Saturday, May 4, 2024

What Effect the Nazi Occupation Had for the Broader Community of Libourne

By Donna Wichelman

In the twenty-first century United States, with a two hundred and fifty-year history of independence, it's hard to imagine another country moving in to occupy our nation. I dare say many of us would take up arms before we'd allow another entity to destroy what we've built as a people. But if one could imagine the scenario that overtook the nation of France in June of 1940, we might find ourselves completely shell-shocked and bewildered by the circumstances.

Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

Thus, even when the Germans advanced deep into France on May 10, 1940, those in the department of Gironde (the Bordeaux Region, including Libourne) believed the war would not touch them and that the allied forces would keep the Germans at bay. These sentiments continued well into June when La Chronique du Libournais reported on June 7, 1940, "Our region, certainly in appearance, does not have to fear the direct and immediate effects of the war."

Denial rang out for weeks, though the evidence bore examination. The press reported French soldiers killed in action daily. Refugees—people from the north of France and other countries to the East, Jewish and non-Jewish alike—fled war and persecution, impacting the population. Rumors of Germany's war machine followed them. Yet the press scoffed at any talk that suggested the Gironde was in trouble. "We remain convinced that the need to start discussions … but particularly war, is a habit that harms us …" The Republican Union of Libourne of June 15, 1940.

But as much as the spirit of the French people rallied to repel German advancement upon their beloved land, history records that they could not avoid the inevitable. By June 14, 1940, the German Wehrmacht (war machine) entered Paris, and the Battle for France was lost. On June 24, 1940, the Germans occupied the Gironde, and a flag depicting a Swastika flew on the Libourne Town Hall a few days later. The demarcation line between occupied and Free France was less than twenty kilometers east of Libourne.

Germans Occupy the Palace of Versailles, France June 1940

A Transcript of the Arrival of the Germans in Libourne on June 26, 1940
Compliments of the City Archives of Libourne

Nazi Flag on Libourne, France Town Hall June/July 1940
Compliments of the City Archives of Libourne

In one day, the Libournaise realized they lost self-governance. The Vichy government—so-called Free France under Marshal Philippe P├ętain--enabled the Nazi leaders to install their puppet government in Nazi-occupied territory. The Germans requisitioned buildings, the town hall, schools, prominent wine chateaux, common homes, vineyards (the heart and soul of the people of Bordeaux), and even other fields planted with crops—all for the benefit of the German Wehrmacht.

House where Marshal Petain died on July 23, 1951 in Yeu Island. Port Joinville, France - September 16, 2018: architectural detail of the house where Marshal Petain died on July 23, 1951 in the historic city center of the island of Yeu. Marshal Petain was exiled to the island after being convicted of being a collaborator with the Germans.

An interesting phenomenon took place between September 1939, when France declared war against Germany, and June 1940. The population in the Gironde grew from 850,000 to nearly two million. Libourne, in particular, went from twenty thousand to sixty thousand. Experts claim that the mass migration was one of the world's most significant movements of people in history. If you've seen the Netflix series or read the book, All the Light We Cannot See, you will recall the scene in which Daniel LeBlanc and his daughter Marie-Laure flee from Paris with thousands of others on the road heading south and west.

In the days following the occupation and before the "French State" regime took effect, the government of the Gironde scurried to repatriate people to the East. They sent a telegram to the Mayor of Libourne to take a census of the refugees, and on June 28, 1940 he posted a notice on the Libourne town hall that all refugees had to declare themselves.

How accurate the census was is up for debate. Yet nationalities included French, Polish, Italians, Hungarians, Greeks, Romanians, Czechs, English, Luxembourgers, Dutch, Swiss, Spaniards, Portuguese, Lithuanians, Armenians, and more. Many were single mothers whose husbands had died fighting or imprisoned by the Nazis. Some were doctors, engineers, craftsmen, or laborers. A preponderance were Jewish.

The once-welcomed refugees became a sudden drain on resources. The scramble for food, water, energy, medical treatment, etc. drove greedy men to take advantage of the situation, and a black market arose. The sad situation promoted an everybody-for-themself mentality. In the words of the author of the biblical book of Judges, "Each one did what was right in his own eye." In this climate, one can see how a temptation to give up one's Jewish neighbor might eventually emerge.

Hunger does strange things to a person when pressed to the wall. Loss of control of self-determination leads to despair.

Yet, the same spirit of the French people that would fight until one had no more breath to give lived on in the resistance movement—ordinary people who risked their lives to hide and rescue people of Jewish descent, especially children, and spy for the Allied forces to win the war. I want to focus on this spirit of determination and the will to survive in June's blog, for it's that spirit that would not give up and give in to the enemy at their door that won the war.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting today. The implications of this series of events leave me with much to think about.