Alain Rocher

Interviewed May 1993

 

My name is Alain. I was born in France some fifty years ago, which of course means I was born during the Second World War, and which in a certain way shaped my life.   My parents were both schoolteachers in a small village (called Jouy-le-Potier) in central France about ten miles from a large town so we enjoyed rural life and I did so for my first seven years. I was born in a schoolhouse. Doctors were not that available at the time. The closest doctor was about ten miles away. I was born with the assistance of a midwife in my mother’s bedroom in the schoolhouse. In those days in France school teachers, in particular school directors, principals if you want to call them that, had to live on the grounds of the school and in many ways it was good because the house was provided, it was part of the job. My father and mother did not have to pay rent, the house came with the job. My father was the director of the boys’ school and my mother was in charge of the school for girls.

I was born in December and as far as I know my mother left her classroom and soon after I was born. I have very few recollections of those days. A few things that I will mention as we go along (as I talk on the tape which is not as easy as it sounds). Both my father and mother were typical teachers of the time, very dedicated. I was always brought up with that background that a teacher is basically available twenty four hours a day, not (just] from eight to three or eight to four as I have found out since my teaching in an American school. At any rate my father ran different sports programs, [for] no pay of course.

Since both of them [his parents] were basically the only two educated people in the village they also ran the town hall. There was a mayor in the town who traditionally was the owner of a manor which still exists as a matter of fact. Don’t forget the village was about five hundred people and there were two or three estates, large estates or small castles you would call them. One of the owners of one of the castles was the lord mayor.

As far as running the town hall both my father and mother did that. Since the town hall was attached to the schoolhouse it was fairly common for people who needed papers or whatever to come and knock on the classroom door and ask that my father or my mother be available to sign the piece of paper. I know they did a lot of that during the lunch, their two hour lunch time and of course after school also so they were very busy, obviously.

As I mentioned previously I was born in December of 1942, at the height of the war and I do have a few recollections from that time, mostly of course because of the stories that were told me about the war time more than actual recollections. My father had done his military service of a year and a half to two years when he was a young man so when 1939 came about, September ’39 and the

war with Germany was declared, he had to leave and put on his uniform. He was a lieutenant at the time, he was in the cavalry. He spent the first six months like any other soldier at the beginning of the war in France during what is called the “funny war”. It was the period basically where the French and the Germans faced each other at the border between France and Germany, but nothing happened. Germany at the time was busy attacking Poland, Denmark, and Norway and so on during their blitzkrieg but nothing was happening in France. In fact there are stories told of the two armies facing each other not even a mile apart and the French soldiers passing time playing soccer getting cheers from German soldiers a mile away and vice versa. When the Germans were playing soccer, the French soldiers would be watching the game and yelling and hollering across the border. That was the “drole de guerre” or the “funny war”, which lasted until basically April[1940].

Hitler sent his troops into Holland and Belgium and the war in France started. It was quickly over. My father then was demobilized as most soldiers were and he came back to his job as a teacher. Soon after he and many of his friends, in particular many public school teachers, started the underground resistance. He quickly became the second in command in the area providing papers for prisoners of war that had escaped. By then the Germans were recruiting heavily among the young men to go work in Germany. The French government at Vichy had accepted (agreed] to send so many people over there (to Germany) and there was work conscription. Many of the young men tried to not go, they had to hide. If they did go, they tried to escape and had come back to hide and get official papers so that they could come out of hiding. By then we also had food stamps because there were so many restrictions and of course food stamps were issued by the town halls. People that went underground or were not supposed to be around needed food stamps so they were faking lists, faking names and faking signatures and hiding out from the government officials. That was part of the job that he [my father] did at the town hall while he was still teaching, too.

Also as the war went on air pilots, airplane personnel crashed. When they survived the crash, of course it was the job of the resistance to hide them and then give them false papers so that they could go back basically across southern France into Spain and join Portugal where they would be shipped back to England and be part of the war effort (again].

