Risking and Resisting relates the story of Marie Le Febvre’s great-grand-mother and grandparents who, as members of the Réseau Comète, were active in saving allied pilots and crew members of downed aircraft in France during World War II. At the risk of losing their life, they would house allied airmen, care for their wounds, take them under disguise to the location from which they would be flown back to England, often having to go through cities, large or small, filled with Germans and dreaded French Milice who could arrest them at the least suspicious sign.
As I was reading the manuscript Marie Le Febvre had just sent me, the memory of Jacqueline overcame me, taking me seventy-one years back to a beautiful spring day in 1944 in the southwest of France. Jacqueline did not take part in the events related by Marie Le Febvre in Risking and Resisiting, in which her family and the résistants were involved in the small town of Rambouillet and the region between Paris and Chartres. Their only link would have been their affiliation to a Résistance network, the members of which were known by fictitious names in order to protect themselves, their family and friends.
Nevertheless, Jacqueline is the perfect example of the fate that was awaiting all freedom fighters (résistants) in World War II. These men and women of all ages fought with the expectation they may not live to see tomorrow, the constant apprehension of falling into a trap, of being the victim of denunciation, of being arrested by the Gestapo. It took more than courage. It took ‘double courage’ in the knowledge that, if ever caught, death by hanging or firing squad would not come alone, but would be preceded by horrendous sessions of torture.
This double courage, Marie Le Febvre’s great-grand-mother, grandparents and their Résistance companions had it. So did Jacqueline.
Marie Le Febvre kindly asked me to write the foreword to her book and to include the one-page story of ‘Jacqueline’, I thank her, in the name of Jacqueline, the young nurse whose tragic fate was that of thousands of courageous French men and women who did not know if their today would have a tomorrow.
Jacqueline, did not live to see her twenty-first birthday.
France, Rambouillet, 27 September 2015
Her name was Jacqueline. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about her. I don’t remember the date when I last saw her, but I remember the day of the week, a Thursday in the spring of 1944.
The war was still going on.
At that time, children in France did not have school on Thursdays, and I often spent part of the day in the hospital where my mother was a nurse. Seated at a table in the room reserved for the personnel, I would do my homework, although my favorite pastime was to break the big blocks of ice stored in the freezer into small pieces that were then put into rubber bags. Among the nurses, to whom I was known under the French nickname of “bout d’chou” (piece of cabbage), there was one in particular whom I adored, as I did my cousin Mady. It was Jacqueline. She was only 20 years old, and my mother had taken her under her wing in order to ease her entrance into the medical world. Jacqueline was tall, as tall as Mother, and she was a brunette like her, but she did not have the severe look of my mother. Whenever I would get a bad grade in school, I would tell Jacqueline, who would then break the news to my mother to soften her reaction. My mother was extremely strict with me and her motto was: “On doit se faire un point d’honneur…” , which meant that, no matter the subject, “on”, meaning “I, bout d’chou”, was to make it a “point of honor” to excel in everything. Not always easy when one is barely ten years old.
But let’s come back to that Thursday.
I remember that day like if it was yesterday – a splendid spring day with bright sunshine. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon. At that time of the day, friends and family members were visiting the patients, and the nurses could take a break together, unless an urgent ring called one of them to a patient’s side. Suddenly, we heard a loud noise overhead, a motor sound right over the roof. We all rushed to the bay window just in time to see an airplane fall into the woods. Jacqueline, who was right behind me with her hands on my shoulders, bent down and put a kiss on my left cheek, whispering in my ear “au revoir, mon p’tit bout d’chou” and left running down the corridor. I thought she had heard a bell from a patient’s room, but she went in the direction of the exit, without turning around, without a further word.
As usual, I went back to the hospital the following day after school. It was a little after 5:00 p.m. and I was hungry for the snack my mother had ready for me – a more generous and tastier one than the hard-boiled egg and two vitamin-crackers we got on Friday afternoon at school. (I didn’t like these horrible vitamin-crackers and would always exchange them for a hard-boiled egg, of which I would trade the white for a yolk.)
As I was walking down the hallway that led to the infirmary, I passed several nurses who, instead of welcoming me with their usual “piece of cabbage” greeting, acted like they did not even see me. I thought that was very strange and then I saw my mother at the end of the hallway, coming toward me. Without a word, she took me by the hand and led me to the bay window. Not knowing why, I felt a void, an emptiness in my stomach. With her usual frank way of speaking, she said, « Jacqueline is dead. » The shocking news had the same effect as Christiane’s unexpected departure from Montbeton when I felt orphaned.
A feeling of despair had invaded me. A feeling that the aircraft of the day before had something to do with her death.
Before I could ask how Jacqueline had died, my mother continued, « The aircraft that crashed yesterday was an English aircraft. When Jacqueline left she went into the woods with an intern from here and some others to rescue the pilot before the Germans could get to him. But the Germans arrived shortly after them and arrested them. »
And after a second that seemed like eternity, she added,
« Jacqueline was executed by firing squad this morning. »
© Françoise Wisnieska,
2 August 2010, New Hartford, New York, USA
Françoise Winieska is the author of an amazing book “August 1944 : The Liberation of Rambouillet, France”