The town of Natzwiller, located in the Vosges mountains about 40 kilometres southwest of Strasbourg is today, a charming French tourist town. Above the town sits the former estate of Struthof, once a popular skiing retreat, but during World War II, the scene of a darker purpose.
It is here my story unfolds.
I was sitting in the Gasthof Dubois having a glass of excellent French wine when my gaze suddenly focused on a clear, corked wine bottle sitting atop a corner cupboard. The bottle appeared to contain a tied cylinder of paper.
As I walked over for a closer examination, a sudden voice asked:
“Monsieur, you wish to know?”
Turning, I observed the elderly proprietor watching me.
“Yes, I would be very interested. It seems a curious object to have on display.”
He smiled. “One moment, monsieur, I will get it down so you can observe more closely.” He reached up, grasped the bottle and reverently placed it on my table. “I dust it every week,” he announced proudly. “Now, look closely and tell me what you see.”
“Well, besides the rolled paper which is tied with what appears to be a piece of black, rag, I see a tiny pearl.”
“Ah yes, the pearl. It belonged to the Countess Marville.”
“Countess Marville? Who was she?”
“Eine Minute, my friend. First tell me what else arouses your curiosity?”
“Well…the rolled paper-it looks like fine parchment.”
“Oui, you are correct. It is the Countess’s personal stationery, complete with embossed crest.”
“Is there writing on the paper?”
“Oui, monsieur. There are four words: pitiless, gabardine, mystify, cabinet.”
Odder and Odder, I thought. “And the rag?”
“A scrap of uniform worn by members of the Nazi SS,” he replied, his face darkening in anger.
“And the Countess?”
“That, my friend is where I begin…
“It was 1941 when two noticeable events occurred in our town. First, was the arrival of the Countess; however, we did not know her as a countess, we only knew her as Madame Rousseau. She had opened a little trinket shop on the Hauptstrasse, but her main attraction was the telling of fortunes. The second event was the dreaded arrival of SS troops. They had come to administer the construction of an extermination camp on the hill of le Struthof. It was to be the only camp of its kind in France. They were using mainly French prisoners as labourers. I will not go into the heinous details as you have seen the camp for itself.
“Now, each evening after Madame Rousseau closed her shop, she would come to the Gasthof for a glass of wine. It was here that she would mystify us with her fortune-telling. She used a variety of methods: sometimes the tarot cards, sometimes the tea leaves and sometimes she used a crystal ball which she kept on my cabinet. Mon dieu, she was clever! She could speak fluent German and Italian and oh how she could massage the egos of those arrogant Nazis!
“Those enchanting evenings in the Gasthof when the soldiers did not come, would make us forget momentarily the dreadful things going on around us.
“It was the first week of August in 1942 that the ‘great event’, as we liked to call it, took place in our town.
“There had been heightened Nazi activity at the camp that week and it was rumoured (later confirmed) that a high-ranking SS officer was going to be visiting. Apparently, he and his staff wished to personally escort a recently captured Resistance leader to Gestapo Headquarters in Paris. The camp commandant whom we called ‘le commandant impitoyable’ or pitiless had demanded we host an evening of entertainment for himself, some of his officers and the visiting dignitaries. I, François Dubois, was incensed! To entertain those contemptuous louts was bad enough; but to be ‘commanded’!”
Madame Rousseau disagreed. I remember she said, ‘Be patient, François, your outrage is admirable; it means your courage has not left you. Events are unfolding and your cooperation is imperative. I promise you those arrogant Nazis will have an unforgettable, and hopefully, a regrettable evening.”
“And so we planned a gala party. There would be music, some of the best wine from my hidden stock and, of course, Madame’s fortune-telling."