A Quiet Hero: How it began

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A Quiet Hero—how it began

In 2015, I traveled to Lyon, France to learn about the city that would be the setting for A Quiet Hero. While there I visited Montluc Prison, where Gen. René Carmille was held by the Nazis from February to June 1944. 

At Montluc, a young man, a prison guide whose English carried a German accent, informed me that Montluc had not accepted prisoners during those months in 1944. “Carmille could not have been held at Montluc at that time. But, please look around.” he said.

I explored the prison and then left, uneasy about my research on Montluc and Carmille. Lost in thought, I walked slowly along a sidewalk paralleling one of Montluc’s stone walls. Might Carmille not have been held in Montluc? I suddenly felt inundated by waves of insecurities—about my research on a man and events in a country and culture not my own, on events originally reported in a foreign language, on events that occurred three-quarters of a century ago.

I walked toward my Metro stop. I would board a train and return to my apartment on the other side of Lyon. There I would again review my notes on Carmille’s arrest. Had I been wrong about his imprisonment at Montluc? It was no small matter. Carmille’s Montluc imprisonment served as an important event in the flow of my novel.

Behind me I heard the pat-pat-pat of rapid footsteps. A newly familiar voice called, “Sir! Sir!”

I stopped and turned. The young prison guide approached me.

 

A writer’s question

In 2014, during a discussion of unethical corporate practices by Union Carbide and Bayer, topics addressed in my novels Witness at Hawks Nest and Valley at Risk—Shelter in Place, a writer asked if I had read Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust. I had not. “Put that book on your reading list. Black gives a well-documented account of IBM’s dark side,” he said. “How the Nazis and IBM got in bed together. How IBM built a profitable European business based on the Nazi’s use of IBM technology to identify, locate, and round up Jews. Throughout WWII, IBM never ceased to supply the Third Reich with millions of keypunch cards.”

Not long afterwards, during a visit to Paris, across the plaza just beyond Notre Dame’s main entrance, a modest sign identified the bookstore, Shakespeare and Company. I entered.[1] Meandering through the store I discovered a collection on the Holocaust, including Black’s IBM and the Holocaust. The cover, in burnished red, brown, and gold, resembled a used IBM punch-card. On the return flight to America, I began to read it. I wondered if I would, if I could, wade through its more than 500 pages. But once begun, I had difficulty putting it down.

Black describes his first visit to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. How he stood and stared at the IBM machine displayed there, and reflected on its impact on Jews and Western History. In my first visit, I too stood and stared at that machine.  My mind reeled as I recognized the enormity of the impact of IBM technology on the Jews of Europe.

In a chapter, “The Holocaust in France and Holland,” Black points to the Reich’s efficient use of IBM technology in Holland to process the Nazi census of Jews. They then used census data to identify and print names and addresses of Holland’s Jews. All that remained was to organize roundups, arrest Jews and ship them to concentration camps. 73% of the Jews of Holland were murdered.

Black then describes the Nazi census of Jews in France. The Gestapo arrested and murdered 25%, not 75%, of them. Why this powerful statistical difference? Jews in Holland were murdered at three times the rate of Jews in France.

France is more ethnically diverse than is Holland. But Black asserts the overriding difference in the survival rates rested in the success of the Nazi census of Jews in Holland and the relative failure of the Nazi census of Jews in France. The census failure in France was due the leadership of Gen. René Carmille.

I wanted to know more about Carmille and his work in the French Resistance. Who was this man? How and why did he put his life at risk to save the lives of thousands of Jews?

Searching for an answer

I began a five-year odyssey of research and writing on WWII France, the French Resistance, and, most importantly, Gen. René Carmille. I first scoured references in Black’s book and followed up on possible Carmille connections. I entered archives of documents dealing with Carmille’s National Statistical Service (SNS) in Vichy France.

In writing IBM and the Holocaust, Black interviewed Carmille’s son, Robert who had worked at SNS. Unfortunately, Robert had died before I began my search. However, I was able to access and read two lengthy monographs written by Robert on the WWII work of his father.

I wanted to find a connection to the Carmille family. In 2015, Internet searches led me to Soshana Bryan’s 2012 review of IBM and the Holocaust in The Times of Israel. Shortly afterward, the newspaper published a letter from Marie-France Demade (Carmille) on the WWII work of her grandfather, René Carmille.

Finally! A family connection?

I wrote the editor, described my research and writing, and asked if the newspaper would share information that would connect me to Carmille’s granddaughter. With her permission, the newspaper released contact information to me.