The large town [near my village] that I mentioned earlier is Orleans in the Loire valley which was a large railroad center. This meant that it was bombed fairly often, first at the beginning of the war by the Germans Luftwaffe in May and June [1940]. The bombings were not too accurate so the railroad and the plants around the railroad were hit as well as many civilian housing. I should mention right now that my grandmother had a nice apartment and was bombed by the Italian air force. Italian planes came the day after the armistice had been called, I guess because they were sure nobody would shoot at them.     The armistice had been called in June. Anyway she was bombed, the apartment was burned and she lost everything. She came to stay with us until her brothers found her another apartment where then she could go back and go back to work. At the time she was working in a bank.

When the German forces attacked northern France, there was a panic throughout northern France and Paris and anywhere close to northern France. That was what they called the Exodus, le Exode in French. Thousands upon thousands of civilians were on the road to escape what they had been told would be German atrocities, killing, raping and so on. People just piled up all their goods onto whatever they could find, carts, animal drawn carts, people drawn carts or if they happened to have a car, they would use their cars. At the same time of course if they were on the road they were being attacked by the Luftwaffe but they were trying to escape northern France. They came to those small villages such as ours. Friends or not they would stay over night and keep on going, trying to get away from the Germans. That was before I was born.

Both my parents were what you would call socialists NOT communists, please. There is a great difference in France between socialism and communism. My father and my mother were what you would call patriots. At the beginning of the war because of the pact between Hitler and Stalin, the French communists were told not to participate in the war effort. In fact they tried to do

everything they could to disrupt the demobilization and my father was very offended by that so he was definitely not a communist. Of course when Hitler broke his treaty with Stalin and attacked Russia in 1941, then the communists joined the war effort, not that they were welcomed by the rest of the underground. They did join the war effort and started their own underground.

At any rate my father was a member of the underground and that came to play an important part [in our lives] after I was born. In 1943 after school was out in [the] summer he was on [one] his typical missions of passing out papers and he was away. We didn’t have any cars, his mode of travel was his bicycle. He just biked all over the place, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty miles carrying messages to different cells of the underground. As I mentioned before he was the second in command. However a large group of resistance in the adjoining military area was caught by the Gestapo and on them (the resistance] were found names unfortunately, papers naming people from my father’s area, in particular his name. He was coming back from a mission and he was biking home when somebody warned him that the Gestapo was waiting at the house for him to ask him questions. Well you knew when the Gestapo was waiting for you it was not to be very friendly. He could have gone underground or tried to escape but he knew if he didn’t show up they would arrest my mother. He decided to come back which he did. He was arrested. He was taken to jail at the jail in Orleans, the main town. From there he would never come back to our village. He would then be sent with hundreds of other people from the area to concentration camps in Germany. He never came back.

My mother of course took care of me and my sister who is four years older than I am. She was assigned to take over his classroom so she started     teaching young men in the town. Of course in a small school you have kids from the age of six to the age of fourteen in different rows (in the same classroom) typical of the old time school in America. She did go a few times to visit my father at the jail in Orleans and bring him packages of food and clothes and so on. Then he was shipped to Germany. She still sent him packages and whatever.

My father was still alive in 1945 when the first American troops came upon the camp where he was. They were so amazed by what they saw, walking cadavers and young men who had been in prison for two or three years or more, not much left to them, they were walking skeletons. Anyway he was still alive when the avante garde of the American troops opened up the camp. There was about a week or two weeks where thousands of prisoners died between the time of the avante garde and the main group of the Americans actually opened up the camps to repatriate the prisoners. Why did they die? Nobody knows for sure. So many of them were in bad shape but some of them had fought, they wanted to see the end, the gates opened. Suddenly when it was done they stopped fighting and maybe they died from that, I don’t know. Also the fact the Americans were so horrified by the emaciation of the men that they gave them all kinds of food which then created all kinds of problems and caused a lot of death in the prisoners who were not used to that kind of food.

Some of the men who had been arrested with my father were still alive and they came back. They told my mother that he was alive and somehow disappeared during the two or three weeks it took for the camps to be completely opened and the prisoners to be brought back. He was officially declared dead in 1947 by the French government. It happened to many, many prisoners, obviously he was not the only one.

