I have just finished reading ‘In This Hospitable Land’ by Lynmar Brock Jr. which is based on the childhood experiences of the author’s wife and her family during WWII. It describes in great detail the trials and tribulations of the two Sauverin brothers, Alex and André, their parents, wives and children as the darkness of the Second World War descends on Europe.
André is a respected professor of chemistry at the Brussels Free University and Alex is an expert in philatelics, earning his living in that field. The brothers are married to two sisters, Denise and Genevieve, and each family has two children. The two families are understandably close, and even live in the same building, with other family members nearby in a comfortable Brussels neighbourhood. They are secular Jews, and do not adhere to any religious belief.
As the Germans conquer first Czechoslovakia and then Poland, triggering declarations of war by France and England, the two families, together with one set of parents, start driving south from their holiday home on the Belgian coast. The book describes every stage of their journey in the black Buick automobile bestowed upon them by a generous relative. Their route takes them first through Belgium, then across the border into northern France, continuing south through Rouen and Orleans, endeavouring to avoid the long lines of French people escaping from the German invaders as they advance south. The family drives along side roads that follow river beds, crossing the Massif Central, eventually reaching Millau, where the Tarn River cuts through the limestone plateau.
The two families were able to continue going south thanks to the special arrangement made by the pre-war French government for according refuge to fleeing Belgians. The two families eventually make their way to the Lozère department in the mountainous Cevennes region, in south-central France. It was in that area that the Protestant Huguenots found refuge after the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, during the French War of Religion.
Initially finding rented accommodation in a large house in the village of Bédouès in June 1940 the families are not made to feel welcome and the two brothers are required to work for the landowner for no pay. Harassed by the local mayor and fearing the worst as news of the German advance into France reaches them, mainly through listening to the radio broadcasts of the BBC, the families feel impelled to move elsewhere once more.
Helped by local inhabitants, the families are able to move to a remote farm-house in a sparsely-inhabited part of the Cevennes. The author provides vivid accounts of the scenery, the roads, the paths, the vegetation, and the land which the brothers, both men in their thirties, are now obliged to farm. Initially unaccustomed to that type of work, by dint of their hard work and determination the brothers manage to sow and reap crops. André’s technical ability enables them to produce chemical fertilizers that cause the soil to be more productive than is the case with the local farmers.
The villagers of the region conspire to spirit the families away when the Vichy authorities show an interest in the whereabouts of the newcomers, concealing them in their homes in even more remote villages and hamlets, obliging the two families to be separated for some of the time. As the war wears on the two brothers become involved in the activities of the Resistance, and are able to make their own contribution to it despite Alex’s pacifist leanings. At times the children are able to go to the local school, while at others they are obliged to remain hidden. For everyone, long-established residents and newcomers alike, these were years of hardship, food shortages, and the need to constantly contend with the elements and the unyielding soil.
The account of the ups and downs and ins and outs of the four or five years the families spent in France is extraordinarily detailed, and this can become somewhat tedious at times. The writing, too, is less than polished, but the intensity of the emotional involvement seems to compensate for the occasional jarring syntax or grammar. By and large, the general picture that emerges is that of the determination of the two brothers to survive and protect their families, and the kindness, nobility, and generosity of the local population.
As the war ends the families return to Brussels to find that, like most of the Jews of Belgium, the majority of their relatives have been deported to Auschwitz and murdered. The two families eventually emigrated to the USA, and the man who married one of the children has written this account on the basis of the recorded recollections of the personages involved and interviews with some of their rescuers in France.