Life in the bowels of Nazi Germany

When history intervened, Frenchwoman Mireille Journet found herself stuck in a totalitarian nightmare, but with pluck and luck she made it out alive

By William Grimes  /  NY TIMES SERVICE

Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 19

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.”

Nothing came of the incident. The official was on the way down and embroiled in party infighting. Abel also managed to avoid combat duty late in the war. Sent to basic training, he threw himself on the ground during a field exercise. Every war needs dead people, he told his perplexed sergeant, who turned his attention to more promising material and sent his hopeless, overage recruit home.

Marokvia, in her own small way, resisted. Early in the war she refused an offer by the Gestapo to return to France as an informer. Later, when she was hired by a publisher to translate mystery novels into French, she put her own spin on orders from above.

“I did adaptation for French taste, as required, turning tall, blond, handsome Aryans into short, darker non-Aryans,” she writes. “Some types even got wavy hair and fleshy noses.” More seriously, she helped some escaped Polish prisoners find their way to the Swiss border from her village in the Black Forest.

Here and there, some Germans also resisted, or at least tried to get at the truth. The village priest in Bergheim pointedly omits the required Nazi formulas from his sermons. Others furtively listen to the BBC. In Sankt Peter, a shop owner employs a Jewish weaver and hides her.

“There are so many of us,” Marokvia once tells her husband, who corrects her sharply. “No, there are not,” he responds. “We just attract each other and lose perspective.” True.

Almost unbelievably, Marokvia considers staying in Germany after the war. Her husband has other ideas. But Paris, they find, is not the same Paris they knew. Some former friends denounce them. Knowing only a few words of English, they set sail for the US and a new life.

Marokvia kept wartime journals and diaries. In 1944 she burned them, alerted that the Gestapo was on the way to her door in Bergheim. “This slice of life, 50 years in the past, is a tragicomic mural on the walls of a cave,” she writes. “My memory, like a flashlight, its batteries half spent, conjures stray images out of the darkness.”

The batteries may be weakening, but the images are vivid, the lives truly extraordinary. Marokvia, who wrote about her childhood in Immortelles: Memoir of a Will-o’-the Wisp, is at work on a third volume of her memoirs. At a steady pace, she could finish it by her 100th birthday.