C’est La Guerre

Harrison Columnist recalls the end of the Second World War

If it would not have been for a friend reminding me that 70 years ago this past April the Second World War had come to an end, it might have slipped my mind.  How could it, seeing that it was the most traumatic time of my life?

During the war, my family and I were living in Colmar, a beautiful city in Alsace. We were there because my parents had contracts with the “Theater de Colmar”, my father as the director of the orchestra, my mother as an actress and singer.

War was largely witnessed from the sidelines and life was relatively good until the year 1944. All this, however, came to an end during an evening in the fall with a big bang, literally! I was sitting in my parents’ bedroom talking to my mother, when a big explosion nearby shattered the window behind me and a large pile of broken glass and splinters landed near my chair. Luckily nobody in the room was hurt, especially since we later learned that a train filled with bombs and ammunition had exploded at the nearby train station.

Rumours had been about for some time that one of the last battles of the War was to take place in Colmar and we thought that some serious planning was in order.

The next day the theater decided to move all the music instruments and other things they owned to Freiburg across the river and asked my father to go along to oversee the transaction. He accepted and my brother went with him. My mother as well as my sister and I were to stay with my aunt in Sigolsheim, a nearby village mainly known for its excellent wine, until we all could return to Colmar.

Ironically, the last confrontation over Alsace did not take place in Colmar but in Sigolsheim which was totally destroyed while Colmar was left in peace. Ironically, too, the theater lost all its belongings due to bombing, but luckily my father and brother survived. It was a lesson that one cannot plan during the war, especially not as a civilian!

But back to Sigolsheim, where the military gathered and the civilians started to move food and themselves to the Monastery up on the mountains. What was left in the village was the military and us: my mother, sister, myself and a cousin who was there from Paris, also thinking that Sigolsheim was safe. The big question was what to do? The answer presented itself in the form of some rather dilapidated trucks plus several soldiers who, still recovering from various injuries, were supposed to bring the vehicles, themselves and us across the river and on to Freiburg. It was a daring escape, not only because the bridge was under fire, but also because only some of the trucks were in working condition and good enough to pull the others along.

My mother and sister were put into one of the “working” trucks because it had a window in the driver’s compartment that would shield them from snow and rain. My cousin and I were assigned to the second truck which had no windshield, no motor, only a handbrake and was pulled by an axel at first, a rope later when, in all the excitement, the axel was bent. Several times while coming closer to the bridge, we all had to get out and seek shelter wherever we could find it, since not only the bridge but also its surroundings were under fire.

Finally we made it to the other side where, however, the situation turned out to be even more dangerous than before. Not only was the slope leading up to the road under fire, but also the road itself. Grenades were hitting the ground before and beside us and an ambulance standing in the middle of it all added to the eery sight. The rope pulling our truck broke and we rolled backwards until stopped by a large tree. Eventually, though, we made it to the relative safety of a nearby village up on the hill. We certainly had been as close to a battlefield as we ever wanted to be!

Remembering this night seems like remembering a bad dream, nothing made sense anymore. Perhaps I said something like this to our driver or he thought so himself, because at one time he looked at me and, using a phrase he borrowed from the French, said: “C’est la Guerre, c’est la guerre (It’s the war)” and shook his head!

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