Paris, July 1942.
Paris in Summer would have been a beautiful sight if it was not for the German soldiers and the police lurking on every corner of the city. The population had decreased massively since the start of the German occupation in June 1940. Everyone who had the means had already fled to the countryside, and by doing so they had avoided brutal rationings and nasty curfews.
Margot was 16, a petite girl with luscious black curly hair, and bright green eyes full of wonder for the world. She had been a brilliant student, she adored literature and was an avid reader. She practically worshipped Victor Hugo. The great man was a genius, how could he not be, “to love is to act” he wrote. The ideals of freedom and democracy resonated deep in Margot’s heart.
Caring for Bricheve
To help support her family Margot had been giving tuition to a young girl. Bricheve had big almond hazel eyes, and dark brown plated hair. She was a brilliant 9 year old little girl with a heart full of wonder. Margot was very fond of her and affectionately called her Bri. The little girl looked up to her young tutor. Every day, Margot would pick her up from school and take her home, quarter St Gervais in the heart of Paris. Once settled, Margot gave her lessons and helped with her homework before heading back home and take care of her family.
Yet, since all hell broke loose in Margot’s life, all of this seemed like far away ethereal aspirations that cannot be. Her dream of teaching literature had been shattered into oblivion but one little light remained in her life, getting Bricheve from school and supporting her through her homework offered a little ray of comfort in all this cruel mayhem.
Things kept on changing rapidly though. Bricheve now had a yellow star sewed on her coat. Her class was split between the pupils wearing the stars and those who did not, and her group was not receiving the same assignments as the rest of the class.
Margot was the eldest of her siblings and was responsible for her little brother and sister Michel and Micheline. She had to leave school and help her mother take care of the family. They had to keep a low profile after her father and uncle were arrested and deported. Food was scarce and even though times were hard she still made sure that she picked up Bricheve from school and help her with her homework.
Since the occupation, things had been going from worse to horrific. Just finding the essentials of food, clothing and hygiene products was extremely difficult. Shampoo was a commodity that was nearly impossible to find, Margo’s grandmother called her saliva the “shampoo of love” as that is all she had left.
Still, Margot’s routine would be the same every day, picking up her young friend, taking home and helping her learn her lessons. But the atmosphere was getting heavier and heavier. The radio solely played German propaganda. Antisemitism, which had been around since before the war, had been unleashed and people you would have never suspected became the conductor of a putrid darkness disguised behind the rose mask of the blind illusion of righteousness.
Everyday when Margot went to this grand Parisian School she could feel the heavy looks of despise and could see the light of youthful innocence begin to fade in Bricheve’s eyes. Today was one of these days, Margot had a very uneasy feeling. The street had been rather empty lately, unusually quiet compared to pre-war life. But today was different, it wasn’t quiet, there was a lot of noise and screaming coming from some of the surrounding buildings.
“I don’t like this.” said Margot, “What’s going on?.”
The frightened little girl took Margot’s hand and held it very tight, Margot could sense that there was something eerie in the air. A dreadful feeling of hot and cold overwhelmed her as the tiny 9 year old began to hold her hand tighter and tighter. As they arrived at the corner of the street everything changed, there were noises, screams, and yelling. The police were everywhere pulling people from the buildings and arresting so many people it was a mess. Bri wanted to run to her parents apartment but Margot pulled her back.
“We must hide!” said Margot
“But I heard mummy!” yelled Bri
“Shhhh, be quiet! Your mummy would want me to keep you safe. It will be fine. Come with me, I know were we can get help! we can come back later when things quiet down.” said Margot
Margot and her family had been helped from the catholic nuns at the soup shelter when they were in need. They had even provided falsified baptism certificates and Margot had been transporting documents and messages with her bicycle for the resistance network. There was one nun in particular, sister Marie-Agathe that had been involved in the courier dealings and Margot trusted her.
Margot and Bricheve ran breathlessly. Each breath felt like an icy furnace, Bri’s legs hurt so much she wasn’t sure she could carry on for much longer. When they finally arrived at the soup kitchen, they were so out of breath they could hardly say a word. Sister Marie-Agathe spotted Margot and quickly got to her.
“Margot! Are you ok dearie?” inquired Sister Marie-Agathe
“Sister! You got to help us! Bri’s parents have been taken by the police. She is all alone, please help, please!” pleaded Margot
“I’ll see what I can do.” whispered Sister Marie-Agathe and off she went to talk to her mother superior. Sister Marie-Agathe came back toward Margot and reassured her that everything was well and sorted. They would take care of Bricheve.
Margot felt relief. She couldn’t have taken a little girl home with her. They had nothing there, at least under the protection of the sisters, she will have a full belly, thought Margot.
Margot said good bye to Bricheve and walked away. A few minutes later she heard the sound of heavy boots nearby. She felt like her heart was ripped apart. What if she wasn’t safe? What was going to happen to her? Would the sisters take her in until they could find out what happen to her parents? Despite trusting sister Marie-Agathe, Margo felt a compulsion to go back and check on her friend.
What was Margot about to witness stayed with her for the rest of her life. The police were talking to the mother superior. Margot felt her heart drop in her stomach. She ran to Sister Marie-Agathe in utter panic and yelled “What happened? Are they taking Bri away?”
“Margot ! Be quiet will you! Do not worry!” said the nun, “Everything is as it should, it does not concern you anymore.” She added.
“You called the police on her, how could you?” cried Margot
Sister Marie-Agathe Pushed Margot to the pantry room, her big black habit hid the petite Margot entirely.
“Calm yourself and be quiet!” said the nun as calmly as she could. “Now think of your little brother and sister! They need you! Go!” she said.
Margot had put her trust in others and it was the biggest mistake of her life.
She had lost Bri and it was all her fault. She felt powerless, paralysed by shock and disbelief. Still, despite everything, she eventually ran home.
“I have lost Bri momma, I thought she would be safe with the sisters, I do not understand. Its all my fault!” Margot cried to her mum.
Margot carried this guilt to her death some 60 years later, she felt powerless, she had lost her friend, and was never able to find out what happened to her once she had given her away to the nuns. This was a defining moment in the life of the then 16 years old girl. If truth be told, the trauma of the war weight heavily on her shoulder for the rest of her long life. And, her last thoughts were for the friend she had once lost.
Margot’s character is inspired by my grandmother, during the war she lost a dear friend. This story is inspired by fragments of memories she painfully shared with me. The rest came to me in a dream some time after her passing.