Alchemy: A power or process of transforming something common into something special; an inexplicable or mysterious transmuting.
"I haven't been a saint my whole life, but I have done this one thing."
As we crossed the Champs d'Élysées, I looked past Rogier's blond curls and the rumbling beast of traffic to the triumphal arch beyond, which held hushed shadows and autumn sun inside its simple shape.
I saw Hitler cut a swath underneath.
I saw the photo of a boy, his shoulders hunched and hesitant, his dark hair parted neatly but straining to spring out, a wide nose, a shy smile tugging his lip a little up on one side with the soft shadow of a dimple. What shouts out of the image of this boy are his eyes, two pinpoints of light in sepia, as round as eyes can be, as bold as eyes can be.
Hitler had only been in Paris for a day, but his dark forces occupied this boy's childhood.
"Will we recognize him, do you think?" Rogier asked as he loped along in a confident stride that day in October, 2011.
"I don't know," I said. But I knew I would. And I knew he would ask me about Ginette.
From the first time I went there in 2005, Paris exerted a pull on me. I didn't know if it was the memory of a crackly slide of the Arc de Triomphe on the wall of my high school French classroom, or the pace of Parisian life that matched my pulse, or the stone philosophers whispering secrets to me, but I felt compelled to return, as if there were something essential I needed to find there.
I had been to Paris twice when I read Suite Française, a novel written by Irène Némirovsky, a writer of Jewish descent who fled Paris when the Nazis marched in. This book evoked Paris during the occupation so starkly that I began to travel there two or three times a year to do research on that time period. I spent hours in museums with my nose pressed up against glass cases, examining photos, handwritten letters, and mementos of Résistance members. I trailed after historians scribbling details of Göring at the Ritz, or a school in the Marais where Jewish children had been marched out, or an apartment where an Allied soldier had been hidden. I strolled the stalls along the Seine looking for old magazines and books, and read everything I could get my hands on.
At this time, I wrote freelance travel stories and essays about culture, art and politics. I did not know why I fed this growing obsession with World War II Paris. It seemed to have nothing to do with me.
As Rogier and I crunched through red and yellow leaves toward Hotel Argenton, we reviewed our schedule. We would spend the rest of this day with our man. Tomorrow we would film Edouard on location on Blvd. Malesherbes and interview him in my apartment on Île Saint Louis. I glanced over at a sidewalk vendor's stand of vintage black and white postcards, and imagined the stark brutality of occupied Paris.
Edouard Duval was a business associate of my husband's who owned a factory in Gennevilliers, on the northern outskirts of Paris. He and his wife had become friends, and we would see each other several times a year in Paris or Seattle, where I lived. Edouard was tall, distinguished, balding, and reserved with a gentle wit.
I remembered one evening in 2007 when Edouard said he had a story he'd like me to see, the account of Frank "Kirby" Cowan from Arkansas, whom his uncle had met during the war. Kirby was now a dear friend of Edouard's whom he would visit each time he went to the U.S. Edouard thought I might want to write this story someday.
Kirby had been in a USAF B-17G flying over Paris in June, 1944. The plane had been hit, and Kirby had parachuted down to land in a garden near the Aubert-Duval factory, which was at that time being run by Edouard's uncle, René Duval. Three teenage boys had shielded Kirby from the Germans as they rushed him over to the factory, where they hid him behind some barrels. Edouard's Uncle René drove Kirby to his own elegant apartment near the Arc de Triomphe for a few days, gave him a change of clothes (a pinstriped suit and wing-tipped shoes), then took him by métro to an apartment near Hôtel de Ville, on Blvd. Sebastopol.
In Paris in June, 1944, anyone aiding an Allied airman would be tortured, then shot.
Inside this apartment lived Résistance members Georges Prevot (a policeman), his sister Ginette, and her husband Jean Rocher. They hid Kirby for a few weeks, along with downed Scottish airman James Stewart, who had been there for over a month. Kirby and James were both caught at a checkpoint on their way out of Paris, thrown into cells in Fresnes prison, and taken on the last train out of Paris to Buchenwald. Kirby was then moved to Germany where he was shuffled from one POW camp to the next. Finally, Patton himself marched in, just a few feet from Kirby, and liberated the camp.
Kirby arrived in a flotilla in the New York harbor, almost one year to the day after his plane had been hit, and returned to Arkansas to live a full life.
Because of all my research, I fit the story into its context. My first thought was, This is a film, as I could so easily see all the action. But I didn't know any filmmakers, so I put the story aside, and continued to write about Winged Victory, baguettes, and Parisian fashion.
As the years went by and I continued to travel to Paris, I'd stretch in my airplane seat during descent, look out the window, and imagine Kirby dangling from his parachute, floating down: I can see the Seine River winding through Paris. The rooftops getting bigger...