For memories of that time, one is a noise in 1944 when I was not quite two but it still remains in my head. The Allied had landed and the Germans were retreating and of course there were all kinds of bombings. My mother and my grandmother were bombed out of a second house, this time by the American bombers. There was a machine gun installed in the upper floor of our house be- cause the house was so situated that it faced three roads, the three main roads leading to the center of the village. Some of the members of the resistance had set up a machine gun in the third floor, almost the attic. A German side car came by with two soldiers and they were shot by the resistance. I still remember somehow the tac tac tac of the repeated shooting of the machine gun. Of course I didn’t know what it was, I was told afterwards that the two Germans had been killed. In fact the Germans were buried in a local cemetery.

Life in the cities was poor because of the rationing of food. I remember well you needed stamps for everything. You were allowed something like ten ounces of meat for a family for the whole week. You were allowed about twenty ounces of bread, butter or mostly margarine was created back then because butter was so rare. In the villages life wasn’t bad because there were so many farms around. In particular when someone needed something from the town hall particularly things that were hard to get, as a friendly gesture a farmer would bring a chicken, leg of lamb,[or] a piece of a pig they had slaughtered or something like that (to my mother).   My parents were well liked. They also knew that my father was away, was gone. So we did not lack for food. It became

important because we were able to help other families, families that came from [lived in) the city who would send their kids on the weekend (to the country] In particular on school vacations all the kids were taken away from the cities and sent away to relatives or friends where there was no bombing. There was no bombing where I grew up. So we had all kinds of cousins and relatives and people that became friends because they [had] stayed at our house [seeking refuge with us]. One of my cousins is still alive and every time I go back to France, she says “Ah, the Americans, if only, if only – I always loved the Americans.” Well what happened was she was a young seventeen or eighteen year old French girl and as I said earlier we would sometimes house for a few nights (or] sometimes two or three weeks pilots that had been downed from the airplanes. They had been rescued by the resistance and brought to our house to be hidden in the attic or different places. There was a young American that she fell in love with and I don’t know if they had sexual relations but she always loved him. When he left he said he would come back to get her and marry her. She is still waiting. They did at the end of the war exchange letters but there was a letter from his mother which indicated very strongly that there was no way that her son would marry some French girl. That was the end of it. My poor cousin never married to this day and she is close to seventy. She still talks about those days. Obviously I was too young to know about all those things. As I grew older I was told many of those stories.

We stayed in the village until 1949. 1 was about to turn seven when my mother was given a promotion and was sent to a larger town [Olivet] and given the position of director of ecole maternelle which was a school for three to six year olds. The school was (still] being built and we were in the old school in an old apartment. We did have running water in this house which we did not have in the previous school. In the old school we had to go to the well outside, we had to go to the bathroom outside. We had a coal stove, that I remember because we cooked on that stove. In the winter we put those old bricks in the oven to warm them up and put them in the bed to warm up the sheets because there was no heat in the house except the stove. The upstairs bedrooms were rather chilly in the winter. We had a garden, everybody had a garden to grow some vegetables. Where we moved was slightly more modern, I would hate to use the word modern but at least we had running water so we had a bathroom. Two years later we moved to that new school that was being built, a brand new school at the time. In France it was a model school, it had five classrooms and attached again to the school there were four apartments, one for the directress which was my mother and

(apartments) for three other teachers. For all my years I have been living in a school. I was born in one and I was raised in apartments attached to schools.

I grew up in a teaching environment maybe that is why I am a teacher now. It is more than likely that is where I found my sense of responsibility to children, my fondest for children, my desire to help because that was my environment. Teachers in France were, I don’t know if they are still, extremely involved, in particular in small towns. They were very well known, very well respected. In fact my wife was always surprised to see me addressed as “Mr. the son of Mrs. the Principal”. You have [would see] some nice little old lady or old man removing his hat and bowing not only to my mother but to me which always made me feel kind of funny when I was a fifteen or sixteen year old. Maybe also that’s one reason that I never screwed around in my home town. Whenever I did my growing up shall we say, fooling around, drinking, partying, chasing women, whatever, I always knew that I was not to create any bad feelings for my mother. She as a teacher and a principal had plenty of respect from the community and I was not about to disrupt that respect so I definitely behaved in my home town and in other parts of the country more than maybe (I might have] if I had not seen that type of moral conduct [respect for my mother). I don’t think my mother really brainwashed me about that, I guess we just learned it, respect for elders, respect for teachers. Since I grew up without a father whenever my mother felt I was getting out of hand, she would take me to my local teacher at the boys’ school and he would kick my butt. I never cared for that type of corporal punishment so I guess that made me behave, too. Plus the shame that you might bring on you family, I guess I behaved more because of that.

