by Michele Haines
My grandfather was a carpenter ébéniste (cabinet-maker) and antique dealer in Tours, France. In 1943 he was called to put shelves in a fur shop on the main street. It was 11 a.m. when he arrived. At 11:30 the Gestapo, along with the collaborating French secret police, came into the shop. They arrested all of the owners of the shop — the mother, father and grandparents.
As she was taken away, the mother was making sign language to my grandfather. (Of course I was barely one year old, so I am telling a story told to me many times, and as time goes by some of the details fade or change. I apologize for discrepancies, but the basic story is correct.)
My grandfather stayed in the shop, and then the five children of the shop owners arrived from school. My grandfather understood then what the mother had been trying to communicate to him with her hand and facial gestures. It was to take care of her children, so he took the children with him in his “triporteur” (a motorcycle with a wooden box trailing behind, built by him for delivering furniture). The five children stayed in his house for a while, but the second floor had been requisitioned by two SS officers, so the kids had to stay quiet in the attic unless my grandfather came and told them to feel free for a while!
They finally were taken across France, free, thanks to my grandfather’s connection with the Resistance, and they went through Spain and eventually to the United States. Later I think I met a daughter of one of these children who thought she remembered my grandfather’s name, so I called my grandfather. (It was the year 1963, and I was in Tallahassee, Florida, where I had just been released from jail for having coffee with a young black man and refusing to move.) I told my grandfather there was somebody who would want to thank him for saving her life. He said, “My glue is going to dry; what’s the fuss?” He hung up!! Unbelievable!
I heard so many stories growing up that they have shaped my life. My father, my grandfather, our life in wartime. My grandfather was an orphan and was raised in a Jesuit orphanage in Tours, but he was a rebel.
So he jumped over the fence of the orphanage, ran away and eventually learned the cabinet-making trade as an apprentice and belonged to the Guild of the Ebenistes (inlay work of precious woods and restoration of 17th and 18th century furniture). He eventually had his own antique store near the Hameau de Marie Antoinette in Versailles.
During the Second World War, he continued to be the rebel. He would go to his garden regularly to tend to it. One day, my grandmother told me he saw a German officer order a young man down from his bike and then steal it. My grandfather pedaled fast on his own bike to catch up with the officer.
He then told the German officer to give back what was not his. My grandmother said she thought he would definitely be shot and killed. But that’s not what happened. The German officer actually said he was sorry, and he gave the bike back.
My grandmother admitted she was not brave, but she was a good woman. My mother had been arrested by the Gestapo and was put in jail. I was one year old at the time.
My grandmother took me to the jail to visit my mother, but I was not allowed in the cell.
So a German officer put me on his lap, and I peed all over his uniform. Again my grandmother trembled and thought we would be arrested because of what I had done, but nothing happened. The officer said that his own son had done the same thing to him, and he walked away.
Because of what I learned as a small child from my family during World War II about the moral necessity to fight against injustice and other evils, I became involved in the civil rights movement after coming to this country. I did not go the March on Washington in August, 1963, but I did go with a small group of people when Dr. Martin Luther King came out of jail in Montgomery, Alabama.
As I told my grandson, I got to talk to Dr. King. I drank some water with him and listened to him talk. Many years later I was in Indiana one morning as I was taking my grandson Trevor to school. He asked me if I knew who Dr. King was. I said yes and added that I had actually met Dr. King and was lucky enough to talk to him a little bit. Trevor’s eyes became bigger than his body. He ran to tell his teacher that day what I had told him, but the teacher heartlessly sent him to the end of the line, telling him to be quiet.
Tears rolled down his cheek. I went over, hugged him, kissed him and promised something special. I wish the teacher would have said something like, “This is not the right time to tell your story, but at story time we would love to hear it.” That night I started writing a children’s book that was inspired by Trevor. Later on a good friend of mine from Italy, Paolo, a famous painter, did the illustrations. After many, many months I have finally finished the book. We are currently waiting for a publisher.
Michele Haines is the owner of the Spring Mill Cafe, a French BYOB which has been at 164 Barren Hill Rd. in Conshohocken for the last 35 years. When she is not traveling around the world, she can be reached at 610-828-2550 or www.springmill.com.