The part that tweaked me most about the story was a scene in the apartment on Blvd. Sebastopol: We'd sit around the table drinking cognac and talking until late. Ginette, the woman of the house, would have been the one who prepared the dinner and cultivated the ambiance. Something about this woman piqued my interest and held it.
I envisioned Ginette serving the best dinner she could manage on meager wartime rations—perhaps potatoes, a few carrots, maybe turnips—to the four men seated at a table, with a small amount of wine reflecting ruby circles through glasses onto a white lace cloth. I heard Kirby's halting French and George's booming laugh. I sensed the warmth Ginette may have felt at being able to create this mood even in such strained circumstances. I felt the fire of cognac sneaking its way into each body.
In 2010, Edouard began to take me to the places in Kirby's story. He talked at length about Kirby, who had died the previous year. Edouard had gone to Arkansas to speak at his memorial service.
Edouard drove me out to the factory and showed me the area near the stairs where Kirby had been hidden by the three boys and rushed over to the factory where they had written "Unexploded Bomb" on some barrels to keep the Germans from checking there.
One cold day in January, he took me to 20 Blvd. Sebastopol. The pale green color of the door gave me the unexpected feeling that I'd found a rare ingredient. Above the door was a plaque:
ET LE GARDIEN DE LA PAIX
PATRIOTES ARRETÉS PAR LA GESTAPO
LE IL AOUT POUR FAITS DE RÉSISTANCE
PUIS DÉPORTES DANS LES CAMPS
D'EXTERMINATION, OU ILS SONT MORTS.
Where, I wondered, was Ginette when this happened? Had she come home one day to find her brother and husband gone, along with whoever they had been hiding at the time? I imagined her turning the key in the lock and climbing five flights of stairs with the unsettling feeling she must have had every time she came home. Had she opened the door to find chairs upside down and curtains rustling in the breeze? Or had they taken her as well—some German soldier snatching her arm at the elbow and twisting it as he pulled her down the stairs?
I touched the pale green door and a chill slid down the back of my neck. Why was Ginette not mentioned on this plaque?
The next fall, at a small seminar in France, I met Rogier van Beeck Calkoen, a Dutch filmmaker who was interested in making short films of several of my stories.
The week after I returned from this seminar, I received an email from Joe Cowan, Kirby's son. Edouard had told him about me years before. I phoned Kirby's wife, Cloteen, who said he had not discussed his war experience much until his later years when he had been contacted by a Frenchman putting together a reunion at the factory in Gennevilliers.
The next time I was in Paris, Edouard told me about René Psarolis.
René had been seven years old in June, 1944. One evening, he was walking down his street, Rue de la Chapelle, when he heard a deafening roar. He looked up and saw a ball of silver roar overhead and explode nearby. Flames shot into the air as he ran toward the scene. René saw a German, the first he had seen up close, moving three dead bodies into a truck.
This moment shattered René's boyhood innocence.
All through the Liberation celebrations two months later, this boy ran after the trucks, cheering and waving at American soldiers who tossed out candies and gifts. He thought of the men on that plane. He imagined them alive. René grew up and moved away, and gradually realized that all the men in that plane, even those who might have parachuted down, had probably been caught by Germans and shot. He returned to Paris for a visit in December, 1966, when he was in his twenties. He went out walking one dim and drizzly afternoon, and found himself in his old neighborhood. He continued walking as if pulled, and came to a stop in front of something. Through the gray mist, a plaque slowly came into focus.
QUI LE 22 JUIN 1944
ONT FAIT LE SACRIFICE DE LEUR VIE
POUR QUE LEUR AVION DÉSEMPARÉ
NE TOMB PAS SUR LES HABITATIONS LES CHEMINOTS DES GARES
DE PAJOL ET DE LA VILETTE
The bomber had veered to avoid the train station, thus many lives had been saved. Who were the three dead Americans he had seen? How many had been in the crew? Had there been others who had fallen out of the plane, or even parachuted down into Paris?
René heard a voice very distinctly say into his ear, "Don't forget us."
This moment caused a change inside René. He began to travel frequently to Paris from the U.K., where he now lived. His family trailed behind him as he perused bookstalls on the Seine looking for old magazines and newspapers containing any news of the crash. He frequented the national library in the Marais, charming the librarian into retrieving boxes of documents from back rooms.
René's questions had transformed into a quest.
