November 01, 2015
By Albert Garih
In the summer of 1944, I was in hiding in a Catholic boarding school in Montfermeil, a Paris suburb made famous by the episode in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables where Jean Valjean meets Cosette, sent by the Thénardiers to fetch water in the woods. I was about the age of Cosette when I was there, hidden in that school. My sisters and I had been sent to Montfermeil after two police inspectors had come to our home to take us away. For a reason I am still pondering (it was just about D Day, so did they think that their side was losing the war, or were they just decent people?) they decided to let us go, but we had to leave our apartment and once again, we had to go into hiding.
This is how my sisters and I ended up in those schools, while my father was in a slave labor camp in the Channel Island of Alderney, and my mother was working as a governess with a family of eight or ten children near l’École militaire, opposite the Eiffel Tower. It was a hot summer, and we were not working very hard in that school, spending most of the time in the schoolyard playing. When there was an air raid, the sirens would go blasting to warn us, and we would go down to the shelters under the school. Once, we had such an alert while we were out in the woods—presumably the same woods where Jean Valjean met Cosette—and we had to go back quickly to our school, not too far away. The next day, we heard that a bomb had fallen in the clearing where we had been playing, making a deep hole in the ground.
After these raids, one of our favorite games was to go up into the yard and pick up the pieces of shrapnel that had fallen there. They were just lying there on the ground for us to pick up. I had a whole collection of them, which I brought back with me when my mother came to bring me home. I remember one piece in particular, a fragment of a shell jagged like one of those crinkled French fries, only a little bigger (about two inches long) and a lot heavier, as it was made out of heavy metal (cast iron?).
By chance, we were too young to realize what kind of injuries these metal fragments could have inflicted on us, had we been playing in the yard when they were falling. And we didn’t think about the soldiers who were the targets of these projectiles. To us, and certainly to me, a six-year-old boy, they were just toys, and more than that, collector’s items. And I kept them for a while, until my mother, without giving me advance notice, disposed of them by throwing them into the garbage.
Today, when I hear that soldiers have been injured by shrapnel, it brings me back to those days in the summer of 1944, when these pieces of shrapnel were one of my favorite toys.
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