By Donna Wichelman
In December, I began a multi-month series on the Nazi occupation of France during World War Two. Based on the accounts of three lovely women and one gentleman alive as young children during the war—Mme Pierrette Couillandeau, Mme Marie-José Delage, Mme Josette Melinon, and Msr René Avril—we’ll be talking about their personal experiences and how they relate to the occupation between June 1940 and July 1944.
|Mme Pierrette Couillandeau and Mme Marie-José Delage, Libourne, France
Donna's Gallery, October 2023
Believing another war was inevitable, France built the Maginot Line, a series of concrete fortifications and weapons installations along their border with Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Italy during the 1930s to counteract an attack by the Germans. But the German Army made a surprise attack north of Saarbrücken in rugged forested terrain where no one expected, allowing them to break through French defenses, storming the country west and southward.
|German Army Shows Japanese Officials Maginot Line
Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
|Boulangerie Spécialité Pan Gascon, Since the Reign of Louis XV in 1765
Donna’s Gallery, October 2023
|Boulangerie Spécialité Pan Gascon, Baking Bread Since Louis XV in 1765
Donna’s Gallery, October 2023
STO required the forced enlistment and deportation of French men to Germany to work for the German war effort. Created under the regulations of Vichy France—the puppet government under Marshal Philippe Pétain, Hitler’s Vichy President—between 600,000 and 650,000 men from June 1942 to July 1944 were sent to work camps to compensate for the loss of German manpower as more and more soldiers were needed at the Eastern Front. The German government promised that one French prisoner of war would be released for every three men sent to Germany under the compulsory system.
|In Paris, French men and women being chosen for work in GermanyDeparture of STO workers from the Paris-Nord station in 1943
But Sauckel’s demands became increasingly demanding, probably because Germany needed labor for their war machine. By April 23, 1943, Sauckel instituted the Compulsory Work Service, requisitioning 120,000 workers in May, 100,000 in June, and another 500,000 in August. However, the numbers were never achieved because the French began evading German compulsory demands by joining the French Resistance. At least 200,000 of them went into hiding.
|Members of French Resistance March in Liberation Celebration in Libourne, France
Libourne City Archives
Upon Mme Couillandeau’s father’s return, he wanted to take back his old occupation and play cards with friends in a bar on the square in Libourne. But they told him they had made substantial money in the market, and he realized he had been a prisoner of war all the while they had made a lot of money. It was a bitter pill to swallow. He sold his shop and went to Bordeaux.
As I contemplated this real-life story, I was once more struck with the irony of how the war affected Mme Couillandeau's family every bit as much as Mme Delage's. In different ways, both men had become casualties of war, Mme Delage's father to experiencing PTSD during the First World War, and Mme Couillandeau's father to Adolf Hitler's war machine. In both cases, neither theirs nor their families' lives would ever be the same. It's something for all of us to ponder as we consider our contemporary world and those who would use war as a means to conquer and destroy other nations.