When Madeleine was France
My godmother and aunt, Madeleine Conrad, died peacefully on December 15th, 2016, at the age of 91, in Alsace. She was the sister-in-law of my mother. In appearence, she was a modest woman, but one fiercely proud. That she had held a highly symbolic role touring Vichy France in WWII and overtly collecting money for the Resistance would not easily have crossed anybody's mind. Her father’s story is worth telling, too.
After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, which France lost, Alsace, which was part of France, became German, without any consulation of the population and was incorporated into the newly created Reich of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm 1st. When World War One broke out in 1914, many of the young men of draft-age in Alsace refused to go to war against France. Although this fact is not well known, many fled into the forests. The ovewhelming majority of them was caught, or they surrendered. Only a very small number managed to survive in the forest in extremely harsh conditions for the whole duration of the war.
One of them was Jean Conrad, who would become Madeleine’s father. He was a teen-ager when the war broke out, and had already been working since the age of thirteen in the pits of the Alsatian potassium mines. He hid in the Hardt forest with two older men and they succeeded in holding out there for over four years, living in a set of holes covered with branches and surviving on poaching, especially hares, on mushrooms and on berries. It was risky to even make a fire. Alsatian winters are notoriously harsh. The Hardt forest covers a large expanse in the Alsatian plain, brodering the Rhine. It was easily accessible, therefore, and close to the movements of troups. The men were actively being searched for all the time... An “old man” from the village was their contact. He visited them at intervals, bringing them the news and warning them when it was time to move to another part of the forest. They did as they ancestors had, three centuries before, to survive the horrendous massacres and lootings of the Thirty Years War...
After the war, Alsace was reunited with France. Jean Conrad returned to his mine pit, was modestly rewarded for his heroism, married and built a house in his village, with his own hands. He and his wife were to have eight children. They lived off Jean's salary, and off the produce of their garden and of the small lifestock which they were tending. They were devoutedly Catholic. Several times a week, Madeleine or one of her siblings would bring dishes of her mother’s cooking to the priest and to the nuns in the village.
Madeleine was their second child (all survived to a ripe age). She was especially strong and vigorous and by age 13, when time came to leave school, she wanted to enter into apprenticeship with a seamstress. This would have put demands on her parents, who would have had to continue feeding her for several years, without her bringing home any salary. Nourishing the priest and the nuns went without saying, but feeding Madeleine was an issue. The parents turned down her wish. Did she have her certificate of primary schooling? Not at all. Like practically all the girls in rural schools in Alsace, she was not even presented to the exam. The education of girls was left into the hands of nuns, only the boys benefitted from the vaunted schoolmasters sent by the République.
The nuns came to help, and offered to take her on in a girls’ convent school in Strasbourg, where she could study some more and become a nun. Her parents agreed, and she went to live at the convent, after having acquired a precious trousseau, financed by her proud grandmother.* But, once at the school, instead of being made to study, she was turned into a household slave and put to scour the floors and to cook. She was the butt of jokes of the students and nuns. She stayed there for almost two years, hating every day of it.
A few days after she turned 15, World War Two broke out, and without telling, or receiving advice from, anyone, she did exactly the right thing: she jumped over the convent wall, leaving her trousseau behind, ran to the train station and took the first train, and rejoined her family - her mother and by then six siblings. The family was just about to be loaded on a freight train to be evacuated as refugees to the Southwest of France, near the Spanish border, along with most of the inhabitants of the village (and of large parts of Alsace), and she arrived just in time to join them. The trip was great fun for her smaller brothers and sisters, who never been on a vacation and travelled in a cattle car. At every stop through France, they were greeted and cheered on, and given milk, cake and candy. Their father Jean stayed behind at the mine.
They were brought to Gimont, in the département of Gers, and the mother and the older children were put to work at the geese-farms and factory of “Comtesse D.,” a major producer of foie gras. As for Madeleine, on grounds of her prior experience, she found herself assigned... to another Alsatian convent school, which had been evacuated with nuns and students: again, she found herself doing slave labor, but she was older and stronger now, and the chores were even harder. She had to cook everyday for some thirty persons - morning, noon and evening - she even had to chop her own wood with an axe to fuel the stoves, both for cooking and for heating! Not to mention the cleaning…
Needless to say, she received no salary. She slept on a straw mattress behind the kitchen stove.
When Germany invaded France months later, the news reached Jean Conrad in the mine pit and, true to his nature (and to his daughter’s), upon emerging, without even returning home, he jumped on his bicycle and headed towards Gimont, hoping not to be caught up with by the advancing German army, cycling at night through the countryside, hiding from people, thieving in fields and farms for food. He had started off with two companions, but they soon gave up. He covered over a 1,000 kilometers in two or three weeks. He reached Gimont and found work at the "Comtesse D." goose farm, where he would stay, reunited with his family, until the end of the war. For, it’s worth remarking: despite the war raging and whole populations starving in Europe, and hundreds of thousands dying of hunger, “Comtesse D.” continued undeterred force-feeding her geese all through the war, and producing her tins of foie gras and expediting them wholesale to her delighted customers, many of them, no doubt, among the occupying German forces in Paris.
