K.W.4: Avant Propos

[In this next chapter, my great aunt Catherine Ammar writes in dedication to those she knew who died at the hands of the Nazis, and to the memory of her husband.

Last night I asked my father if anyone ever found out how Raymond Ammar died, but he just shrugged. “Everyone begged him not to defend Georges Mandel, but he insisted. ‘I am a lawyer and that is my job,’ he said.”

After France was defeated, the French government that was left – the Vichy government collaborators headed by Marshal Philippe Pétain (ironically a name so close to the word putain as well as Putin)  – had to explain to the rest of the country why the Germans were able to knock France off its feet so easily. They needed a scapegoat, so in November, 1941, they rounded up and arrested all the top, left-of-center French politicians: Paul Reynaud, Georges Mandel, Léon Blum, Édouard Daladier, Maurice Gamelin, Guy La Chambre, and Robert Jacomet.

In the city of Riom the following year, trial began in order to determine why France not only seemed unprepared for war, but why the situation had come to war in the first place. Germany was anxious to place blame squarely on France’s shoulders, removing all responsibility from Hitler.

The Riom Trial didn’t go well for the Vichy government, doing nothing more than generating international sympathy for the defendants. It ended on May 21, 1943, after having been suspended the previous year to gather more evidence. By then, however, both Mandel and Paul Renaud were gone, surrendered to the Germans. My uncle was taken by the Gestapo as he was walking towards the jail to interview his client. All of the men survived the war, with the exception of Mandel and my uncle. Mandel was shot in the Fontainebleau woods during a transfer from one prison to another. No one really knows how my uncle died.

Dad said Catherine Ammar told people her husband was murdered, and left it at that. I say he was a political resistor and was probably assassinated like Mandel. To the world, his death is nothing, just another unknown victim of the Nazis. There are so many untold stories.]

Introduction and Dedication:

Bonne-sur-Menoge, July 1945

Just back from Germany, I’m in a sanatorium in Bonne-sur-Menoge, a pretty, touristic town in the Savoie region which was once one of the most active centers of the Resistance. Now the town offers repatriated deportees the sweetness of its horizons, its high summits, its pure mountain air, the glory and undying memory of its resistance fighters whose bodies lie buried in the cemeteries of the villages that cling to these hillsides.

…I haven’t yet returned to my former life, my civilian life. I can’t. First, I have to recopy all the notes I wrote in Germany on tattered bits of filthy paper I kept shoved in my shoes. I owe this to all my friends who were left dead on exiled ground, without a decent burial; I owe it to my precious friend Marie S., assassinated on the road by the S.S. and buried in a German village on the day of the Liberation; I owe it to Eric, shot down at the Mont Valérien on August 1, 1942; mostly I owe it to my husband – I still don’t know where or in what condition he is …

All that I know at this moment about Raymond tells a painful tale:

Arrested in November, 1942 for refusing to abandon his mission, he was kept in a secret prison cell in Germany for two years. With loyal kindness, a neighboring prisoner who’d been released, Mr. Yvon Delbos, told me that Raymond had refused to cooperate against his own country. In November 1944, he was moved with four other Frenchmen to a work camp where he dug rubble with five hundred other foreigners. They toiled through the night, under continuous bombardments, with barely enough food to sustain them. During the day they were able to sleep a few hours, five men crammed in a lead-lined truck. In February 1945, my poor Raymond, sick, face and limbs swollen, in a grave state of starvation, was evacuated somewhere near Hanover.

No one’s heard any more news since.

I don’t know if I write for a man who’s alive or dead and this anxiety hovers above my heart like a bird of prey who watches and waits to devour me.

Either way, dead or alive, it is to him that I owe these notes.

C.A.

 

In 1946, I learned that Raymond was assassinated at Bergen-Belsen on February 18, 1945, the day of our wedding anniversary. On his death certificate were the words, “Died for France.”

That July, the bâtonnier, the appointed head of his bar association, Mr. Marcel Poignard said in a moving speech the following respectful hommage:

“Raymond Ammar had agreed to defend one of the accused at the Vichy trial in Riom: Georges Mandel. He accompanied his client to the Portalet Fort, used as a jail, and stayed in a nearby little village, where he visited his client every day.

“Arrested the first time on November 11, 1942, then kept under surveillance, he made his objections to French authorities, not against his own treatment, but against the deliberations they were preparing to deliver to their political adversaries.

“He was taken again on November 18 on the road to Portalet Fort, transported and placed in a solitary cell for two years for refusing, as a former French army officer, to work for the enemy.

“We know that he spent one single day in a convoy destined towards Hanover… then there’s been nothing but silence…”

Et voilà, c’est tout. That’s it; there’s nothing more. Negligence, ingratitude, short memories…. Men will be men, and the dead are dead.

C. A.

 

 

 

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