of his final days in Vichy. He rigorously documented each of his stratagems in dealing with the bellicose Germans, including the confiscation of his tennis balls.
Embassy clerk Bob Hiatt taught his two-year-old son to goose-step. Whenever the other detainees wanted to incite young Richard, whom they called “Dickou,” they said to the boy, Fais le Fritz, Dickou. Fais le Fritz.—”Do the Fritz, Dickou. Do the Fritz.”
Dickou goose-stepped grandly around the hotel parlor, often accompanied by Paddy King, one of the newspapermen, who combed his hair down over his forehead, held the end of his comb under his nose, and goose-stepped along behind the boy while giving a passable rendition of one of the Führer’s early speeches. “Als ich 1933 die Macht übernahm,” he shouted, “konnte das Deutsche Volk es nicht länger erdulden, das du Versaille Diktat … ” The little boy was greatly amused at the spectacle he was leading, and so were the other internees (at least for the first dozen times or so).
Roderic Davison, bored, began to study Russian. There were four Russians with the American group, one of them being a man named Agliamoff, a former cavalry colonel in the Tsarist army who had fled Communist Russia and come into France, stateless. The American embassy had hired him as its chauffeur. Davison thought that Aglaimoff looked Mongolian, with his somewhat slanted eyes and beardless face. He taught Davison to say, Petr sobirat gribui v lecu—“Peter collects mushrooms in the woods,” which was a typical Russian sentiment, he said, for the Russians loved to collect mushrooms in the woods. Then he taught Davison a Russian drinking song, which Davison learned to play on his accordion.
Aglaimoff was an amusing, self-effacing man, and if he imagined he had made an error, he said in his heavily-accented but perfect English, “Please remove from the room all heavy objects.” He also told Davison, “Do not confuse ‘polkovnik’ (colonel) with ‘pokoinik’ (corpse),” which Davison thought must have been a Russian army joke.
The cold deepened.
Burritt left his room to sit in the lobby, but it was without heat as well. He had been cold since he arrived in France. Burritt heard that not only was there no heat in any of the municipal buildings of Lourdes, but none in the private homes, either. He had never before pictured households without heat. There was never an occasion to even think of such a condition. He began to picture central Europe, Russia, Norway, with no heat anywhere, the chill permanently lodged in the bones of the people, a dark mass that would show up on an x-ray.
Even North Africa was cold. Across the Mediterranean from the internees, the American boys wrote home trying to convince their families that, no, they were not suffering heat prostration. They were cold. A cold country with a hot sun, someone described Tunisia. The boys needed heavy underwear, sweaters, overcoats, gloves, knit caps.
From time to time, some of the internees wondered about their compatriots in the Tunisian consulate. Could they have escaped the Germans and gotten to the Allied lines? Surely so. Otherwise, they would be here, in Lourdes, yes?
The signal event of the holidays was a touch football game between the Gallia and the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs—the relief workers and clerks versus the diplomats. The internment group paraded out to the town playing field on New Year’s Day to watch, as though it were an American bowl game. Roderic Davison, wiry and fleet, ran hook patterns and caught passes from Wayne Fisher (who owned the football), and the Gallia won handily: the vassals had toppled the lords. Roderic returned to the hotel and wrote a Biblical-style epic to celebrate. Afterward, someone gave him a colorful cloth belt, as a victory belt to hold up his shorts, which during the game had been held up by a necktie.
Early in the New Year, a businessman named King escaped from the official group. No one seemed to know exactly why he had been detained. He was a perpetually red-faced man who worked for an American oil company and he seemed to drink a lot; each afternoon in his hotel he presided over happy hour. And each afternoon, young Mary Jo Woods accompanied her father to Mr. King’s hotel, her presence ironically granting him sauf-conduit through the bleak streets of Lourdes.
When Mary Jo heard that King had escaped, she said to her father, “Oh Daddy, that’s too bad. You’ll miss Mr. King.”
“At least,” her father said, “he could have left his whiskey.”
The other members of the group said a car came for Mr. King in the night. They thought he had bribed a gendarme. They were afraid there might be reprisals against those who remained. And, truly, within a few days, the Germans moved everyone into a single hotel, the Métropole.
Then they surrounded it.
The last to arrive in Lourdes were the two Quakers who had been working in an artificial limb shop in Montauban, Gilbert White and his friend, Russell Ritchie. They had decided not to join the group at Lourdes, at least not immediately. They would sit things out and see what happened. A few days after the invasion, the German general staff moved into the nearby village of Gaillac. Some of the officers stayed in the same hotel, with the Quakers. In the dining room, Gilbert and Russell shared their mustard with the Germans but little else. They knew they could be arrested at any time and, anticipating that moment, they always carried a knapsack of supplies.
One day, a French worker said, “Geel-bair, your time has come. The Germans are outside for you.” He picked up his knapsack and went out to the gate where the sergeant in charge said the general was looking for a plumber. Would the Quakers permit their plumber to work on the general’s plumbing? That was as close as they got to the Germans.
The Quakers’ freedom of movement was puzzling to the French. Why were these two Americans allowed to roam the countryside with impunity when everyone else had been rounded up and sent to Lourdes? Finally, Gilbert learned why: The local commander, as a child after World War I, had been fed by the Quakers working in Germany.
One day one of the policemen said, “Have you heard what’s happening with the Americans at Lourdes? Next Thursday at seven-thirty a.m. they’ll all be put on a train and taken to Lisbon.”
“Are you sure?” Gilbert asked.
“Absolutely,” the policeman said. “Oh, yes.”
So on Wednesday they went down to Lourdes with their knapsacks. They asked at the train station where the Americans were, and were directed to one of the hotels. At the hotel, the German guards refused to let them in.
“But we are Americans,” Gilbert said.
“Impossible,” said one of the guards. “The Americans are inside.”
The Quakers asked to see someone in charge, and soon they were taken up to see the chargé d’affaires, who was somewhat annoyed.
“Where have you been?” Mr. Tuck asked.
“We had work to do,” Gilbert said.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “You received notice you were to be here two months ago, didn’t you?”
“So why did you arrive today?”
“Well, we got good information you were leaving at seven-thirty in the morning for Lisbon and we’d like to join the group.”
“Oh, I see,” Mr. Tuck said. “You have good information, do you? Well, we are leaving at seven-thirty tomorrow morning. But you’re off on just one small point. We’re going to Germany.”
There were two communications with the outside world before the Americans were forcibly boarded. One was from Mr. Walsh-Douley, who wished to inform them that he had just discovered several overlooked cases of gin. (The price was a mere five hundred francs a bottle. While that was some five times the price of a bottle of gin stateside, they weren’t stateside; the war had transformed both the market and their appetites, and no one now doubted the value of gin.)
The other communication was from a nun who somehow got through the German line and delivered each detainee a holy card, bought, no doubt, at one of the little back-of-the-town souvenir shops.
Thomas Kernan studied the card for a moment. He felt something of the heterodoxy of himself as a young boy, measuring a promised eternity of choirs and harp concerts against life outside the church door. The card was so garish an artifact that if it represented the alternative landscape, he would take his chances with wherever it was he was being taken.
In the impenetrable Pyrenees night, the train awaited.