Killing Fields

Interview with Hermine Venot-Focké,
French Medical Volunteer

Hermine Venot-Focké Q: Was the war what you expected it would be?

Venot-Focké: French people really didn't expect at all that the war was going to take place. Everybody said, "In three months' time everything will be finished, it will be over."

We really believed that the French army would perform miracles, that it would reach Berlin in 48 hours, no more than that. We didn't think for one moment that the war would go on for so long or that it would be so cruel.

...The French men left with flowers, everybody was giving them flowers. And they were at the doors of the train, and they were saying that in 48 hours we are going to come back. So nobody believed, we thought that the Germans were not going to come into France at all, so we sacrificed Belgium because we didn't realize that the Germans were so strong and that the Germans were ready to invade France. We didn't think there was any reason for the Germans to come into France.

Q: Where were you when the war began?

Venot-Focké: I was in the village in school, it was like a convent so obviously all the nuns had a very particular mentality so they told us, "Well my children, it is not your concern, pray for your father, pray for the world." But nothing was said. We were just really protected, and nobody would tell us anything. Life was obviously difficult; we had very bad food, the food was dreadful because there was nothing they could give to us. The bread was always rotten, nothing then was quite organized, so we were dependent on the people who were running the school...

Q: Did you hear from your father while he was away?

Venot-Focké: There were posters all over saying, "Shut up," "Be quiet." So every time we received a letter..., we were forbidden to tell where was our father or our family, so nobody would know where the soldiers were.... We got used to not saying anything. But French Calais at the time was very joyful -- everybody was cheerful. French people in the street were singing some very nice songs -- very jolly songs. But people said, "Don't write and tell where you are...." We didn't know where my father was at the end. We had to wait for him to return, and then he would tell us where he was.

Of course every time a soldier would return, everybody would tell us where he came from, so it was difficult to hide our joy, but the poor soldiers who returned were in a bad state. You know, their clothes were getting really damaged, and there was blood on their clothes, but there were no other clothes to get changed, so it was a really bad war. It was really dreadful.

Q: Can you describe your father's return?

Venot-Focké: My father was trying to hide everything nasty. He didn't want us to know all about it. My mother was quite a nervous person, very fragile, so my father was trying to make jokes. He kept on saying, "Oh don't worry about it, the war is going to end very quickly," as he didn't want to worry us. So a lot of French people at the time had that same mentality.... He was making jokes about everything, even if he didn't feel like it.

My mother was an artist who sacrificed her life, then, because the opera was closed, [she started] singing in the hospitals and she went to sing at the Front, but she didn't take me along because it was quite dangerous.... But she took me to the hospital. I have very cruel memories about visiting hospitals.

Q: Do you have any memories that are especially vivid?

Venot-Focké: I still remember today, there was a young man who was in his bed and he was about 18 years old, and I thought he was sleeping, so I asked the nurse if he was sleeping. The nurse replied to me that in fact he was dying and that he was waiting for his mother to come. The young soldier was English, and obviously there was no way that his mother could cross over the Channel to come to visit him, because all the boats were only for the soldiers. So for two days he was dying, but still waiting for his mother to visit. I was very moved, and he felt that there was someone next to him, and he brought out his arms and I took his hands, and I was really upset; the fact that I knew as a child his mother wasn't going to come. So I gave him the kiss that he expected. I never forgot that scene, I gave him the kiss, then he died.

Q: Can you describe your feelings about the war at that time?

Venot-Focké: For us it was just a war that was taking away all our beloved ones. And as a child, [I] just didn't understand much because, as a child, all that was important was the food, and we were not very happy since the food was bad. We were getting those nasty animals in our food. But even if the food was bad it didn't stop us from growing.

My mother was singing all over the place, in hospitals. My mother said I [would] have to get used to it and have to control myself -- not to be moved by what I was going to see and not to look at those injured soldiers. My mother said I was going to see very cruel things and I must not worry, and [that] I had to be pleasant and smile. She said, "You just have to say the poems that you usually say." So she was introducing me saying, "My daughter is going to read some poetry." She said that my father was a soldier like them, so I was going to read them the poems that I thought was going to please my father. So it was just poetry of the time. I don't even remember them. It was just poems that were written for the soldiers only. It was just the idea that it was much more important that there were things written for them, especially seeing a young girl reading those poems. I was just like a child, and I was told that I had to be kind to them. So I was kissing the ones that wanted me to give them a hug.

Q: Why do you think Germany wanted to take over France?

Venot-Focké: ...French people didn't understand because the French people were not interested in invading any other country. France was sufficient for us and that is the reason why we didn't understand why the Germans were there.... We knew that Germany wanted to expand their country, they wanted more land but we didn't think they were so cruel, like afterwards.

Q: How do you remember the war coming to an end?

Venot-Focké: Even today, sometimes I don't even know whether it happened in the First World War or the second one. For example, the arrival of the Americans. We were talking about it but we didn't really expect to see them. That was quite extraordinary. Within a few days, suddenly we saw them and we saw all the American flags. So obviously it was the French people who did all the American flags. Everybody was quite quiet about it -- it was quite curious at the time.

I remember when the end of the war was announced, everybody in the street was so happy and you would see all these soldiers walking around. So that is why we were so happy to see the Americans, you know, at every corner of the street. You would see people crying that the war was over, because obviously a lot of them lost a lot of their family. The 11th of November was something fantastic. It was joyful for the people and at the same time you would see people against the wall crying.... I had never kissed so many people in my entire life.

Note: Red text is available in RealAudio.

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