PULLMAN, Wash.— Unusual because it relates struggles faced by ordinary French citizens, our new World War II memoir also provides insight into challenges that arise when different cultures collide. Written for her children decades ago, the author’s guileless voice enhances her adolescent memories of the German occupation—an existence of fear, loss, suffering, and fierce hatred—and illustrates the immense emotional toll of war.
Born in 1927, Nicole Braux’s earliest recollections occur in the French city of Nancy, where her father owned and operated a hotel and restaurant. Her winsome stories portray childhood challenges, accomplishments, and joys. She conveys the influence and camaraderie of the generous, nurturing men and women—particularly her grandmothers and two Catholic nuns—who were an integral part of her young life. Her charming reflections paint a picture of a romantic culture still wounded by the First World War.
Nicole was twelve when her father was recalled into the reserves. A few months later, she watched German troops invade. “We peeked above the window sill and saw them…Our imaginations hadn’t exaggerated; they looked as evil, if not more so, than we’d expected!” By six o’clock that evening, it was over. Nicole and her remaining family members were under occupation. “Grandmother Marie was our savior…[she] had survived two wars; a third was simply a fact of life.”
Little by little, the Braux family adjusted. They experienced Nazi propaganda, recurrent air raid alerts, gas masks, food rationing, the Black Market, and bombings. As they struggled simply to acquire food and keep warm, thoughts of the future became irrelevant. Teachers, friends, employers, priests, nuns, and doctors disappeared overnight. Relationships became veiled in worry, suspicion and secrecy. Despite the danger, Nancy citizens quietly resisted. They concocted strategies to elude curfew. They purposely dressed to offend Germans, donning short skirts and makeup, and choosing the bright colors of the French flag. They sold tainted food to the despised troops. As the fighting drew ever closer, desperation and terror increased, but miraculous events brought hope. One day, Nicole dashed unscathed through a shower of bullets. On another, she became part of a spontaneous, compassionate, and courageous gathering of French citizens. Rebelling against the German guards, they formed a chain to toss food to starving POWs aboard a train. Just as the soldiers raised their guns toward the obstinate crowd, RAF fighter planes arrived. For her, it was “one of the most exciting and beautiful moments of the war.”
Finally the inconceivable joy of liberation day came. However, food remained scarce, the fate of her father was still unknown, and now seventeen, Nicole found herself deeply in love with Captain Ancel G. Taflinger, pilot for General George S. Patton and recipient of the Silver Star. Eventually overcoming family objections and interference, their romance culminated in a wedding that yielded a sweet end to Nicole’s season of suffering.