Paris — July 14, 1940
Walter could feel the energy and tension almost as soon as he left his hotel and started walking down Boul’ Mich’. Classes at all the lycées and universities had been canceled because of the Bastille Day holiday, and the streets were crowded with excited students. He couldn’t tell if they were impatient to start celebrating or spoiling for a fight.
In the midst of the throng, he ran into an old friend at the corner of Rue Cujas. He had met Joseph Paul and his wife Caroline when they were all penniless students at the Sorbonne in 1933. Joseph was a New Yorker who had graduated from Columbia. Caroline had gone to Bryn Mawr. The Pauls lived in a one room 5th-story flat on Rue Casimir de la Vigne, with the same foot-rest toilets on each landing. Their infant daughter Sarah’s crib was the top drawer of the single dresser in their room. Joseph had a deep passion for the world of ideas and a wonderfully penetrating mind, but a somewhat lesser attention to the details of daily life. Walter’s favorite story, among many, was when it was time for Sarah to be baptized. Joseph was a devout Catholic, so of course, the baptism would take place at Notre-Dame.
On the day appointed to meet with the priest to discuss the baptism, Carolyn showed up with Sarah in a walker. Joseph didn’t. Finally, when it became obvious that she would have to arrange things herself, she followed the priest up to the flat roof of Notre-Dame’s portico. It was a brilliantly sunny day. All of Paris was stretched out around them and the Seine flowed majestically past. They sat in wooden deck chairs, sipping sherry and agreeing on details. Would Carolyn (in Joseph’s absence) commit to raising their daughter as a devout child of the Church? Bien sûr, Carolyn had answered. Since she was a religiously indifferent Mennonite, it was an easy promise to make. When Joseph finally showed up at home, hours after the appointment with the priest, he did the manly thing, and took all the blame himself, instead of ratting out Walter, with whom he’d been drinking at the Dôme all afternoon.
Joseph now had a decent job as a researcher at the Musée de Cluny, and Carolyn taught English to French students in the local lycée Sarah attended. “Are you going to the rally?” Joseph asked.
“What rally?” Walter’s isolation as a writer and researcher kept him apart from the daily life of undergraduates. He had seen the posters announcing the Bastille Day demonstration but hadn’t paid attention.
“At the Café d’Harcourt, noon. It’s a protest against the Krauts’ censorship of books and ideas — he used the American slang word instead of Boche .”
“I don’t imagine Carolyn is going.”
“She’s staying home with Sarah. She thinks the rally isn’t a smart idea.”
“What do you think?” Walter asked. It seemed like a crazy, dangerous idea to him.
“The Krauts won’t be happy, but it’s a bunch of students — a really big bunch of students. What are they going to do? Arrest all of us?” Walter had a different idea of the Germans’ possible response but kept it to himself. He agreed to meet Joseph in front of the café across from the Sorbonne at 12:oo noon at the corner by the café awning announcing “Musicales.” I can at least keep an eye on him and get him safely back to Carolyn when all this is over.
He left the nearly-empty library at 11:45 and emerged onto Boul’ Mich’ into a madhouse of singing, chanting students.
“Liberté de lire! Liberté de penser! Liberté de vivre!” There must have been hundreds of whistles accompanying the 3 beat — 4 beat — 3 beat chant. When that died out, other students would start up the far more inflammatory “A bas les Boche! A bas les Boche!” Jesus, he thought. These kids have no idea what they’re starting. There were a score or so of French police almost hugging the wall of the Sorbonne across from the café. They were standing by helplessly. He also spotted a black Mercedes parked on the corner of Rue Vaugirard. He fought his way up the street to get a closer look. Two men in civilian dress were inside, one talking on a radio telephone. Well, I know who they are. They’re probably calling in the cavalry. I need to get Joseph the hell out of here.
The terrace of the café was jammed with students. They filled the boulevard as well, from beyond the Place de la Sorbonne to the south almost to the intersection of Rue Racine and Rue des Écoles. And not just students. You could tell the college kids by what they wore — almost all with jackets, stylishly baggy pants and neckties or scarves. Scattered among them were clumps of toughs from the working class 17th and 18th arrondissements to the north. They weren’t here to celebrate liberty of reading, thinking or life.