Gradually, René pieced it all together. The crew had consisted of ten men. The three he had seen were Lt Jay H. Horn, pilot, TSgt Henry G. Morris, and SSgt Anthony L. Moncaco. Bodies had landed all over Paris and the surrounding area: Bois Colombes, Saint Ouen, Clichy, Gennevilliers. He contacted historian Claude Foucher, who told him there were two survivors : Steve Manzek and Frank "Kirby" Cowan. (A third survivor, Lt Harry O. Ubbins, died in 1987, before René learned the details of the crash.) René could not believe it: Two of his heroes were alive.
René put advertisements in newspapers calling for eyewitnesses, and contacted officials in the towns where the bodies had landed. He pinpointed the areas where the two survivors had landed, Steve in Saint Ouen and Kirby in Gennevilliers. He located the three teenage boys who had rescued Kirby. He found the current owner of the factory in Gennevilliers, the nephew of the man who had taken him to the elegant apartment and given him the pinstriped suit: Edouard Duval.
"He saw the plane crash in his neighborhood and has made it his life's mission to collect all the stories of the crew members," Edouard told me. "He is the one who contacted me and told me about the actions of my uncle. I never would have known about it otherwise."
I emailed René and received this reply:
The crash of the aircraft in my neighborhood has been with me since the age of seven and has stayed with me all this time. It is as clear today as it was then...
I wrote back asking if he would send me the details. I asked if he had found anything about the Résistance members in that apartment, especially Ginette. I told him about the persistent questions I had about her. René hadn't found much about that. He had focused his research on the crew, and offered to send me "a few documents". I received packet after packet of photos, telegrams, eyewitness accounts, letters, and newspaper clippings.
This man's meticulous collection of specifics brought these American soldiers to life.
René sent pages out of the co-pilot's journal in which FO John J. Murray wrote a few weeks before the crash as he lay sprawled on the grass near the B-17G:
...in a few hours I would be five miles above it—in the cold, steely blue of enemy skies. Up there the temperature is 30, 40, or 50 degrees below zero; our planes struggle to fly in the super thin air that causes the weird vapor trails to swirl from the screaming propellers. Without life-giving oxygen man will die in a matter of minutes at this altitude. This is an ethereal world, high above the dazzling white cloud banks, high above the world of man. Men were not made to live up there. Some would die up there today. I might be one of them.
Murray had landed, dead, in a wheelbarrow in Saint Ouen. René sent me eyewitness accounts of people telling how they stood in front of the body and refused to let the Germans take it. The people wrapped John Murray's body carefully (they all agreed he had very clean fingernails), brought flowers, and sang La Marseillaise.
René collected the details, yes—this body landed on the roof of a theatre in Clichy, that one fell out of the plane and landed in the street in Gennevilliers, another shot in the air as he descended toward Asnières. But what René Psarolis did next changed him even more: he began to give these stories to the people who needed them most.
In 1997, René telephoned Steve Manzek and Kirby Cowan back in the states and invited them to Paris for reunions and ceremonies.
He took Steve to the place where he had landed in Saint Ouen, a back alley where people had given him cognac and signaled the V for victory sign. Steve had sauntered down the street waving and flashing back the sign, two fingers spread under his nose. He had immediately been captured and gone on to endure a nightmare scenario out of which he was lucky to emerge alive.
René took Kirby to the garden where he had landed in Gennevilliers, and introduced him to those three teenage boys who had rescued him, now men in their 60s. He presented Edouard, who held a ceremony and reception at the factory. Kirby went back to the apartment on Blvd. Sebastopol and saw the plaque above the green door.
"All I've said for the past 50 years," said Steve in a televised interview filmed then, in which a star-struck René translates, "is that I wanted to go back to the place where I landed."
Kirby nodded and mouthed the word, closure. René looked at him, and his smile held something of the boy.
René had plaques put up all over Paris to mark the landing positions of the men. A plaque was placed underneath the one René had come upon that day in 1966, listing the names of the 10 crew members, and others were erected in Saint Ouen, Bois-Colombes, Gennevilliers.
René worked with Kirby and Steve to find the families of the crew, and invited them to come to Paris.
The widow and grown son of Henry Morris came. Morris was one of those who had gone down with the plane, one of the dead bodies that seven-year-old boy had seen. Morris's son, who had been a baby when his father had gone off to war, had buried his face in the foliage near the plaque and sobbed. Bob Murray, the co-pilot, John's brother, thanked the people of Saint Ouen for the care they had shown his brother. Two of the women who had been 12 years old at the time opened a bottle of pink champagne. He said that yes, his brother had always kept his fingernails clean.
Not all the families were found. There is a plaque on a street in Bois Colombes, where Anthony Vigliante, an Italian from New York, landed, dead. Perhaps one day a family member of his will stand in front of it.
Everything René sent me I sent to Rogier. Gradually, it dawned on both of us that René was our real story. We agreed to focus on him in the film, and I decided to write a novel based on him.
