On May 10, 1940, the Germans launched their offensive in Western Europe. Panic broke out in northern France and Belgium. People’s memories of the brutal August 1914 occupation were still fresh and they didn’t want to live through the same nightmare.
Within days, nearly two million Belgians had gathered at the French border, alongside many Dutch and Luxembourgers. Many French people also fled their homes in the north and east of the country. By the time the Germans had reached the gates of Paris, in June, the exodus had reached an extraordinary scale. As fear gripped the capital too, many Parisians fled the City of Lights.
In all, 8-10 million refugees fled their homes to try to escape the Nazi invasion – almost a quarter of the French population at the time.
For the 80th anniversary of this exodus, FRANCE 24 has collected testimonies from people who lived through it. Many were on the road for just a few days before going back. But the often traumatic and sometimes exhilarating moments of their escape have never left them.
Born on December 11, 1932.
My dad was a professional soldier. When the Germans launched their invasion, my mum and I were with him where he was stationed, in the city of Charleroi, in French-speaking Belgium. He left immediately to fight for the Belgian army. He’d said to my mum that it would be best not to stay there if war broke out, and that we should go and stay with my grandparents, who lived in a mining village.
So that’s where we went. But we didn’t stay there long. Everyone was worried. We left on foot, along with our neighbours. There were about 20 of us. It must have been around May 14, 1940. We were heading for the French border because France was seen as a safe haven, just as it was in the First World War. I was the only child in the group. My mum tied a big piece of string on my wrist so that I wouldn’t get lost.
We were still in Belgium – somewhere near a farm – when the bombing started. There must have been some sort of military convoy nearby. We didn’t have time to flee. We took shelter along a wall – but my grandparents were seriously injured. My grandad lost a leg and my grandma was hit in the knee. My mum got a head injury and I got shrapnel in my arm. She found me near a crater. The string was gone.
I was surrounded by screaming and crying people. I could see that my mum’s face was bloody and that my grandparents were lying on the ground. She didn’t know what to do. Some French soldiers arrived on the scene and told her they were going to take care of her parents. They put them in a small house that no one was living in. When she went back to see how they were, the soldiers had disappeared and they’d robbed my grandparents. We never forgot that.
Eventually my mum managed to get them to a village nearby. My grandad soon passed away. We had to leave his body and continue our journey. We were evacuated in a truck to Omont, a tiny village in the rugged, forested Ardennes in the far north-east of France. It was there that my grandma died from her injuries. We had to bury her there.
So I lost both of my grandparents during this exodus. Then we went through another bombardment, and so we decided to get even further away, down to the South. We ended up in Lapalisse, near Vichy. The locals took care of us – until May 28, the day King Leopold III announced Belgium’s surrender. Then things turned sour. My mum was arguing with shopkeepers; they didn’t want to sell anything to a “Belgian traitor”.
Despite everything, my mum and aunt found work at a local business. We stayed there all summer. Then one day, we were told we could leave. We went back to Charleroi by train. It took a while for this period to fade in my memory – but it never left completely. I had nightmares about it for a long time.
Born on August 8, 1930.
I’m from Antwerp. We were a large family of seven children. My mum and dad had lived through the First World War; they were well aware of the atrocities that took place during that time. So they decided to leave. They knew Antwerp was going to be targeted. There were a lot of us but, because my dad had a transportation business, we had a truck as well as a car.
I can’t remember when we left for the sea. It must have been two or three days after the May 10 offensive. At the end of the first day, we managed to stay for one night in a flat in Middelkerke, on the coast. I remember that, during the night, I woke up in the cellar. We’d been taken down there because the Germans were already bombing Ostend, which was nearby. The next day we left and spent the night in De Panne, near the French border. Then we went down to Tréport, in Normandy. Belgians were very welcome there. People even put tables out with food on.
We went further along the French coast, to the south-eastern part of Brittany. We were able to rent a small house. As I was a child, it was a pleasure for me to live there – I loved the countryside and I have wonderful memories. There were chickens everywhere. It was more of an adventure, like we were on holiday.
We lived with Bretons. I loved the atmosphere there and I saw many beautiful things. I had a lot of fun, even though my parents must have been incredibly anxious at the time. There were still seven mouths to feed. My dad had to go to Paris for work, to earn some money for us.
