Étienne is one of my oldest friends, not that I have known him for so long, but because, literally, at age 74, he is among my oldest friends. I had known this French geneticist for years before I had the courage to ask him the question, “So, if you’re about 40 years older than me, does that mean that you remember the war?”
“I do have a few recollections from WWII, not tragic ones, my family and myself didn’t go through particularly tragic moments, especially, of course, as seen through a child’s eyes…” said Étienne. “I do remember German soldiers playing with my little sister’s pram, sitting in it and launching themselves down an incline,” he said. “And I remember, really remember, not because people told me about it, the liberation of Paris, the noise of tanks driving through our street, the hurried cutting of a few flowers in our garden and the rough, unshaven cheek of a solider I was kissing on the tank on which I had been hoisted — these were French tanks from the “Division Leclerc”, as the Allies had gracefully allowed them to come in first. Of course I wasn’t aware of all the awful things that were taking place.”
I share these stories of Étienne’s because they remind me of my wife’s grandmother’s story about the March 1949 deportations. The Laanemaa (nee Landmann) family was on Stalin’s shit list for a number of reasons. One: Martin, the father, had served in the Estonian War of Independence. Two: Martin, the father, had been a member of Omakaitse, the Estonian national guard, both before the war and during the German occupation. Three: the Laanemaa family was wealthier than average. Because of this, Martin had already been deported in 1948. In 1949, they came for his wife and two daughters. The eldest, Salme, was arrested and sent to Siberia. The mother, Anna, and her younger daughter, Laine, hid in the forest and managed to escape deportation. They made an attempt to return to the village (on the west coast of Estonia), but decided against it when they saw other villagers walking around wearing their clothes. Their house had apparently been looted.
That is the kind of detail you can only get from talking to your older relatives. We know so much about what happened in occupied Paris, but who can now forget the image of two young German soldiers stealing a little girl’s carriage and taking turns riding it down a hill? Likewise, who can now forget — for I surely can’t — the image of a woman and her teenage daughter, who had been living in the forests in March, peeking out from behind some bushes only to see a neighbor walk by wearing one of their coats? So, if you get a chance, talk to your older friends and relatives about their memories of certain events. You may be surprised by what you hear.