V-E Day, As Experienced by a French Child
May 8 marks the 70th anniversary of V-E Day, the day that Allied forces formally accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. Needless to say that was a big event, and an important date in world history. This post offers a microscopic view of this major world event by asking a simple question: How was V-E day experienced by an eleven-year-old boy in a little French village (Les Riceys, l’Aube) who had lived nearly half of his short life in a France that was suffering “under the Nazi boot”?
Guy Prunier, now an 81-year-old retired sound engineer living in Mussy-sur-Seine, can tell us. “On the 8 of May 1945, I was alone in our house. My father was at work, and my mother had gone out with my brother and my little sister. It was a beautiful day and the windows onto the street were open. Suddenly all the bells in the three churches of Les Riceys began to peal at once, which both startled and worried me. Then I started to hear gunfire, which made me even more worried. Pulling together all my courage, I went to peek out of the windows, and I saw that everyone was in the streets, some waving hunting rifles in the air, everyone laughing and embracing, many with tears in their eyes. The war is over! they were shouting. That’s what I remember.”
The wartime memories that Prunier has preceding this date are scattered, but intense. “The war was during the time I was seven until I was eleven. So obviously I didn’t really participate in the events, but for four years I lived through it, and it has left me with very powerful memories that have marked me for life,” he says. “I remember the sight of German soldiers parading through the streets, goose stepping, singing their songs of war. I will always have this image in my mind, and I still have a negative reaction when I hear German spoken.” He pauses, looks sad, and adds, “I can’t help it.”
He goes on, “My family didn’t suffer particularly under Nazi occupation, other than the general shortages that everyone suffered from. I remember how my mother had to work so hard to feed us, clothe us, keep us warm. In the beginning of 1943, my father was sent to work in Germany in a factory in Hamburg for several months. He didn’t dare disobey for fear of reprisals. He did get special permission after my baby sister was born to not return to Germany, but after that he went underground and later the Gestapo was looking for him. He hid for a certain time in a little cabin in the vineyards, and I would ride to him on my bicycle and bring him food. Needless to say, I made those trips with my heart in my mouth, terrified of being stopped and searched…I was barely 10 years old.”
The liberation of France of course had come earlier: the liberation of Paris on 26 August 1944; of Troyes, capital of l’Aube (the département where les Riceys is located) on August 21; and Mussy-sur-Seine, the village where Guy Prunier now lives, on September 2, just a month after the Maquis Montcalm–a Resistance unit of approximately 1200 fighters who had hidden in the forest between Mussy-sur-Seine and Grancey-sur-Ource–were chased from their camp, and the inhabitants of the villages subjected to brutal reprisals by the Nazis. But that is another story, and one that the adult Guy Prunier has devoted much of his retirement years to researching, documenting and sharing with the public. Each year on the anniversary of the escape of the maquisards from the forest, Prunier leads a hike through the forest, following their trail. He is also the founder of the local Chemins de Memoire, and the keeper of the collection of wartime and Resistance artifacts in Mussy-sur-Seine.
Like Prunier’s personal recollection of hearing the bells peal, and seeing the villagers rejoice on a beautiful day in May, the story of the Maquis Montcalm is just one small piece of a larger story of the French resistance and its role in the liberation of France. And that is a story for another day. Stay tuned!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She writes about France for Bonjour Paris, France Revisited, and on this blog. She teaches “Paris: A Literary Adventure” in Paris each summer for Queens College, CUNY, classes at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. , and writing workshops in Essoyes, a village in Champagne.