Even with his height advantage, trying to spot Joseph across the street in the throng under the awnings of Café d’Harcourt was impossible. A few feet away he saw a bench next to a street lamp. He forced his way through the crowd, and with loud apologies, “I’m looking for my wife,” pushed aside the kid standing on the seat to step carefully onto the top rail of the bench, circling the post with his left arm. Now he could see, and with luck, be seen. He had a strong, commanding voice, thanks to four years as a college quarterback. But even at the top of his lungs, he realized he’d never be heard, so he started waving his right arm in big arcs, hoping Joseph might spot the movement. It worked. A few moments later he saw Joseph clamber up onto one of the round tables in the café terrace and wave back.
Walter gestured with his hand: “Stay there. I’ll come to you.” Joseph waved back to signal he understood. Walter was about to jump down to begin the physical struggle to force his way through the crowd when there was a pause in the chanting. Someone started La Marseillaise. Oh great, he thought. First “A bas les Boche!” now the forbidden national anthem. The song swelled from a thousand throats:
Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
Contre nous de la tyrannie,
L’étendard sanglant est levé.
Around him, a few students were crying, but they were tears of joy. Most of the faces he could see were suffused with pride and defiance. They had suffered the shame of their parents’ generation’s fear and surrender and the sordid betrayal of the French government. ‘But not us! We will be brave! We will still keep faith with France!’ Walter wanted to sing along with them.
They had reached the triumphant final phrases, “Aux armes, citoyens,” when from his vantage point above the singing crowd he could hear the loud klaxon siren of German cars. Two black Mercedes pulled onto Boul’ Mich’ from Rue Cujas, scattering the crowd. Trucks, loaded with soldiers, followed them. The troops rapidly formed into squads. Carefully switching his grip on the lamp post, he twisted his body around to look at the other end of the boulevard. The same scene was unfolding there at the Rue Racine/Rue des Écoles intersection. Time to get to Joseph, he thought. This is not going to be un jour de gloire. I’m afraid tyranny’s bloody banner is about to be raised.
But he felt glued to his spot above the crowd. He was about to witness an unspeakable tragedy; it was like watching a horrific car wreck unfold in front of his eyes in slow motion. The troops had been formed into arrow shaped wedges. On command, they launched themselves into the packed crowd of kids. They hadn’t fixed bayonets, thank God, but it didn’t matter. They were using the muzzle ends of their rifles as spears and the butt ends as clubs. The first row of students they hit just disappeared from sight.
The crowd had started La Marseillaise again, the students in the center still unaware of what was coming at them. From the fringes on either end of the boulevard, the panicked screaming started. The two sounds collided briefly, in tension against each other for less than a minute, and then like a wave, terror swept through the entire crowd. What had been, seconds before, a proud, united group of kindred souls collapsed into a mob of fear-stricken animals.
Walter couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The stronger kids, mostly boys, started shoving and punching the students around them to fight their way out of the crush. He saw a young girl, pretty and petite, get sandwiched between four or five bigger guys and then just disappear under their feet. Right below him, another young girl was jammed up against the lamp post by another cluster of students. “I can’t breathe!” she screamed. “I can’t breathe!” He swiveled around, almost losing his grip on the lamp post to reach down and pull her to safety, but when he looked for her, she too was gone. Five feet away, another boy went down, his arm stretched across the curbing. The kid behind him couldn’t stop. His foot landed on the outstretched arm. Walter couldn’t hear the bones snap, but he winced anyway. He was about to jump down to help him when a policeman, caught up in the stampede, struggled to the boy’s side and lifted him up. His arm, now twisted at an impossible angle, flapped like a dishrag.
The German troops were making steady progress through the crowd. The rise and fall of their rifle butts was like a threshing machine going through wheat. There was now no thought of trying to cross the street. Time for me to get out of here, Walter thought. Joseph, pray God you make it home safely. The bench on which he stood was like a large rock in rapids. The crowd eddied and swirled around it. He saw an opening in front of him and jumped, landing on his hands and knees, and pulled himself instantly up by grabbing the jacket of the student in front of him.
The doors of the lycée on Boul’ Mich’ had been opened. In front of each, students were trying to cram their way through the opening. Dumb idea, he thought. Ahead of him was a narrow alley, Rue Champollion, used mostly by drunks and addicts. Using his height and leverage to pull his way past the people in front of him, Walter fought through the crowd and spun off into the alley.
There were only a handful of other people in the alley; now he could run. He was dodging through the crowd when the student in front of him tripped. Walter lost his balance, caught his foot on the edge of a stone staircase leading to a basement entrance, and went tumbling down the steep stairway. He had time for a lightning thought, ‘I’m in trouble,’ before he landed with his left leg extended. He felt a searing pain shoot through his leg just before his head smashed into the stone stairwell and he blacked out.