I live in an apartment in Dijon, France that is centrally located between the train station and the original Maille mustard shop where tourists come to sample the sinus-clearing condiments that the town is famous for.Our home is situated off a pleasant side street that remains quiet even during the bustling hours of the week.We have a view out of our third-floor window onto the gothic Saint-Benigne cathedral with the gold, red and green roof tiles traditional to the Burgundy region.
In the foreground of the cathedral, stands a slightly newer stone building.It’s a residence like ours, but one that also houses the offices of a psychotherapist and a dentist, both on the ground floor.Its north side is covered in lush green ivy.
This building was also, once, the headquarters of the Gestapo.
The first time my wife’s grandfather came to visit us after we’d moved in, he handed Haribo candies to his two great-granddaughters and then glanced out of the living room window.
“Ça porte malheur, cet immeuble,” he intoned in a lower voice.The building carried woe or bad luck, as he said.
The rest of the family rolled their eyes.They’d heard the war stories before.They also knew that anyone asking questions about it, like I usually did, opened his storytelling floodgates.
He told of passing by the building and hearing screams, of knowing people who were dragged in never to come out and how he and his friends, then in their mid-teens, would dare one another to throw rocks at the place.
He described the daily life of the city.He talked of bread lines where people stood for hours with ration tickets that were useless if the supply ran out.He talked of the suspicion that grew among the people as neighbors ratted out one another for conspiring.
In one story, he and his friend snuck out after the imposed nighttime curfew to steal vegetables from gardens just outside the city limits.They slipped by the guards unnoticed, but on the way back with their shirttails wrapped around unearthed carrots and potatoes, they were spotted.The guard approached them, shook the vegetables out of their shirts and told them to go home immediately or else be thrown in jail.They escaped back to town and never tried to again.On this night and in multiple ways for these four long years, he was one of the very lucky ones.
My wife and her family told their Papi to stop bothering Nat.“First, the Americans had to rescue us and now we have to bore them with these old stories,” my father-in-law laughed, a joke which I never knew exactly how to respond to.
I explained that all this is fascinating.I offered my side and said that my father’s father fought in the Pacific during the War, which they seemed equally astonished by, as if I’d told them my grandpa was Gary Cooper.The conversation changed to lighter topics and tinier, contemporary struggles of place, community and family.
Once everybody left, I went to my window again.The sun shone down onto the roof of the building before us.People walked casually in and out.
And I stared, cleaved in two by how comfortable and painless our lives in this year presently are.
I recently changed dentists and decided to make an appointment with the man across the street.I chose it out of convenience, always finding annual checkups a nuisance and wanting them over with quickly.
I arrived on time, first thing in morning.The building that houses the office is tall for the city of Dijon, at seven stories.That day, it cast a long shadow over the courtyard before its entrance.After stepping inside, I noticed the interior stone walls and wooden spiral staircase that probably hadn’t been replaced since the original structure was built.The intercom, with its small copper buttons, had the air of turn-of-the-century belle époque.All of it had survived vile times.
Official records of what happened in this building from August 1940 to September 1944 were burned when the Gestapo left the city as Nazi retreat began.All that remains are scattered first-hand accounts, which, from certain survivors, is nearly unbearable to read.They recount enduring some of the lowest depths of a human’s capacity for cruelty and sadism toward its own kind.
But there is no current historical reminder of this building’s past save for an engraved plaque “In Memory” on the courtyard wall.
After signing in with the receptionist, I was shown to the waiting room.The empty room featured a handful of folding chairs and an end-table of tattered magazines.The white walls held no pictures and no decoration.The only light came from the high window and a lamp posed on the floor, as though it had just been brought in.
I’ve never believed that a dwelling can be physically haunted by the presence of past inhabitants.Though on this morning, I was testing the thin limit of that belief.I realized I’d probably made a mistake in coming here.What was I thinking?I was about to lie back in a chair and let someone jam tools in my mouth in a building once inhabited by Nazis interrogators.Worse, I was dishonoring the fragile memory here.I was more or less ignoring the atrocities on this site.I restrained my imagination from alighting on ideas of what this very waiting room might have once been used for.
Then, the dentist called my name.
“Bonjour,” he smiled at me, his blue mask pulled down around his neck.He apologized for the wait and explained they were a little disorganized today.
He had a white head of hair and reddish face and a bear-like build.His voice was low and soothing.He started talking to me about sealant for cracks in the teeth, which can be a common source of cavities.He was slightly obsessed with sealant, in fact.He asked me where I was from and for the rest of the appointment tested his English by pointing to objects around the room.I tried to respond correctly through the tube sucking drool out of my mouth.“A dwill, yah iss a dwill.”
I had planned, at some point, to ask about the history of the building.He must have been in his mid-sixties, born perhaps during the occupation.He must have stories himself.As with my wife’s grandfather, I couldn’t even begin to imagine.There’d be so many questions.
But here we were having a lovely time.I hesitated on how to introduce the subject out of nowhere until I finally understood that mentioning Nazis and one the most excruciating periods of the country’s recent history would be marginally inappropriate at best and hideously offensive at worst.Who was I, this kid who’d waited too long for a dental exam brought into the world on faraway, unintruded soil during prosperous peacetime years?
So instead, I asked him about the fluoride treatment he’d be giving me.He dabbed the gel on my teeth and gums.I kept my mouth shut.
“Make sure you don’t drink juice or wine for the next three hours or anything that might stain your teeth” he paused.“That means, you have to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden with champagne.”
He winked down at me.
On the 8th of May, France observes VE Day, Victory in Europe, or as it is known here Victoire 1945.This year it falls on a Sunday, meaning no day off work, the main source of discussion this year.
It also follows the news at the beginning of the week that the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, had been shot dead by American Navy Seals, in an operation approved and overseen by President Barack Obama.The calendar date when this news spread throughout the world matches the date precisely, 66 years ago, that the announcement was made of Adolf Hitler’s death.
The two events in history are not the same, though I can’t see them as completely antithetical either.
The pain of Nazis occupation is still felt on this soil; it lingers through generations, in the bruised memory of those who lived through it and in the subconscious of the country whose arc of history it shaped.There are times I think the demons are still being wrestled with.
There are other times where everyone has moved on.
I’d heard the news about bin Laden’s death just before my appointment.But my mind was busy with older history.Walking out of the dentist’s office, I hurried back home to check the humming feeds on that morning’s news.Relief popped from everywhere, along with talk of victory.
I opened my window to let in the warming air.I looked across the street with the taste of fluoride in my mouth.I thought of doing something to celebrate.Maybe it was too early for champagne.
A real triumph resounds over decades.You hear it as a slow roar of hope in the unassuming coexistence of others, in a man practicing proper dental care on a one-time site of tragedy and in Americans analyzing the busted fragments of the last ten years. We are here, and elsewhere, in all the silent buildings still left standing.