Read Part 1 here! Two of the earliest letters which I found in my father’s desk after his death are from a French woman who signs herself only by her initial, G. She played host to my father and a party of his fellow students during a holiday in Brittany in the summer of 1939. G.’s two letters frame the Second World War. They illustrate perfectly and harrowingly what happened between the writing of them. Here’s the first, dated 26th July 1939:
My dear friend Charles,
I was very touched by your lovely letter – and so happy to know that even in such bad times [with war imminent] you enjoyed your too short stay here. It seemed to me, nevertheless, that the pleasure was all mine, I was so pleased to be surrounded by the ardent, joyful youth of you all, and to share your faith in the things of the spirit which the severity of the times seemed to want to stifle forever.
What you told me about the patrons of the abbey didn’t surprise me – I think it’s the same thing at Pontigny. I imagine it’s because these places are frequented solely (given the price of entry) by a bourgeois and very often idle clientele. These are people from whom money conceals the great fundamental truths of life. Consequently their poems and their paintings lack vitality and finally lapse into futile touching up like les Précieuses [a 17th French style of light, conversational, romantic story-telling]. I hope you had a good and useful visit all the same.
All the household sends you best wishes. To you with all my heart, G.
My father, aged 21 and about to embark for war service in India, less than a year after his summer in Brittany
The original letters are in French, so forgive me for any stilted translations. The second letter from G. is dated 19th June 1946. Much has happened since the first.
My dear Charles, -
Thank you very much for your letter, which touched me greatly. Not only do I remember you perfectly, and your arrival one evening with the two girls (one of whom vanished during dinner); but also, these days, I thought of you. I wondered if you had escaped unharmed from the storm, as I have often wondered, when thinking of all the beautiful young people who visited me before the war. I am happy to think that you are still in this world and, I hope, in good health. If life has kept you from cruel disappointments, perhaps it reserves some greater joys still for you. I wish you that with all my heart.
What are you doing at Oxford? I haven’t been to Paris, either during the war or since. It’s takes a lot of money to live there now. Food is rare and very expensive, and that life in slow motion in Paris that I love so much makes me long to go there. For you it would not be the same, and I hope that you’ll escape the dark tunnel of paperwork that we all struggle with, and that your wish to travel will be granted. I don’t know if I will be here this summer. I have some travel plans which I am still not sure of putting into practice. If I am here, you know that the house will be open to you at any time.
Almost miraculously we have all come out of the war, with a minimum of damage. I have two sons – the eldest, who was called up at the outbreak of the war, was seriously wounded in the Forest of Wandt. Having rejoined his regiment after his convalescence, he narrowly escaped capture in Germany. My second son, married and the father of two babies, was called up to his job (in public office). He ran the same risks that we did, but they were great.
Our peaceful Pontivy was a big military centre during the occupation. We knew every possible humiliation and harassment – you cannot imagine. Also, the Resistance was quickly set up here, where the countryside provided cover for the Maquisards. The repression enacted by the Germans, particularly by the Gestapo and the young SS, was of such cruelty and savagery that one is ashamed to know such horrors even by hear-say. We have good friends and neighbours who suffered unimaginable torture, some of them to death. We escaped that – I don’t know exactly why. We mixed with the Resistance and we were surrounded, on one side by the German Western Grand Etat Major, and on the other by influential members of the Gestapo and their clique of informers.
All that is in the past – since the day of the unexpected arrival of the American army liberated us and prevented the whole town from being blown up and reduced to cinders. It had all been prepared, but the Germans didn’t have time to put their plans into action. Still, there was plenty of destruction. Everyday life is not easy here – not to compare our difficulties with those of the big towns where people suffered, and still suffer, slow death by starvation. As you know, poor France has suffered a lot (and I say nothing of towns in our area entirely destroyed). But the people are brave, and slowly she will rise again and rebuild her ruins.
All the household sends you best wishes. To you with all my heart,
On 1st May 2015, Pontivy celebrated the 70th anniversary of its liberation by the US Army