It Happened in Monaco
The names Monaco and Monte Carlo evoke images of beauty and wealth, warmth and sun, and romantic fairytales of princes and princesses. Edith's story took place in this lovely Principality during World War II, when even the beautiful blue Mediterranean Sea and the pretty stucco homes dotting the mountainside couldn't erase the ugliness of the Nazi occupation. She never forgot the details of this story—it took place on Easter Sunday, 1944 and she spent it in the peaceful and sunny Monte Carlo cemetery...
My real name is Edith Urwicz; one of my false names is Madeleine Darieu. I come from Paris, but my mother and I escaped to the south of France ahead of my father. I lived on the Riviera from 1942 to 1946, and worked for the French Resistance. On Holy Saturday, (the day before Easter Sunday, 1944), Rene Borghini and I were having lunch in the small hotel situated close to the Monaco Railway Station. This is where I used to stay when in Monaco. We were both extremely agitated and worried, finally feeling the strain of the double life we were leading as members of an intricate resistance group, of which Rene was in charge.
There had been a series of "bad breaks" which had occurred in the past few weeks. We were most affected when the Gestapo arrested a dear friend of ours. This friend, Armand Fradin, was head of a London inter-allied group, whereas Rene's group was based in Algiers. I was proud to work for both men and groups, as a liaison agent and "mail-box" contact. It was a rare stroke of luck that we learned of his arrest the night that it was taking place. This knowledge enabled Rene and me to warn all of our agents. Armand's downfall was his own trusted secretary who was caught in a train raid and denounced him to the Gestapo. We knew that Armand had a zero chance of survival. A man of his caliber wouldn't talk, nor compromise—we could only hope that he wouldn't be tortured for too long.
In the meantime, Armand's secretary was confessing everything she knew to the Germans and there was no doubt that my false identity was about to be blown. My apartment in Nice, which was our "mail-box" drop-off and pick-up, was on the Gestapo's list. Worse yet was that "They" had one of my aliases and a general description of my appearance. Sitting there in the hotel restaurant with Rene, I couldn't resist admiring my new jet-black hair in the mirror opposite our table. The twenty-year-old woman staring back at me looked totally unfamiliar with the darker hair stylishly swept up into a chignon.
So, the political Gestapo was looking for me...quite a challenge for a young woman already hunted by the racial Gestapo. When my beloved father was captured and sent to Auschwitz, I made a promise to myself: if the Germans are going to arrest me and have me killed, then I will give them a reason other than me being a Jew. A hated Jew. I would keep this promise and maintain my self-respect.
Rene and I were talking quietly at our corner table. The pressure was great—I had just returned from Marseilles with nothing but promises. Funds were badly needed in order to continue bribing our "precious" double-agents. Working dangerously on both sides of the fence, they had a code of their own and it took lots of money to keep them happy. We also needed weapons for our Combat group, whose supply of arms was sorely lacking. The need for cash was seemingly endless.
Rene was constantly taking drastic risks, banking primarily on his official position in Monaco as a government employee. His family was well known in this small Principality, as they had lived in Monaco for many generations. This young, well-off gentleman could have remained neutral and his life would not have been in danger. Coming from a wealthy, Catholic family, the Germans would have never suspected his involvement with the Resistance. Yet, he was a most dedicated volunteer to the Free World.
To make matters even more dangerous, a Jewish family that Rene had helped hide in Monte Carlo had also been arrested yesterday by the Gestapo. Rene had put them in a boardinghouse that was run by sympathetic non-Jews. The owner of this establishment had been warning Rene about the youngest daughter and the man she was seeing. Colette was extremely pretty, but not very bright, and contrary to everyone's demands she "kept company" outside the house with a young local non-Jew. This lad was extremely charming and it didn't take long for him to learn the family's true identity. Being ambitious and believing that he would be rewarded, it didn't take this boyfriend very long to bring the Gestapo along with him on his next visit. After all, it was a mere business deal, with so much per head.
Luck was on the side of Colette's older sister. She returned home after it was all over. Rene had provided her with a new hiding place and I planned to visit her this afternoon. I hoped that I would be able to assist her in coping with this tragic loss. Her twin brother had been captured not that long ago while he was attempting to cross the Spanish border. Now her father, mother, and sister were taken away.
