Nicole Braux (now Taflinger) was 13 years old when Germany invaded France in 1940. Years later, having survived the occupation with her mother, married an American airman, and moved to Pullman, she has written a lovely and moving memoir.
First written for her children, Season of Suffering: Coming of Age in Occupied France, 1940–45 (WSU Press) recalls the occupation of Nancy, the severe shortages, collaboration, disappearances, and despair and hope from the perspective of a teenage girl.
“The first week of the war ended my childhood,” she writes, “as if a fairy touched me with a magic wand.”
Stationed on the Maginot Line, her father was immediately captured and sent to Germany as a prisoner of war, where he would remain until the end of the war. He finally returned in 1945, emotionally broken and alienated by his captors’ cruelty and propaganda.
As German soldiers and civilians moved into Nancy, in the Lorraine province, the adolescent Nicole struggled with her feelings. In the beginning, “… many were the hours spent on the balcony waiting for father. There was no sign of him—no mail, no phone call, nothing! We feared the worst—either he’d been killed or was held captive. We prayed, we cursed, but mainly we hated. The hate of a woman losing a man is fierce. The hate of a daughter of 13 is immeasurable. My hate was fire, consuming me.”
But school started again in September, she writes, as if everything were normal. And resistance to the occupation began in various ways. Although schools were required to teach German, Nicole’s teacher, Madame Etienne, told the class on the first day that she had no intention of teaching it.
Nicole noticed that in spite of the pain and misery of everyone around them, the nuns at her school were happy, for they were married to Jesus. So she decided she would become a nun. To her dismay, she was declared too young, by both the Mother Superior and her own mother. At the conservatory where she studied music, she was drawn to the ballet being practiced nearby and decided to try out. But the ballet mistress declared her body not built for ballet.
“I couldn’t marry Jesus,” she writes, “I couldn’t dance, and I couldn’t fight the Germans. I was so helpless. ‘I couldn’t’ now became a litany in my mind.”
Friends convinced her that if she tried hard enough she could take up a musical instrument. She walked everywhere to save her tram money and arranged with her Aunt Suzanne to work in her garden to pay for a violin and lessons.
As the region entered the worst winter in decades, cooking gas and other necessities were severely restricted, people ate bread extended with sawdust, and typhus killed many. Even so, the young Nicole was, for a while, happy with her violin and acting lessons.
But then the Germans took away her violin teacher and his family, who were Jewish. When she learned of this, she put her violin under her bed and never practiced again.
“Our deepest despair,” she writes, “came in 1942 and the first half of 1943, with England bombed, Russia losing, and America mostly silent except when invading North Africa, far away. When would they come to our rescue?”
People became collaborators out of desperation. Young men joined the Milice, the fascist paramilitary police.
But not all was entirely as it seemed. Some of her neighbors were despised for collaborating, when they were actually working for the Resistance. And on rare occasions, resistance took on humor. A neighborhood butcher was widely disliked for catering to the Germans. Not until later was it revealed that he had been sprinkling a mysterious powder on their meat that gave them diarrhea.
At last, the B-17s and B-24s started flying over Nancy on their way to Germany. “Today, I can’t believe that at 16 years old I felt so much pleasure at the thought of those planes dispensing death, but I did—we all did!”
At last, word of D-Day arrived. Nicole, now 17, sewed Allied flags and hid them under the mattress in anticipation. American shells fell on Nancy, and the Germans began to leave. And then one morning, a neighbor returned on his bicycle to announce, “The Americans are in town.”
On September 18, 1944, Nicole stood at the kitchen window, a mirror hanging from the latch, combing her hair. The window rattled, she recalls today, and a small plane flew across the frame. When she ran, carrying her little neighbor boy, to where the plane had landed, the pilot was busy pacing off a possible landing strip.
She ran up to him and urged her charge to give the American a kiss. The boy was shy, so she did instead. The pilot was Lieutenant Ancel Gordon Taflinger, the commander of a surveillance squadron—and her future husband.
But even after their heady courtship amidst liberation, he would have to ask his commander permission to marry. That commander was General George Patton, for whom Taflinger served as personal pilot. With Patton’s blessing, theirs was the first American-French wedding in Nancy.
The couple moved to the United States following the war. Gordon Taflinger remained in the military for several years, then earned MBAs in three subjects from the University of Chicago in a year and half, testing out of the undergraduate requirements. He accepted a position at Washington State College in 1953 and taught business administration until his retirement in 1979. Nicole earned her master’s in fine arts and taught art and French in the Pullman schools. She started and ran the Nica Gallery in downtown Pullman for 17 years. The Taflingers raised five children. Gordon died in 1987.
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Suffering: Coming of Age in Occupied France, 1940–45 can be found at WSU Press.