The thirty-something woman wiped her flour-covered hands on her apron. “I am too young to know Madame and Monsieur Fraysse, but my mother told me their story many times.” She looked out across the lane at the butcher shop and sighed, “It was during the war…”
I had traveled to Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, a medieval village sheltered between the limestone cliffs of a river gorge in the southwest of France. Guidebooks promised abounding vestiges of history: the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Napoleonic Empire. The baker’s account took place during the Second World War—an era I thought I knew well, but realized that I know very little, because I do not confront its remnants every day.
The cloudless sky was a deep cobalt-blue when I arrived. Ambling about the cobblestone streets, I photographed stone-mullioned windows of half-timbered houses topped with steep, red-tiled roofs. Romance must have flourished here for there was not only a House of Love, but also a House of Sonnets. An 18th-century inn advertised good lodging whether by foot or by horse. Through my camera’s lens, everything looked perfect; too perfect, picture-postcard perfect. Where were the vestiges of the Crusades, the Reformation, two World Wars?
In search of a less restored view, I wandered beyond the tourist map through tangled lanes that narrowed to the point of darkness. The air grew moist and cool. The farther from the city center I walked, the more dilapidated the buildings became—like the fascinating wrinkles of an old man’s face, making me wonder about events that caused them.
Crumpled heaps of centuries-old limestone blocks and cracked, rotted beams sank into charcoal-colored clay. Envisioning tanners dipping hides into wooden vats, I imagined the scent of their acidic baths. Rusting latches, hinges, and nails emitted a sharp ferrous odor. I heard the clang of a blacksmith’s hammer against an anvil and felt the heat of the furnace. Burned logs and scorched bricks evoked images of venison roasting on a spit and the aroma of honeyed mead and freshly made bread.
My more authentic glimpse of history had made me hungry. I turned and was surprised to see, instead of one of the ubiquitous blue-and-white street signs, a yellow plaque.
Ici vécurent Alice et Armand Fraysse
Justes Parmi Les Nations pour leur action
de résistance face aux exactions de nazies
Although I worked out that two people had once lived at this place, my attempt at translation left me with questions. Could “Justes Parmi Les Nations” be an award? I thought it odd that “nazies” was not capitalized; did it mean what I assumed? I wrote the words in my notebook, so I could consult my bilingual dictionary later, and wended my way back to the main square.
The scent of butter and burned sugar lured me toward a patisserie.
The mademoiselle, whose face was as plump and shiny as newly risen dough, greeted me and asked what I would like.
In the glass case, regiments of éclairs, gâteaux, and meringues lined up as if on parade. After selecting a tarte aux pommes, I showed her my notes and asked about the award.
She held my book. Her lips pursed. She spat out a breath with the sound of a champagne cork exploding from its bottle.
“During the war, Nazis arrived… they captured Jews… locked them in a warehouse down by the river… set it on fire.” She hugged herself. “All through the village… people heard the screams.”
“While the Nazis burned the Jews, Madame and Monsieur Fraysse ran to the school. They claimed their Jewish neighbors’ children as their own.” She wiped her eyes. “If the Nazis had found out, they would have killed them for protecting Jews.”
She gazed across the alley. “Madame and Monsieur Fraysse, they are dead now.” Her lips trembled, and she pressed her fingers to them. She looked at me. “Les enfants…” keeping her fingers close to her mouth, she whispered, “they are my customers.”
The silver bell of the door rang, and a young woman holding a baby entered.
I swallowed to relieve the tightness in my throat. “Merci, Mademoiselle.”
She nodded, handed me my notebook, and welcomed them.
I picked up my coffee and tarte, and went outside. Across the way, locals and tourists enjoyed cocktails at sidewalk cafés. I sat at a table and watched the late afternoon sun cast an amber glow over the ancient walls and cobblestones.
To my notes, I added: Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val has survived countless wars since the eighth century—in part—because of people like the Fraysses… and the baker who remembers them.
Note: This article was originally published in San Francisco Chronicle