We stayed in Brittany for about a month. I even went to school there. I wasn’t traumatised by this period because we didn’t have any bombs fall on us. We were lucky, unlike some people I knew. After that month, we went back to Antwerp. On the roads back, there was destruction all around us.
Born on October 2, 1932.
My mum was terribly afraid of the Germans. She knew all about the abuses they’d committed when they occupied the north-east of France in the First World War. She had heard they raped women. It was she who decided to leave. My dad stayed on our farm, in Montreuil-en-Caux in Normandy, not far from the English Channel.
Around May 10, a truck from a friend of my parents arrived. My dad loaded some luggage and two mattresses into it. We got in. There was my mum, my big sister Marie, my little sister Marguerite and my brother René. We went to the Sarthe region in the west of the country – to the house of one of my dad’s friends from the First World War.
But on June 10, we found out that the Germans had crossed the Seine. So my mum decided that we’d go to the South the next morning. She didn’t have a specific destination in mind. After we got past Le Mans, the main city in the Sarthe, all you could see was endless lines of refugees – with wheelbarrows, pushchairs, bikes heaving with luggage, all that. The road was too crammed for you to drive along in it in a car, so we went on foot, using small roads instead of the main ones. We found a barn to spend the night in. It was infested with rats, but we were so exhausted that nothing could stop us from sleeping.
We hit the road very early the next day. We dove down along the side of the road when, twice, planes flew above, low in the sky. Thankfully, no one cried out in pain; it seemed no one had been struck by a bomb. At dawn, we overtook the massive columns of refugees. Apart from these huge flocks of people trying to escape, it was hard to imagine that we were at war.
But that didn’t last long. During the night, the sound of an aerial battle woke us up. Splinters fell off the roof of the hangar we were staying in. After stopping many times, we arrived at Limoges, where some people sheltered us in their garage. It was the first time we unpacked our mattresses in a long while.
Rumour had it that there would be a free zone in the South. My mum didn’t want us to be stuck, so she decided that we’d go back. It took us a week to find petrol and the necessary papers to cross the new border between the two parts of France. On the way back, we crossed the Seine on a temporary bridge laid out over big boats. That was when I saw a German officer for the first time. He looked impressive.
When we got back, we learned that my father had come to meet us, but that he had missed us by a few days. In our absence, our neighbours had looted our house and the Germans had vandalised it. I think about that all the time – especially now that people are complaining about the lockdown imposed because of the coronavirus.
This is nothing compared to what we went through in 1940. With the bombings, danger could come from the sky at any time.
Born on February 27, 1923.
I was born and raised in Douai, in the north of France near the Belgian border. From the moment the Germans started their offensive on May 10, 1940, Douai and the surrounding area were bombed heavily, because the city had a train depot and quite a few industrial plants. The next day thousands of Belgians, Dutch and Luxembourgers arrived, fleeing the German advance.
We finally hit the road on May 13. At the time there weren’t many cars on the roads; only the wealthy had them. The rest of us used horse-drawn carriages or, in our case, a handcart. So we left on foot towards Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise, a bit further away from the Belgian border. We slept on straw in a barn. There were hundreds of evacuees. At around 4am, we woke up to the sound of bombs. We immediately got back on our cart and onto the road. In two days, we travelled 70 kilometres on foot. From time to time we put our grandmother in a wheelbarrow and pushed her, because she found it hard at her age.
We arrived at the farming village of Buneville exhausted and terrified. We didn’t know what to do; we were part of this colossal stream of evacuees. In the village square, a brave lady in her fifties came up to us and told us that she could accommodate 10 people in her home. She took us there and we found ourselves in front of a château.
She told us that she was the Baroness of Hauteclocque. We didn’t know this yet, but she was the cousin of Philippe de Hauteclocque, who would soon become Marshal Leclerc, one of the great generals of the Free French forces. She was an extraordinary, charming woman.
So we settled in. She explained to us that next to the château, there was a farm with poultry, eggs, potatoes and beans, and that we shouldn’t hesitate to take what we needed. A few days later, we were thinking of going back to Douai and the baroness implored us to stay for our own safety: “But aren’t you OK here? What are you going to do in a town occupied by the Germans? You’d bear the brunt of the occupation there.”
