Sunday, February 12, 2017

The border people: refugee-smugglers of WWII and today

In French they're known as passeurs. People who "pass" others from one country into another. I've been studying them for the novel I'm working on, A Flame in the Night. Like I mentioned last week, the story starts in 1942, which is when the roundups started in France. People need to flee the country; people you've met, if you read the first two books. Julien's best friend Benjamin. Magali's kids at the Les Chenes children's home, especially troubled and troublesome Marek. And also people you haven't met yet. Many eyes turn eastward for hope, to Switzerland.

It's the time of the passeurs.

For my research, my mother sent me a video, a little low-budget documentary of reminiscences about "les passeurs du Risoud," a group of smugglers in the Jura mountains, the smaller, older mountains north of the Alps. The people in this video struck me--their youth, their sense of adventure, their lively cross-border friendships with each other. Of the group of people described, half lived in France, half in Switzerland--and it's hard to keep them straight. Jean-Francois' career started when he went down from Switzerland into Occupied France just for an adventure ("You're crazy," said the friend he tried to bring along,) made a friend there, and promised to come back. For Bernard it was more serious: food was running out in France after the invasion, so he snuck into Switzerland and asked the woodcutters he met in the forest whether there was anything to spare here. They brought him to a store and filled his knapsack with bread, asking nothing for it. There were young women on both sides of the line as well--Victoria and Anne-Marie, whose mother "kept open house--people were always ending up there"--and Georgette, Jean-Francois' sister, a friendly, open young woman who was once arrested because a German patrol found her skis propped beside Victoria's door a tad suspicious, but released when the Swiss managed to convince them she was harmless.

Some of them smuggled food and tobacco for barter. For some of them, that was a cover; they also carried information for the Swiss intelligence service. All of them smuggled Jews--anyone who asked. And people came and asked pretty regularly. Word got around: ask so-and-so. They'll help.

And they helped.

Here are Georgette and her brother, and I think possibly Bernard:

I based three characters on them. It started with the woman in the center, because her uninhibited laughter was so striking to me--but looking at this again today I find I can name them all by sight! From the left: Maurice and Jeannette Berger--brother and sister--and their friend Clément.

I set the fictional Bergers and their friends in the Alps instead of the Jura, because it made more sense in my story. And I won't tell you what they did in the story--that would truly be a spoiler. It was a true pleasure writing about the Alps, which I was lucky enough to live near as a child. It came back so vividly. I could smell the pine and woodsmoke and the thin mountain air. I could remember seeing for miles, the world laid out before me in its hugeness, its vast slopes and valleys, green pasture and rock, pine and snow, the far slopes blue with distance. The small cold streams running over rocks, the air so clear you could hear them long before you saw them. And the houses, too, pine beams and walls that are stone outside, white plaster inside, and rough; comfort is seen differently, comfort is a good fire in the woodstove or the wide stone fireplace and thick walls against the cold. I thought of alpine homes like those--ones I'd seen in the video, and ones I'd slept in a night or two as a girl--when I described the Berger's home, where their mother also holds "open house" for those who need it.

And then the other day I saw this picture on a French news website, and it reminded me of the Bergers' house so sharply I could smell it:

Which is strange, because it's not actually in the Alps.

Or maybe not so strange. Because it's the open house of a passeur.

It's been in the French news recently: the people of the Roya river valley, a river that runs down from France into Italy, are smuggling migrants. Cédric Herrou, a Roya valley farmer turned passeur, recently went on trial for his activities and was given a suspended fine of 3000 euros, a light sentence seen as sympathetic to his cause. He must pass people into France, he says, because Italy currently has no provisions for welcoming refugees who are minors. "The Roya valley represents a human Europe," he says, and makes no distinction between its French northern half in France and its southern half in Italy, "because the Roya valley, that's our home."

(Before I accidentally mislead you, that's not Herrou's house. It's the house of one of his allies, a lawyer who regularly hosts over a dozen refugees or migrants at a time. She and Herrou are featured in this photo essay, which is in French but worth viewing just for the pictures. I'd like to translate one caption for you: in the photo with the priest in white, he's comforting a man who's just learned that his wife has died in a shipwreck in the Mediterranean.)

This got me thinking, because it was said about my World War II passeurs as well. They knew and loved their mountains; that was their home. "Look at the houses on either side of the border," a local says in the video, "they look exactly the same, the slates, the shutters; it's the same civilization." I've been told this before about people who live near borders; the ones who are most familiar with borders regard them least. They live within sight of places they're not allowed to go, though they resemble their own home in many or most ways; they meet people from the other side and find they are not so different either--languages and cultures mingle, on a border. And yet the difference is a huge one: rights. I was born in this house; I have a right to free healthcare. You were born in that house; if you disappear, no government will care.

I can see how living with that in your face every day would make you rebel.

I'll be honest here. I would like to make a cogent moral argument about this. I would like to research the places the people in that picture came from and what is happening there, and speak with certainty about the morality of what Cedric Herrou and his friends are doing as compared to what Georgette Meylan and her friends did. But I simply don't have time. I'm working under deadline to finish A Flame in the Night and I've hit the moment of momentum now, the story's final form is blossoming in my hands, but I have just over a month to perfect 12 chapters and a secondary storyline and that is--I hope--barely enough. So I can't give you my considered judgment. But I can give you my gut feeling.

My gut feeling is, if someone took to the Mediterranean in a rickety boat, I'll believe them when they tell me they're desperate. My gut feeling is, it means very little before God that they were born in this house and not that one. My gut feeling is, when we grow so self-protective that we throw up walls against the needy and treat the open begging hand as if it held a gun, we ought to at least admit that we're doing so according to ancient and fallen human instinct, and not out of some notion that Jesus, who said Give to everyone who asks of you, would have us act like that.

(If you think we are foolishly letting in large numbers of potential terrorists, please read this. It would be one thing if we really were. But we're not.)

My gut feeling is--when I read these stories--a deep tightness in my gut as I wonder where these people are now, whether they made it to America, whether they will be allowed to stay. I haven't even read these stories yet but I expect to feel it again when I do. (If you can only read one or two, please read the ones titled "They are too young now..." and "One day, Aya, you will be the voice of refugees." Those are the ones that made me stop & pray.) My gut feeling is, if I lived on a border and those people came to me, I would not even have to stop and think.

We have a strange relationship with borders, as Christians. We can be as triumphant about beating the system as any anarchist when it's a matter of smuggling Bibles or missionaries--but it begins to feel a little different when it's our own border. The stories of Brother Andrew shaped my view of just how much borders mean, and I think his is the more Christian tradition. My gut feeling is that God's call to welcome the stranger is not less a reason to question human laws.

Basically when I look at these border people, these people who know borders and do not respect them, I see people who see faces and not lines. Who are uninterested in the systems created by powerful people and interested in whether their neighbor is all right. And if the people of the Roya valley run the risk of being a little naive, of helping someone who doesn't deserve it, so did Georgette and her friends. I'd rather make a mistake, I'd rather err on the side of mercy, than refuse to be like them.


  1. Keep up the good work! But don't neglect your revision.

    1. Thank you Victor! Sorry this post may have been confusing near the end. I had accidentally omitted a couple of links--and also the words I was intending to attach them to! That third-to-last paragraph must have sounded like gibberish without them. Fixed now, thank you b/c your comment drew my attention to it.