We waited, impatiently, until August 25th, 1944, when General de Gaulle and his army marched down the Champs Elysees, marking the liberation of Paris from the Nazis. Twelve days afterward, I was in a GMC truck on my way to that great city to join the Seine Section Headquarters Services of Supply for the European Theater of Operations. We were about to enter this grandest of cities to begin a wonderful experience, which none of us could ever have foreseen.
We rode along the French countryside, facing each other in rows along both sides of the truck. We had been instructed by the officer in charge to leave the back curtain down, so we were like horses with blinders on, moving along, knowing we were going somewhere, but not able to see where we were.
We finally entered the city, and our first view was of the Palais de Chaillot in the Place de Trocadero across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. It was love at first sight.
The driver pulled right up on the lawn, and the lieutenant came around to the back of the truck and said, “Everyone stay put. Do not raise the blind or get out of the truck until the sergeant and I get back from reconnoitering.” The two of them then went off to find out where we were to report.
They were gone no more than 10 minutes when there was a knock on the tailgate, and, despite the officer’s admonition to the contrary, the guy closest to the back lifted the curtain., and there stood a fragile little man on a bicycle, who asked, “Schprect Deutsche?” No one answered. “Parlez Francais?” Same response. Then he asked, “A mitzen reihdt Yiddish? (Does someone speak Yiddish?)” I was the only Jew in the group and answered, “Ich reihdt Yiddish (I speak Yiddish).” “Kum aroyce (Come out),” he said.
I replied, “Ich ken nit, mine officier haught mier gezuct as ich daft shtain doh. (I can’t – my officer told me to stay in here),” to which he answered, “Vos mainst du? Kum aroyce! (What do you mean? Come out!)” By this time it was an open truck. All the guys wanted to know what was going on, and, except for me, were out on the lawn.
I couldn’t believe that this man, who was one of the lucky ones to have survived what was later termed “The Holocaust”, and, who had been virtually hiding out for four years, could already have a sizable souvenir shop on the rack behind his bicycle, which offered French girlie pictures, Eiffel Tower fountain pen holders, postcards, and you name it. He had acquired this inventory in less than 12 days of freedom and sold his entire stock of merchandise to my comrades within a few minutes because they had had nothing recently to spend their money on except apple cider and the comfort business next door and were hungry for souvenirs.
Soon, contrary to orders, all of my comrades in arms had gone off to explore, leaving only the “shopkeeper” and me standing there, so he invited me to his house to meet his sister who was in their apartment not far away. I told him again that my officer had told us to stay put, but he had only to point to the empty truck to convince me to come along, and for some unknown reason I did.
When we arrived at his place, I found that this man, his sister, and their mother – all of them quite emaciated – had been living for four years in the kitchen and breakfast room of this small apartment.
They offered to share some of their food with me. but, of course, I refused and after a short visit, I told them I had to go back to my officer.
With that, the man began escorting me to the Metro, instructing me to stay on the train until the end of the line (Trocadero).
Then, just before we parted, he told me that he owed me something special because I had interpreted for him with my buddies.
He took me to a bar and we were having an aperitif when suddenly, through a curtain behind the bar, a man emerged buttoning up his trousers.
My newfound friend then poked me, in a knowing way, and informed me in Yiddish that it was my turn and his treat.
In English, I told him, “No, thank you, I’ve seen those VD movies,” and left him sitting on the stool, wondering what I had said.
On leaving my newfound “lantzman” (fellow Jew), I boarded the Metro, and while riding back to the Trocadero, where I had left the truck and my fellow soldiers, I reflected on the fact that it was just 12 days after the liberation, and – contrary to what it would be in the near future – it seemed I was the only GI on the train.
I felt as if I were the main character in a dream – a stranger in a wonderful place. I couldn’t sit still. I felt compelled to walk around to observe what was going on around me, and while doing so, I came upon a man dressed just as you’d envision a diplomat- in an overcoat with a velvet collar and set out as trim and neat as a pin. He wore a Bowler hat and was seated at the rear of the last car, with a dictionary in his hand. When I came up to him, he, with his dictionary, engaged me in conversation. This brought back to mind the little booklet which we had received at the airfield before flying to France, in which an entire chapter was devoted to warning us that there would be collaborators seeking GI uniforms to use for smuggling German soldiers out of the city. It warned us that if we fell into their hands, we could end up with a knife in the back and our bodies floating naked in the Seine.
