MEMORIES OF WAR

Invasion and Repression 

Garage Krantz in Molsheim today
Garage Krantz, once Albert’s garage, in Molsheim today. Photo by the author

Ukraine is facing untold misery from invasion and repression during enemy occupation. With hundreds, possibly thousands, of native Ukrainians being forcibly deported for internment in Russia, Heaven knows where, but they can’t look for decent treatment by the Russians, given the casual brutality and callous disregard for life we’ve all seen on the news and read about daily in the newspapers.

Thoughts about Ukraine through a rear-view mirror on recent 20th century history

The untold misery is just another sad incident of European history repeating itself. I can’t claim personal experience, but the French side of my family is from Alsace in the East of France (whose capital, Strasbourg, houses the Council of Europe and the Court of Human Rights) and they have described what life was like under enemy occupation in WWII. More of that in a moment.

Alsace has its own dialect

Incidentally, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked or told that German is the language of Alsace. That’s incorrect and about the same as saying that Danish and Swedish are identical. There is some commonality between the Alsatian dialect (which, by the way, is also the language of the Amish in the USA) and German but it is now formally recognised as a language by the French Republic. I digress but I’m looking for common ground in the experience of conquest, occupation, and repression between east Ukraine now and Alsace then.

France…Germany…France…Germany…France

Alsace became formally part of France in 1674 and was then “annexed” by Imperial Germany in 1871, becoming French again in 1918. It was then invaded with considerable ease by the Nazis in the summer of 1940, along with much of northern France and elsewhere in Europe. 

In some respects, a semblance of daily life continued except that the use of French was prohibited in any form, with only German and Alsatian being permitted. The “dialect” was in decline but enjoyed a resurgence under Nazi Occupation with citizens refusing to use classical German and the Nazis encouraged its use. (Note, the use of Russian in the Ukraine where there are many Russian speakers, is frowned upon but not so vigorously repressed by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government.)

Most of the large Jewish community – those who could afford to – fled south to cities such as Grenoble and Toulouse where, even under the pro-Nazi President Pétin, they remained safe until later in the war. Those that were left in Alsace were deported to concentration camps. 

My grandfather, Albert, was no stranger to occupation. He and my grandmother, Jeanne, were forced to become German as they were born in 1890 under Imperial German annexation. They subsequently became French when France ceded the return of Alsace under the terms of the 1918 Versailles Treaty. His experience of WWI was difficult: he was forcibly conscripted by the German Imperial army but then invalided out after being gassed by the British in his trench, giving long term health problems.

Albert Meyer, Master Mechanic

Certificate of Master Mechanic
Alberts certificate of Master Mechanic awarded in 1930. Photo courtesy of the author

Albert ran what was then the only Citroën agency in Alsace, numbering many affluent clients, not least many of them being Jewish, including the Rothschilds in Paris. He used to travel there frequently to pick up their cars for servicing, with Jeanne sitting regally in the back of one of their many limousines. (She had grandness to portray in the town and to her four sisters who were bakers, butchers, farmers and nannies as she was the only family member to visit Paris where she also trained as a Cordon Bleu chef).

Black and white photo of the centre of Molsheim in the 1930s
Photo of the centre of Molsheim in the 1930s. Photo in public domain

Albert and Jeanne lived in some style until the Nazis came and stole his entire stock of cars, leaving him with no business to run. He was well known in the town, Molsheim, as a leading socialist activist and, before becoming a “garagiste”, leading the first strike at the Bugatti factory where he worked as an engineer and racing driver. He was sacked after knocking out Ettore Bugatti in a drunken brawl during a meeting of strikers. As good gentlemen of the day, they buried their hatchets and remained friends ever after.

Listen very carefully…

Albert was a known Socialist who’d had Jewish clientele and he became a supporter of the fledgling Resistance. He lived only 24km from the internment camp for Resistance participants in Schirmeck where many died – an annex to the notorious concentration camp known as Natzweiler-Strutof – some 20,000 were estimated to have been murdered there. He was not interned despite his history and notoriety, dying peacefully in 1947. I can only think that his engineering gifts were needed to look after the local Gestapo’s Citroëns (complicated cars even then) and he scraped by on minimal Reichsmarks.

Food was in very short supply generally and my mother, Lucie, then still in her teens, spent every day cycling around the countryside at some risk scrounging or buying black market produce.

Ra-ta-ta-tat!

Albert lived in fear of arrest at any time, and he would frequently hear the morse code letter “V” being knocked on the front door, but he couldn’t tell if it was truly from a member of the Resistance or the Nazis trying to trap him. Gestapo headquarters was in an elegant house just three doors away.

Oops!

I recognise that my family’s town was not bombed in the murderous and undisciplined manner of Russians today. In fact, the nearest they got to being bombed was by the American Air Force who blew up their bridge, mistaking their river for the Rhine. But the US air force had a reputation for navigational inaccuracy, even in daylight! Nonetheless, my family and their fellow citizens lived under great psychological and physical repression and in constant fear for their safety. I know Albert kept his WWI pistol and he would have probably faced his enemies down rather than being taken alive.


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Plus ça change…

So, many of the same conditions apply to the people of the Crimea today since its illegal annexation by Putin in 2014. And now much of Eastern Ukraine – the parts that have not been blasted to smithereens by indiscriminate artillery and bombing – is under the repressive Russian regime. As with my immediate family and others in WWII, there may be some semblance of normality but under constant, hostile scrutiny, deprivation because of sanctions, and with the prospect of severe punishment or worse for any deviation from Putin’s martial law.

It’s of course a good thing that there is consensus for Ukraine to join the EU but this may take some years, so they are reliant on the slightly wobbly responses of arms support from its members.

Meantime, bombing, murder, rape and repression continues and it’s hard to see when and how it can possibly end.