By Amelia Kimball: Click on her byline to hear the author talk about this story.)
“Vive l’amérique!” Isoline Gatti said.
Long live America.
The 84-year-old French woman raised her glass full of golden Muscat de Rivesaltes and toasted to the liberation of France in 1944. Gatti is proud of her country and proud of her language, but she said she can never forget America’s role in World War II. She said the Nazis tortured the French, especially Jews, and the American soldiers came and saved their lives. A smile spread across her face as she sat up in her chair on the terrace of her apartment and gestured to pictures of France from long ago. She told stories of chocolate and chewing gum thrown into the streets in celebration of France’s freedom.
In these years after the war, Gatti said there are still good feelings about America despite where people stand politically. Those on the left are more critical of the United States, but Gatti said it is impossible to forget the feeling of being up against machine guns when they only had knives and small weapons to defend themselves.
“You’d really have to be ignorant to pretend that it never happened that way,” she said in French, according to translator Clay Suddath.
Back in the time of World War II, Gatti was just a young girl — a teenager by the time France was liberated. She said she remembers the feeling of being terrified, hiding, and struggling to get any news on the war.
When France fell in 1940, restaurants, casinos, nightclubs and theaters became tragic places where Jews were captured and held. She said everyone was in a constant state of fear until France was free.
Gatti said even eating and transporting food was a risk. When at last the war was over, Gatti said everyone was overjoyed. They cried in ecstasy when America arrived. Hotels and other places were restored.
At the time of the Nazi invasion, several buildings in France such as hotels were used as holding places for captured Jews. Jeremy Lyonnet, an employee at Hotel Excelsior in Nice, France, said the hotel he now works at was of particular interest to the Nazis during World War II. It was located right next to the railroad tracks and the train station. Lyonnet said it was an easy way to send people off to camps. He said he has heard stories of people coming back to see the hotel, sometimes years later because it is difficult to travel. A lot of people feel happy to see how the hotel has changed and developed, but he said others cry because it is hard for them to come back.
“They come for the hotel, the train station, and to live again what they went through,” he said.
Lyonnet said he heard a story of a man who jumped through a window in the hotel when he was a boy. The boy’s parents told him to jump, and it saved his life. Lyonnet said the man came back to the hotel years later to look at the window and remember that time.
Jean-Claude Grimaud, another employee at Hotel Excelsior, said the hotel was heavily guarded with soldiers. For the people that escaped, he said they were very lucky.
“I think he (the man) jumped out the window into the garden and ran to the other property,” Grimaud said.
Robert Kanigel, author of the book “High Season in Nice: How One French Riviera Town Has Seduced Travelers for Two Thousand Years,” wrote that groups of about 60 people at a time were dragged to the train station to be sent to camps. This occurred two or three times a week. When they were caught, Kanigel wrote they were forced to give up any belongings they had to pay for their time in the hotel.
Gatti remembers the Nazis coming into the village and demanding people give up their radios, bikes, cars, and copper. She said they were afraid to give up their items, but they gave what they could and tried to hide what was left. Food was scarce but the Nazis tried to take that too. Gatti said they needed to get ration cards from the government, but it didn’t provide nearly enough to feed them.
“Everyone panicked because they said we wouldn’t have anything to eat and would have to pay double for ration cards,” Gatti said.
She said during the war supply chains were cut off, so getting something to eat was a major event. Knowing people and having connections was a way to get a piece of bread. Gatti said some single women had no choice but to sleep with German soldiers if they wanted to feed their children.
Even when the Nazis knew the Americans were coming, Gatti said they still demanded items from them. The Nazis would cut off fingers to get wedding rings and burn down buildings to get copper. Gatti said burning down casinos to get the metal was child’s play compared to the torture that was inflicted.
When the Nazis captured people, Gatti said they would line them up and shoot them or bring them to the town square to burn them alive. Sirens would sound when bombs were coming, and older children were told to run to the hills while the younger ones stayed with parents.
In Kanigel’s same book, he wrote some people killed themselves because life was so unbearable. About 3,000 people were shipped to an internment camp called Drancy and many ended up dying in Auschwitz. Anyone who tried to escape was captured.
Gatti said many people from France and America died, and sometimes people forget that. She said there is a cemetery in Nice dedicated to American soldiers. Some places such as Normandy have commemorations for soldiers. They have them over for dinner to say, thank you, America. In Nice, she said they didn’t have the organization to do that, but if they did, she would love to have an American soldier over for dinner.
“I would be honored to be able to do that,” Gatti said.
Joël Vigot, an 82-year-old man, was born in Normandy and remembers hiding in his village near Omaha Beach when they heard bombs. He said it wasn’t safe to leave the basement, and they had to survive on what little food they had for six weeks.
He said he has lived in Nice for 45 years and now 70 years later, he was able to go back to Normandy and remember his life and history there. Vigot said it was very important for him to go back to Normandy and celebrate the liberation.
“You don’t forget that,” he said.
Gatti said there is no way France ever would have made it without the help of America. She said when she speaks to people who are on the political left, they say they tend to align more with Russia or China. In general though, Gatti said there are good feelings about America. Elderly people on the left are especially grateful, she said. They can never forget it.
As Gatti smiled at pictures of her grandchildren under the bright blue umbrellas of her terrace, she said, “There are a lot of lessons to be learned about the horrors of war, which is a lot more than just the dead and the wounded and bombs blowing up and buildings being destroyed.”
Edited by Travis Gumphrey