It was good advice, and we heeded it. The baron was more reserved than his wife, but he told us we could come to his library in the evenings, if we wanted to, to listen to the BBC radio broadcasts. That’s how – on June 18, 1940 – I had the privilege of listening to General de Gaulle’s famous call to resistance with Marshal Leclerc’s family. Life can be bizarre.
Two days later, we reluctantly took to the road; we had to go home. Our house had been looted. We got on with our lives as well as we could. I got involved in the Resistance and did some work for the underground newspaper La Voix du Nord. These were great adventures. At one point, I was arrested by the Gestapo, but by some miracle I escaped the firing squad.
Born on September 5, 1934.
Before, we lived in Laon, a small cathedral city in northern France. But when war broke out in September 1939, my parents thought it best to avoid the bombing – to go and live in the country with my grandmother and great-grandmother. On May 16, 1940, in the late afternoon, we saw a column of French armoured vehicles enter. We were out on the doorstep watching them.
I was small, but I have many very specific memories of that time; flashes of memory that remain very vivid. “Go on, go on, we’re going to fight!” they said. They were soldiers under Colonel Charles de Gaulle, as he was then, and the next day they fought the Battle of Montcornet nearby. [In this French counter-attack, they used tanks to go on the offensive against the Germans, and won – only to retreat due to a lack of support.]
So we set off on foot towards the south. My great-grandmother was helpless, so we put her in a handcart. Military vehicles stopped to help us on the way. They put my great-grandmother in an ambulance, and then put my parents, my 20-month-old sister and my grandmother in another truck. It was a mess. I couldn’t get on it as well, so the soldiers decided to put me in a different truck. But the two vehicles went off in different directions. I was a lost child, separated from my parents.
I can’t remember boarding the truck, but I do remember being surrounded by soldiers the next day. They made me drink something. It tasted awful. They were trying to put me to sleep. The next thing I remember is emerging from the total darkness of a barn, with a soldier holding my hand. He was looking for water; he heard a child crying and came and found me. I suppose he saved my life. He took me to a school in Reims, the famous cathedral city in eastern France, where he asked the headmaster to sort things out for me. I was then evacuated with all the children to a small village in the Nièvre, further south.
My parents had fled to Mayenne – a rural region in the west – and were living in a refugee centre there. My father then left to try to find me. For five weeks, they didn’t know if I was alive or dead. They ended up finding out where I was because I had a small canvas bag on me; my grandma had made it and put my name, address and a prayer on it. They finally came to pick me up in Nièvre, by train, at the end of July.
I remember extremely clearly the moment when I woke up from a nap and my mum and dad were there, sat down, at the foot of my bed. It was unbelievable. We then went to a different Ruillé-Froid-Fonds refugee camp in Mayenne, where we stayed until November 1940.
Born on May 19, 1923.
After several bombing campaigns, our hometown Somain in northern France was emptying out. We left on foot, on May 19, 1940, with my parents and my six brothers and sisters, as well as another family. We had two bikes and a pram.
In the evening, we found a barn where the children were able to sleep on sacks of grain. In the morning, we started off again. We walked in single file because there were so many people. At one point, when we crossed a bridge, we heard someone shouting: “Hurry up! The bridge is going to go!” Indeed, as soon as we reached the other side, there was this massive boom: the bridge had exploded.
The following day, we encountered our first German military convoy, with a sidecar followed by jeeps, then tanks. British soldiers were positioned all along the road and they started firing, and so we found ourselves trapped in the middle.
My mum, dad, brother and I threw ourselves down into a ditch. We could hear bullets whistling above us. I don’t know how long it lasted, but it seemed like a long time. The Germans sneaked across behind us, and then everything was calm again.
However, my dad was crying out in agony. My mum and I rushed over to help him. Machine gun bullets had struck his back. His last words were: “How unlucky that they’re shooting civilians!” My mum asked my brother Robert to help him, but Robert couldn’t lift his arm; he’d been on the receiving end of a machine gun bullet as well.
The gunfire started again. When things had calmed down once more, my mum told me that she was hurt as well. A grenade had struck her and hurt her back. I shouted ‘Dad!’ But he didn’t answer. The blast from that grenade had finished him off.
There was so much dust in the air that I couldn’t see properly and it looked like my mum was on fire. We couldn’t see each other. We were lost. We didn’t know what to do. We had to leave my dad in the ditch.