We left the hotel, hand in hand, linked by our common task and hopes for a bright future. We realized how much we meant to each other. We were in love, against all odds, but this love helped us tremendously. To the outside world between Monte Carlo and Nice, I was Rene's "girl" and rest assured that was the easiest part of my job. We kissed good-bye at the train station, where Rene took the next train to Nice. Once in Nice, another agent by the name of Paul was waiting for Rene in order that they could both get into my flat and return with a change of clothes. Most importantly, they needed to retrieve my bicycle—my only means of transportation. Rene also promised to visit my lonely mother at her hiding place. We were to meet again at 8:00 pm at my hotel by the Monte Carlo train station.
I was hurrying back to the hotel, my mind occupied with Rene's mission in Nice. If my apartment and my identity there had been compromised, how much longer would this charade in Monte Carlo be able to play out? The time was just past 7:00 pm and I intended to have my dinner before Rene's return. This would allow him just enough time to rush home and change before attending the Monte Carlo Opera House. Due to Rene's social status in Monaco, he had two permanent box seats at the Opera House. We never missed a Saturday evening performance if we could help it. Aside from the obvious reprieve the wonderful music afforded us, these public appearances were very necessary to keeping up a front and our "cover".
I reached my hotel and stopped outside to look at the posted menu. The main course was rutabaga—a turnip-type vegetable that I loathed. I decided to try my luck at finding a more palatable menu at a small place nearby. Not much better, but I was hungry and I ate hurriedly. The extremely slow service caused it to be just past 8:00 pm when I finally left the tiny restaurant.
Rushing back, I almost knocked over a woman in front of the hotel entrance. It was Sylvie, a friend, and in spite of my haste, I had to stop and converse with her for a minute. Sylvie was visibly shaken up: "I just saw Rene walk into the hotel with a small suitcase and a bicycle". Yes. I was to meet Rene and it was late at that...But there was something else about Sylvie's demeanor that concerned me. I ran up the few steps leading to the hall and checked the keyboard. No key. Rene must have taken the suitcase up to my room...Then I noticed my bicycle parked in a corner of the hall. I proceeded over to the elevator door and the shaft was empty—the elevator was up on the fifth floor, my floor. Rene must have kept it up there so that he could come right back down to the lobby without having to wait for the slow and ancient "lift".
I decided to wait and stepped back to lean against a rather wide wooden structure erected in the middle of the small hallway. The entire ground floor was undergoing repairs and there was the ubiquitous scaffolding at every step and turn. I stood facing the lift shaft, just to the right of the restaurant door. To my left was the entrance to the café where the "Patronne" (woman owner) was presiding as cashier. She glanced in my direction and then she left her stool to come over to me. While she was coming towards me, I recalled how concerned she appeared to be. I will never forget the risk that she took upon herself by coming over to me as she whispered in my ear, "Something is wrong! A girl came here and asked for you. She said that she must warn you about the Gestapo. I told her that you were away, so she left. At 6:00 pm she returned with three Gestapo members. They demanded I give them your key and are all up in your room right now. This girl looked familiar to me, a tall, pretty brunette..."
Colette. I definitely knew it was that weak mindless idiot. It wasn't enough that her actions resulted in her family getting arrested. Sadly, there were those few pretty Jewish females that believed that they could trade their precious bodies in return for their own lives. This was Gestapo routine procedure and they never kept their end of the bargain.
I stood in a daze, listening to the Patronne in her agitated state. I could also hear at the same time people moving on the top floor, slamming the elevator door, and the lift starting its slow descent towards me. Just as the landlady stopped whispering, the elevator appeared slowly, slowly...and finally came to a stop. My eyes, a precise camera at that split second, recorded the picture instantly: Colette, looking down towards the door latch, struggling to release it, and the two typical G-S (Gestapo Swine) waiting for her to do so.
It only took a split second, I don't remember how long, for me to move along the backside of the construction barrier, listening and trying not to make a sound. It seemed impossible that once I was no longer hidden by the structure, they didn't see me run into the café. I rounded the bar and ran down the kitchen steps. There I stood, the door closed behind me. My heart was pounding in my chest and my trembling lips were uttering a prayer. Then I snapped to attention and remembered all my previous training. I tore up all the papers in my handbag, cramming the bits and pieces into the crevices and spaces between the wall and the old wooden stairs.
