By Lindsey Dodd / firstname.lastname@example.org / @DrLindseyD
In May and June 2017, a number of local newspapers in central France carried a story about my research, under the headline ‘Thousands of children evacuated to the Creuse away from the bombs between 1942 and 1945.’ The articles, illustrated with photographs from the Archives municipales de Boulogne-Billancourt showing excited children leaving on trains from Paris, commented ‘a British historian is looking for the former ‘little refugees’ and members of families who welcomed them’.
The response was nothing like an avalanche, and indeed, I had not expected one, but slowly emails started arriving, a few phone calls and a letter.
At first I was struck by the number of people who were simply pleased to get in touch to tell me of a family member – now deceased – who had gone through this experience. They were not people to interview, not having much more than scraps of information, but they thought it worth contacting me nevertheless. Then I received a few written accounts, some photographs and several email exchanges. But I was also contacted by several of the petits réfugiés themselves, now sprightly octogenarians looking forward to sharing their experiences with me when I visited the Creuse in 2017. My appeal also reached individuals resident in Paris and elsewhere – a newspaper spotted by a friend or neighbour, passed on and passed on again, resulting in several interviewees whom I would meet on other visits to Paris.
Having the possibility only of ten days in the Creuse in July, the opportunities were limited to who was available and when. Over the course of that trip, I visited the Archives départementales de la Creuse twice to examine the fiches d’évacuation (evacuation forms) of various evacuee children. I also interviewed fifteen people, comprising child evacuees, children from host families, other local children who got to know the evacuees, child refugees (not part of the evacuation convoys, but who fled to this region for safety and better living conditions), as well as a couple of close family members of a deceased former evacuee. Along with four interviews collected in Paris (two child evacuees, a Jewish child refugee and a teacher who accompanied the evacuees), and another interview I have been given, I now have a small corpus of twenty interviews dealing with child displacement from the Paris region (mostly) to the Creuse (mostly). More than one of the interviewees had written memoirs or even semi-fictionalised accounts of their experiences; many had photographs and other documentation which they shared with me.
Apart from the enormous generosity of all of those who agreed to meet with me and talk about such personal expereinces, the trip, under the beautiful Limousin sun, inspired the following reflections:
- The Creuse is sparsely populated, hilly and wooded; even travelling along country roads in 2017 was a solitary experience and time consuming. I understood far more the sense of space, of nature, of distance and of the potential for isolation and difficult journeys. It was easy to see how children and others could be hidden in such empty countryside. ‘Walking in the shoes’ of the child evacuees allowed me to experience something of the displacement they must have felt – and also the exhilaration of the green fields, the docile gaze of cows grazing and the abundance of nature and cultivation which made the region such a life-giving resource for undernourished children.
- I remarked upon the urge many of the individuals I spoke to had had to write down their memories, or to arrange photo albums to share; the urge to tell was widespread, but I did not have a strong sense that all of these people had found people interested enough to listen. There was certainly some local, civic interest – as evidenced by a small exhibition of the Boulogne-Billancourt photographs I had found at the Tourist Office and library in the village of Gouzon: ‘can you identify any people or places in these photos?’
- I spent time thinking about the questions we had set up at our meeting in June 2017: what is disrupted? How? What is recovered? How? I noted that of the things which were disrupted, a potential future and a potential trajectory were two. In disrupting a smooth linear trajectory by the intrusion of war and evacuation, a space opened up: a crack in identity, and into that crack in self-construction, which was re-constructed afterwards but this time with the Creuse inside. It seemed to me that a spatial narrative was being constructed, which questioned ideas about what ‘home’ might be. Home was not solely where one’s parents were; nor was it a house, or a specific physical space. Home was also where the child found care, shelter and plenty of fun. While the Creuse was now part of a double-home, people retained a sense of being Parisians. I also noted that these interviews disrupted two rather complacent but more dominant narratives: 1) the French countryside as greedy, inward-looking and untouched by war; and 2) the Creuse-as-haven, which is shown to have been true in some cases, but not in all.
- My trips to the archives in the Creuse prompted a different set of thoughts: I noted that the ‘archival truths’ established by certain kinds of documentary evidence which I found there disrupted the ‘memory truths’ of the individuals who had lived those lives. What the archival truth stated may or may not help the person make sense of their past; yet there is far too much potential for the disruption of composure to contrast archival truths with memory truths in any direct way. I’ll be talking about the risks of bringing archives and oral histories together at the Oral History Society conference in June 2018.
- Given that a number of the interviews were extremely emotional, and there were tears and gulps on numerous occasions, I reflected on the way in which I had disrupted composure; I did not consider this necessarily to be a negative issue; there are numerous ways in which expressions of emotion are positive. Still, it seemed that there were disruptions at numerous levels: by my presence in their lives as a foreign researcher, by my recognition of their experiences as historically valuable, by my interest in them, their lives and my desire to listen, and to listen patiently. Thus, if one of our questions is ‘what disrupts?’, one of the answers must be ‘I disrupt’.
- I noted too that recovery was polysemic: that the children recovered when they went to the countryside; it acted as a physical cure for malnutrition and the anxieties of the occupation. This corresponded strongly with the version of this past in the archive. My interviews also recovered a powerful sense of gratitude towards those who took them in; there was a sense that my visit acted as a recognition of this gratitude, and that I allowed them to recover other opportunities to thank people which they felt they had lost. I also helped some interviews recover names and information about particular evacuee children, thanks to the work I had done in the archive.
- I noted that the rural migration which the Vichy government’s ‘retour à la terre’ policy had failed to establish finds an echo in the child evacuation, given the strength of bonds which were forged, and the desire to return to the Creuse after the war, and indeed to live there in later life. A different kind of ‘retour à la terre’, of course.
At present, I am working on an article based on five of the interviews, provisionally titled ‘Family separation and reconfiguration in wartime France: experience and legacy’. The article takes two interviewees whose experieces of being evacuated to the Creuse were ones of positive integration into new families which, after the war, remained second, parallel families for the rest of the individuals’ lives; these stories are contrasted with three other individuals who, whilst sharing, in many ways, the memories of the Creuse as a welcoming, generous region nonetheless experienced complex ruptures in identity formation and interpersonal attachments as a result of these moments of disruption and reconfiguration. The other interviews will feature in future research outputs, including my new book project Remembering Wartime Childhoods, France 1939-1945.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Philippe Béquia, whose assistance making contact with journalists was invaluable, and whose welcome was extremely generous. I also thank Henri Buc for his interest in my work, his advice and for sharing his own memories of a wartime childhood in Gouzon.
I have not yet begun publishing from the interviews themselves; however, as with all oral history, without the willingness and generosity of those who give their memories, recovering this past world would be impossible.