Monday, August 11, 2008

War on the Margins excerpt by Libby Cone

At the beginning of the Second World War, after the fall of France, Churchill decided to demilitarize the islands in the English Channel, Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark, and allow their occupation by Germany because their proximity to France rendered them impossible to defend. Much of what took place in the ensuing five years has been long-suppressed; it contradicts the image projected by Churchill of Brits fighting Nazis to the last man. The situation was much more complex, with some citizens resisting the occupiers at every turn, and others, including many local government officials, deciding that collaboration was the safest strategy. In War on the Margins by Libby Cone, we see the effects of this upon clerk Marlene Zimmer, the child of a deceased Jewish father and Gentile mother. A lonely, neurotic woman in her late twenties, she abruptly leaves her home to avoid registering as a Jew. She hides with the (real-life)Lesbian Surrealist artists-turned-Resistance-propagandists Claude Cahun (Lucille Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe) and becomes active in their Resistance work, only to find later that the decision she made to inform on a former coworker may have had disastrous repercussions. After Schwob's and Malherbe's arrest, Marlene later meets and hides with Peter, an escaped slave worker. They fall in love. We follow Suzanne and Lucille as they suffer in German military prison, and revisit Marlene as she slowly realizes that the decisions she made resulted in the imprisonment of one woman and the saving of the life of another. She is able to learn something from her five-year ordeal and look to the future with a newfound hope and inner toughness. Suzanne and Lucille also come to terms with the fact that, faced with the machinery of destruction and conquest, people respond in different ways. The two women acknowledge the impossibility of conferring revenge or reward upon every individual who has crossed their path.

This book contains many documents from the Jersey archive, including translations from the French of Claude Cahun's prison notes and diaries.

War on the Margins
BookSurge (April 24, 2008)
ISBN: 9781419689956


La Rocquaise
St. Brelade, Jersey

In Europe, rutabagas are known as “swedes.” Hard, unlovely, humble. Something to use as a side dish at the occasional meal, hot and mashed and dressed with butter, a tiny sprinkle of nutmeg. Now it is a vegetable of exigency, the main course, the roast, the joint, the centerpiece, the star.

Suzanne Malherbe was in charge of the menu at La Rocquaise, as well as the director of graphic design. To her the swede had become just another medium, a tabula rasa. When there was enough wood to be had, she would just boil them up on the stove, chou-navettes, topped with a milligram of butter and a grind of pepper, hungrily devoured by Lucille and herself. Now that fuel supplies were unreliable, she had to be more creative. She found that slightly dried-out swedes were more amenable to being formed into sculptures and bas-reliefs; they had a somewhat more yielding consistency to the paring knife. She kept a small collection of them undergoing this curing process in a box in the cellar. Today she had two good-sized ones weighing perhaps a half kilogram in toto; she peeled them and put them on the cutting board. The peels would be dried for soup.

Suzanne stood back and regarded them gravely. Taking up her knife, she began cutting regular slices and putting them in a single layer on another board. Then she took each slice and made it something; one was a flower with an eye in the center. Another was a rabbit with wings. She carefully formed a breast with a clock, a seashell with wheels, a pair of pursed lips. She arranged the slices on two plates, poured two glasses of white wine, put it all on a tray, and took them out to Lucille in the dining room. Lucille rose, smiled and kissed her when she came in, then looked intently at the plates.

“Cherie! They're wonderful! You are a true genius! Without a doubt, nobody eats their swedes this way in Nantes”

“Thank you, cherie.”

“To the Resistance!” they cried, clinking glasses. They took up their forks and slowly chewed the transformed swedes. A half loaf of potato bread on the table, initially shunned, was more palatable after their first glass of wine.

“It is at two?” asked Suzanne.

“Yes. I already have the songs typed.”

“Wonderful! And the disguises?”

“Let's wear the same wigs and different coats this time!”


Suzanne cleared the dishes away and began to brew some tea. “We need to celebrate before our revolutionary action!”

“But of course!”

Lucille took out a flat box containing a profusion of pastel-colored tissue paper. Another box contained pens and colored pencils. All were laid on the dining table. Lucille removed an large envelope from underneath the blank papers and took out about twenty variously handwritten and typewritten notes. “Please proofread them once more, cherie; I worry I may not have copied your German correctly.”

