Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Caught between the German boot and the French slipper

Tomi: A Childhood Under the Nazis is a picture book -- and a book about what it meant and means to be an Alsatian. Tomi Ungerer was eight when Hitler's Wehrmacht overwhelmed France's defenses of the province of Alsace in 1939. The area had long been contested territory; Prussia seized it from France in 1871 and France had taken back it in 1918.

The young Tomi was a already a visual artist; as an adult he became an illustrator and children's book author. This book consists of visual artifacts of the German occupation, both Tomi's drawings and the propaganda art of the period, along with adult reflections.

It is about a resilient people and place. Tomi's mother (his father died in the mid-1930s) kept the family together and alive with industry, pluck, and wit through prewar poverty and then Nazi occupation. They despised the German invaders, but quickly learned their language and played the part of newly rescued members of the Aryan national volk, delivering their required Hitler salutes in public.

The occupiers were determined to make the Alsatians into Germans. The consequences were often absurd:

The French beret was a Gallic symbol, and it was forbidden to wear one. … you were punished with a fine of 150 Reichmarks and six months in prison if caught wearing one. This applied to Alsace only; in Germany a few miles away across the Rhine you could wear a beret without being punished. Some parents turned this into a joke and sent their children to school wearing absurd headgear, a real carnival! Wedding rings had to be worn on the right hand, as was the custom in Germany. Bathroom faucets marked chaud or froid had to be replaced, as well as salt and pepper shakers.

Tomi insists that the German rulers never understood that Alsatians, "trained by adversities of history, were beyond manipulation and coercion."

The Ungerer family's most dangerous moments came during the actual liberation by converging French and US armies. The community had long dared minor acts of sabotage against the occupiers. Tomi's brother had been drafted by the Germans; he managed to surrender happily to the onrushing Yanks. At home there was fear.

I was twelve years old. We were here, the Germans were here, and the Allies were not very far away and getting closer and closer. … This already war-soaked place was to turn into a battlefield again. This idyll in purgatory was about to turn into an inferno in hell. We had to survive our survival. Slyness is of no use with a bomb, and there is never enough time to tell a bullet to get lost.

The family house was blown to bits around them, but all survived and suddenly Alsatians were French again.

The aftermath had its own painful dislocations when Tomi returned to school:

It was forbidden to speak Alsatian or German, and we were punished for every word uttered. Everywhere signs proclaiming C'est chic de parler Francais (It's chic to speak French) had replaced portraits of the Fuhrer. We had a crop of new teachers, some of them French, and others were Alsatians who had chosen to stay in France during the war. For some we were nothing but scum, a brood of collaborators. … we did not carry the Germans in our hearts. We had suffered as much, if not more than the others. Again we were branded.

Tomi carried a burden of bitterness until time and artistic success in three languages gave him some distance on this hard childhood. Though he settled part time in Ireland, he remained proud of his native Alsace.

After years of occupation, Alsace no longer has to survive under the German boot or the French slipper. We are simply part of Europe. Alsatians are born Europeans …

Alsace never won or lost a war -- our neighbors did, using us as cannon fodder. Alsatians loathe violence, for whoever suffers inflicted wars seeks peace.

Ungerer's anti-imperial posters as well as his erotica made him a pariah in the U.S. for many years; these days his art is the subject of his own museum in Strasbourg, Alsace.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

When we lived in Freiburg im Breisgau, over the Rhine border from Alsace, a German acquaintance told us that Alsace "really" belonged to Germany. He considered Colmar to be the "twin city" of Freiburg.
We took many excursions there and love the area. Riquewihr is especially charming.
Ungerer was certainly an odd duck. His books for children are quite strange. He also said once that Canadians have no survival instinct??????? Why that stuck in my mind I have no idea.
Anyway, that part of the world creates many eccentrics and is fascinating to live in or visit.

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