Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Over the River and Through the Woods

By now most of you have decorated your home for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. You are creating your best strategy for where visiting family and friends will sleep. You have given it your Herculean best in planning out the holiday’s meals. Or you will have figured out your travel plans in order to best avoid car loads of other families that are heading “over the river and through the woods…”
I’d like to tell you a story from the cold and confusing winter of 1939 when 80,000 French people headed over rivers and down through the valleys, but not to Grand Mother’s house, not to friend’s homes, not even to a known or understood destination.

That bitter Christmas of 1939, a grand and glorious Christmas tree was set up in a city center. A tree from the forest of Strasbourg decorated from top to bottom with enchanting and luminous garlands to warm the hearts of citizens. However the setting is not in the Alsatian capital of France, but 800 kilometers south-west of there in the city of Perigueux, in the Dordogne department of France.

Three months before…..

Over the centuries, this northeast border region has alternatively been French and German. The Armistice of World War I brought it back into France. On the 2nd of September 550,000 residents of Alsace were told that they had to evacuate their homes immediately. Another war against Germany was to be declared the next morning. 
The government had already set up a plan to evacuate this mass of humanity to eight departments within France. 80,000 Alsatian were transported by train from their northern roots directly to the train station in Perigueux. Here they were far from home, but thankfully sheltered from bombs and fighting. Train after train arrived in Perigueux from Strasbourg. Families poured out with a suitcase or two. These northeastern French found themselves in a France culturally different from what they knew.  But the most striking of all differences was the language. Here, French was heavily accented by it’s ancient Roman and Spanish roots, even the vocabulary was different as “patois” was spoken as a first language in the countryside. The Alsatians spoke their French with very heavy German accents. Distrustful locals thought that they were being invaded by Germans not fellow French.
The distrust of those first few days quickly gave way to sympathy. Shelter, food and jobs had been organized. Alsatian banks were opened, the city government of Strasbourg had a temporary town hall constructed for them. Shops and restaurants sprang up with special treats for the Alsatians and strange, new things to be discovered by the locals.

 Alsatian were church going folks, as opposed to the locals known for their lack of church participation. Churches that were practically abandoned for years were thrilled as their congregations swelled.
However most of these exiles could not stay in the region’s few crowded cities. Families were literally farmed out throughout the villages and valleys of the Dordogne. Their welcome had been well organized, but nothing prepared them for the shock of their new homes. Here the homes were isolated, most often there was no running water or heat, and the interior walls were held together with mud daubing. These displaced city folks even tried to wash those wall. They felt as if they had been sent to live like farm animals, until they realized that the locals were living in the same conditions. This region was what the French called “la France profonde” or the ends of the earth…This was nothing like the life they had left behind in their elegant, modern Strasbourg.


That Christmas of 1939 these exiles within their own homeland had to pull from their inner resources to find ways to celebrate the Christmas season. There would be no family silver, no champagne glasses, no children’s decorations from over the years, no familiar neighbors to take cookies to. They would have to be creative with what was on hand to recreate a semblance of their family traditions. If they were lucky they would find a ride into Perigueux to bask in the glow of the shared Christmas tree and have a meal in one of the transplanted Alsatian restaurants.

In that winter of 1939 it would be small acts of tradition that would warm the hearts of these exiled peoples. Traditions that one can carries within themselves even when far away from home. "I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”
In June of 1940 an armistice was signed between France and the German occupiers. Folks could go home. Many did just that, but records show that at least 15,000 evacuees chose to stay in their new homeland. Some just until the end of the war, some for always. To this day, strong ties remain between Alsace and the Dordogne. 

1 comment:

Bonnie L said...

Thank you, Susan, for such a touching story. Bonnes fêtes to you & Tom!