Suzanne scanned the pages. They were copies of a song the women had written:


“We are the heroes of the Master Race,
“We are the German soldiers.
“We have defeated all of Europe
“And seen the coast of Dover”

“And if I come home for the holidays,
“And my wife's belly is big as a boulder,
“ ‘Baby, don't get mad at me,’ she'll say,
“ ‘The Fatherland needs more soldiers!’ ”

“Then I slog my way to Russia,
“Three years in the ice of the Devil.
“At the end I am a sight to see,
“My nose like a blackened pebble.”

“And if I come home for the holidays...”

“My skin was burnt to blisters,
“As I warmed up in Africa's weather,
“The meat was rotten, the water stank,
“My burnt eyes as thick as leather.”

“And if I come home for the holidays...”

“Forward, to the sea! To America!
“Five years sailing around
“Never once dropping the anchor!
“How many of us will be drowned!”

“And if I come home for the holidays...”

“I hurry back with empty hands
“To the new-old Europe, the home I desire:
“The Japanese have laid waste Berlin
“With slashing swords and fire!”

“And if I come home for the holidays...”

“And round and round the world this dance of death
“Goes faster and faster,
“Until we can no longer fight;
“And overthrow our masters!”

“Final Chorus:
“And if I come home for the holidays
“My wife will be looking much older,
“ ‘Baby, to bed!’ she'll say to me
“ ‘The Fatherland needs more soldiers!’ ”

“I wish we could write music to it; they would be singing it all over the island. I will add some finishing touches.” Suzanne took up some pens and made a few corrections. After she had blotted the ink and pronounced herself satisfied, the two women began balling up the papers like so much trash. They stuffed all the wads into two large handbags. Then they repaired upstairs to dress. Lucille took out a brown wig and stuffed her short red hair under it. Suzanne was handed a blonde wig; she did the same. Lucille, so used to dressing in various costumes in her younger days as the photographer Claude Cahun, took easily to most disguises, although she preferred male dress. Suzanne, who had been the graphic designer Marcel Moore, had never thought of herself as a costume artist who played with identities; she was learning quickly. She removed her smock and trousers and pulled on a thick sweater and a black wool skirt. Lucille added some bourgeois costume jewelry to her wine-colored dress. They threw on shapeless lightweight coats. A little touch of lipstick and they were off.

First they walked past the St. Brelade's Bay Hotel. They bought newspapers which they tucked under their arms; these could be used as tubes for launching the crumpled paper through a half-open car window. There were few cars there now, so they proceeded to the cemetery where the graveside service had begun.

A young enlisted man had committed suicide. It probably had something to do with the deployment of the Afrika Korps. This occasion was fertile ground for their cause. Lucille and Suzanne walked towards the vehicles parked next to the cemetery. They avoided the hearse and walked from the back of the line forward. Many windows were open to air out the cars; they surreptitiously dropped paper wads through these windows and moved up the line. When they felt themselves getting too conspicuous, they walked into the cemetery proper, joining other curious civilians, and stood through the ceremony. It was a brilliantly sunny day; the enlisted men, already in a state of poor morale, were given permission to remove their coats, and they slung them over their arms. The two women walked by the clusters of men standing at parade rest, brushing by their coats, slipping wads of paper into the occasional exposed pocket. They kept a somber expression on their faces which blended in with the expressions of the other attendees. When those assembled began to sing “Deutschland, Deutschland ├╝ber Alles,” they gave each other sly looks and muttered curses. Most of the other civilians looked equally uncomfortable, and left as soon as the song was over.

After the young enlisted men were marched away and the officers headed for their cars. Suzanne and Lucille hung back, slowing their steps, until the Germans were gone and the other onlookers had dispersed. They stopped outside the little fisherman's chapel to share a cigarette. “Well, cherie,” said Suzanne, “they continue to commit suicide. I regret the loss of life, but I think it is a good sign, don't you?”

“Well, if what we heard on the BBC is true, the war is not going our way yet. But if they are already committing suicide, things are bad for them, and will get worse.”

“I suppose no army ever lost because of many suicides, though?”

“No, cherie, I am not aware of any.” They gazed out to the sea for a silent minute. “But it shows that we are not here for retirement, but once again for the advance of revolution and freedom. We are not old aunties yet!” Lucille coughed as she chuckled and exhaled, and handed Suzanne the cigarette.

Suddenly they were startled by the chapel door opening. Suzanne dropped the cigarette. A bedraggled young woman emerged, walking a bicycle.

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