Sunday, February 1, 2009

Dark excursion

It doesn't seem right to describe my drive up onto the Vercors plateau yesterday afternoon as "dark", because the landscape was covered in a thick blanket of snow, making the trees stand out as a throng of black skeletons, and the sky was filled with eerie blue light.

But my excursion was metaphorically gloomy, because I would be revisiting the village of Vassieux, associated with the Vercors martyrs.

As I often do when I visit Vassieux, I halted for a few minutes in the war cemetery, in front of the simple white cross of 12-year-old Arlette Blanc (whose surname means "white" in French), who symbolizes the tragedy that took place on this lunar landscape in July 1944.

When the Nazi occupation started to make life difficult and dangerous in Grenoble, André Blanc sent his wife and their four children up to his aunt's home alongside Vassieux: an isolated place in the mountain wilderness, which appeared to be perfectly safe. Alas, everybody in the family was slaughtered. In the ruins of the farmhouse, Arlette survived in agony for a week, alongside the corpses of her sisters Jacqueline, 7, and Danielle, 4, and their 18-month-old brother Maurice. She was found by Fernand Gagnol, the young village priest. Today, in the war cemetery at Vassieux, there are white crosses for every member of the Blanc family.

On 13 November 1943, Allied aircraft had dropped a small quantity of metal cylinders containing weapons for the Vercors maquisards. Less than a fortnight later, the Gestapo decided to take steps to annihilate the maquisards. In the spring of 1944, the brave maquisards were filled with hope and optimism. As Bastille Day approached, they even proclaimed, pompously and naively, the restoration of the French Republic in the Vercors. Meanwhile, they had started to prepare a landing field alongside Vassieux, to receive the Allied aircraft and supplies they were expecting. But on 21 July 1944, aircraft of a quite different kind landed quietly and unexpectedly at Vassieux: flimsy Nazi gliders crammed with armed storm troopers.

They rapidly slaughtered everybody in the vicinity, and burned down the village of Vassieux.

Today, Vassieux has been rebuilt, and young families—untroubled by the presence of ghosts—are delighted to live in such a calm and starkly splendid rural environment. Be that as it may, the owner of a cozy café where I dropped in yesterday for a beer told me that 95% of her clients, in the summer season, visit Vassieux to reflect upon the martyrs of the Vercors. Every pilgrimage to this place remains, to a large extent, a dark excursion...

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating story, William and tragic of course. Especially so because I have jus been reading further about the Allied campaign following the Normandy invasion on D-day, 6th June 1944.

    It has always been to me, an extraordinary fact that the Nazis had resources to terrorise the population of France, not to mention their industrial slaughter further east whilst they were so sorely pressed elsewhere.

    Finally I wonder was the Allied operation to land the arms betrayed?