Re­mem­ber­ing the French Re­sis­tance

The Prince George Citizen - - Travel - Sylvie BI­GAR

Some come to the Ver­cors Mas­sif in south­ern France for the but­ter­flies. Oth­ers for the nearly 3,000 kilo­me­tres of stun­ning moun­tain trails. But I was there in July be­cause 2019 marked the 75th an­niver­sary of the deadly bat­tles be­tween the Ger­man army and the French Re­sis­tance aided by the lo­cals.

In July 1944, more than a month after D-Day, Lt. Claude Falck, my French mother’s beloved brother, was gunned down some­where on these slopes as he tried to lead his men to safety in the val­ley.

He was 26.

Now a Nat­u­ral Re­gional Park, the French equiv­a­lent of our na­tional parks, the Ver­cors evokes a mon­u­men­tal ocean liner – 60 km by 40 – built of lime­stone cliffs and steep mead­ows as it rises high above Greno­ble, where the North­ern and South­ern Alps meet. From Geneva, where I grew up, my fam­ily would oc­ca­sion­ally drive the two-hour stretch to pause at Claude’s grave, then press on to­ward our Mediter­ranean vacation.

From skiers to moun­tain climbers and wildlife ex­plor­ers, na­ture lovers abound now in the Ver­cors.

I was on a dif­fer­ent quest. Claude, an alpin­ist, en­gi­neer and grad­u­ate of Paris’s École Polytech­nique, joined the Re­sis­tance in 1942. I knew he moved to the Ver­cors in 1944 to help build a se­cret land­ing strip near the vil­lage of Vassieux. Then what?

Sud­denly, I was cu­ri­ous. I had hoped that my 93-year-old mother would join me in ex­plor­ing some of the hun­dreds of his­tor­i­cal mark­ers that dot this stun­ning moun­tain range, but she was too frail. Julien Guil­lon, a his­to­rian at the Ver­cors Re­sis­tance Memo­rial, of­fered to guide me.

In 1943, young men started “tak­ing the maquis” – not only leav­ing the val­leys for the dense Alpine forests to es­cape be­ing sent to work in Ger­many but also to join the Re­sis­tance. As ru­mors of an Al­lied land­ing in­ten­si­fied, the Ver­cors har­bored more and more un­der­ground fight­ers. By the sum­mer of 1944, they num­bered about 4,500.

Fol­low­ing their lead, we drove up the short, steep road from the Greno­ble area to the aus­tere ceme­tery in Saint-Nizier-duMouchero­tte where sol­diers and Re­sis­tance fight­ers lie un­der fine gravel.

To the chime of the cow­bells nearby, I crouched by Claude’s grave, pic­tur­ing the black-and­white por­trait – a frank, open face; round glasses; and a gently amused smile – that adorned my mother’s night­stand. For decades, it was merely part of my fa­mil­ial back­drop. Now I was over­come with sad­ness.

France was in the throes of a heat wave, but up here, the air was crisp. Above, a bou­quet of rocky spikes named Les Trois Pu­celles (or the Three Maidens) rose like flames into the azure.

Another half-hour drive through rolling hills and mead­ows, and I ar­rived in the jolly re­sort town of

Vil­lard-de-Lans. In the evening, fam­i­lies strolled along pedes­trian streets lined with lively cafes and bou­tiques. But I felt his­tory quiver here, too, just below the sur­face.

Chil­dren waited their turn at the buzzing carousel, across from the mon­u­ment to the many vil­lage dead.

The next morn­ing, we drove up to­ward Col de la Chau, where the Ver­cors Re­sis­tance Memo­rial, a low con­crete struc­ture built to re­sem­ble the Re­sis­tance hide­outs, hugs the con­tours of the rocky moun­tain at the edge of the for­est. I emerged from the fas­ci­nat­ing in­ter­ac­tive ex­hibit onto a belvedere, 300 me­tres above the wide Vassieux plain.

“You see,” said Guil­lon, his green eyes squint­ing, as if peer­ing into the past. “The Re­sis­tance ex­pected the Al­lies to land at Vassieux. In­stead, the Ger­man army did.”

After that fate­ful land­ing on July 21, 1944, the erad­i­ca­tion of the lo­cal Re­sis­tance took only days. Vassieux was de­stroyed.

Men, women and chil­dren were slaugh­tered. This nar­ra­tive is well doc­u­mented with weapons, uni­forms and pho­tographs at the Vassieux Re­sis­tance Mu­seum.

As I walked past a sto­ry­board, Claude’s pic­ture sud­denly jumped out at me: con­firm­ing the eter­nal link be­tween our fam­ily and this re­gion.

Be­yond the rows of Queen Anne’s lace that lined the road to­ward La Chapelle-en-Ver­cors, the peace­ful wheat fields had turned am­ber. The plateau was framed on both sides by el­e­vated rows of rock cov­ered with beech and pine trees.

Hear­ing English spo­ken that evening at Ho­tel Bel­lier, I asked the lively group from Bri­tain what brought them to the re­gion.

“The but­ter­flies!” they an­swered in uni­son as they pro­ceeded to ed­u­cate me about the Ver­cors’ fauna.