So, as I looked at this impeccably dressed man, who introduced himself as Georges, I just couldn’t help feeling that he was one of those people. Nevertheless, we conversed through the dictionary for several minutes until the loudspeaker announced that the Metro was closing for the night. This, the Trocadero station, was the end of the line.
On exiting, I began to feel more secure since I recognized the place where I had last seen our now long departed truck and told the man with whom I had been conversing that I was going out to look for some nightlife, and maybe find a girl. It was a lie, but I told him that to get out of a situation I had decided was too dangerous.
He informed me that there was still German resistance across the river on the Left Bank and that I would be safer with him. So there I was, not knowing the Left Bank from the Right, but suspecting that this was a story he had concocted to get me to stay with him for the sake of my uniform. (“Over my dead body,” I believe, is a correct statement here). It was the sound of small arms fire that convinced me that perhaps the best idea might be to take my chances with him, so, gritting my teeth, I decided to do just that.
While walking away from the Metro Station, the two of us must have looked quite comical, for, in true Laurel and Hardy, Peter Sellers, and Woody Allen fashion, we walked and dodged from tree to tree until we reached what we considered to be greater shelter at the sides of the buildings across the way. After walking three blocks, we reached a set of elegant wrought-iron doors through which he led me, past an elaborate cage elevator (awaiting the war’s end and the return of electric power) and up an equally elaborate wrought iron staircase. It seemed like a long climb to the second floor as I thought of all the possibilities that might be in the offing. To add to the suspense, we stopped at a door, where he tattooed a signal-type knock. This display of cloak and dagger made me even more concerned about my immediate future. I didn’t have long to contemplate because from the other side of the door came an equally unsettling coded response.
My newfound friend then announced that he had returned with an American soldier, which at that point caused my stomach to flip back to where it had been when it had overturned earlier. Once inside, however, I saw there was a woman, introduced as his wife, and a young boy of about 15, who was introduced as his stepson.
They greeted me as the hero I wasn’t, but since no one was the wiser, I was only too happy to accept the accolades. The very fact that they appeared to be a family and seemed genuinely happy to see me caused my suspicions to subside, albeit not entirely.
There followed the usual salutations and questions, answered with a dictionary, and afterward a meal that employed a K-ration as its base and leeks as the main ingredient.
This sparse, but delicious, repast was enjoyed in a spacious dining room, at a lovely table at which the K-ration was grossly outclassed by the greens and the talent.
We talked for some time, and after a while, I was shown the way to the study. It was a handsome room furnished with a walnut desk, a comfortable leather chair, and a couch that would serve as my bed for the night. I must admit that I was still quite skeptical, yet somewhat assuaged. Although to say I spent a peaceful night would be to ignore the fact that I slept with one eye open.
When morning finally arrived, their son guided me to a garage on Rue Fresnel (a street which ran into the Trocadero), where he had seen American soldiers congregating the day before. Sure enough, that was where I was supposed to be.
After that night the Buoyers and I became good friends. I learned that Georges had, before the war, been an electrical engineer and later an officer in the French Army. He had been captured and spent some time in a German POW camp where he contracted tuberculosis.
After the war, Georges became a member of the French Army of occupation and was stationed in Germany from where my last belated correspondence was returned unopened and marked décédé (deceased). I’ve inquired about them, at their former address during later visits to Paris. However, having learned nothing, I’ve always wondered what became of them.
Mel Corren was born in Stockton in 1924, attended local schools, served in Europe during World War II, and after returning home joined his family’s furniture business, M. Corren and Sons. In 1961 he and his brother Hillard opened The Brothers, a home furnishing/design studio, which ran until they both retired in 2000. Mel, his wife Harriet, their two sons, two grandchildren, along with their respective mates, make up their far-flung family. His literary accomplishments are the memoirs “I’ve Live It, I’ve Loved It” and “Schoolboy, Soldier Boy”, both on Amazon, as well as a collection of short stories. At 96, he remains active in civic affairs, including his ongoing advocacy for the revitalization of Stockton’s historic downtown district. Mel was honored as Stocktonian of the Year for 2015.
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