France, June 1940
Raoud Le Meir stared at the classroom wall until his eyes glazed over. With rampaging Nazis racing toward Paris and the tattered remnants of the Army, formulas and equations seemed unimportant.
A bee’s gentle buzz pulled him from his malaise. He blinked until his vision cleared and refocused on the teacher, who had stopped writing on the board and stared outside, her mouth hanging open. The noise intensified into a steady hum. Students followed the teacher’s gaze and rushed to the windows, peering into a sky so bright and blue they had to shield their eyes.
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“I see them!” A voice shouted from behind Raoud, who cupped his hands on the window and pressed his nose against the glass. Bodies pushed against him. Fingers pointed at the sky. Two dots the size of raisins appeared, circling like buzzards. More shouts of “I see them!”
The dots parted, and one grew larger. An airplane came into focus, blinding rays of sunlight shooting off its nose, its high-pitched whine rising as it barreled straight for them. Black crosses underneath each wing became visible. Students screamed and tumbled over each other, diving onto the floor or scurrying behind desks.
Raoud remained frozen, his hands and nose glued to the glass, his eyes locked onto the onrushing plane.
The teacher’s shrill voice rose above the clatter of chairs tipping over. “Get away from the window!”
Ira, his best friend, pleaded from behind a desk. “Get down!”
Unable to move, Raoud shut his eyes and braced. A deafening roar rattled the walls and shook the ground. The clamor enveloped him, squeezing the breath from his chest like a giant snake. The plane screamed overhead, and the noise faded. Raoud opened his eyes and once again peered into the cloudless sky.
Children crawled from hiding places, sobbing and shaking. The principal soon appeared, his face so pale it looked like his blood had settled into his shoes. “Go home, now. Do not walk in groups. Stay inside when you get home.” He wiped sweat from his brow and staggered down the hall to the next classroom.
Still dazed, Raoud gathered his books and followed Ira. They ran until they reached the shade of an oak tree so large its branches could snag clouds scudding past.
Ira bent over to catch his breath. “Why didn’t you hide? You were so brave.”
“I froze. I wanted to run, but I couldn’t move.”
“Everyone was scared. Some older boys wet their pants. Did you see the principal?”
Raoud laughed through his nose. “He looked like a ghost.”
They resumed their trek home, darting from tree to tree until reaching the town square. An eerie quiet settled over the normally bustling area. Birds hopped from table to table at the deserted cafe, scavenging bits of food left on dirty plates and underneath toppled chairs.
“Where is everybody?” Ira asked, his eyes wide.
Raoud glanced at the darkened window above the post office where his father, the mayor, conducted the official business of the town. He shrugged. “Can you come over tomorrow?”
“My parents won’t let me. Maybe you could come to my house?”
Raoud shook his head. Since fighting resumed a month earlier, Maman only let him outside for chores or to attend school or church. “Keep an eye out for Germans.”
Ira’s shoulders drooped, and he trudged away.
Pebbles from the dusty road stabbed at the soles of his shoes as Raoud rushed through the deserted town square. His legs heavy, he rounded the curve before his house and stumbled to a halt. Automobiles and trucks lined the road, and several men stood on the front porch, smoking and pacing. The murmur of excited voices leaked through the open window.
Raoud’s heart pressed against his chest as he sprinted home. He burst through the back door and found his mother hovering over a pot on the stove. “What happened? Why are these people here?”
Maman stopped stirring and wiped her hands on her apron. Her brown eyes remained fixed on the stew. “The Boche have entered Paris.”
A peach-sized pit lodged in Raoud’s stomach. The mighty German Army had reached the capital, seventy kilometers away. He threw his books on the kitchen table and rushed into the cramped parlor. Dozens of people stood shoulder to shoulder, eyes glued to a small box with three black knobs on the bottom and a square window with a dial. Hunched over the radio stood his father, spinning a knob.
Raoud squeezed into a spot between the grandfather clock and his older brother, Pierre, and pulled his knees to his chest. An announcer’s voice crackled through the static. A hush fell over the room.
The French Government yesterday evacuated Paris and declared it an Open City. Leading elements of the German Army entered the city’s outskirts this morning. No resistance has been reported. Prime Minister Paul Reynaud and the cabinet have fled to Bordeaux.
“What does open city mean?” Raoud asked.
Papa snapped off the radio and faced his neighbors, lines of worry etched on his forehead. He folded his left arm across his stomach and pinched the bridge of his nose. “It means we will not defend the city. We are trying to keep the Nazis from destroying Paris with their bombs and tanks.”
Andre Geroux rose. A frequent visitor to Papa’s office, he had fought in the Great War and walked with a limp he blamed on the Germans. “We will fight the Boche in the fields.” He thrust his fist into the air, like he was holding a pitchfork. Shouts of “Vive la France!” filled the parlor.
Papa slammed his hand on the mantle. His face flushed and eyes blazed as he scanned the room. “The battle is over for now, Andre. A veil of darkness will soon descend upon us. Until that veil is lifted—and it will be—we must stay strong. Victory will come. Until it does, our duty is to survive.”
He raised a bottle of Calvados. “Vive la France.” He took a sip and handed it to his best friend, Louis Meilleur, who did the same before passing it to Geroux. As the bottle made its way around the room, each person had a sip and shouted, “Vive la France.” When the bottle reached Raoud, he glanced at Papa, who nodded.
Raoud closed his eyes and winced as the first bitter taste burned his throat. After choking down a taste, he wiped his lips on his shirt and handed the bottle to his smiling father. “Vive… la France,” he sputtered. The room erupted with laughter.
