Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne…those were the opening words of the code message from the British to the French and Belgian resistance in June 1944 informing them that the invasion was about to begin. The line from the Verlaine poem was a signal for them to step up attacks on railroad lines, power stations, telephone exchanges, any installation the Germans would need to respond to the Normandy landings. And, in a manner of speaking, the resistance had waited three years for those violins.
Occupied Belgium had no single entity called “the Resistance,” but rather a tangle of organizations with various and sometimes contradictory goals. They fought as much against Belgian collaborationists, as they did against the Germans, and included Communists, Free Belgian troops, Immigrant Jews, remnants of Belgian political parties, labor conscription evaders, and ordinary people who aided escapees and sheltered Jews or their children.
Following the travails of an English nurse and a Belgian resistance fighter, “Waiting for the Violins” pays homage to three of those organizations: the Armed Jewish Partisans, the Comet Line, and the Maquis of the Ardenne Forest. I have the honor of personally knowing descendants of résistants from two of these groups, and they gave me permission to use the actual names and tales of their heroic relatives.
My best friend’s aunt was a courier for the Maquis in the Ardenne Forest, killed at the age of eighteen by a sniper the day the allies arrived in Belgium. The murdered woman was called Celine, and her niece, who was named in memory of her, brought me to see her grave and monument. The living Celine also provided me with newspaper clippings describing the death and the tribute paid by the Belgian government, and asked me to ‘make her live again.’
Even more touching – though no one tragedy is greater than the other – was the story told to me by a transwoman I became friends with through the local lesbian association. When she felt comfortable enough to trust me, she revealed her childhood tragedy, of being surrendered at the age of three to a Catholic family by Jewish parents just before they were deported. They perished at Auschwitz, though an uncle who had been part of the armed Jewish resistance, did survive the camp, and returned. My friend gave me pictures of all the family members and a book of testimonies of the Jewish resistors themselves. Most moving of all, she brought me to Breendonk, the concentration camp that still stands as a museum outside of Brussels where we found her uncle’s name on the memorial wall. My friend appears in the novel – with her full permission – as herself, the three year old child Jackie.
The third group I followed was the Comet Line (Le Réseau Comète), an underground railroad that helped downed aviators and others (Jews, anti-Nazi politicians, POWS) escape through Spain and ultimately return home. I traced their travel along the route through France and over the Pyrenees, leading their ‘passengers’ by train, hay wagon, and foot, in the most hostile conditions and under the daily threat of death. Sometimes they were captured and killed, as were the families who housed them along the route.
The line was founded by Andrée de Jongh and her father Frédéric, both of whom were captured. She was sent to Ravensbrück but survived the war. Frédéric was executed, as well as twenty three other leaders. In total, the Comet Line is credited with saving between seven and eight hundred Allied soldiers and civilians.
Brussels, the splendid city I have the good fortune to live in, still has many of its thousand year old streets and century old buildings, and I tried as much as possible to use historical locations for my settings. The Château Malou, an 18th century mansion just across the boulevard from my home, was an excellent place to house one of my heroines and a stream of aviators on their way to freedom, while one of the lovely old buildings on the rue Marché au Charbon – which happens to be the current gay center of Brussels – worked very well as a hiding place for my other heroine and a family of Jews.
When the novel ends, the war is still raging, but geographically the struggle comes full circle, with the heroine standing above a beach. It is no longer the beach of humiliation and defeat at Dunkirk, but rather the cliff at Arromanche in Normandy, and this time she is with her beloved witnessing the first rumblings of the Allied invasion force. Where they once fled, now they are returning – with a vengeance. These blood-soaked beaches are iconic in World War Two history. In offering a tender love story between women, I also wanted to remind the newer generation of Americans (for some of whom WWII is ancient history) of the thousands who died on those shores.
I am also fascinated by the Germans. Some were monsters, we know that, but the majority were ordinary men and women swept up in the fervor of patriotism in its most fanatical form. Two of my antagonists, Erwin Rommel and Alexander von Falkenhausen are rather nuanced. They were Wehrmacht officers, totally committed to the Third Reich, but they were old-school soldiers conscious of their honor and both were part of the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. They remind us of the many gray areas in our morality, some lighter and some darker, and I try to present them in their subtleties.
We also know that heroism is not always on the battlefield. In my novel, as in history, it reveals itself in a hundred little acts of selflessness in the face of danger, by civilians and farmers and anonymous bystanders. One of the most inspiring acts is the now famous account of the twentieth convoy, when three young men on bicycles, with nothing more than a paper-covered lantern and a set of wire cutters, stopped a train on its way to Auschwitz. They liberated only a few dozen prisoners, but for those few, it meant life, and they provided opportunity and inspiration for a hundred others to free themselves later.
My principal heroine, who starts as a nurse caring for the wounded at Dunkirk, is herself grievously injured, but a year later she returns to Belgium working for SOE, a clandestine network set up by Churchill to identify and aid resistance in the occupied countries. She parachutes in, as almost every other SOE agent, male or female, had to do, in the middle of the night, and it is worth a moment of our attention to acknowledge the sturdy little Weston Lysanders who brought them and, if they were lucky, fetched them out again. (see book cover).
Lastly, amidst the fighting and fleeing and being blown up, one finds love in the novel. It appears in all its forms: carnality, romance – which somehow manages to flicker even in the most horrifying places – parental love, friendship, and simple animal loyalty.
It’s enough to give you a little hope that things might turn out all right.