I stayed at the local school as it was customary in those days but I also was brought up with the idea that education was extremely important. Education was not a right but a duty almost. I was expected to go on to school, go on to [the] university, go on to get an education rather than remain at the local school and at fourteen go as an apprentice someplace or as a mechanic to mechanic’s school or something of the sort. At any rate at the age of nine I took that famous exam in France which at the time everybody who wanted to further their education took and passed in order to go to the high school in Orleans. In those days only large towns had high schools. If you lived too far away you went in [to town to school] when you were nine or ten, or ten and a half and you lived in a dorm. If you were close enough you would go in the morning and come back at night, stay there all day. If you were in the town itself you could go home for lunch if you wanted to, that was up to your parents to decide those things.

So I started to go to the big school. I would get on the bus at 7:15 A.M., not a school bus, we didn’t have school buses. It was just a local bus and rode for three miles to the main town and walked to school from the bus station which was pretty close by. I would start my classes, basically at eight o’clock in the morning [and go] until four or five in the afternoon and then come home at night, and do my homework. Then do that again the next day. I spent seven years in that school. I took those exams in France which are required in order to advance and to go to the university. I was growing up. I was still a good student although as I got older I got wilder. The respect for the teachers that I had acquired earlier stayed with me. French high school students in those days were fearful of their professors not like it is in America where in most cases you are very friendly, you are given nicknames and the students come to talk to you all the time, (and] tell you their problems. That did not happen in those days, in fact when we saw our professors in the street we (would] change sidewalks so we wouldn’t be forced to say hi. We would nod and blush and move on. In those days [early to mid 1950’s] there was great respect and fear for teachers and professors, fear from us but respect from our parents. It was not like now a days where we (teachers] are considered as people who have failed because we can’t do anything else. It hurts to hear those comments, that we are teachers because we can’t do anything else. Not in those days, not in France, you were professors because you cared, because you had great knowledge. In order to become a professor or a teacher you had to go through schooling and acquire knowledge.

My high school years were basically pleasant years, there were days of course like anybody else I dreamed of not having any school.   The only problem is that the French schools never close (for bad weather, for example]. We played pranks. We had an old classroom with a coal stove and we would sometimes stuff some material in the stove pipe so that by the time the professor got to the classroom, the classroom was full of smoke so we had to cancel class. In the winter when we started school at eight o’clock and it was still dark out we would put coins in the light bulb sockets so that as soon as he (the professor] would come in and turn on the light he would blow out the light bulb. By the time the light bulb was replaced the class, which lasted fifty five minutes, was over. We couldn’t do that every day but every so often it was a distraction.

I was expected to do well (in school]. I did well. My sister was an excellent student, she was a hard worker. I guess I was expected to follow in her footsteps. I had a typical adolescence, playing sports. The schoolhouse where I lived was in the middle of a big park and there was a basketball court and a soccer field. My free time was spent on the basketball court and the soccer field. The school did not run the sports clubs, it was the town that ran the clubs. Adults helped us, coached us in our sports and we played mostly on Sundays because that was the only time we had free. We went to school Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. By the time I was thirteen I also had classes on Thursday morning. Basically we went to school six days a week.

As I grew older girls came into my life. In those days the French schools were still segregated. We had a boy’s school and a girl’s school so we saw the girls on the bus and in the street but not in the classroom obviously. Girls had a certain attraction which I’m not too sure there is such a thing here in America because the boys and the girls very often have gone to school together for so many years that they know each other as well as a brother and a sister. It makes for a different relationship. For us it was always trying to attract the girls, trying to attract their attention, trying to find somebody that would know them who could pass a note to them. We didn’t have any telephones of course in those days.

