At the beginning of 1939, a young Frenchwoman named Mireille Journet made a decision. She would accompany her lover, a German artist and fervent anti-Nazi, to his hometown, Stuttgart, so that he could put his mother’s affairs in order.
Six months. That was the agreement. Then history intervened. For the duration of the war, the couple, who married in a Nazi civil ceremony, lived an existence that lurched wildly between the absurd and the horrific. Mireille Journet, now Marokvia and in her late 90s, captures it movingly in her precise, beautifully written memoir, a strange tale of two bohemians caught up in a totalitarian nightmare.
Marokvia was a country girl with an appetite for adventure. As a student at the Sorbonne, she fell for a dashing artist she took to be a Russian, but soon discovered was a German of Slovak descent. In the Paris of the 1930s, they lived the way artists were supposed to, taking their aperitifs at the Dome and racing off on mad quests. In one characteristic episode, the man Marokvia calls Abel (Artur in real life) crosses into Spain to buy horses for a riding vacation and ends up imprisoned in a Spanish jail. There, fed two sardines a day, he waits his turn to be shot as a Russian spy. A well-timed telegram from the German consul frees him at the 11th hour.
Marokvia, also blessed with pluck and luck, makes a perceptive, wry witness to events in Germany, where she led a threatened but charmed life. On the face of it, two anti-Nazis, one of them French, and the other incapable of keeping his opinions to himself, would seem to stand little chance of survival in Hitler’s Germany. But Abel, with an artist’s gift for making connections in the right circles, always managed to squeak through. His wife, quick to learn German, played her cards shrewdly, too, steering clear of trouble and patiently observing with a perceptive but not unsympathetic eye. Unlike her husband, Marokvia could find it in her heart to like Germany and Germans, the decent ones.
Circumstances, and her husband’s postings abroad to do military illustrations in Ukraine, Italy, Finland and Yugoslavia, sent Marokvia all over Germany. She saw it in triumph and despair. She lived in big cities like Stuttgart and Berlin. She encountered humble Germans in Sankt Peter, a fishing village on the North Sea, where she labored as a weaver, and in Bergheim, a village in the Black Forest near the Swiss border, where she rented a reputedly haunted house and raised a goat.
In Bergheim, a peasant neighbor, eager to converse with an educated woman, springs a question that has been troubling him for years. This obsession the Nazis seem to have with the Jews. What is that all about?
Marokvia observes. Abel seethes. She finds Berlin attractive, and Berliners, too. “They seemed to have a dry wit I could enjoy,” she writes. Abel scowls. “Pretentious and overbearing,” he tells her.
When they catch sight of Hermann Goering coming out of a government building, Marokvia, fascinated, leans forward for a closer look. “His cheeks were plump, rosy and smooth,” she writes. “He wore makeup, I swear.” Abel broods. “For days, weeks, he was obsessed by having been close enough to the ‘sinister clown’ to kill him,” Marokvia writes.
On one occasion, providing one of the most satisfying moments in the book, Abel loses all sense of reality and confronts a Nazi official at a dinner party given by Abel’s boss, the head of an advertising agency, in a suburb of Stuttgart. After the official begins railing against the Jews, Abel approaches him and says: “You, I want to tell you something. You are an idiot, and your Adolf also.” Then he administers a slap in the face. “After that,” Marokvia writes, “what we called animal fear sat by our side.”