An eternity went by: in reality about ten minutes. My heart stood still as the door opened. A maid stood facing me and said that the Patronne had sent her to tell me that the girl and the two men had left. There were still people in my room, but no one could be seen outside. The Patronne requested that I leave now through the café, as she did not want to get involved any further. I took a deep breath and decided to go and risk a possible hidden trap. I walked calmly through the café, stared at by a white-faced Patronne, and continued out into the street.
I turned RIGHT and then, half walking, half sprinting, found myself on the "Condamine" (the low section between Monaco proper and Monte Carlo). The beautiful bay was on my right, and I was looking into the dazzling blue Mediterranean. Suddenly it hit me—Rene—"They" had Rene!! Self-preservation is a strong instinct, so I regained some control and started thinking of where to go...I looked towards Monte Carlo and saw the old Church Sainte-Devote snuggled at the foot of a hill. Steep stairs on one of its sides were leading to upper Monte Carlo. Not very far from the top of the stairs was a cozy hotel where another one of our agents (or as we called ourselves, "Rene's protégés") was staying. I had found an answer, a possible "safe-house".
How I reached these stairs, "walking" in the wide open, God only knows. With the remaining strength I had left, I climbed upwards, for what seemed to be an again, an eternity, and finally knocked at Mr. Ulmo's door. One look at my face told him that this visit was most unusual and he ushered me inside swiftly. I told him about Rene, my predicament, and that he must allow me to spend the night in his room. I needed time to think further and plan what to do next. Kind Mr. Ulmo didn't utter a word, he just nodded. He gently led me over to an oversized armchair and I flopped down into it. I sat in that chair and spent what was to be one of the longest nights of my life.
I was listening to Mr. Ulmo's quiet breathing, asleep in the narrow bed crammed into the corner of this ancient hotel room. He was a man of small stature, about seventy, and an extremely wealthy ex-businessman from Paris—Jewish, naturally. Mr. Ulmo was also an old and true scholar and Rene and I enjoyed many visits with him discussing books and general topics.
I just couldn't close my eyes. I kept staring in the darkness, my mind in turmoil. What options remained for me? "They" now had my real name and knew that I was a hated Jew. Along with their knowledge of my political betrayal, I was sure to be executed. "They" would get a picture of me and corner me sooner or later...I couldn't even hate Colette, nor could I pity her.
Daylight filtered through the small window; it was Easter Sunday morning. We had decided that Mr. Ulmo would go over to speak with Rene's mother. I was still sitting in the same armchair waiting for his return. I was paralyzed and what could I do, it didn't really matter, Rene was gone...The drapes were drawn and as far as I was concerned, it could have been Christmas outside. For me, today was doomsday.
Mr. Ulmo quietly opened the door. He walked over to the window and opened it. The radiant sun blinded me and then I focused in on the kind face in front of me. He wore a gentle smile as he spoke: "I saw and spoke to Rene himself..."
Oh God! God Almighty! I looked into the dazzling blue sky, and heard the church bells for the first time that day. It was Easter Sunday, a glorious day! The floodgates opened and I began to sob my heart out. I barely heard Mr. Ulmo clear his throat. I stopped crying so as to listen: "Compose yourself, child, I have instructions and there isn't much time. Rene was taken to the Gestapo Headquarters in Nice. They were strictly after you, so he told them that he was completely unaware of your activities, etc. They drove him back home in the middle of the night and even apologized! It is fortunate that you left your hotel; the Gestapo raided it last night. They tore the place apart from cellar to roof, threatening the owners with their lives." Mr.Ulmo hesitated and quietly went on: "This will be painful to hear, my child, knowing as I do the love that exists between you and Rene, but Rene cannot see you anymore. No doubt that he will be watched for a while. You will leave me in about ten minutes. Sylvie will meet you outside of this hotel and will take you somewhere. That's all I know, child."
I finally stood up from the armchair and attempted to straighten myself out a bit. Mr. Ulmo continued to stare at me in his gentle manner,"By the way, Rene was wondering how you got out when the Gestapo car was parked around the LEFT corner of the hotel?" I looked at Mr. Ulmo and shrugged, what else had guided me but destiny. No words of thanks were necessary; I kissed the old gentleman on both cheeks and left his haven.