We didn’t know what to do about my mum’s injuries. When we saw a man with an empty wheelbarrow, we told him that we needed to transport a wounded civilian. “Go on, take it,” he said. “It’s of no use to me now. My wife just died.” We put my mum in the wheelbarrow and we started to cross fields with her in it, followed by my six siblings, who had difficulty walking. We stayed on a farm for two or three days.
The injured were taken to Cambrai, where my mum spent six months recuperating. Then, before finally going back home, we went to see if my dad was still in the ditch. He was.
Born on August 28, 1931.
My parents had a small business in the village of Muttersholtz, in Alsace. We weren’t evacuated at the start of the war, because our village was about 15 kilometres from the Rhine – which was actually quite far from the front in the previous war. We were evacuated in the spring of 1940, towards Ribeauvillé, which was nearby. There were five of us: my parents, my little sister, my older brother and me. We left on a horse-drawn cart. I said to myself: “We’re going to see the country!”
We managed to find accommodation when we got to Ribeauvillé. After the armistice [June 22, 1940], everyone could go back to the village – except us, because we were Jewish. Alsace had been annexed by the Third Reich, the Jews were no longer allowed to go back home. We left for Gérardmer, in the remote Vosges region, where my cousin had rented a house. On our way there in a truck, the driver threw us out on the corner of a road along with our belongings. We were completely abandoned.
My brother Lucien went out on a bike to try to find another means of transport for us. It was the last time we saw him. By the time he came back that night, we had already left because the police had moved us on. He never found us. We later learned that he had taken refuge in Ain, further south. He was arrested there in April 1944, then deported to Kaunas in Lithuania, where he was murdered.
We stayed in Gérardmer until February 1944, when we were able to flee. My older sister was part of a Resistance organisation that rescued Jewish children. We left for Paris by train with my little sister, then our parents managed to join us.
For me, the exodus was about leaving our village and my brother dying. So it was ultimately very short. I didn’t experience it in the way it’s shown in archive footage – my experience of the exodus was more about exile. We weren’t on the road for a long period in 1940. But it’s true that I didn’t see Muttersholtz again until 1945.
Born February 2, 1936.
I had just turned four when the fighting started. I lived in Rouen, in a red brick building, with just my mum, who made fur linings. I had no memory of my father at the time; he was a coal merchant who was sent off to fight in October 1939. He didn’t return until six years later.
There was panic when some sirens went off. The wife of one of my dad’s former clients agreed to take us in. So we packed up our belongings and in the morning we went over to the meeting place for evacuation, without really knowing where we’d be evacuated to. It was very early; the sky was purple and the street felt heavy with silence.
We sat down on wooden benches inside a truck and left Rouen on the country roads. My mum held her meagre possessions between her legs: just some money she’d saved and a bundle of linen. After 10 hours of driving, we were all exhausted. We looked for a place to sleep. We now had a new status: we were refugees!
The mayor of one of the villages we stopped at suggested we sleep in an attic. I was surprised to discover that we were all going to sleep together. As an only child, I liked the idea of being surrounded by other children. The hay, the insects, the planes making loops in the sky above… none of these things were going to spoil my fun. I don’t know if the adults slept well, but I do remember that there was a lot of laughter there.
After that, we arrived at the town of Conches in Normandy. We’d been driving for two hours, tossed about all over the place through the twists and turns and the bumps on the road, when we heard a rumble in the air. There was a squadron of planes above us. Before we knew it, we were on the ground seeking shelter. The bombardment began. So we found shelter underneath a truck. We were all lying face down with this terrifying sound thundering above us. It only lasted 10 minutes, but it seemed like such a long time under those conditions. Then suddenly the whole thing was over – and we saw the dreadful irony: we’d been hiding under an ammunition truck!
It was an impossible journey down South. It was too slow; the Germans were overtaking us. So there was no point in carrying on. The adults decided that we’d turn around and go back to Rouen.
Born on October 21, 1930.
I was an only child. We lived in Rouen, where my dad sold bicycles; he was exempt from military service. When the Germans invaded France, my parents said we had to run away. There were rumours going around that they were killing children. My dad bought an old car; we even put bikes on the roof because we weren’t going that far.
We left on June 9, and when we arrived at the banks of the River Seine, there was a huge traffic jam of vehicles waiting to cross it. There were already sandbags blocking the bridge, then they closed it completely. It was then that the French soldiers blew it up because the Germans would get there soon. A friend of my parents was riding his bike across the bridge at the time; he blew up along with it. Some of the soldiers were also accidentally killed in the explosion.