Early the next morn­ing, I strolled around quaint Chapelleen-Ver­cors and its many Sec­ond World War mon­u­ments. Most vil­lages were re­built in the early 1950s with the help of or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the As­so­ci­a­tion des Pion­niers du Ver­cors – a group my mother had joined.

It was time to lace up my boots for a hike to the Luire Cave, a mon­u­men­tal one within the forests near Saint-Ag­nan-en-Ver­cors, where med­i­cal staff and pa­tients of a nearby hospi­tal took refuge in July 1944 – only to be dis­cov­ered and butchered days later.

The few sur­vivors in­cluded Lt. Ch­ester L. My­ers of Sec­tion Jus­tine, an OSS Op­er­a­tional group of 15 Amer­i­can ser­vice­men who had parachuted into the area a month ear­lier to help Re­sis­tance fight­ers.

They mirac­u­lously all made it out alive.

The path crunched un­der our feet as we walked through the silent woods, redo­lent of sunny pines but when we ar­rived, groups of vis­i­tors were wait­ing their turn to descend into the rock.

We stopped at the gi­gan­tic mouth of the cave, pic­tur­ing what had tran­spired there all those years ago.

That af­ter­noon as we sat across from the charred Valchevrie­re ru­ins, after a stren­u­ous climb through the woods, Guil­lon said, “School­child­ren I bring here al­ways ask if it’s a me­dieval cas­tle.” We were at 1,160 me­tres, and from above, the for­est re­sem­bled a pointil­list study in green. Here and there, mossy rock for­ma­tions emerged as if they had been pinched by a gi­ant’s hand. In si­lence, a paraglider cir­cled to­ward the clouds.

“It’s the only ham­let that was not re­built,” he said, “They burned ev­ery­thing ex­cept the chapel.”

By the evening of July 23, 1944, over­whelmed by the Ger­man army and with­out the Al­lied help he had been promised, Com­man­dant François Huet gave the or­der to dis­band.

Guil­lon had brought a three-di­men­sional map. We knew Claude had at­tempted to es­cape the nat­u­ral fortress turned trap, but we would never know which path he had taken. Stricken, I pushed open the door of the tiny, peace­ful chapel and, find­ing a guest book, picked up the pen.

“Did you pause here, Claude Falck, on your way out of the Ver­cors?” I wrote. “I hope so.”

And for the first time, I signed, “Your niece, Sylvie.”

If you go

• Re­sis­tance Memo­rial

3425 Col de La Chau, Vassieux-enVer­cors 011-33-4-75-48-26-00 memo­rial-ver­cors.fr

The vis­ual and au­dio in­stal­la­tions plunge the vis­i­tor into the past and tell the story of what hap­pened to the peo­ple of Ver­cors dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Adult ad­mis­sion about $7; chil­dren about $6.

• Re­sis­tance Mu­seum

Rue du Four­nat, Vassieux-enVer­cors 011-33-4-75-48-28-46 ladromem­o­n­tagne.fr

Cre­ated in 1973 by a Re­sis­tance fighter, this mu­seum tells the story of the Ver­cors dur­ing the 20th cen­tury, from the be­gin­ning of the tourism in­dus­try to the war com­mem­o­ra­tions. Ac­tiv­i­ties for chil­dren in­volve ob­jects and mem­o­ra­bilia. Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Adult ad­mis­sion about $6; chil­dren about $4.

• Luire Cave

The Pas­sage, Saint-Ag­nan-enVer­cors 011-33-4-75-48-25-83 grot­tede­laluire.com

The Grotte de la Luire, one of the largest caves in the area, of­fers guided vis­its and spele­ol­ogy lessons. It served as a tem­po­rary refuge for a hospi­tal dur­ing the war un­til it was dis­cov­ered by the Ger­man army (most pa­tients and med­i­cal staff were killed). One of the largest caves in the area, it brings the vis­i­tor into the heart of the moun­tain. Chil­dren will love mak­ing their own can­dles be­fore the de­scent. It gets cold, so bring a sweater, even in the sum­mer.

Open mid-March to early Novem­ber. First tour starts 11 a.m., last tour at 5 p.m. Closed Mon­day and Tues­day. Hours vary by month; check web­site for specifics. Adult ad­mis­sion about $10; chil­dren about $7.

• Saint-Nizier-du-Moucherott­e ceme­tery

1-235 Route de Charvet, Sain­tNizier-du-Moucherott­e 011-33-4-76-53-40-60

This sim­ple but solemn ceme­tery is a na­tional and his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ment to some of the young men and women who lost their lives de­fend­ing France. Open 24 hours daily. Free.

in­spi­ra­tion-ver­cors.com/en

PARC NA­TUREL RE­GIONAL DU VERCOR HAND­OUT PHOTO BY STÉPHANE PRODENT, VIA THE WASHINGTON POST

The Memo­rial de la Re­sis­tance sits on a hill­side in the Ver­cors Mas­sif in France.

WASHINGTON POST PHOTO BY SYLVIE BI­GAR

The Valchevrie­re ham­let, the site of fierce bat­tles be­tween Ger­man forces and French Re­sis­tance fight­ers, was de­stroyed and burned by the Ger­man Army in July 1944.

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