September 27
Friday, February 12, 2010 at 10:11AM
Katherine Douglass in Couthenans, Etobon, Franche-Comté, Living in France, working in France

 Every September 27, the people of Etobon and the surrounding villages in this far eastern corner of France gather to remember what happened that day in 1944. The 60th anniversary in 2004 drew a larger crowd that in recent years, but the ceremony was the same:  prayer, the French national anthem, called the Marseillaise, and a poem read by schoolchildren. The centerpiece is the reading of the names, each followed by, “Mort pour la France,” “Died for France.”

      Each time the people of the villages gather for this ceremony, they are prepared for any weather. Sometimes September 27 is warm and sunny, sometimes cold and damp, sometimes pouring rain. Not far from Etobon, in Couthenans, the village where I was assigned to live, by mid-September the heat in the parsonage was already becoming a concern. The days had become cloudy, damp and drizzly. My colleague Pascal had told me one rainy morning, “welcome to winter in the Franche-Comté.” And when I asked if it would rain the entire winter, he said, “I hope there’ll be some snow.” The clouds, drizzle and cool temperature meant that I always felt just a bit chilled, and began to add a camisole underneath or a cardigan on top, and often both.

Update on Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 10:28AM by Registered CommenterKatherine Douglass

My Home in Couthenans      

      I still had so much to learn, about the history, the people, even about the parsonage I had been assigned to. Built in 1762 for the express use of the pastor of Couthenans by Prince Frédéric of Wurtemburg, it was solid and foursquare, built entirely of stone. At some point in the past the stone had been overlain with stucco, but the stucco had long since become discolored and worn away in huge patches, exposing the gray and pink granite. There had once been wooden shutters to close over the windows and door, but those too had vanished and been replaced by metal blinds that could be raised and lowered from the inside. They were functional for maintaining that privacy that the French crave, but hardly beautiful.  What did remain of the 18th century house were some of the casement windows, complete with bubbly, wavy glass and filigreed hardware. The living-dining room had once been elegant, with carved wainscoting covered with layers of paint put on over the centuries. The 18-inch thick stone walls of the old place kept the world out.

My home, the parsonage in Couthenans

Those stone walls could hold damp and cold just as well in the winter as they did in the summer. And because my house had been vacant for so long before I moved in, the parish treasurer had decided only to buy the minimum amount of heating fuel, just enough to keep the pipes from freezing. So, at the end of September, faced with a cold and damp autumn and an even colder and damper winter, the fuel tanks were almost empty. I had a new challenge:  how to deal with the purchase, scheduling, and delivery of the fuel, and then how to work the heating system. The parsonage heat was hot water with ancient radiators in each room, except for the bathroom, which was always cold. The fuel was stored in huge tanks below the kitchen. The cap of one of them had been broken or misplaced, so it was sealed with a plastic bag and a brick. The house was scented with fuel oil all winter.

     When I couldn’t put it off any longer, on Thursday, September 22, I got up enough courage to call the treasurer, Marcelle, and try to explain the situation. The fuel tanks were almost empty. I needed fuel. So far, so good. But when she asked, “how much?” I had no idea. She thought she remembered that we usually ordered 3000 liters, so we went with that. She said she’d call the fuel company with the order. Order. Commande. Il faut commander. We have to order. Another word added to my vocabulary.

     Marcelle called back about twenty minutes later. The sound of the phone ringing always set me on edge. It wasn’t the strange burbling sound that filled me with dread so much as what would be said when I answered. To decipher accents, inflections, even words, without being able to see a face was so hard at first. More than once, someone would call and speak so quickly that I couldn’t understand at all. Once, a man called and spoke so rapidly that all I could say was, “Comment?” “Huh?” After the third try, he just hung up. He probably thought he had called the village idiot instead of the village pastor.

So, when Marcelle called back, after the initial wave of dread at answering the phone, I understood that the fuel couldn’t be delivered until Tuesday. Tuesday, September 27, the day of the mysterious “ceremony” at Etobon. I knew I couldn’t stay home waiting for the fuel man to come on that particular afternoon. I had to be at Etobon, playing my part (whatever that was), representing the villages of the parish, representing the Americans. All I could do was pray the fuel wouldn’t show up until I returned.

September 27, 2004 was gray. It was cold enough to wear a sweater under my thin raincoat, and to wrap my pink scarf around my neck. My French colleague Jean-Jacques picked me up at the parsonage after lunch and we drove to Etobon. He and I shared the responsibility of the enormous parish of Mont-Vaudois. We watched over 12 church buildings and more than 1200 families, sharing the work of preaching, teaching, administration and conducting baptisms, weddings and funerals. We had official duties too, including an invitation to represent the parish and all its villages at the ceremony at Etobon. But I was clueless. I knew something had happened there in September 1944, that the Germans had shot village men, but I had no idea why. I didn’t even know what to expect from the ceremony.

Update on Sunday, February 14, 2010 at 3:50PM by Registered CommenterKatherine Douglass

The Ceremony      

  My first clue that there was something dark at the heart of my parish came just a few weeks after I had arrived. Something had happened on the side of the church at Chenebier, something awful, that I barely understood. The ceremony at Etobon was related to that mystery, and I hoped that I would learn more that afternoon. 