Raoud sat on the sofa the following morning and stared at his hands. The war Papa had fretted about for years had arrived. Thousands of French soldiers had escaped to England at Dunkirk. The government had left Paris to the Nazis. Half the country it seemed had fled south. Those who stayed behind cowered in their houses, trapped like prisoners. “Is it hopeless?”
His father stopped fiddling with the radio and sat next to Raoud. “The outcome has been decided, for now, but we always have hope, son. No weapon is more powerful. France will make it through this. Somehow, someway, we will survive, no matter how long it takes, no matter how difficult the struggle. It is our duty.”
Raoud forced a smile and leaned into his father.
Pierre stumbled down the stairs and stifled a yawn. He ran his hand through a mop of auburn hair and stood next to the sofa. At almost six feet tall, he had inherited Papa’s height, but had yet to fill out. His gangly arms and legs looked like they belonged on a colt, and a thin patch of stubble covered his chin. “Refugees said German airplanes were shooting at civilians, that dead bodies fill the ditches between here and Paris.”
Papa swirled his coffee and stood. “The first casualty of war is truth, son. You mustn’t believe everything you hear.”
After breakfast, Raoud and Pierre squeezed every extra chair into the parlor. The radio stayed on throughout the day as grim-faced neighbors shuttled through, listening to the latest reports and speaking in hushed tones.
Outside, the dusty road once again teemed with cars and motorcycles and worn-out horses hitched to wagons over-flowing with furniture and boxes. A river of weary people shuffled along on foot, pushing prams filled with more than babies. Anxious parents exhorted sobbing children to keep up. Even the horses looked afraid.
The parlor emptied when streaks of red crossed the sky. After the final guest departed, Pierre sat on the sofa and listened to the radio while Papa hovered over maps spread on the dining room table, shaking his head and muttering. He collected the coins he used to mark the locations of the British, French and German armies and handed them to Raoud, folded the maps and returned them to a drawer. “Would you like to come into the office with me on Monday, for your birthday? I could use an assistant.”
Raoud’s twelfth birthday had escaped mention for weeks. Talk of presents and cakes seemed out of order with German soldiers tramping on French soil. “Yes, Papa. I would love to come.”
“I wish I had a better present for you.” Papa kissed his forehead and disappeared into the kitchen, leaving Raoud alone in the gathering darkness.
Rumors about the Nazis had been circulating for weeks. Soldiers that ripped babies from mothers’ arms and shot old people for sport, tanks that flattened houses, bombs that left craters so deep entire villages disappeared.
A series of knocks on the front door snapped Raoud from his mental haze. Believing it to be his grandfather with fresh milk and butter, he opened the door without checking through the window.
A middle-aged man wearing a long black coat and holding a round hat stepped inside. Rivulets of sweat leaked from his matted hair, and he scanned the room as if he expected someone to jump out from a corner. “I am sorry to bother you, but my family’s automobile has broken down. Can you help us?”
Papa came into the parlor. The man cleared his throat and repeated the question. He spoke as if words had been rationed and the day’s allotment was nearly exhausted.
“Etienne Gallard lives on the other side of the village, six kilometers to the west,” Papa said. “He works on farm equipment. Perhaps he may be of assistance. My father-in-law could take you, but it will be dark soon. It is not safe to be outside at night with the German Army so close. You must stay with us until tomorrow.”
The man sighed and lowered his head. Flecks of gray dotted his unkempt beard, and dark circles gathered like storm clouds under his sunken eyes. “Your generosity is most kind, but we cannot stop.”
While his father spoke with the gentleman, Raoud wandered outside. The automobile had stopped in front of the house, a thin trail of smoke escaping from underneath the hood. Surrounded by suitcases in the back sat a young boy his age and a girl even younger, watching Raoud through listless brown eyes. The girl clutched a doll to her tan coat, and an open book lay on the boy’s lap. A woman leaned against the front door with her eyes closed.
Raoud traced a finger over the warm, yellow hood. A thin layer of dust and spots of mud muted the color. The car’s protruding headlights and angled grill reminded him of the eyes and beak of a prehistoric bird he had seen in a textbook.
Papa and the gentleman stepped onto the porch as a second car skidded to a stop. The driver flung open his door and jumped out, waving his arms and shouting in an unfamiliar language. The woman jolted awake and hustled the children to the other car. A pink hat blew off her head and tumbled down the dusty road. She left it for the wind.
The first man sprinted to the broken down auto and opened the trunk. “The Germans sealed off Paris yesterday. We were fortunate to escape. My brother will take us. We will not return.”
The man passed two large suitcases to his brother and held out a key for Papa, who pushed it away.
“I’m sorry, but I cannot pay you.”
“We do not need money. Please. Do not leave it for the Germans.”
His father nodded. “We will take care of it.”
While Papa helped fill the trunk, Raoud ran after the woman’s hat. He plucked it from the fence next to his grandfather’s pasture and turned in time to see the auto roar to life and bolt away, tires skidding in the dirt. He stood beside his father, holding the hat and growing more anxious about the German Army’s impending arrival. “Where are they going, Papa?”
“I don’t know, son. Away from here, away from the Germans.”
“A lot of my friends from school have fled. Should we leave, too?”
Papa shook his head. “We’re not moving, not for the Boche, not for anybody. How far could Papi’s truck take us?”
Raoud chortled. His grandfather held a string tied to the passenger side door – damaged when a cow had rammed the truck – to keep it from flying open. None of the tires matched, and the rusty gate on the back flew open every time the truck hit a bump. “You are right, Papa. But why were they so frightened?”
“They were Jews, son. The Germans do not like Jews.”
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