It was May of 1996 and I was on a sabbatical semester in Paris where the sources of my approved project were to be found. Funny how the various academic projects I pursued over the years always seemed to involve French archives and libraries. On this particular jaunt I was working in the library at Centre Sèvres, a Jesuit theological institute on the Left Bank. It was in a choice location and on a lovely small square fronted by the Le Bon Marché department store. It was also across the street from the Hotel Lutetia, which had been headquarters for the Nazi brass during the World War II occupation.
Some of the Jesuits I encountered at the Centre still remembered the occupation. The Rector of the College, as it was then, thought it only prudent to invite the Nazi officials to lunch periodically. Whether that was the reputed Jesuit worldliness in play or a question of keeping one’s enemies close might be debated. But some evidence suggests the latter. My Jesuit source remembers that the sounds of conviviality leaked over from the Rector’s dining room where, undoubtedly, the meal was lavish, to the larger dining room next door, where the students, including as many Jewish boys as they could fit in, were having a much simpler lunch in silence.
The Centre Sevres was also located at a Metro stop. I usually walked from the pension to the library but on this particular day that I am remembering it was raining. Cole Porter may like Paris when it drizzles, but I don’t. I took the Metro and ten steps took me from the Metro stop to the door of the library.
The working conditions in the library were excellent and old journals, containing just the material I needed, were easily accessible. I was progressing slowly but steadily through all the French articles and filling my notebook with copious notes and extracts. But I was also to experience French fatalism at the Centre. As the date of my return flight approached, it was clear I could not finish all the material I wanted so it was time to start duplicating. The Centre had one Xerox machine and I spent Monday of my last week carefully making copies, having provided myself with a pile of one-franc pieces. On Tuesday morning, I found the laconic sign “En Panne” affixed to the machine. “Broken.” Oh well, it couldn’t be helped. Thinking like an American I assured myself the repair man would come that afternoon. On Wednesday morning the sign was still there. I was growing desperate. I approached the woman behind the desk and asked when the Xerox might be fixed. I received the unsmiling Gallic shrug. I carefully explained my urgent needs. Again, the shrug and the brief , uninflected expression of regret. “Desolee, Madam.” I had no choice but to return to my desk and read as fast as I could.
About a half hour later, the librarian aproached my desk and gestured for me to follow her. “Take your things,” was all she said. I followed her behind her desk, down a long hall and through a door that led to some stairs. Up the stairs she went, me in her wake. Perhaps she thought my usage had broken the machine and I was on my way to the Director’s office. I might even be thrown out. But, no. She led me to a bank of duplicating machines, pointed and, without another word, left. I got to work. These machines had no slot for coins. I was in Xerox heaven. But on that rainy day in Paris that I set out to remember, the Xerox adventure was still ahead of me.
By lunchtime on that day, the rain was heavy and I stood in the library’s doorway, considering what was the closest option. A true Californian, I had no umbrella. The department store on the other side of the square had a restaurant on an upper floor and I made my way there as quickly as the crowds of people with proper umbrellas permitted. I got pretty wet and the room was filled with diners and quite warm so that, by the time I got seated at a tiny table along one wall, I had started to steam. To see the lunch options on the blackboard I had to remove my steamed up spectacles. But the blackboard was on the wall on the opposite side of the room and I’m nearsighted, so that didn’t work so well.
Seated to my right, were a nicely dressed couple in their “third age,” that gracious French title for those called senior citizens in the U.S. and O. A. P.’s or Old Age Pensioners in England. I should have put this observation in my piece on the joys of foreign languages I suppose. Anyway, seeing my fumbling, the gentleman offered to read me the choices and suggested that his meal had been a good one, quite delicious. At his suggestion, I ordered the omelette aux champignons and a pleasant conversation ensued.
I learned that they were from Normandy and came to Paris every couple of months for theatre, concerts and fashion shows. They learned that I taught in a university and was doing some research at Centre Sevres. When my meal came, they politely conversed with each other and let me get on with my lunch. When the conversation picked up again, it continued along conventional lines. Was I married? No. Did they have children? Yes, grown children who had given them wonderful grandchildren. Details of their singular accomplishments took me to dessert–mousse au chocolat–and my neighbors to the request for the bill.
Then the woman looked at me with a sad smile and said, “You are a University Professor. How I would have loved getting an education. But I was just starting secondary school when the Nazis came and my parents kept me home. It was safer for girls to be at home.” We sat for a moment, looking at each other in complete understanding. Her expression changed. “And,” she said, “I remember the day the invasion started.”
Spontaneously and without much thought, I reached for her hand and said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for all the devastation we caused.” I had visited Rouen and seen the pictures of what Allied planes had done to the cathedral and the beautiful buildings throughout the city. And even though one of the Rockefellers had headed the fundraising and Americans had been generous in contributing to the restoration, I still had a pit in my stomach when I thought of it.
“O, mais non! Madam,” she said with great feeling and turned her hand over to grasp mine. “You must never, never think that. I stood on the porch of my parents’ house and I watched the planes coming in the distance. And when they got to us and flew over, when I saw the American star, I cried out, “They are here. The Americans are here. We are saved.”
We looked at each other, tears flowed down our cheeks and, for a moment, it was June, 1944 again.