I Was a War Child, by Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard. CreateSpace. 292 pages. Trade paperback $14.95, Kindle e-book $3.99.
This deeply moving and richly informative book traces the journey of the author, her parents, her five siblings, and other relatives as they attempt to survive the Nazi occupation of France. From a northern section of France characterized by large families, the Gaillets could be considered affluent. The author’s father, Émile Pierre Gaillet, headed a major paper manufacturing and distribution enterprise built by his wife’s Avot family. During the war years he was entrusted by other industry leaders to represent their interests and, as much as possible, maintain their independence from the German occupation.
At this he was quite successful.
His main wartime task, however, was keeping his family safe. The theme of young Hélène’s life (she was born on December 1, 1935), as she recalls it so many decades later, is “moving on.” The narrative proper begins in 1939 as prescient Frenchmen like Monsieur Gaillet sense Germany’s intentions to storm France through its Belgian border. He immediately begins planning for his family’s welfare.
Monsieur Gaillet found it necessary to engage the family in several relocations, both out of necessity and opportunity, seeking the relative safety of places off the beaten track and away from occupation tyranny. They adjusted to a pleasant seaside community; to a monastic institution where they were protected but kept strictly separate from the nuns and others who resided there; and to several other locations for shorter or longer periods.
They also spent some time in Paris, which was a dangerous move motivated in part by the desire to keep the family together, in part by the attraction of Paris even in unplanned dishabille; and in part by the lure of exceptional accommodations. Here, Madame Gaillet somewhat miraculously built a business as an art gallery owner.
Though the father was a fastidious planner and manager, his wife and children – from whom he was away for long periods – did suffer severe, though survivable, deprivations: prolonged scarcities of food, warmth, clothing, schooling, and medical care. The journeys from one place to another were often quite arduous and dangerous. Being together made these hardships more bearable than if the individuals had been isolated from one another.
For young Hélène, the absence of toys is sometimes as painful as the very empty stomach. For herself, her brother, and her sisters, these years living in fear, often on the run or in overcrowded temporary quarters, are years in which their childhoods were lost.
One of the author’s many achievements is to make this story of her family’s travails representative as well as personal and specific. She does this by keeping in touch with the wider world, setting this story into the larger story of WWII in Europe. On several welcome occasions, when the lens opens up to this wider view, readers are given tools to put the Gallait family story in context. As Madame de Neergaard moves back and forth from the narrower perspective to the broader, each dimension of the story is enhanced. . . .
To read the entire review, as it appears in November 6, 2014 Naples Florida Weekly, the November 12 Fort Myers edition, and the November 13 Bonita Springs and Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte editions, click here Florida Weekly – War Child 1 and here Florida Weekly – War Child 2