“May I become at all times, both now and forever: a protector for those without protection; a guide for those who have lost their way; a ship for those with oceans to cross; a bridge for those with rivers to cross; a sanctuary for those in danger; a lamp for those without light; a place of refuge for those who lack shelter; and a servant to all in need.”
The possibilities which exist between two people are often a limitless alchemy woven with threads of cumulative history. Last year, across distance and imagined differences, I met eighty-eight year old, Parisian-born, Charles Bergere. I had earlier published an article for France Today magazine called, “Memories of the Resistance in the Gers”. The Gers is the départment I live in. The French Resistance movement fought against the Nazi occupation of France and against the collaborationist Vichy régime during World War II. The Maquis were rural guerrilla bands of French Resistance fighters. A few months later I received a comment from Charles online:
Charles Bergere,- age 15
I was touched reading your article. I joined the maquis in the Dordogne in June 1944, took part in the liberation of Périgueux, Angoulême, Bordeaux, and La Rochelle . Every year I fly to the Dordogne for the annual reunion of my group, Soleil. Our chief, René Coustellier, is still alive but ailing in his home town of Arles.
I wrote back:
I was brought to tears many times while researching this article. Thank you for reaching out and writing – I am humbled by your extraordinary bravery.
Soon after, we began the following correspondence:
Charles: I am an old Parisian living in Santa Barbara, married, a grandfather and a democrat. I am retired and living happily here. All my family lives in Paris or around there and we are in touch through Skype or FaceTime. My daughter Suzy lives in Seattle. Maybe sometime we could Skype.
Me: Though living in France now, I grew up in California and used to go to Santa Barbara quite often. I moved to Seattle in the 80’s. My son went to school at the Brooks Institute of Photography and one of my dearest friends used to live in Hope Ranch. It’s a beautiful area.
Charles: We live near Hope Ranch. The city is enlarged and embellished, especially in Goleta. Brooks Institute has moved elsewhere. From time to time I give readings on the resistance in France but the interest has decreased and I have to hold on to my memories. The new situation here reminds me of the time when a fascist government (Pétain -Laval) took power in France. A big book was published on the Resistants du Périgord and a page was about me. In 1949 I was drafted and they wanted to send me to Indochina. but I deserted and went to Canada. In 1969 I was pardoned by De Gaulle and went back to France. Now I have several nationalities, French, Canadian and American. Lately I am embarrassed to be linked to Trump through my American citizenship. On Facebook you mentioned Heifetz. This warmed my heart because I am from the era of Heifetz. I heard him a few times and have a huge collection of his recordings. Are you a musician? I quit playing a few years ago, but keep in touch with the music world.
Me: I’m not a musician, but I love violin music. Do you play an instrument?
Charles: Violin and clarinet. Violin with the Winnipeg Symphony years ago. I also doodle with New Orleans Jazz on the clarinet. My daughter Suzy played piano when we lived in Santa Monica. She went to Santa Monica High and eventually to Pepperdine U in Malibu.
Me: Funny how our lives have criss-crossed in more than a few ways! I grew up in West LA, so I know Santa Monica very well. I also lived in Malibu, Malibu Canyon to be exact, near Pepperdine, before moving to Seattle. It is indeed a small world. A propos your love of music and the violin, here is a link to “Joe’s Violin,” a poignant documentary up for an Oscar this year. The film runs 24 minutes. Have Kleenex at hand.
Charles: Thank you Sue for sending me the link to this video. It brings back painful memories of the events of the German occupation as I am myself a member of the Tribe…
Yesterday, Charles and I finally met via Skype. I met his wife, Ingrid as well. We had a long conversation, most of it about the U.S. suddenly finding itself a country poised at the intersection of tolerance and injustice. Afterwards, I spent the day immersed in Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book, The History of Totalitarianism. Arendt concluded, “…Tyrannical regimes use isolation as a weapon of oppression.” I then turned to Timothy Snyder’s, On Tyranny, and discovered that Aristotle believed inequality led to incivility, and Plato argued that demagogues exploited free speech to install themselves as tyrants. I ended the day watching a sobering documentary how America has been deceiving its citizens and the world called, “To Awaken a Sleeping Giant.” It was a circuitous route underscoring the recognition that Charles and I are connected by some of the darkest moments in history.
What has emerged from our correspondence is a reminder that without misfortune there would be no blessings. Charles has been a signpost guiding me towards what I needed to know: that it is crucial to look back in order to move forward, that it is critical to talk to each other, and imperative to listen.