ASYLUM: Crossing the Pyrenees, 3/4
This is the story of how Marie-Rose Ourabah, daughter of François and Hélène Tosquelles, escaped Spain after her father was sentenced to death by Franco in 1939. In this part, Marie-Rose and her mother, Hélène, make the perilous crossing into France and face life as refugees.
After I had my hair trimmed today, I trimmed a few rose bushes. A little. Before, it was an intervention that I easily performed. Today I am no longer what I was. I work in stages, as with our exchanges. Frequent pauses; deep armchair!
So, let's come back to this night. See, dear Ben, I am four and a half years old. Maman holds my hand. We walk on a steep, stony path. What are we doing here? In the sky, a phenomenal moon, round like I have never seen. Its blond colour illuminates a magical landscape. A flurry of mountains. Dark wells. A horizon jagged with sharp peaks. It is grand, magnificent, mysterious. It might be a dream; it isn't.
In front of us three strangers move in silence. Who are they? In the lead, a man who wears a large dark cloak, perhaps a houppelande? He is holding a long stick. Not a cane to lean on but a strong, sturdy stick that accompanies the swaying of each step. A man and a woman follow him. They carry a trunk.
Maman has a small suitcase. She doesn't say anything. I ask:
"Where are we going?"
"Be quiet," Maman says, squeezing my hand tighter. "Walk."
Of course, yes, I walk, but still... She didn't answer my question. I hope that where we go there will be a bed, because children usually go to bed at night, at least that's how it was for me. It does not take long for me to renew my request for an answer.
"Shhh!" Over and over again, then Maman leans over and says almost in a low voice, "We're going to see daddy." Ah! So that's it. I look up at the sky:
"Does Papa see the same moon?"
"Yes," Maman says. So, I smile at this friendly moon that dad also sees and this gives my little legs a little more courage. I walk, but Maman carries me much more often...
When the shepherd answers, I hear cries and lamentations: the smuggler betrayed us, we are still in Spain, with all the danger that this represents.
And now it's daylight. We are still on the way. Maman stumbles, lets go of my hand and the suitcase, loses her balance, slides on her backside down the slope. She hangs on, gets back on the path. More fear than harm. She just broke the glass of the wristwatch she was wearing on her wrist. We take the road again, in this open space and now the leading man shows with his stick a point in the valley. He won't go any further. We have arrived. Maman, the man and the woman give money to the man and he leaves.
As we descend into the valley, we begin to see the landscape more clearly. Finally a hut, an old man seated and a flock of sheep. When he answers the travellers' questions, I hear cries and lamentations: the smuggler betrayed us, we are still in Spain, with all the danger that this represents. (Doesn't that remind you of stories of smugglers in the Mediterranean, or in the English Channel? History is eternally repeating.) The old shepherd says that his nephew is used to the mountains. They will lead us.
I don't understand a thing that's said. We're going to see dad. Everything is fine.
We rest before leaving with the young shepherd. If the path has been difficult so far, what lies ahead is much worse. An obligatory passage, cut into the cliff, so narrow that you can only enter in single file. Maman has tied a muffler around my waist and she holds me in front of her guiding my every step. Proceed with caution, look where you put your feet. The precipice is there. The shepherd watches closely, lest we lose our balance.
At last we leave the mountains but the journey is not over. There is still a long way to go but I am not unhappy since the young shepherd has now taken me on his shoulders. The walk is faster and I watch as streams pass below me without any difficulty.
A dark night has caught up with us. In a half-ruined chapel, the young man lights a fire. Under this roof, between these walls, we are safe. We are in France, above Prats-de-Mollo. When it is daylight we will descend into the valley and he will go back to his sheep. Maman warms some milk for me, and I fall asleep in her arms.
In the morning, wonder of wonders: the snow has fallen overnight. My first snow! I have never seen such splendour. This dazzling whiteness! That sparkle! These padded mountains, adorned. And while I'm in contemplation, the grown-ups are holding a meeting, to find out what it is best to do now that we see the city skyline and arrive in broad daylight.
One day, as I jump on the bed, the door opens and a gentleman enters. He has a moustache and glasses. "He's your daddy," Maman says.
Here we are in a heated room. Maman is seated and I lean on her thigh. There are unknown men and, of course, we two travellers. They all speak and what they say flies over my head. I look at Maman with astonishment and concern. Tears roll down her cheeks. In principle, mothers don't cry, so if Maman cries, it means the situation is serious.
My mother later explained to me that these strange men were gendarmes who were planning to take us back to the border. She told them she would rather die on the spot than go back, because it would be death for her anyway but there was no recourse.
No papers, say the gendarmes: back to Spain. But out of compassion they allow us a night's rest at the local hotel. In the morning they will come and get us. Thankfully, the woman at the hotel has another plan:
"Tomorrow, when the gendarmes come, I will say that I have not seen you."
She leads us upstairs to the attic. There is a large bed. She gives us lentils to eat. This is the first time I have eaten them. At night, she comes to get my mother so that she can phone my father. Time passes quietly, I always find some game to play. I do not get bored. One day, as I jump on the bed, the door opens and a gentleman enters. He has a moustache and glasses. I extend my hand politely:
"He's your daddy," Maman says.
This is the first image I have of my dad. I don't remember him before this meeting. Obviously, we saw each other intermittently during these four years of war, but I have no recollection of it. I knew my father as a photograph. Mother relates that, as a child, I rushed into the legs of all men with glasses and a moustache, but it was never him, hence my reservations on this day meeting him, December 6, 1940.
Returning to our journey: the Prefect of Lozère, Mr. Cordesse, had made an official pass for my father - a fake - saying that François Tosquelles, his wife and his daughter, residents for a year in the hospital at Saint-Alban, were authorised to go to Perpignan as tourists. It was this document that allowed my father to travel freely and to collect us from where we hid.
That year, in October, there had been severe flooding. The rivers Tet and Tech had come out of their beds, turned into torrents: a catastrophe. They had taken roads and bridges, villages, men, animals. I don't know how we left Prats-de-Mollo for Perpignan but we had to go on foot. I remember we left the hotel at night, lit by an oil lamp. My father slipped on a patch of ice, broke his glasses and injured his shin. We could no longer walk then. We took the train from Perpignan station to Saint-Chély d'Apcher.
Then a gap in my memory until the arrival at Saint-Alban. I am between my parents in the hospital car which traces a ray of light on the icy road, and the moon is again shining. The village is asleep, the buildings widely spread out on the hillside, but also in the south, on the plain. At the time, this vast basin was only marshy pastures. On this extremely cold night, under snow and frost, it is a fairyland. We are driving over a vast sparkling expanse, a crystal-clear lake filled with mystery. At the other end, what seems to me a dark barrier like a fortification. The closer we get, the more I can see what makes up this barrier. We enter the village.
A sparsely lit street, enclosed between dark walls, closed doors and windows. Sometimes a gleam behind a window pierces the night. And then here we are with people, still strangers. A man, a woman. There are two children. A boy a little taller than me, a girl like me. They are looking at me. I look at them. They speak a language that I do not understand. Unsurprising, since they are the children of the land of the moon. When it's time to leave, the woman takes me under her arm like a bundle, because the snow is deep, and then we are in what will be our house: the little house near the cemetery, the house of the resurgence.
Tomorrow, in the final part, Marie-Rose reflects on the impact of her early experiences as an asylum-seeker, on her self-image, her life's decisions and on the plight of refugees today.