Our entertainment was to go to the movies once in a while if we could get a few pennies,(or) to play sports. As younger people when were still boys we played like boys, we rode bikes all over the place. The town that I then lived in was about five thousand people, was comprised of mostly orchards, [and) farms so there were pathways all over the place for riding bikes. Nowadays it is a town of twenty thousand people so those orchards have been built up and you don’t have the paths to go ride bikes anymore. You have houses (instead].

We went to school from September to June. We had exams at the end of the year and we knew we had to pass those exams to go on so they were very important. It was a lot of pressure. There wasn’t much time for entertainment during the week with six or seven hours of classes every day and three or four hours of homework. There was no TV, we had a radio. I would listen to the radio once in a while, mostly the news. On the weekend I would listen to soccer games on the radio. A friend of mine whose parents were pharmacists and had more money than we did got a black and white TV when I was about fourteen. It was a great thrill to be invited on Thursday afternoon or Sunday to go watch his TV, to go watch cartoons such as Felix the Cat,(or) some of the American Westerns. It was a great thrill to go there, to go to his house! When I was sixteen my neighbors upstairs who didn’t have any children got a TV. Every so often they would invite me to watch a movie at night or to watch a play or watch a soccer game.   If her husband wanted to watch it, (the game) I would be invited too. That wasn’t often, about every other week or every third week. Always the question was, “have you done your homework first?” Sometimes I would lie obviously.

Then of course I got older and girls became more important. Politics became more important. Politics became more important because France was in turmoil at the time. We had just finished the war in Indochina, a far away war but exciting to hear about because it was so far away. Of course as French patriots we were deeply hurt the French had lost at Dien-Bienphu and we all dreamed to join (about joining] the army and defend [defending] the flag. After all that’s the way we had been taught in the schools, brainwashed as anybody gets brainwashed in the school. Much closer to us was the conflict in Algeria which came even closer as we got older because some of our friends were getting drafted. The French draft, by the way, still exists. When it came time for me the draft was still two years. Fortunately I was deferred for a while so by the time I got in, the draft had been reduced to eighteen months. Before I got out it was reduced to sixteen months. Thank God for that because by that time I had changed my mind on the military [even though] my father had been in the military. He was, by the time he was officially pronounced dead, carrying the rank of major.

The politics were very important to us. “Should we stay in North Africa? Should we give them their freedom?” as we would say. There were many North Africans working in France which made the conflict closer to us. Plus the fact that in order to raise money the so called rebels of North Africa had imposed a tax on the workers in France. If the workers didn’t pay the tax to the liberation front they often were shot or their throat was cut. We would every so often find a body with d throat slit or hear bullets. As I got older, I was in Paris by then, the conflict had been expanded with the anti French Algeria or pro French Algeria and that’s the time when the military attempted coups forced the hand of the government to do this or that. I had a girlfriend in Paris and I made arrangements to see her, we did that by letters because again [we had] no phone. Or if we wanted to phone we had to go to the local post office and make arrangements “I’ll phone YOU at three o’clock, be there.” [This particular time] she was waiting for me at the railroad station (in Paris]. She wore thick glasses so she misread the train platform I came on so I had to go look for her which was fortunate. Within three to four minutes after I had left the platform a bunch of lockers exploded and there were six or seven people who were killed. I was maybe only a hundred yards away. If she had met me where we were supposed to meet we both would have been dead now.

There was another time when I was sitting in a bar in Paris, fortunately the back of the bar, when as in the movies I heard a screech of tires and the rather exciting noise of bullets flying from a machine gun. Some person who was sitting on the terrace of the cafe had been marked for assassination. We just happened to be sitting in the back of the bar. A few bullets came into the back of the bar and hit mostly the ceiling, but meanwhile it was scary as hell. Windows were broken. Of course the machine gun made that awful rattling noise and we all dove under the tables and two people got killed on the terrace of the cafe. That was another close call.

There were a few things like that were rather exciting and made life and nowadays memories of that life exciting. So our political involvement was fairly important. We were at different times hired as young men by different political parties to put posters on walls before elections. Of course we would also manage to get paid by the opposition parties to remove those posters we had just put up the night before and put up their posters. We were kept busy during an electoral campaign doing something like that and making a little money. I was never a militant politically although at different times I argued cases at the dinner table with my great uncles or the adults shall we say who had fought in the second world war and for some of them the first world war. The discussion led to me getting kicked out of the house because I was arguing on things I didn’t know, that were politically untrue or wrong or whatever. It was [a] typical [example] of a young man not wanting to be put down by elders.

