Southern Touraine plays a special role in the story of the Occupation in the Second World War, because it was at the frontier between Nazi-occupied France and the so-called “zone libre”, and there was a great deal of resistance movement across that border, the infamous “ligne de démarcation”. The country roads around here are dotted with memorials to freedom fighters shot dead by the Nazis.
The historian Christophe Meunier took us on a fascinating trip around Genillé (which was initially in the free zone) to view sites connected with the war, and speak – in particular – to the owner of the Château de Rassay (photo above), who remembered this period well from his childhood. In the grounds of his château, a military camp was built to control the frontier posts and when, on 10 November 1942, the Wehrmacht invaded the free zone, the camp was deserted. However, from June 1945 it received 432 Polish workmen who had been deported by the Germans to help build the Atlantic Wall. A couple of buildings from this camp remain, along with a concrete water tower, and the owner told us how the Polish were disliked, because they managed to get their hands on goods that the French could not, and re-sell them at inflated prices – this at a time when rationing continued until 1949.
We saw the Villa du Breuil, where the mayor under the occupation, Georges Giraud, lived. He was appointed because of his sympathies with Pétain, but was put into great difficulty when he came under increasing Gestapo supervision. Then one night he disappeared, and no one knew where he had gone, not even his wife who was known to have a loose tongue. As they said “To a woman, a secret is a piece of information that you only divulge to one person at a time” – a comment that the ladies in our group found hard to stomach. We then visited La Thibaudière, a neo-gothic gentilhommière which was where Giraud sat out the war in secret, hidden by a friend.
The owner of the Rassay château said that his father had met Pétain in Vichy during the war and he was scarcely lucid, well into his 80s – a forlorn relic of the hero days, as victor of the Battle of Verdun.
The Château de la Bourdillère in Genillé was occupied by two famous actors, Claude Dauphin and Rosine Deréan, the latter a movie star of the day. Both hated the Nazis. Claude took off on a British submarine for England, while Rosine became a resistance fighter, secretly accommodating British parachutists who were picked up in the area. She was denounced and went to Ravensbrück Camp. She survived the war and returned to Genillé, but found it difficult to get back into the film world. She died in Genillé in 2001.
The little details of rural life at this time were interesting. Under the occupation, country dances were forbidden, but they continued privately, in isolated farms. Our Rassay man’s mother cycled in to Loches to shop, and had to cross a resistance barrier on the road on her way there. On her return trip, she took a different route to avoid the barrier, only to come across a German barrier on another road, not even a mile away. Your bike, apparently, had to be watched with eagle eyes, since bike tyres and inner tubes were a precious commodity. As for petrol, it was virtually non-existent.
As Christophe Meunier pointed out, one subject that – even today – is scarcely mentioned is collaboration. However, he managed to find a couple of resistance fighters to talk to his students, and they recalled how a local shopkeeper had been shot at the end of the war as a collaborator. I also heard that a farmhouse in the area still will not sell today because it was home to a couple of collaborators in the war. The suspicion and secrecy that must have reigned in all households at the time must have left a deep impression on the national psyche.
We learned that the resistance groups were organised almost like trade guilds – one that was made up mostly of actors and writers, another that was devoted entirely to gaining information, and so on. And when France was occupied, for four days – 10 to 14 June 1940 – Tours was the capital of France, with the head of the government, Paul Reynaud, living at the château de Chissay.
When I first came to Touraine in the late 70s, the elders of my village were full of tales of this period, and in particular of perilous journeys across the ligne de démarcation, helping British parachutists to get into Free France by concealing them under piles of potatoes in a cart, for example. Many of those people are now gone, but one can only imagine the tensions of everyday life in a small village like Genillé when you have an active resistance group living alongside the “milice” – one’s former friends and neighbours – those Frenchmen who swore allegiance to the occupying power, or at least to Vichy.
When I think of this period, I think of Louis Malle’s brilliant 1974 film, Lacombe Lucien, the story of a boy who is snubbed in his attempts to join the resistance and joins instead the French Gestapo – wielding terrible power over his elders and betters because of his hatred for those who had spurned him and his inchoate passion for the daughter of a Jewish tailor who, under ordinary circumstances, would have been unattainable to him in every way. The film is all the more poignant in that the darkly farouche actor who plays Lucien, Pierre Blaise, died aged 20, along with all his passenger friends, in an accident at the wheel of the car that he bought with the money he made from the film.