We ran away and went to shelter in a cellar for a while. There was a French soldier with us holding a rifle. After a few hours, we went outside and the Germans were there. The soldier was taken prisoner. We went to get our car back. All the other cars were wrecked and charred, but miraculously ours was intact. It only had a flat tyre! We came across some Germans on the way back; they signalled to us, pointing to the tyre, but we were too scared to stop. We went all the way back driving on the rim. So for me, the exodus only lasted a few hours. We were back in Rouen for the duration of the war. My dad joined the Resistance. He was arrested in 1944, then deported to Dachau and Mauthausen. He was released in May 1945 and came back home.
Born on June 13, 1925.
I lived at the time in Compertrix, in the Marne region of eastern France. My mum was the head teacher of the local school and also a secretary at the town hall, where we lived. My dad wasn’t fighting; he’d suffered lasting injuries in the First World War. My mum had to give out exit passes for people to leave Compertrix. So we were the last to leave and by that time the Germans were fast approaching. We were living under bombardment. But people were thinking of the last war; they thought the Germans were going to be stopped at the Marne.
My parents didn’t really tell us what was going on. But I was 15 years old: I knew what was happening.
It was me, my mum and dad, my brother and my sister, and we went by car to stay with my other sister, who was a grown-up and working as a teacher in the nearby Aube region. From there, we wanted to go to the Lot in the South to stay with my grandparents, but now we couldn’t all fit in the car. So my dad dropped us off en route and went back to pick up the rest of the family. We sat on a low wall, waiting for him.
Then all the French artillery went past us – God knows where it was going. It was a quite a debacle, really, because when the planes came over to fire on the town of Tonnerre, the bombs started falling from the sky above us. In the evening, a lady came with keys to the Ancy-le-Franc château, so that we could sleep there. My dad came back and all five of us slept in the same bed – the bed where King Henry IV had slept.
Just before reaching our destination – Terrou, a village in the Lot – we had to push our car for the last few kilometres because we’d run out of petrol. We stayed there with our family for the entire summer. We enjoyed spending all that time together. But when the school year started in October, we had to go back – schools were ordered to reopen. So we went across the demarcation line, back to Compertrix. The problem was, the whole town was occupied by Germans, so we couldn’t go home. Luckily, the parents of my mum’s pupils helped us until we could finally go back to the town hall.
Born on November 13, 1934.
As a child, in May 1940, I lived in Romilly-sur-Seine, in the Aube in eastern France. My dad worked on the railways. He was sent off to fight in September 1939. When the Germans attacked, we left along with my grandparents, who lived nearby. The whole village fled. I don’t remember anyone telling me what was going on or where we were going. A farmer we knew who lived close by gave my grandad a farm vehicle and so in it we piled up all our belongings, our bedding, our clothes, our food, as well as crucial documents and papers. I carried my doll with me.
A day’s journey was about 20 kilometres – we were stopping more than we were going forward. At night we slept in abandoned farms; we ate what we found and slept on the straw in the barns. I once saw a very old man burying himself completely in the straw – I was scared because all I could see of him was his head, with his hat poking out. I also remember a woman and her daughter going into abandoned houses and coming out with clothes and jewellery.
But the moment that stayed with me most was the bombing of Sainte-Maure station. There was this huge explosion behind our convoy and we saw a ball of fire roar out from it. It was pandemonium. I saw my sister running barefoot, clutching her shoes onto her chest. I saw a mother with her child diving for cover into the grass next to the road – only it turned out to be a reedy swamp, and some men had to go down into it to get her out. I can still picture her baby’s little leather shoes, absolutely soaked.
When German planes flew over us, we did something similar, throwing ourselves down into the ditches at the side of the road. My grandma had this horrible habit of leaning on my head and I’ll never forget that. And there was this motorcyclist who kept overtaking the convoy. We called him “the spy”.
But we also had some good times, like when boys from the convoy sat playing cards under harvest vehicles, or when my friend Roger took us for a ride in his parents’ car. I don’t know how long we were gone for, but by the time we got back to my grandparents’ house, we didn’t have any supplies left. I lived through a critical period – even though I didn’t realise it at the time.
Born on January 3, 1933.
