Bang! Bang! Bang!With shaking hands, Madame Balbis unlocked the metal door to the walled garden of the house she shared with her husband, daughter and two grandchildren. A French policeman and two German soldiers strode past her into the kitchen where Monsieur Balbis and his daughter Gabrielle stood in their dressing gowns.
“We want Madame Coakley!” barked one soldier, “and her children. In two hours, we fetch you.”
‘My grandchildren can’t go with you,’ Balbis said. ‘They’re school girls. Take me.’
‘Nein! It must be Madame Coakley.’
‘Please, don’t try to escape,’ pleaded the policeman left to guard them. “If you do, they’ll take me.’
Not two hours but several hours later, a bus arrived to collect them. ‘Hold your heads high!’ Mme Balbis instructed them. ‘You’ve done nothing wrong! Don’t cry! Don’t show emotion!’
They spent the evening in an icy bus rounding up people and ending up on a side track of the Versailles train station. Packed into a sweltering, unlit wooden train compartment, the Coakleys trod on people in the aisles before finding a bench. Patrolling soldiers slammed shut the doors the passengers had opened to let out the heat. All night they travelled, hot, thirsty and hungry until six a.m. when they arrived in…Versailles!
Mid morning, the train departed a second time then stopped on a side track at Saint Georges, while military trains rolled by. People begged the railway workers for water and to mail notes to their families. Not knowing where they were going, with no access to food, water or toilets the train travelled four nights and days before they arrived at three a.m. on December 10, 1940 in Besançon.
“Raus! Raus!” the Germans pushed everyone onto a truck which made repeated trips to Frontstalag 142, (a former barracks) and dumped them in huge rooms with straw mats covering the damp concrete floors. Left to scrounge for food, they found discarded tin cans, in which they melted snow on the stove in their quarters—that was their first meal. At nine, with lights out, they lay on bug-infested pallets till breakfast, while rats scuttled over them.
Breakfast— roasted acorn coffee and bread.
Lunch–a tin plate with lard smeared on it, a watery soup with something floating in it and more ‘coffee’.
After lunch, coarse grey army blankets were doled out, which they held spread to catch straw-like mouldy black bread, thrown from a window. In their ‘room’, they scraped off the mould and made ‘toast’.
Dinner—some kind of ‘jam’ and a spoonful of lard that many threw away. For this ungrateful behaviour the water was cut for three days–thus back to melted snow. (Later, they peeled potatoes for the soldiers but received none themselves.)
People got dysentery; those too sick to get to the toilets, a hole in the ground four stories down, outside and across the courtyard, left excrement on the stairs and everywhere else.
After fifteen days (without a bath or change of clothes) Lillian caught chicken pox, forcing the Coakleys to spend Christmas alone in an infirmary room meant for ten people. It wasn’t such a hardship since they had real beds and a bath. The German camp doctor, (there was also a Polish POW doctor) tried to extend their respite. At Christmas, a POW soldier left two newsprint paper dolls on the girls’ beds. Also an open truck appeared with a news camera mounted and rolling to record the Germans offering the children oranges—but they refused them.
The prisoners organized a Christmas show about life in a POW camp. The camp commandant and officers attended, applauded and laughed at times but walked out when everyone sang La Marseillaise.
In March, when women with children were allowed to leave, they were taken to the train station where they saw trains full of wounded German soldiers, bandaged like the mummies.
In Dijon, they received a Red Cross a package and changed trains for La Gare de Lyons but arrived during the curfew which forced them to overnight on a table provided by the Salvation Army, who also gave Gabrielle money to take the train home. Arriving unannounced, the Balbis fell back in shock but that night the Coakleys slept in beds, with pillows and sheets!
GabrielleUnder house arrest, Gabrielle signed an act of presence daily in the Sèvres police station, an hour’s walk each way. Hearing from all sides that she’d be caught and re-interned, Gabrielle revisited Monsieur Cassé. This time he put her in touch with the police inspector in Chaville who provided her with a contact in Paris who organized another escape. He also confiscated all her ID and her camp release papers, so as not to compromise her should they be found on her. This meant travelling with her father using old ID papers under her maiden name. Now the whole family was on the run. No one could be left behind as hostage or punishment.
To avoid the family being caught together, Mme Balbis, Margaret and Lillian left first for Nevers. There, Mme Balbis applied for a permit to cross the Line of Demarcation, with a letter stating her daughter was desperately ill in the unoccupied zone. The German officer refused her permission because, he explained, she had to apply in Paris, from whence she came; thus grandmother and grandchildren went to a local hotel and waited till the Resistance contacted them.
Two teachers, a man and a woman, who crossed the Line of Demarcation daily, to teach, had a special permit. The girls pretended to be their children and were dropped off on the other side in Sançoin with two sisters (relatives of the man in Paris), where they waited for their grandmother to join them. Days later, after a secretive, perilous crossing Mme Balbis joined her grandchildren, rested a few days, then travelled to Nice where her daughter, Ghislaine was living with her husband and two sons.
Read the second part of Lillian, Gabrielle and Margaret’s account at “To the ship…”