Saturday, August 14, 2010

L'attaque du Moulin

Hate is a strong word. Hate grabs you like a vice. It boils the blood. It is the elixir that turns a rational Dr. Jekyll into a demonic Mr. Hyde.

Hate can flair up in an instance and last a lifetime. I am struck by the number of times that one will say, "I hate you." Child to parent, spouse to spouse, best friend to best friend - hate can flair up over the most trivial of incidents and burn the parties involved forever.

I was perhaps ten or eleven when my grandmother told me that she hated Germans.Well, to be honest, I don't remember her using the word "hate", it was just the intense look on her face when she related a story about the First World War. She was living in Graffigny-Chemin, a small village in Lorraine, France, perhaps 60 miles from the border with Germany. In the telling of the story her face became taut, her voice strident, and she spoke with such a ferocity, that one did not dare question her facts. We simply sat in silence and listened.

Marguerite is a very French sounding name and this was my grandmother's name. My grandfather was James Madison Pearson, which the grandchildren always shortened to Daddy Matt. My grandmother always remained grandmother Marguerite.

She was born in 1890 and although she came from a small village, it is apparent from old photographs that her family was comparatively well off. The village of Graffigny-Chemin is now located in the district of Haut-Marne, but before Napolean it was called the province of Lorraine.Occasionally, the area is still referred to as Lorraine.

The house that her family owned in Graffigny-Chemin was the largest and newest in the village. It was directly across the square from the village church, and during festivals the square was a center of attraction.There was a large garden with a spring attached to the house. And separate from the main house was a carriage house with a large oven where cooking for the house would have occurred. (The carriage house is seen in the left hand side of this postcard from 1909.)

Marguerite father died when she was perhaps thirteen, and so she lived a quiet and idyllic life in Graffigny with her sister Paula and mother Laura. When the First World War came in 1914, both she and her sister were still unmarried.

The war was for her and her family a transforming experience. Marguerite married my grandfather, an American soldier in France, at the end of the First World War and returned to the United States. She spoke English, but always with an accent, so that her stories came across with an air of mystery.

My grandmother's dislike of Germans is not so surprising. France endured three wars in the span of 70 years in which German armies marched into France and caused great destruction and loss of life. Most people are familiar with the two World Wars, starting in 1914 and again in 1939, but few Americans now can recall the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and 1871, ending in the capture of Napoleon III and a total French defeat. As a result of the treaty terms, Germany gained control of much of the provinces of Alsace and part of Lorraine. It so happened that the village of Graffigny-Chemin, where my grandmother came from, remained French while nearby towns and villages became German.

As I said, Marguerite was born in 1890, but her earliest tales were of the Germans marching through the village of Graffigny during the Franco-Prussian War. She was not yet born, but she told the story with such determination that you could imagine she had lived through it personally.

(Map from and is used here solely for educational purposes. Graffigny-Chemin and the fictional Roscreuse are added for this article.)

Her family, the Chevallier's, buried the silver and fled to the hills. The silver that was buried in the ground consisted of a set of knives and some candle sticks. That was all.Other valuables were not mentioned. Jewelry or gold, if there was any, was sold off during difficult times. Only the less valuable items remained to become part of the family history.

She spoke with such fierceness that I did not question her further. Or perhaps, I was too shy to ask. Or perhaps, I felt it was not a child's place to question a grandparent. Whatever the reason, I never learned the rest of the story.

This silver was eventually passed down to my mother. While I grew up we used the knives often as they were so sharp as to cut the toughest steak.The handles were silver and the blades made of carbon steel. And at each use I would remember my grandmother's story of her parents hiding the family valuables from the hated Germans.

