Thursday 31 December 2020

Saving lives in the French Alps. An Act of Love, by Carol Drinkwater


   An Act of Love will be published on 29th April 2021 by Penguin UK.
How do we find the stories, the ideas for our novels or how do they find us?

I am always on the lookout for ideas, for seeds that might grow like flowers into fully-realised stories. We writers are always digging about for nuggets. Magpies, we are, looking for what shines. Sometimes, the work involves weeks, months, of research, grappling with a vague idea for ages, knowing that it might or might not crystallise, until we are at the point of giving up and moving on to something else. On other occasions, a story, a voice, a person leaps out at you and you know - as much as in our guts we know anything for sure - that this lead will be the one we need to follow. 

So it happened with me a long time before An Act of Love was thought of.  I was at work on one of my Olive Farm books and took a short journey inland to visit some of the small hill towns that are situated in the hinterland up behind the city of Nice.


One of the Alpine towns, Saint-Martin-Vésubie, instantly drew my attention. I walked about its hilly medieval streets with its coloured houses and its astounding views in every direction within the Mercantour National Park. I knew nothing of its twentieth-century history at that time. Of its Second World War deeds of generosity and courage. Of the suffering, nor acts of humanity that had been lived out in this modest settlement. I chanced upon its tiny museum. It was there I hit upon the seed to my future story. 

By the autumn of 1942,  the greater number of the thousands of Jews who were living in France had fled from the German-occupied territories into the non-occupied zone, the Zone Libre or Free Zone. In May 1940 as the German army marched into Paris, more than one hundred thousand French-born Jews (known to the French as Israelites) fled Paris and the north, escaping to the south to avoid capture and deportation. Aside from the nationals, there were also the hundred of thousands of immigrants who had arrived from other parts of German-occupied Europe. They were fleeing their conquered lands, seeking refuge - a refuge that was looking less and less dependable. 

By the autumn of 1942, both French and foreign Jews were beginning to fear that their chances of survival were slim. Thousands had made it to the Free Zone in southern France but even there, their options were diminishing because by November of that same year, 1942, the Germans who had occupied the north and the southwest as far as Spain were ordered by Hitler to cross from the Occupied Zone into the Free Zone and take control of it. 

Until November 1942, those Jewish French citizens as well as the thousands of foreign refugees, most of whom were without legitimate papers and therefore stateless, who had found their way to Nice and the resort towns along the French Riviera had been living in a relatively relaxed freedom. However, in November 1942 a turn in the war in favour of the Allies, ironically, brought a dark cloud upon the lives of all those hiding from the Nazis. The Allies won North Africa. From there, the possibility of their armies moving north, crossing the Mediterranean into France, threatened Germany's hold on France. Hitler ordered his armies to move into the Free Zone, to take Marseille, move east towards Nice and be ready for any Allied invasion from the sea. Hitler also ordered Italy to send in troops to the south, to take control of the eastern corner of the Free Zone. 

Zones Occupé and Libre.

For those in hiding, no area of France was now safe. 

Nice, the eastern most city in the south of France, was now to be ruled by Italian soldiers. Up until that time, the Côte d'Azur had been the fugitives' safest bet. However, as good fortune would have it, the Italians, although a member of the Axis Powers, had no interest in harassing and imprisoning Jews. They did not follow Hitler's dictates to arrest Jews or any other 'undesirables' for deportation. 

In late November 1942, the Nazis marched into Marseille. Early the following year, 22nd January, the old port area of Marseille was ransacked. Entire streets were burned to cinders. As part of Action Tiger, over four thousand Jews were hunted down, arrested, put on trains, sent to holding camps such as Drancy in the north to await deportation to one of the camps in eastern Europe.

Nice would not be far behind. Nice, where until then, the Jews, both French and refugees, had lived in relative safety, but now knew that their days were numbered. Italy was still an Axis nation. There was no safety in trying to escape into Italy, not at that stage. Transport by boat to Palestine or the United States was limited, expensive. Special exit visas were required and they cost money, if they could be procured. The waiting list was long.

The Nazis were moving eastwards. If the Allies did not reach the south first, Nice would be occupied by Hitler's armies. Every enemy of Hitler would be rounded up and murdered. Until the thousands of Jews in hiding could be given safe passage onwards or the war was won by the Allies, other hiding places needed to be found. Urgently.

And this is where the hill town of Saint-Martin-Vésubie steps into the story. 

This small community agreed to house Jews. From November 1942 onwards, through to the spring of 1943, homeless, displaced Jews arrived by the busload into Saint-Martin. The residents welcomed them into their community, rented them housing, accepted them as a part of their lives - even while members of the Italian army were living there too. But, as I said, the Italians had no interest in harming Jews. They left them in peace. What grew up here in this alpine community was an unlikely convergence of peoples. Italian soldiers, local mountain residents, some of whom were living underground, fighting with the Résistance, and Jewish immigrants. These peoples of different faiths and a babel of languages lived together in peace for almost a year until September 1943, when Italy surrendered and its troops were withdrawn. Then the Jewish temporary residents found themselves yet again unprotected and in greater danger than ever before. Were they trapped? Where from here could they flee? The Wehrmacht had taken Nice. The coast was cut off to them. What options were left to them?

   Members of the French Résistance with Fugitive Jews.

The story in my novel, An Act of Love, begins in February 1943 when Sara, a seventeen-year-old Polish girl, arrives by bus into Saint-Martin-Vésubie with her parents. She is sad to leave the coast, the splendour of Nice, the Mediterranean way of life where she and her parents have made a home of sorts in relative safety since their illicit arrival into France eighteen months earlier. Settling into this backwater is yet another uprooting in her young life. She wants to live like an ordinary teenager, like any of the friends she makes in the village, but this is war-time and destiny has other plans for her ... 

The novel has been inspired by real events, courageous acts, but the characters are all of my imagining. Sara's story is the journey of a young woman in extraordinary times. I sincerely hope you will enjoy it.


Caroline K. Mackenzie said...

Your novel sounds wonderful, Carol. I shall look forward to reading it.

I like the idea of the seeds being sown that grow into fully formed stories. How interesting that you discovered your seed for 'An Act of Love' in a tiny museum. The power of museums!

Good luck with publication - I am sure it will be a great success.

Carol Drinkwater said...

Dear Caroline, Thank you for your lovely message. I do hope you will enjoy the novel. Carol x