By this time my study habits had fallen apart. I had discovered too many other interests, women, and politics. Although I had thought I wanted to go to medical school, that didn’t work out. Some of my friends went and I was lucky enough to be invited by some of them to the hospital. I did attend an appendectomy and a tonsillectomy which were very intriguing. I never made it as a doctor.

Instead I got a job, not knowing what I wanted to do, with the American schools. In my area there were about twenty five thousand Americans which was a rather large American base. They were looking for teachers to teach French to the kids. My first teaching job was with five year olds. I can always remember walking in the first day and having some poor little girl look at me and burst into tears. We became friends after that but the first day was tough.

I worked there for a while and then my draft notice came. The way it works in France is that at eighteen you get drafted. If you are in school you get pushed back [deferred] and as long as you pass your exams (while) you are in school, you get deferred. The problem was that in June I blew my exams. Sure enough in October I got the notice from the government that on November 1 I was to report to be in the Military. I spent sixteen months in the military. Personally I felt it was a waste of time because by then I was older. Maybe I would have felt differently at eighteen, I don’t know. Most of the military time I spent in my home town. I did my training outside of Paris. I requested to be sent to Tahiti so I could see some land (the world]. I was told I couldn’t go because I was a war orphan, I couldn’t get that far away from my mother.   I requested Germany so I could learn German. I was told no that was still too far away, you can’t stay that far away from your mother. So they sent me near Paris. I spent two months there and then another two months driving a truck [near Paris].

I refused to go to officer’s school because as I said my military outlook was quite different by then. I had earlier, in order to get a deferment, I had done (participated in] what they called military preparation which is a kind of a ROTC program. I had been in the paratroopers and I jumped a few jumps, enough to get my license if you want to call it that, but there was no way I wanted to be drafted in the paratrooper corps. It was too military for me plus I was in love, I didn’t want to get far away. I was in love with my present wife. I didn’t want to be drafted too far away because I had met Barbara at school and had fallen in love. If I had gone to officer’s school I would have sent to eastern France which would have been too far from her. I did all I could to stay close by and sure enough she was teaching in Paris at the time. For the four months I spent outside of Paris she would every so often on weekends bring me cigarettes, whiskey, and that type of thing. She would give me a ride and go to a restaurant which was much nicer than playing soldier. In eastern France it was the cold winter, remember it was November, December, January and February. In February my four months were up so I had to go to a different camp. I was sent for about a week to [a town] about two hours from my home town, there was nothing there for me to do, it was boring as heck. I requested a transfer and I arranged for a transfer to my home town where I spent the last twelve months. I was working at headquarters there mostly doing paperwork, driving officers and generals around and stuff like that.   Basically for me a waste of time and I did all I could at the time to do as little as possible – but that is another story.

After my military service I went back to the American school. By then there was talk that General De Gaulle would force the Americans to leave France so that many of the bases would be closed. I took advantage of the fact that I knew quite a few people both in the military and in the civilian population among the Americans to arrange for a trip to come to America to visit the United States. I did come and lo and behold I stayed. A year after I had been here, over the phone Barbara and I decided to get married. She was still in Paris, I was here (Massachusetts]. We decided that when she would come in June, we would get married and we did.

The rest of my story is that I have been here for twenty seven years, twenty eight years almost now. I am in a strange situation such that when I go back to France – let me rephrase that – I spent all my youth in France, I know everything a French youth would do, French songs and games but my knowledge of a French adult is rather poor. In other words doing taxes [in France] and things like that are rather alien to me, where I face the reverse in America. I know what an American adult is but as far as childhood games played by American kids, I am not very well versed in it. It was kind of strange when I had my own son and my wife would sing songs to him and I didn’t know them, would play games with him and I didn’t know them. It was in many ways embarrassing. That is what happens when you are raised in one country and you move to another country. I don’t think I regret, no I don’t regret having moved to America. The United States has been good, my town and Massachusetts have been good. I think I have repaid them out of my time in education.

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