For a few weeks now, Austria has chaired the Council of the European Union, leading its works. Even if I still wonder about the efficiency of this European mechanic, I like to rediscover with this six-month rotation of the Member States, our partners in the European project.
I discovered Austria at thirteen. At this age, I was still quite small (I grew up later). I was a pretty good kid, quite funny to what I’ve always been told, even though I do not remember very well.
After primary school, good pupils were learning German as first language and Latin. My first German teacher was so scary that we had become convinced that he had ordered an extermination camp in his youth. It was of course totally unfounded. The following years, I had in this discipline more jovial teachers: old Alsatian parish priests a little blotchy who taught us a German strongly masters of Alsatian patois. Charles, my great grandfather, Helen my grandmother spoke fluently German. At the beginning of the 20th century, German was seen as the language of culture, thought, music. And on the top of that, they were living in Belfort … the city of Alsatians and Moslems exiles!
In the summer of ’75, after a couple of years of “German first language”, we left Belfort in three Renault vans to go to the discovery of Bavaria, Austria, and what was then called Czechoslovakia. We were probably 6 or 8 boys per van, which was to make a group of about 25, counting our escorts. These were high school teachers, former teachers of my brothers actually, what was impressing me a lot: Mr. Couturier, professor of physics who obviously deserved the Nobel as he seemed to master so complicated concepts. Mr. Carrie, professor of natural sciences, an ecologist before it became cool, all astonished at the respect I deserved him while he had been constrained to ask my elder brother not to attend his class. He was taking pictures of pollution from the Czech factories “to testify when we would be back” he said, so much so we were being held up for a whole evening by the political police. Father Boisselier too, always very excited at the idea of celebrating clandestine masses with Czech dissidents, which was actually risky only for the latter …
After the amazed discovery of Lindau on the Lake of Constance, the Bavarian highways to Munich, the castles of Louis II, my discovery of Salzburg and Vienna, I remember the endless passage of what was called at the time – all this seems so far away – the “iron curtain”.
At the arrival in the sinister city of Plzen, to the sound of loudspeakers broadcasting in loop the communist hymns, under a dizzying heat, I dipped the teeth in the first watermelon of my life … an unforgettable “Madeleine de Proust”! The next day, I was selling my hat to be able to buy for my Mom a vase in Bohemian crystal, very modern, but – I believe – tasteful. And then Prague, full of Soviet soldiers, and Bratislava.
Nights in boarding schools, in tents, at home, under the stars …
Back home, helped by the logbook that I had scrupulously kept, today unfortunately lost, I told in detail my entire trip to my parents.
It was only after their disappearance, already far away, that I discovered that I had unknowingly traced the route my father had made in 1945. In a mail dating from the late 1940s to Mom, my father once confided that the most beautiful sight he had ever seen was a sunrise from the mountains overlooking the Arlberg Pass in the Austrian Alps. It was early May 1945, and in a few weeks, his involvement in the French 1st Army had led him from Colmar to these high Austrian valleys.
When her friend Simone Aubustin returned from Buchenwald, around the same time, it was precisely at the Lake of Constance that she definitely regained her freedom. In her letters, she implored my father, his friend, “not to leave a single SS alive” … Perhaps this is the explanation of his silence. In his library, he kept a copy of “Mein Kampf”, dedicated to a high Nazi dignitary. He had recovered him next to the body of a SS killed there, on the side of the eagle’s nest …
And today, I found in my library a book kept from him, telling under the pen of Maréchal de Lattre, the adventure of the French 1st Army, traditionally called in France “Rhin et Danube”.
Of all this, he never said anything to me, not even that day where it would have been so easy. Was it so violent? According to the few letters I have kept of him, I understand that this enlistment constituted in his mind the logical continuation of his Scout commitment. Nothing but ordinary heroism, in a way, before defending later the idea of Europe as a citizen, as a matter of course.
Iconography: Summer readings in Drôme, France, August 12, 2018 (personal collection).