I lived in Arcis-sur-Aube, in the east, with my dad who was a lumberjack and my mum who worked in a factory. Our hometown was bombed on June 13 – we spent more than half an hour lying under the bed. We’d got used to seeing refugees from Belgium and the north of France fleeing the Germans, and we could see that it would soon be our turn. By the following evening we’d got ready to leave. Our bikes were loaded: a few clothes, a blanket for each of us and gas masks too. My mum rolled up a teddy bear for me, in the blanket attached to my handlebars. As we stepped out onto the street that last time, she turned around, looked up and said: “Goodbye, poor house.”
Our town was in flames when we left it, but we didn’t know where to go. There were quite a few times when we missed the bombings by a whisker. But one time we were really exposed to them. Thank God we weren’t hurt, but it was a baptism of fire. A bomb landed about 20 metres from us – I could see the planes that were bombing us. My dad dove onto me and I was almost crushed beneath his weight. We were in a ditch, with ants and nettles. My face was very itchy when I got up.
It was very difficult to see people dying. Animals too, mowed down by machine gun fire. I remember the smell of corpses. The horses’ dead bodies would swell up in the heat of a June day – they were huge. We tried to avoid all dead bodies, those of animals and humans. I remember seeing a car turned upside down, with a woman’s feet sticking out. We didn’t stop because it was clear that they had been killed. There were also soldiers who dropped dead while they were in the middle of shooting.
In total, we were on the road for 10 days. We’d travelled 60 kilometres, no more than that. It ended when we were arrested in the middle of the night. The Germans told us we couldn’t travel any further. The next day, we went back home – such as it was, part of a string of burning villages. The house had been shaken by the bombing, but it was still standing. It had been looted, but we were poor at that time anyway. Arcis-sur-Aube was one of the worst-hit places in France at that time. There was destruction everywhere.
Born on July 7, 1933.
I’m from a small village near Dijon, called Aignay-le-Duc. My parents were wine and beer merchants. In May 1940 my dad was at home because he had been discharged from the army with a health problem.
The only thing people had been talking about was the German invasion. We knew they were fast approaching. They’d already dropped a few bombs in the area. Lots of people had already fled, but my parents were waiting for the evacuation order from the mayor. They had already got our things ready, but they weren’t in a rush to leave their home and their business.
At half past two in the morning, we got the order to evacuate. We got both cars ready, a saloon and a van. So there we all were: me, my mum, my dad, my grandma and grandad, my aunt and my uncle. My grandad was disabled, so we sat him in the back of the van.
At one point on the road a man was standing in the way warning us that the Germans were up ahead. My dad was sceptical; he thought this chap was some sort of Fifth Column spy. Actually the man was telling the truth. Shortly before arriving at the town of Saulieu, we heard machine guns firing. We got down in a ditch, except my grandad – he had to stay in the back of the van. We said our prayers there and then. There was a terrible noise: cars had been set on fire on the other side of the road. When at last there was silence, we all got up with our arms in the air. A German officer arrived on the scene, a pistol in his hand. We were terrified. He eventually came up to us and said that the invasion would be over soon. He gave me a gentle touch on the cheek. That surprised me.
Miraculously my grandad was unharmed, while the mattress on top of him had been sprayed with bullets. We slept in hay, in an attic, and the following day people made us feel very welcome on a farm, where there were other refugees. During the day we were in the middle of wheat fields, and we decided to make bouquets in the blue, white and red of the French tricolour, with blueberries, daisies and poppies. But, suddenly, we could hear cars and tanks, so we hid our bouquets. We wanted to be patriotic, but we were also scared. Soon we found out that we could go home. In the end, we’d only been on the escape route for two days.
Born on October 16, 1931.
We lived in Levallois, near Paris. My dad had been sent off to fight, so it was just my mum, my brother and me. I was 8 years old and he was 20. When it became clear that the Germans were going to win, my mum was frightened, especially for my brother. People said they killed everyone when they arrived and that they recruited young men into the German army. So we left relatively quickly with other people from our neighbourhood who had a small truck. My mum took as many things with her as possible, such as sheets and food.
We went to the Loire region, where family friends took us in. We stayed for a while, but things got worse there, so we had to leave. My mum and I left on our bikes, with our dog, an Alsatian, alongside us. There were machine guns on the road – but our dog warned us. He could sense the planes coming and threw himself down into the ditch. We did the same. It was red hot. The dog’s legs were scorched by the tarmac because he didn’t want to walk on the grass. Some extremely nice people helped us by putting his legs in warm water.