History should be preserved better. Carbon steel is prone to rusting and the blades needed to be washed and thoroughly dried each time they were used. Instead, the knives, because they cut so easily, were used daily, and then placed in the dishwasher where the water would take its toll on the blades. With each cut of the meat and with each washing, the blades grew smaller and smaller. Blades that once were long and round faded away until only a sliver of steel remained. What the Germans did not steal, our family unknowingly wasted away. What has happened to the knives, I do not know. Perhaps they found their way into a drawer in my sister's house, or worse yet they were discarded as useless. I now have the set of silver candle sticks which adorn my dining room table.

It is tragic that families fail to preserve their treasured memories and stories.Growing up, I regret never asking my grandparents more questions. And with so many siblings and cousins at family gatherings, the moments spent together were more about the young than the old. Being young we wanted to run and play, and not sit and talk. Now that I am older, I long for those stories again.

L'Attaque du Moulin (The attack on the mill) is a short story in French by Emile Zola. The story in French is available for download through InLibroVeritas; it can also be translated using Google Translator. Emile Zola wrote the story in 1880, just ten years after the start of the Franco-Prussian War, when the sting of defeat was still fresh in the minds of the French. Admittedly, the story bears little relationship to the village of Graffigny or to the lives of my grandparents or great grandparents, as far as I know. But, as with all fictional stories - if you read the story carefully and you let your imagination run freely, you can for a moment transport yourself back to another time and place.

The story takes place at the beginning of the war in a fictional village called Rocreuse. Zola places the viollage in Lorraine on the river Morelle. The river like the town is fictional. But there is a river Moselle, a tributary of the Rhine River, which flows through France originating in the Vosges Mountains and joining the Rhine at Koblenz. The river meanders past the French towns of Epinal, Toul, and Metz before crossing back into Germany at Trier. Graffigny is located halfway between Epinal and Toul, and just at the edge of the Vosges Mountains. However, it is not on the river.

At the beginning of story, Merlier, a miller who lives with his daughter Francoise in the only mill in Rocreuse.A party is held and Merlier will betroth his daughter to Dominique, a Belgian man who lives nearby in the forest of Gagny. Zola describes the village and landscape beautifully. It could suffice for a description of Graffigny-Chemin and the famland that surrounds it, with the thick woods that are placed just to the east and north of the village.
" Le village n'a qu'une rue, deux files de masures, une file à chaque bord de la route; mais là, au coude, des prés s'élargissent, de grands arbres, qui suivent le cours de la Morelle, couvrent le fond de la vallée d'ombrages magnifiques.

The village has only one street, two rows of huts, a row each side of the road, but here, at the elbow of the river where the meadows expand, the large trees, which follow the course of the Morelle River, cover the valley in a magnificent shade.

Il n'y a pas, dans toute la Lorraine, un coin de nature plus adorable.

There is not, in all of Lorraine, a corner of nature more adorable.

A droite et à gauche, des bois épais, des futaies séculaires montent des pentes douces, emplissent l'horizon d'une mer de verdure; tandis que, vers le midi, la plaine s'étend, d'une fertilité merveilleuse, déroulant à l'infini des pièces de terre coupées de haies vives. »

To the right and left, thick woods, groves secular rise gentle slopes, filling the horizon with a sea of green, while to the south, the plain stretches from fertility wonderful place to infinite pieces of land cut hedges."
War is cruel. The Germans come to Rocreuse. The mill which stands solidly in the middle of the town becomes both a symbol of strength and then destruction as first the French defend it and then in turn the Germans before it is destroyed by bullets and shells. Peace, tranquility and love all fall victim to war.We are reminded that too often there are greater forces which influence our lives and destinies.

As my grandparents met because of the First World War, I can not say that war is all bad.Certainly we must fight to defend ourselves. And in the process, death is inevitable for the innocent as well as the guilty. However, Zola in this story makes a broader comment on the pointlessness of some wars. In particular, the Franco-Prussian War was started by the French, who lived by a code of honor, and ended by the superior armaments and tactics of the Germans. We should fight for a cause stronger than honor.

As for my grandmother's hatred of the Germans, there must be another story now forgotten. For, you see, my grandmother's father was himself German.