I sent a description of my planned novel to Mme Demade. We soon began an active correspondence and a growing friendship that continues today. She graciously connected me with Gen. Carmille’s three other grandchildren. In visits to France, I met two of the three and corresponded with all of them. Over the next four years, they made unique and important contributions to A Quiet Hero. Without their support and generous sharing of information, A Quiet Hero would have lacked the foundation of intimate, inside knowledge that could come only from members of Gen. Carmille’s family.

I told Mme. Carmille that a friend and I planned to visit Lyon in late November and early December 2015, during the city’s Festival of Lights. She invited me to take a side-trip to Paris and meet with she and other grandchildren. I made travel reservations and prepared to do that.

Then, from Paris, came a surprise. On November 13 and 14, ten days before my flight to Lyon, ISIS carried out terrorist attacks during a football match at the Paris Stade de Denis, killing 130 people and wounding 494. For a short time, travel to and from France was shut down and the country put on high alert.

The attack took place in a city still dealing with the aftershocks of the deadly Charlie Hebdo ISIS terrorist attacks earlier in the year. In addition, Paris was in the midst of immediate security preparations for the November 2015 International Conference on Climate Change.  President Obama would soon arrive for the conference. Would there be another attack?

I had difficulty sleeping as I debated whether or not to continue with my trip.

My visit to Lyon

In late November, I flew to Lyon and settled into an apartment on the Saone. As I explored the city, I found my way to the business district and 10 rue des Archers, the WWII address of the offices of SNS, founded by the Vichy government early in WWII and headed by Gen. René Carmille.

Standing on rue des Archers, I stared at the tall thick oak double-doors of number ten and imagined life inside that building during the war. Multiple floors of offices, hundreds of employees recording and processing statistical information, and at the heart of operations, electronic technology—keypunch and card-sorting and data-processing machines.

In my research, I had learned that following completion of the census of Jews in France, German and Vichy French officials had been overwhelmed by the challenge of processing the information contained on thousands of paper-and-pencil census forms. Upon learning this, Gen. Carmille wrote to Xavier Vallat, Commissioner-General for Jewish Questions in the Vichy government. Carmille suggested to Vallat that SNS take responsibility for processing the census forms. Vallat quickly agreed to turn over control of the census data to SNS and Gen. Carmille.

Sabotaged by Carmille, the census failed to produce lists of Jews for Gestapo roundups. On 3 February 1944, cars bearing Gestapo agents, led by Lt. Klaus Barbie, stopped near the curb where I then stood. Gestapo agents entered the building. Barbie arrested and handcuffed Carmille. After they initiated Carmille’s interrogation, the agents transported a bloodied and unconscious Carmille from his office to Lyon’s Gestapo Headquarters in the Hotel Terminus.

There, Barbie and Gestapo agents continued Carmille’s interrogation, alternately torturing and questioning Carmille for three days and nights. Had Carmille sabotaged the Nazi census of Jews? Why? What happened to the census data? Who were the responsible parties? Carmille never cracked.

He was then transported to Lyon’s Montluc Prison.

In Montluc Prison

Later that day I crossed the Rhone, and on the Metro traveled the short distance to Montluc Prison.  I stood outside the prison’s high stone walls in front of the entrance’s twelve-foot-tall heavy oak double doors. Beside those doors was a narrow entry door. Beside it, a sign, “Pour l’admission, veuilez sonner.” For admission please ring the bell. I pressed the button beside the sign. In the distance, I heard the muffled ring of a bell. Soon the door opened. In the dark hallway stood a middle-aged man in a uniform, eyebrows raised. “Oui, Monsieur?”

“I am doing research, writing about Montluc Prison. I would like to visit the prison.”

He motioned for me to enter and follow him.

We passed down a long corridor to a sparsely furnished reception area. He again raised his eyebrows, “Oui, Monsieur?”

I said I had come to view the facility. “I am working on a novel about a man who was a prisoner at Montluc in WWII.”

My host spoke to me in French and halting English. I spoke to him in English and halting French. Our efforts at understanding one another brought mutual laughter. He signaled for me to wait. He exited through a nearby door and soon returned. With him came a tall athletic young man, perhaps thirty years old. In German-accented English, he asked, “Can I help you, sir?”

I described the purpose of my visit. I mentioned Gen. René Carmille and said he was a prisoner here from 5 February to 30 June 1944.

“Sir, there must be some mistake. At that time the prison was not accepting new prisoners.”

