Monday, January 16, 2017

Pierre Piton: Boy Scout and Jew smuggler

Pierre Piton was a French teenager who helped about 60 Jewish people escape occupied France in 1942 & 43.

He had grown up in low-income family in Normandy, already working in a factory to help support his family as a young teenager, but education was so important to him that he studied hard in the evenings at the same time. He applied to the Ecole Nouvelle Cévenole, the boarding school begun by pastor Andre Trocmé in Le Chambon, for the school year 1941-1942 and was accepted.

That was, of course, the year Jewish refugees were arriving in waves in Le Chambon, the year that followed the day Magda Trocmé opened her door. Pierre was already a Boy Scout* troop leader and a dormitory "surveillant" (something like an RA), and roughly 16 years old. The town leaders must have picked him out as a young person likely to be able to handle responsibility, and that was something they needed. The movements of young people were much less likely to attract attention. Madame Mireille Philip, wife of a French politician and an organizer in Le Chambon's nascent underground, asked him if he would help.

The first phase of his work was done right in Le Chambon: his job was to meet new arrivals and take them from a temporary, less safe "safehouse" in the center of town out into the snowy wastes of the winter plateau to whichever farmhouse they had been slated to be sheltered in, all under cover of night, pulling their meager belongings behind him on his sled. His written testimony describes their arrival, usually around one o'clock in the morning, the farmers opening the door, beckoning them in quickly to hide, and immediately welcoming them with an array of their best food (often involving pork, and I do wonder about that b/c he made no comment!) and hot soup that had been simmering on the winter fire in readiness. There they would be bedded down in the hayloft, which was the actual attic of these houses that were shared with farm animals (barn and house separated by a simple inner wall, so that the whole household could hibernate together through the harsh plateau winter), burrowed into a long tunnel in the hay, well hidden. Then he would sled back down into town as fast as he could, taking care not to be seen when he entered the town, sleep two hours, and return at dawn to his dormitory duties, pretending he hadn't been anywhere that night. After passage into Switzerland had been arranged for the refugees he would come back for them using the same method.

Near the end of 1942 he was asked by Madame Philip to take on a new job: "passeur," or people-smuggler. One of the other passeurs (he never knew how many there were nor what other routes there were besides his own) had been compromised and had to quit, and a replacement was needed. He was 17 at this point and would do his work in a Boy Scout uniform, a way to stand out while throwing off suspicion. Most of the people he was guiding spoke no French; they got their instructions before the trip from someone who could translate, and were told to follow him the whole way at a slight distance, make no eye contact with anyone on the trip, and pretend to sleep whenever possible. The Scout uniform of course made him easy to spot. With his method he would lead them on a long train trip with two overnight stops in safe-houses, never actually interacting with them except when he passed them their train tickets. When they got to their destination, a little town on the Swiss border, they would hide in the attic of a priest's house until dark and at the signal that the patrol had passed, Pierre would lead them out (no longer in uniform) to a spot where they could crawl under the barbed wire to freedom. "The worse the weather," he says, "the more luck was with us." Once his charges were safely through he would hide in the ditch till the next patrol passed and go back.

His career as a passeur ended one night when the patrol came too early. Two refugees out of three were already through--he could see they were just barely on official Swiss soil past no-man's-land--and he shouted at them "Go on, go on!" But the third, a German nurse, was still halfway under the barbed wire. She and Pierre were arrested.

They were interrogated all night, but without torture. He claimed she was a chance-met stranger he had offered to help. They were lucky; this zone of France at the time was occupied not by the German army but the Italians, who were much more lenient and had no particular wish to persecute the Jews. After three weeks in a makeshift jail he was released--he thinks because of his young age--and the nurse too, for less clear reasons.

Then, due to what he calls--well, I suppose I'd translate it as "teenage cluelessness"--he decided to turn around and simply try again. She had to get to Switzerland, after all. Bad call. The second bad call: despite the constant instruction "If you are arrested, you don't know your passeur," the nurse, when she was picked up by police, claimed Pierre as a witness that she wasn't Jewish. It didn't work. It just got him arrested too.

Incredibly, not only Pierre but also the nurse still made it through. As Pierre was being taken off the train in handcuffs, he made sure that the pastor who was waiting to meet him saw him and saw what was happening. The pastor contacted a Catholic ally who apparently had some political pull. This man went straight to the police and somehow--I don't know how--got both of them released.

Pierre was of course extremely compromised at this point; he went straight back to Le Chambon and was pulled out of his passeur role. He went on to become an organizer in the Maquis, the guerilla wing of the Resistance, in the countryside around Le Chambon.

I'm grateful to Pierre for his written testimony, which I read in a book called Témoignages de Résistants (Resisters' Testimonies); thanks to the wealth of detail he offered I learned exactly how a passage into Switzerland worked (I haven't given you most of the details here, but they are in the novel), and also the hidden role of Pastor Edouard Théis, the assistant pastor whom my main character's father is based on. (He was the other logistical organizer of underground activities besides Madame Philip.)

I've based a character on Pierre, though with many changes.

* Not the actual organization that goes by the name Boy Scouts in the U.S. of course, but one of the French equivalents of the time. There was more than one because, interestingly, they were religiously affiliated: there were Catholic scouts, Protestant scouts, and Jewish scouts.

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