[The memoir jumps back and forth between times. Even with each chapter clearly dated, it’s hard to determine what my aunt’s writing in the present, and what’s the past. For a person like me who has a tenuous understanding of English grammar, much less all the numerous tenses in French, it’s not easy. It truly feels like she’s rewriting the journal from memory, after having it destroyed by her prison guards. It reads like bits of it were shoved in a shoe….
I was thinking about abandoning this project. It’s time consuming; it’s depressing. There are so many stories already out there and I want be writing my own stories. Then, this week I learned that there will be a Proud Boys rally in Philadelphia on November 17 in front of the National Museum of American Jewish History and my outrage, that emotion so many of us are overdosing on these days, surged. This morning I saw a photograph of fifty boys, all in their junior prom suits, throwing up their arms in a Nazi salute while standing on the steps of their Wisconsin high school and outrage was replaced by alarm. How is it that teenagers can do this and laugh, like it’s a big joke? Where are their teachers? I decided to keep slogging on. Now’s not the time to quit.]
July 1944, in Fresnes
I had to go to the countryside for a couple weeks on July 1 to be near my son, Jean-Pierre, but on June 30, 1944 I was arrested and taken to the Fresnes prison. It was a monastic life in a little white cell where Nicole immediately became a close friend. Together we read the poetry of Schiller translated into English and “Les Fleurs du mal”, which the Chaplain gave us at my request. Thanks to Jeannette, who rejoined us, we got our daily exercise by unscrewing the faucet which we used to “telephone” our friends in the neighboring cell. We listened to messages through a little hole drilled into the tiles and at night, we heard Blanchette sing songs and call out a sleepy bonne nuit. I’d love to meet Blanchette someday.
Life in Fresnes would have been bearable if it wasn’t for the fear and commotion in the mornings when they came to get us. The trucks squealed, doors slammed, and we trembled at the thought of the drive down Saussaises street to meet our interrogators. No one slept at night. That’s when we carefully prepared our answers.
The only thing we could hope for is that they’d use one of the more bearable tortures like the bathtub. I can take punches pretty well too, but I dreaded the electric shocks. Willpower can do very little against such torture – one loses total control and talks.
My interrogator wasn’t a sadist like a lot of the others, but still dangerous. He asked a lot of little insidious questions. We would get far off the subject into my past that I’d outlined with care, like a novel, seemingly for just a moment. Then suddenly he’d swing back and demand, “where does Monsieur H— live? Tell us the address and we’ll let you go.”
“But, Sir, since I don’t know him…”
Sometimes he called me a liar, but he never actually caught me saying any flagrant untruths, so he’s wasn’t that sure. So, I continued to spin my fiction.
“You’re intelligent,” he said, “you could be useful to us, don’t you understand?”
Of course, I understood only too well. The Germans can do terrible things or good things, take me on a pleasant walk or point a gun under my nose like they did that first day. It’s all the same to them.
“If I’m so smart, Sir, then you’re even smarter. You must know that I don’t lie. I didn’t deny being in Lyon in 1943 when you tried to arrest me there. I told you I was working as the general secretary of the Committee of Experts (a secret organization that drew up the Constitution for Algeria and the laws of Liberation). But, I can assure you, I don’t know the address of the man you’re looking for. I don’t even think Mr. H— is his real name. His real name is François G—. The only man I know in the Committee of Five, or the Committee of Experts is Monsieur de Menthou. He’s in Algeria, far out of your reach.”
These very minor details, which I wanted to confess on my life as Catherine Le Meur from Lyon, confirmed what he already knew and gave him confidence in me. It gave a little credit to my lies, and in this way I saved François G— and the doctor Maurice F—
He had a pretty little translator, but she wasn’t indispensable. My interrogator understood French just fine and expressed himself slowly, but surely. “Who are you? What’s the name of your husband? There. You’re named Duhamel. Your husband is Ernest-Georges Duhamel.”
Oh, the prestige of papers, of false identification, that I clumsily tried to conceal so that he’d have the joy of discovering it. Victorious, he brandished my faked birth certificate and baptized me Duhamel. “You are Duhamel, and your husband is in England.”
I pretended to be desolate. Duhamel I was, and am still. He thought he won and missed the fact that I’m Catherine Ammar, and that my husband, Raymond Ammar, was arrested in 1942 for being Georges Mandel’s lawyer, and that somewhere in France a delightful sixteen-year-old named Jean-Pierre escaped a terrible fate, thanks to his mother.
Yet, during my third interrogation, after I listened to all the veiled ironies, and clear statements about all the men I met (whose addresses I ignored) at in train restaurants and at the bar at the Grand-Hotel in Marseille, I, now Duhamel, received the biggest shock of all.
“And Monsieur Demeury? Where did you meet him?”
My blood froze. The little Demeury is my son.
I responded without frowning, “Monsieur Demeury is a child. I was a friend of his mother’s at the Côte d’Azur.” I didn’t forget that the food stamp card he is looking at was made at Tourettes-sur-Loup, in the Maritime Alps.
“A child. A child in charge of weaponry arsenals.”
“That’s not possible,” I replied with feigned indifference. Then, I decided it would be prudent to throw in negligently, “but after all, you know better than me.” I mentioned some letters and supply packages exchanged between us since the interrogator knew the address of Demeury in Sarthe. I hoped his new address in Oise won’t be discovered. The only other person who knows is doctor Maurice F—!
In Romainville, I Found Dolly B—. Almost everyone else in the family had been arrested, but Jean-Pierre, alias Demeury, who lived with her, had run away from Sarthe a couple days before the arrests were made, and no valid explanations were given as to how that happened.
I’m going to pause here – there’s a shift break in the factory and they’re passing soup around.