I cited my research and its repeated references to Carmille’s imprisonment in Montluc. I spoke of my certainty about the dates. His voice firm, the young man politely said it would have been unlikely to impossible for Carmille to have been in Montluc in the spring of 1944. He invited me to explore the prison and ask questions of staff members posted throughout the facility. “In the meantime,” he added, “I will check our prison records just to be certain Gen. Carmille was not here.”

For two hours, I walked the halls of Montluc wondering if the young man was correct. I observed the prison’s three stories of cells and corridors. Each of the three levels of corridors had slotted floors of narrow iron bars that linked ceilings below to the floors above. Through the bars, activities on each level, above and below, were visible to people standing on higher or lower levels. 

I entered the prison’s cells and multipurpose rooms. One of the rooms was formerly a large dining hall that during WWII had served as a fifty-bed infirmary. Carmille would have arrived at Montluc bloody, bruised and battered following three days and nights of torturous interrogation by Klaus Barbie. Most likely he was here, in this room, for recovery and medical treatment. I imagined him here. I touched the walls, inhaled the room’s stale air. I sat down and envisioned the room filled with soldiers, men who suffered a special kind of combat wound—injuries from beatings and torture as they resisted answering Gestapo questions.

Continuing through the corridors, I entered a room about twice the size of a regular cell, its walls damp, the sweat of an old building. On one wall hung a large sepia-toned photo of a dozen adolescent boys and girls seated on a hillside, laughing and jostling one another. Posted below the photo, a small plaque, “The Children of Izieu. April 1944. All Jews, they were arrested at the orphanage by Klaus Barbie and the Gestapo. They were sent to Auschwitz where they died.” 

The children of Izieu were in Montluc Prison when Gen. Carmille was held as a prisoner. I had learned that Carmille loved teaching and working with students. Might he have known those children? Talked and laughed with them?

I continued my walk through the prison. I toured Montluc’s outdoor grounds, flat, featureless, hard-packed soil without grass. After meandering corridor after corridor, I then returned to the reception room. The man who had met me at the prison entrance was there. I thanked him, “Je vous remercie pour votre hospitalité.” I asked him to extend my thanks to the young man who talked with me. I was uncertain if he understood, but we smiled and nodded to each other. I extended my hand. He smiled as he shook it. Each of us said, “Merci.”

He accompanied me to the narrow entry door. As I departed, we waved to one another.

Lost in thought, I walked slowly along the sidewalk that paralleled one of Montluc’s stone walls. Had I been wrong about Carmille’s imprisonment in Montluc? Had I committed other errors in my research on his life during WWII? If so, would they weaken the credibility of A Quiet Hero?

Uneasy about my research, I headed toward my Metro stop. I would board a train and return to my apartment on the other side of Lyon. I would review my notes on Carmille’s arrest and his imprisonment at Montluc. Then take a critical look at my research on WWII events in Lyon. Had I built a “house of cards?”

Behind me I heard the pat-pat-pat of rapid footsteps. A man’s voice called, “Sir! Sir!”

I stopped and turned.

The young man with whom I had talked in the prison ran toward me. I felt my back stiffen. Inside my head a voice said, “He’s found more errors.”

In his hand, the young man held documents. He waved them above his head. In an excited voice said, “You were right—Gen. Carmille was here in Montluc!” A broad grin crossed his face. “Just as you said.”

He handed me the papers. Some were typed. Others handwritten. Prison and Gestapo records in French and German, memos with handwritten notes in the margins. The Gestapo’s charges filed against Carmille. A detailed handwritten description of Carmille’s injuries and physical condition, his personal possessions at the time of admission to Montluc.

I scanned the documents and beamed a smile at the young man. I handed the documents to him and said, “Je vous remercie.”

He shook his head sidewise. “No, sir, these copies are for you. Please, keep them.” He paused and smiled. “Best wishes for success in your writing.”

I again thanked him. He turned and walked toward the prison’s entrance.

I resumed my walk to the Metro stop. My heart pounded. The discovery of Carmille’s Montluc records—an omen, a signal from the Universe? I felt a resurgence of confidence.

I would tell Carmille’s story—how he put his life at risk to sabotage the Nazi census, and save the lives of thousands of Jews.

The story that became A Quiet Hero.

[1] Enter the life and history of the world’s most famous bookstore.  Click on https://theculturetrip.com/europe/france/paris/articles/a-brief-history-of-shakespeare-and-company-paris-legendary-bookstore/