René phoned me one day. "Something you wrote made me know I could trust you with this story. It's why I sent you all these documents and photos," he said. "You want to know about Ginette. I don't know much about that part of the story, but I know you will find out."
René agreed to meet Rogier and me in Paris.
That sunny day in October we walked into Hotel d'Argenton and waited a few minutes in the small lobby. All we had to go on was the old, sepia photo. The minute René walked through the door we recognized him by his round, dark eyes with the heavy French lids, shining with the same eagerness in his seventies as they had at the age of seven.
He unfolded his own story for us. When René met Kirby and Steve for reunions and ceremonies in 1997 and the following years, these events had been a highlight of his life, for these were his heroes. He said often that he knew he would not have survived another winter if not for the Allies. I believed him: by June of 1944, no meat had come into Paris for eight months, and children were not growing. People had died of cold the previous winter.
René's most lasting memory is a night at the Ivy Hotel when he and Kirby stayed up talking. It must have been four or five in the morning, he said.
We filmed him telling the story of the crash, lapsing into childhood phrases. We filmed him in the library in the Marais, and on the streets of Paris. We filmed Edouard outside his Uncle René's apartment, telling the story of how his uncle took Kirby on the metro to Blvd. Sebastopol, and how, when Kirby raised his arm to hold onto a strap, his GI-issued wristwatch nearly gave him away to two Germans sitting nearby. We filmed Edouard and René reminiscing about their friend Kirby.
"I was just a little guy who didn't want to let go," said our Storykeeper.
For his collection and sharing of these stories, René was awarded the medal for Veterans of Foreign Wars from the United States.
These days, René emails often, and sometimes telephones me. We discuss the film, which is finished and currently being shown in film festivals throughout the world, and my progress on the book. But, like a golden apple dangling from the thread of a branch, the question hangs.
"What have you found, my little one? About Ginette?"
René recognizes the pull of her story on me. He knows the inner alchemy that creates a quest. He offers advice and encouragement, and often challenges me: "You can probably find traces of her brother Georges at the gendarmerie." "This is how you get people to retrieve extra documents; you must be bold." "I see you have this photo on your web-site, is this her?" He has taught me how to pursue a story, collect scattered fragments, and gather details. But there's one more thing René Psarolis inspires me to do.
In addition to Storykeepers, I am working on a novel, The Red Notebook, about Parisians in the Résistance who hid Americans—one woman in particular who lives with her brother and husband on Blvd. Sebastopol. It's possible to work on both books at once because I spent years doing the research.
When I am done with both books, what I would most like to do is to find a distant relative of Ginette's, someone connected with her somehow, who has never heard the details of her actions. When I meet that person, who for some reason I think is a young woman, I envision inviting her to my apartment in Paris, and sharing these stories with her.
I will tell her that I tracked down and contacted James Stewart, the Scotsman who was with Kirby in the apartment with the green door. James told me that as he was shuffled along in Fresnes prison a few days after being caught, he looked down a long hallway to see Georges, Jean and Ginette. On the same day her brother and husband were taken to Buchenwald, where they would be killed, Ginette was taken to Ravensbrük, and remained there until the end of the war. Then James found her a job as an au pair in his village in Scotland, and settled her in a cottage near his own for a few years before she eventually returned to France and died.
This young woman and I will talk about the meaning of the phrase on the plaque outside 20 Blvd. Sebastopol, N'oublions pas: Do not forget. I will ask her if she has stories she can't forget or questions that persist and answers she seeks.
Then we will sit around the table drinking cognac and talking until late.
Lt Jay H. Horn, pilot: Down with plane.
FO John J. Murray, co-pilot: Body landed in wheelbarrow in St. Ouen. People wrapped his body, sang the Marseillaise.
Lt Steve J. Manzek, navigator: Upside down in plane. Landed in St. Ouen. Captured. Died, 2003.
Lt Harry O. Ubbins: Landed on rooftop in Clichy. Broken ankle. Captured. Died 1987.
TSgt Henry G. Morris, aircraft engineer: Down with plane.
TSgt Frank K. Cowan, radio operator gunner: Landed Gennevilliers. Passed through Paris. Caught at checkpoint leaving Paris. Fresnes, Buchenwald, POW camp in Germany. Died 2009.
SSgt Anthony L. Monaco: Down with plane.
SSgt Anthony F. Vigliante: Body landed in Bois Columbes.
SSgt Lester N. Weimer: Died in plane. Body fell out and landed in Gennevilliers.
Sgt Clifford N. Mc Creary: Shot in the air. Landed badly wounded at Asnières (south of Gennevilliers). Taken by German patrol to Beaujon Hospital in Clichy. Died of his wounds in the early hours, June 23.