Tuesday, June 4, 2024

When the Cost of Sacrifice Makes Heroes Out of Ordinary Men and Women

By Donna Wichelman

In December 2023’s Heroes, Heroines, and History Blog, I began a series based on the lives of three women and one gentleman from Libourne, France, whom I interviewed about growing up during World War II. I will always consider hearing their first-hand accounts of what it was like to experience life during wartime in France a great privilege.

In this final blog dedicated to Rene Avril, Pirrette Couillandeau, Marie-José Delage, and Josette Melinon, I want to focus on the spirit of perseverance that would not give in to the enemy at their door. Though most of my friends were young, among them were friends, family, and neighbors who remained steadfast in their resolve to win back their country and their freedom, even at the risk of their own lives. As Madam Delage said, “They were people we viewed as ordinary but turned out to be heroes.”
Resistance Groups Wait as the Crowds Gather in Libourne Celebrating Liberation, August 1944
Compliments of Libourne City Archives 

The Resistance Marching at the Liberation of Libourne, August 1944
Compliments of the Libourne City Archives

The Salute of the Flag Just Raised at Town Hall
Compliments of the Libourne City Archives

The Resistance (Maquis in French, meaning “underbrush”), as they called themselves, came from all walks of life, forming networks, hiding precious art reserves, and rescuing men, women, and children from extermination. They hailed from the farmer down the road who passed Jewish men, women, and children across the demarcation line into Free France to the wine baron in Bordeaux who transported Jewish men and women in empty barrels of wine across the border. He was an uncle from Brittany who spied on the Germans in Lorient only to be executed for treason and a mother in a hospital who hid Jewish children under a table covered with sheets. She was a lady who owned a grocery store and shorted German soldiers of food and supplies, and several ladies who hid Jews in their homes until they could get them safe passage. He was a German Benedictine monk whose compassion got him killed for allowing Jewish people to cross the demarcation line and a father who asked a priest to counterfeit a Catholic baptismal certificate to save his Jewish daughter.

Barrels of Wine

Photo 47598059 | Wine Barrels © Natalia Volkova | Dreamstime.com

Josette Melinon's Mother Caring for Patients at Rothchild Hospital While Hiding Jewish Children
Mme Melinon's Archives

Citizens of Libourne Fly Flags at Windows as the Red Cross Poses For their Picture
Compliments of the Libourne City Archives

Arrival of the Demorny Resistance Group After Liberating Castillon in South Dordogne
Compliments of the Libourne City Archives

Rose Valland Hiding Precious Works of Art
Donna's Gallery, May 2023

Mme Melinon as a Three Year Old and Her Father
Compliments of Mme Melinon's Archives

Josette's  Baptismal Certificate
Compliments of Mme Melinon's Archives

Donna with Mme Josette Melinon Today
Donna's Gallery, October 2023

Msr Rene Avril Whose Uncle Spied for the Allies
Donna's Gallery, October 2023

Pirrette Couillandeau and Marie-José Delage Pointing to a Bullet Hole in Mme Delage's Apartment Building
Donna's Gallery, October 2023

A Local Store in France, Not Much Different than A Store in the 1940s
Donna's Gallery, October 2023

Others sabotaged railways, organized escape routes, circulated anti-German fliers, published underground newspapers, sent messages over the radio waves, and planned stealth attacks. Over and over, we hear the stories of bravery and sacrifice despite the risks, even unto death. But why? Who were these heroes? What could possibly motivate anyone to save another at the cost of their own life?

There must be a higher purpose or a more compelling reason to sacrifice, especially for one not of your race or religion. One could say national pride or political freedoms. But in the last blog, we discovered that in a climate of scarcity of resources, some people took advantage of the circumstances, and a black market arose. A few gave up their Jewish neighbors to get a morsel of food. Some who wanted to avoid doing Compulsory Work Service (STO) in Germany joined the Resistance. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 5:7, “For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person, one would dare even to die …” (ESV).

Today, the question of sacrifice falls deeply upon my heart, because it’s Memorial Day weekend in the United States—a day we remember those who gave their lives to secure our country and our freedoms. My father served on a Navy troop transport ship during World War II from 1942 – 1946. Like most people who come home from war, he didn’t like to talk about what he saw, especially during the liberation. Yet, he believed his sacrifice was worth it for the sake of those who fell prey to the whims of a madman.

Donna's Dad, Joseph Chonko, 1942

Studying history not only helps us understand how events unfolded, making our world the way it is today, but it teaches us about ourselves—the character and mettle we’re made of. It also helps us understand where we succeeded or failed and allows us to think critically about how to make better choices. Sadly, we are a country divided in many ways, but the question of sacrifice is still significant to ponder for future generations.

One answer can be found in the book of Luke in the Bible. When a lawyer asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan. As the story goes, three men—a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan—walk by a robbed and severely beaten man, but the only one who stops to help him is the Samaritan. Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell into the robbers’ hands?” And he said, “The one who showed mercy toward him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do the same” (Luke 10:30 – 37, NASB 1995).

Addressing his disciples in the book of John, Jesus said, “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12 – 13, NASB 1995).

What would you do if a madman in a time of war knocked at your neighbor’s door and you had the power to help him?

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this series. I still marvel at the tremendous opportunity these people gave you by talking with you and letting you tell their stories. Wouldn't we like to think that if it were in our power to help our neighbor we would do it? Yet I understand the power of fear...Lord help us be strong in doing the right thing.