On the other hand, I also remember a farmer making us pay for a glass of water at one point. There were people like that who took advantage of the situation. After a while, we had no supplies of food left and if you wanted to eat, you had to pay. But several times, French soldiers we met along the way gave us food.
We were also a bit lost because we were from the city; the countryside was a foreign country for my mum. Our bike ride lasted a week in the end, until we reached Issoudun in central France. We discovered that the Germans were already there. So we went back to the Loire where we found our group of neighbours. The truck with all our belongings had been robbed. Upon returning to the Paris region, we had nothing.
Born on February 27, 1928.
I spent my childhood in Joinville-le-Pont, near Paris, where my parents ran a shop. When the German army advanced on the capital in June, they decided to move us somewhere safe, because people said the Germans killed children or put them in front of their tanks. My dad took my uncle’s car, and we left with him, my sister, my aunt and my two cousins towards the South. My mum stayed at home in Joinville. We took a lot of risks, driving on the side of the road to overtake pedestrians and other vehicles. It was a quick journey to Poulaines, a small village in the Indre. I think we ended up there by pure chance. We found a small farm run by a single woman. She was kind and she took us in.
My dad then went back to Paris to join my mother. We stayed in the countryside until the end of August. I have a bad memory of this period because I got hay fever, which lasted a few years, returning each spring. I was very scared when I heard German tanks one night, but for most of the time we had a good holiday.
At the end of this period, my dad came back to take us over the border between the “free” and “occupied” zones. It was then that my family’s destiny was turned upside down. My uncle, who’d gone off to fight and was in the free zone at this stage, warned his wife not to return – but his letter arrived too late, and she crossed the demarcation line with us.
My uncle and aunt were arrested in July 1942 for being Jewish. Would they have escaped deportation if they had stayed in the free zone? We’ll never know. They were murdered at Auschwitz.
We spent the rest of the occupation in Joinville-le-Pont, wearing yellow stars. We had to abandon our family’s shop because of the Aryanisation project implemented by the Vichy regime. We had to go and live elsewhere. But we were very fortunate not to have been deported, unlike at least 13 members of our family.
Born on March 4, 1935.
We lived in Boulogne-Billancourt in the Paris suburbs: me, my parents, my brother and my sister. The atmosphere was becoming unpleasant. The Germans were rapidly approaching Paris. People were saying all sorts of things about them; that they killed, pillaged, raped, slaughtered… There were rumours that the Renault plant in our suburb would be requisitioned to make German munitions. So it was dangerous to be near the factory. The local schools closed out of fears of attacks or bombings.
My parents decided to leave – we were lucky to own a car. The aim was to go far away, without knowing precisely where. It was a long road and there were a lot of people on it. The atmosphere in the car was tense. Like children anywhere, at any time, we bickered. The first day we travelled a ridiculously long way. The rest of the journey was even more difficult. We had to find petrol – and on the farms, getting eggs, milk and meat was expensive. Bread had become a rare and expensive commodity.
By the fourth day, some people making the same journey had given up. They were exhausted. As we sped up, we could hear planes coming from behind us, roaring over our heads. They were shooting at us from low-slung positions. At the end of the long line of refugees, they turned around and started shooting at us again.
God knows how long the journey lasted, but at the end of it, we stopped at a small village in Brittany. My parents rented an apartment. The locals were very kind and compassionate when we told them what we’d been through. In the Breton countryside, we found peace, serenity. We were carefree, far from the war. At least, that was how we felt. I don’t know how long we were there for, in that tiny place. We tried to take advantage of our fortunate situation; it was like something in between parentheses. I don’t remember much about this period, apart from that very relaxed atmosphere.
But soon the Germans were there, too. Vehicles draped with the swastika passed by. German soldiers were checking people’s documents. They were amused by our German sounding name, which helped them leave us alone, much to my parents’ relief. After they received news from Paris – where calm seemed to have descended – my parents decided to return. It was like coming back from holiday, except that things were sad. On the way back, we came across tanks, cannons, weapons and discarded military uniforms. Everything seemed to have ground to a halt. The mood was lifeless, bleak. Fear was written on people’s faces.