Whatever I did expect from the ceremony, it wasn’t the crowd, the soldiers in uniform, flags, firemen in their chrome helmets, elders in suits and dresses with their medals pinned on their chests. There were so many cars parked on the main street that we had to park outside the village center. Etobon is so small that it is an exaggeration to call the wide place in the road in front of the church a “center,” but that is where the important buildings are:  church, parsonage, town hall and school, all grouped together.

That afternoon, there was a large crowd of people standing in the street in the center of Etobon.  There were some familiar faces from the parish:  Claude and Michel from nearby Chenebier, a few others that I could recognize by sight. There were many more I didn’t know. Claude introduced me to M. Roth, a distinguished veteran with his medals displayed on his suit coat. I met Jean-François Nardin, the regional lay president of the Lutheran Church. And there was my colleague Thierry Ziegler, from the neighboring parish of Lure-Luxeuil-Clairegoutte.  I would soon learn why he was there that day. People stood in small groups and chatted. Jean-François asked how the weather compared to the weather in “Pennsylvanie.” I tried to listen more than speak, because that’s the way to learn a language and a culture. You can learn the truth that way.

The crowd, which had now swallowed us up, formed a more or less cohesive whole and set off walking at two o’clock, behind the flags and the dignitaries:  local politicians, pastor and people of the village. Thierry Ziegler was the official voice of the church that day, dressed in his black robes and white tab collar. He was the pastor of Etobon at that time, although we later reconfigured his parish and ours so that I held that post. I didn’t realize at the time that he had an even deeper connection to the village and the ceremony.

            We walked along the narrow road together up Le Cornet towards Chenebier. The blue and white enamel road sign on the side of a barn at the corner read “Rue du 27 Septembre” September 27 Street. My curiosity grew. What had happened that day?

       After slowly walking along the Rue du 27 Septembre for about a mile, the whole crowd stopped. On one side of the road was an enormous wooden cross. Following the leaders of the group, Jean-Jacques and I climbed a set of stone steps on the left side of the road. There were so many people crowding the space at the top of the steps that I couldn’t see what was going on, and I couldn’t really tell what the space looked like. I only knew that there were small white crosses fixed to the stone wall that surrounded the space, and that we were standing next to the village cemetery. A few people stayed on the other side of the road, beneath the wooden cross. I tried to get as close as I could, but that was still about three steps down from the main gatherine. I twisted and turned and tried to see what was going on, but so many people blocked my view.

Update on Monday, February 15, 2010 at 11:14AM by Registered CommenterKatherine Douglass

 Mort pour la France

When everyone had settled into their places, something strange happened. There was silence. That is such a rare occurrence when French people are gathered together that it was remarkable. A few moments later, a voice came over the loudspeaker announcing the beginning of the ceremony. Someone read a proclamation. A song, unintelligible to me, was played over the speaker. I later learned it was a favorite hymn of the resistance, the maquis, during World War II. There was a group of schoolchildren, most likely the elementary class from the village. One of them read a poem, again unintelligible. The Marseillaise, the French national anthem, was played. The defiant words of that hymn I knew:

Aux armes, citoyens, Formez vos bataillons,

Marchons, marchons !

Qu'un sang impur abreuve nos sillons ! 

To arms, countrymen, form your battle lines,

Let’s march, let’s march!

So that their impure blood will soak our fields!

Adopted by French revolutionaries soon after its composition in 1792, the Marseillaise is a call to arms to defend the country against those who would defile it. The more I learned of Etobon, the more poignant the words of the Marseillaise became to me.

            After the Marseillaise was played, Thierry was called to the microphone to pray and give a brief speech. His prayer and his remarks were moving. He spoke of faith, of life, being like an island in the ocean, how we only see what is above the surface. The true foundations remain hidden to others. And so it is with grief – others only see what we choose to show them, or what we cannot hide. Most of it remains below the surface. This ceremony was the part of its grief that the people of Etobon chose to reveal to the world.

            The music, the proclamations, the speeches over, the heart of the ceremony began. One by one, a man read names. After each name he said, “Mort pour la France,” the highest honor a soldier can achieve, to die for his country. One after another, on and on the names went. Several of the same family names were read and many of them were family names I had heard in the parish. Nardin, Surleau, Pochard, Goux, Croissant, Large, Bouteiller, Perret, all names I recognized. What had happened here, why had the families of the parish been struck down?

Whatever it was, I was going to find out. On the walk back to the village, I asked Jean-Jacques. What had they done? In his laconic way, he said simply, “they were resistance.” But there were lots of resistance, surely. Why had these people been singled out? Why was what happened to them so important that they had this ceremony every year, that they had named a street after this day?

He clearly didn’t know. Apparently, even after serving several years there, he had not taken the time to ask, to find the answers to the questions that had begun to haunt me. This village, this tragedy, might hold the key to understanding the people that I now served. In their reserved and quiet way, they must have courage that I couldn’t imagine. Unless I knew the truth of what happened on September 27, 1944, I doubted I would ever know the people of my parish.

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