One day, Madeleine found herself with a fair amount of sugar left over and decided to make a pudding for her charges. The pudding eaten, the nuns accused her of having stolen the sugar in order to feed it to her mother, now pregnant with her eighth child. She complained to her father, who descended irate upon the convent, rose the living hell with the nuns in front of the students, and ordered Madeleine to leave with him.
She was not put to work at “Comtesse D.’”s factory but, in view of her excellence at cleaning and cooking, retained as a housemaid, unpaid of course, at the owners’ estate. There, she discovered a hitherto unknown paradise, a house full of books, and she found herself a nook, hidden behind a curtain, where she could read for hours to her heart’s content.
Not that there was not a war going on right outside of “Comtesse D.”’s, too. Jewish families in hiding were discovered and rounded up and deported by the police. French Resistance fighters carried out operations of sabotage, blowing up the vital railroad lines leading to Spain. Those caught, or suspected, were rapidly executed.
Some of the refugees from Alsace, teachers for the most part, decided to support the Resistance in an original way: they created an amateur theater troupe, with the purpose of touring the French Southwest with a message of humanity and art, performing... Goethe’s Faust...! The receipts from the sale of the tickets were overtly and brazenly declared to be destined to help the families of the executed Resistance fighters. The purpose was unobjectionable, even for the powers at Vichy: the defenders of "family-values" could not decently forbid efforts to bring help to widows and orphans. Nor could the Nazis object to the performance of the Germans’ great national drama... Most of the Alsacian initiators of the project had certainly been born and educated during the first German annexation, after 1870, and had appropriated Goethe’s masterpiece as their own cultural good... Of course, they performed in French.
Did Jean Conrad have anything to do with the project? Certainly the underground French Resistance must have... To make their point, the Alsacian teachers added a scene at the end of the play, a tableau vivant, of a risqué political nature: the curtain rose again, and “Marianne,” the emblem of the French Republic (as in the famous painting by Delacroix...), appeared, in a long white gown, wearing the Phrygian cap, and sheltering with her arms the two "lost" provinces, annexed by Germany, "Alsace" and "Lorraine," figured by two girls wearing the local costumes. And “Marianne” was... Madeleine! Incarnating the symbol of the République, Madeleine was particularly protected by the rest of the troupe. When the "Comtesse" tried to hold her back to serve as an extra at a reception, she received a visit from some mysterious "gentlemen" who gave her to understand that nothing could prevail over her function. For over two years, until the Liberation of France, she toured Southwest France with the Alsacian troupe of Goethe’s Faust, every week-end, in two old buses. And passed her Phrygian hat at the end of the performance.
Sometimes, there were SS and Wehrmacht soldiers in the audience... What could they do? Interfere with a theater troupe playing Goethe? Arrest this tall, long-necked, mute girl with the Phrygian cap? Did she even understand, at the time, the unbelievable audacity, the breathtaking protest value of her message? Her mother disapproved of her theatrical activity. No doubt because of the risk involved, but also because the theatre was sinful.
Being the embodiment of France, she was treated with special care and respect by the troupe. When, at the occasion of a large party at the estate, she was to be retained to serve as an extra, mysterious men appeared and convinced the owners that her role as Marianne had precedence over anything else.
After the war, Madeleine’s "feat" in the Resistance was never mentioned. She was my aunt and godmother, she knew me since my birth, yet it was not until I was in my sixties that she told me this extraordinary story, as we were going together through ancient photographs: a photographer in Gimont had eternalized the tableau: the République, with the two kneeling girls dressed as “Alsace” and “Lorraine.” Were it not for this picture, there would be no proof left of her story. Nor had I ever known of the unbelievable survival story of Jean Conrad.
I knew about Madeleine’s stay in the convent, about the exodus by train to southwestern France, I knew about the story of the pudding, and even of another one, when Madeleine was confronted by the nuns with a freshly killed turkey, in its full plumage, and told to cook it. But of her heroic dimension I knew nothing. In a bourgeois household, the photograph made in Gimont would have been enthroned in the family parlor, it would have inspired conversations and created memories, over decades...
At Madeleine’s funeral mass, which I attended, her life was remembered by the priest. No mention was made of her role during the war...
She did, by the way, become a furniture seamstress, and managed with my uncle a flourishing business in upholstery, and they did quite well... Living long and healthy lives, traveling in both hemispheres, and tending their house and garden.
* She was a collateral of François-Antoine Jecker (1764-1834), an Alsatian paesant boy turned optician, inventor and builder of advanced precision instruments, member of the Royal Society of London. He had been a student of Jesse Ramsden.