I followed Sylvie, at a distance, basking myself in that wonderful Easter Day air, unique to the Riviera. Suddenly we were in a cemetery. This was the first time that I had stepped into the Monte Carlo cemetery, and I glanced around at many imposing tombstones. We stopped, at last, in an isolated part and Sylvie left me alone. She informed me that someone would pick me up here, she just didn't know when, I felt as though my entire being was being held by some unknown entity. It was strange and overwhelming, but eventually the peaceful environment gradually settled my nerves. The beautiful spring weather even made this place cheerful, somewhat...Birds were singing everywhere and I was surrounded by magnificent greenery of the likes I had never seen...there was an overwhelming abundance of colorful flowers placed on most of the graves. And yet, this gorgeous cemetery was deserted on this happy holiday. It did seem a bit incongruous. I sat for many hours, staring at the same marble tombstone.
I now truly believed in fate. I have had narrow escapes from the Gestapo before (and I'm sure more to come) but this one couldn't be explained otherwise. And Rene was free!! I only hoped that he would be extra careful now. I remembered his usual expression in a moment of crisis or decision: "We must take that gamble, somebody must do it". Please, Rene, you have been extremely lucky today, "they" let a big fish go in trying to catch a little one (me)...Please be careful, I want to see you again.
A girl was coming towards me. A tall, simple-looking girl. A girl who would remain one of my dearest friends throughout my entire life. Her voice was even and efficient:
"I am Janine. I was called from Nice. The railway stations here and in Nice are under surveillance. We shall walk; first to the closest station , 'Cap d'Ail', and from the station before Nice I will take you to 'L'Abadie'. I see that you haven't heard of 'L'Abadie'. It is a remote village way up in Les Basses Alpes behind Nice. I teach there in a little red school. You will hide in the cellar of the schoolhouse until further notice."
As we were approaching a side exit, I turned around and glanced once more at the quiet cemetery now covered with strange shadows. Would I ever come back here? After the liberation, if I am still alive, I will come as a pilgrim, in Rene's company...
While this memorable Easter Day was nearing its end and a new reprieve had been granted to me, how could I know of the most horrible events yet to come? I would return one day, but to visit Rene's grave—the grave of Monaco's only true World War II National hero. Rene had taken that extra gamble, done what he had to do, and the Gestapo didn't miss that big catch after all.
"It Happened in Monaco" is a true, unpublished narrative of an incident, which my mother, Edith Urwicz Trager, experienced during WW II. All names and places in the story are true:
Edith Urwicz remained in the south of France after the Liberation and worked for the American Quarter Master Corps in Villefranche. Eventually, she returned with her mother to Paris. It was a few years later that she met an American businessman and moved to the United States to marry him, bringing her mother along. The French Government duly recognized Edith for her part in the Resistance efforts during the German occupation of France. She is what is known as "an honored ex-soldier without uniform". Her father never returned from the Auschwitz concentration camp. Edith passed away in April of 1995, and coincidentally, was laid to rest on an Easter Sunday.
Rene Borghini was arrested by the Gestapo, at his Monaco home, on July 3, 1944. From members arrested, but found alive on Liberation Day, came the account of the ultimate demise of Rene and his group. Rene's employed informer from Italy, who went by the hated name of Mario Planca, was the traitor who turned him in to the Gestapo. Planca was never found, in spite of all the remaining group's efforts and the help of the French Military Security Office.
After undergoing indescribable tortures, Rene Borghini was killed by the Gestapo on August 15, 1944, the day the Allied forces landed on the Riviera shores. With him there were about 23 other patriots who were machine-gunned and thrown into a mass grave. That day took place at l'Ariane, which is nearby Nice. Amongst the "23" were Paul (Paul Guillevin of Nice) and Esther (Esther Poggio of Menton). Esther was the girl who took over Edith's job after the Easter incident described in this story. It was Edith who identified Rene's body and had it removed from the mass grave.
Rene had been Secretary to the National Council of Monaco for many years. Therefore, the Government of Monaco declared Rene Borghini a National Hero. His remains were brought back to Monaco where they lay in state in the National Council House, guarded by his surviving group members, Monaco and French soldiers. On the following day, his coffin was carried by official pallbearers to the Monaco Cathedral where an imposing Requiem mass was held. Thousands attended his funeral. In 1945, Prince Rainier of Monaco and the French Legion of Honor awarded decorations posthumously to Rene Borghini.