Thursday, April 4, 2024

How the Nazi Occupation of France Devastated Lives in Libourne

By Donna Wichelman

For the last several months, I've been writing a series on the Nazi occupation of France during World War Two. Based on the accounts of three lovely ladies and one gentleman alive as children during the war—Mme Pierrette Couillandeau, Mme Marie-José Delage, Mme Josette Melinon, and Msr René Avril—we've talked about how the Nazi occupation devastated their lives and the lives of their families.

In some ways, said Mme Delage and Mme Couillandeau, as children, they understood little of what occurred in June 1940. But their lives had been changed nonetheless.
Donna with Mme Marie-José Delage, October 2023: Donna's Gallery

Mme Pierrette Couillandeau and Mme Marie-José Delage, October 2023: Donna's Gallery

Mme Delage was on holiday (vacation) with her mom and aunts in Arcachon, a popular seaside resort on the Atlantic coast fifty-five kilometers (thirty-four miles) southwest of Bordeaux. Someone came to say there was a call for her mother. When her mom took the call, Mme Delage's father said they must return home immediately if they wanted to see him, because he'd been recalled to serve in the French military. In the end, they met in Bordeaux.

As explained in a previous blog post, Mme Delage's father had served in World War I in the artillery department and came back wounded and with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Like so many before and after him, he never spoke of his experiences; he couldn't.

So when the French military recalled Mme Delage's father, he was shocked. Though they did not send him to the front, they posted him in Pottier to be a guard in charge of the station there. After the Germans occupied France, the German Army sent him to a factory near Bergerac, where they made gunpowder.

German Soldier Stationed in Libourne, Libourne City Archives
Unfortunately, the experience proved to be Mme Delage's father's undoing. He rang his wife to say he was escaping to Canada, and they would never see him again.

Life continued as usual for Mme Delage and Mme Couillandeau in Libourne. They played as children, their families doing the best they could to survive the terror that had struck France and the rest of the world. The Germans set up a puppet regime under the Vichy government. A Nazi flag flew on the Libourne Town Hall. All the while, German guards were posted at various stations across town and near the demarcation line into Free France twenty kilometers away.

Nazi Flag on Libourne Town Hall, Libourne City Archives

German troops in Libourne meant the townspeople didn't have enough to eat since German soldiers requisitioned the crops, and everyone else got the leftovers. But Mme Delage and Mme Couillandeau's families found a solution to their hunger. A family they knew in a nearby town whose children attended school in Libourne had taken in children from the north whose families sent them away early on to escape the Germans. Between all the children, they were able to partition the rations. They also bartered with one another for various needs.

One of the most difficult hardships for French families was how husbands were snatched from their families, leaving the wives to manage on their own with their children. Wives might receive letters once a month and then didn't hear from their husbands for a while. The neighbors would postulate that the husband was dead, but then another letter would appear in the post box. They just didn't know if the day would arrive when their husband wouldn't come home.

While it was never easy to know who fought for the Resistance, many ordinary people resisted in their own ways. One lady had a grocery shop. When the Germans came in to buy food, she would play with them, slicing their cheese thinly or saying she couldn't hear them. Another woman managed to help Jews escape over the line of demarcation. Clandestine networks worked everywhere to help Jewish families hide in their homes or escape across the demarcation line.

French Resistance the Day after Liberation, Libourne City Archives

Mme Delage knew someone who had heard of a German soldier stationed near the demarcation line who was also a Benedictine monk. A compassionate man, he helped Jews and others escape into Free France. At one point, the monk came between a young person and their parents and paid for his compassion with his life.

Many anecdotes exist of those who helped at risk to their own lives. "These people who we viewed as ordinary people," Mme Delage said, "turned out to be heroes."

Indeed, when liberation finally came to Libourne on 29 August 1944, the Germans retreated, but not before they blew up a central bridge over the Dordogne River and killed eight people. Still, in the midst of the chaos, the celebrations commenced the next day. Flags flew, garland hung on balcony railings and windows, and people crowded onto the Abe Champ Square as the Libournaise clamored and cheered the Resistance troops who had fought the good fight for the long-awaited day.

Bridge Blown Up by the Retreating Germans, Libourne City Archives

 Donna worked as a communications professional before turning to full-time writing. Her short stories, essays, and articles have appeared in various inspirational publications. She has two indie-published Christian contemporary suspense novels in her Waldensian Series, Light Out of Darkness and Undaunted Valor. Her historical romance, A Song of Deliverance is under contract and will be published in December 2024. She is also working on a World War Two historical slip-time project.

Weaving history and faith into stories of intrigue and redemption grew out of her love of history and English literature as a young adult while attending the United World College of the Atlantic--an international college in Wales, U.K. She loves to

explore peoples and cultures of the world and enjoys developing plots that show how God's love abounds even in the profoundly difficult circumstances of our lives. Her stories reflect the hunger in all of us for love, forgiveness, and redemption in a world that often withholds second chances. You can find out more about Donna Wichelman or sign up for her newsletter at  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting. I love these interviews you did!!