In 1940, we know we are losing the battle. The Germans are arriving in Paris very fast. My mother is preparing luggage because he are going to leave for Brest. Her family has a cafe there. My father was in the French army. I was sixteen.
We arrived in Brest three days after we left Paris. During the trip, we had German planes machine-gunning the train, diving down. We had to go under the train. Three days after the armistice, the Italians were machine-gunning all the civilians on the road. Many people were hit. Some women were on top of the children, for the children not to be killed.
My father sees other people and talks about resistance. They invite each other home, talk around the table: what can we do to push the German out? I said I can be of use. I’m going to be seventeen. I talked to several friends in school. So we joined our fathers.
I had a bicycle and the documents were in the pump. It was dangerous. We had some Jewish friends across the street. The father had been arrested. The daughter and her husband could not get out of Paris. We put a beret on them and passed them to Toulouse, the Spanish border, and to Free French. We passed thirty-five families from ’41 to ’43.
One of my friends was arrested. Very stupid. He had an argument with a German boy. He hit him. He was arrested and they found papers on him. They took him to the Gestapo and tortured him. He told names.
I was in jail four days and four nights. I had interrogation after interrogation. I was beaten black and blue with a rubber hose, on the muscles. They put me on a train and sent me to Germany. It was a forced-labor camp in Delmenhorst. It was now ’43.
We were in a trench, trying to put back the pipes. The SS is going back and forth with their bayonets. A middle-aged man was looking in the window of a camera shop, very near. He had a big package in his hand. Without turning, he talked to us in French. He said, “Boys, I am sorry for the way you are treated. I was once a prisoner of war in France during the First World War. I was treated by the people on the farm very good. They fed me and I will always remember. I will be here every day and I will feed you.” After the SS turned their back, he threw the package in the trench. He came for three days and he fed us. We were very, very hungry. I will remember always this man.
One of my friends was asthmatic. After maybe twelve or thirteen tours around the camp, he could not breathe any more. He had to stop. The SS come by him: “Go, go.” He couldn’t. He sat in the snow and they beat him, beat him. When they decided it was too cold for them, they left, and he was in the snow to die. We heard him all night. That is always in my mind. I have the impression I hear him still. We know he is dying and we cannot do anything.
The bombs were always coming by seven. In the trench, I was on top of this Italian. He had on a very heavy coat. Each time the bomb was coming, I put my teeth in his coat. It was all chewed up, the coat. You become so powerful when you are afraid.
We were liberated on the fifth of May, 1945. I was down to eighty pounds. I was in a stretcher, almost in a coma, at the military hospital in Paris. They fed me intravenously. My mother and aunt came to visit me. They were preparing my burial. After three months, it was all right. I said, if I recover, I will do something to thank God for what he did for me. I was liberated. I was alive and I was in Lourdes. I decided to become a priest.
It’s really difficult when I think about the war. If we answer hate with hate, it will never end.
Very often, you hear some German saying, “We didn’t know.” But who allowed the Nazi to take over? They were very, very happy when Hitler took France, took Europe. At Delmenhorst, we had these guards. They were married, they had families. Don’t tell me when they went back home, they were not talking about what is going on. The people of Delmenhorst for pastime on Sunday were coming around the camp. They were looking at us like we were zoo animals.
Is this uniquely German?
This is human. It happened before. The Spanish, in the Inquisition, under God, destroyed an entire population. What about the Albigenses? It can happen again. We are all good people, but if we are led a little too far, we are going to believe everything we are told. We are ordinary people, who can also be weapons for Hitlers.
—Father Jacques Raboud, to Studs Terkel, “The Good War”