Updated: Apr 24, 2018
One of my earliest readers was Ariane Didisheim, nee LeValliant. Ariane was born in Basel and lived early in Stein am Rhein, a picturesque medieval town in the canton of Schaffhausen in German-speaking Switzerland.
Her daughter, Corinne, is a good friend of mine, and a loyal, insightful reader of my manuscripts.
In her youth, Ariane was a figure-skating champion who was chosen to compete in the 1936
Berlin Olympics. However, being Jewish as well as Swiss, her parents would not allow her to participate. They were frightened, and considered it far too dangerous. They were terribly afraid of Hitler's rising anti-Semitism.
Sixty-six years later, in 2004, Ariane and I discussed my novel, The Resistance Between Us. She paused as we conversed; then her voice became intense with memory as she struggled to describe how it felt to live through an international-political-humanitarian crisis, instead of reading about it in the newspapers.
Ariane said at first official Swiss proclamations and instructions to follow German rule appeared to be rigid—but then would break down for a while when people spoke face-to-face. At that time the populace either broke the rules or simply ignored them. But no one knew how long that would last.
She said she often held her breath in the early days in Stein, not knowing what to expect from their captors. Her family lived only a few hundred footsteps from Nazi Germany, just across the Rhine.
She had crossed the Rhine daily to attend high school on the German side. (Her little town didn't have enough students to have its own school.)
For more than a hundred years, other Swiss and Germans had crossed the river over that bridge to work, pray, shop, visit friends and family, marry, bury their dead—and grow crops and raise animal herds on either side.
Then the flow of everyone's daily existence just stopped. One day the bridge was closed to Ariane and her neighbors. Neither Germans nor Swiss could cross.
She could not go to school. She lost her childhood friends. It became perilous to be a Swiss Jew on the other side of the Rhine. In the past, people on the German side might have known and respected you, but their national political life now ruled them.
The flow of the river negated friendships and erased family ties.
The day the bridge was closed to Ariane and her neighbors was the same day it closed for a Swiss farmer her family knew of who worked his ancestral properties on both sides of the river, straddling the two countries. This farmer, who was Jewish, had his grazing lands in Germany and his farmhouses and barns in Switzerland.
When the border closed without warning, the farmer was compelled to swim across fierce Lake Constance to get home from Germany to Switzerland—no minor feat. (His German friends and field hands broke the law to shepherd his animals back to Switzerland.)
He had to make arrangements for new pasturage and grazing lands because the Reich confiscated all his ancestral farmland.
Then the Austrian Anschluss sent numbers of Austrian Jews fleeing across the Swiss border into Switzerland for safety. By 1938, Ariane knew she must leave Switzerland for England, to continue her figure skating training.
She told me that before she left she argued often with her dad. He was convinced that his Jewish daughter could not cross the German mainland safely by train, and did not want her to go.
He had pleaded for years with his German-Jewish friends who lived across the Rhine to relocate on his side of the river in order to be safe. But his Jewish colleagues had assimilated into the German culture for several generations, and couldn't believe that in the year 1938 a twisted tribal mentality could overtake a highly sophisticated intellectual, scientific and artistic culture like Germany. So they did not leave.
Then German Jews Ariane knew were lost in camps. Christian males she recognized from high school died in the war. Her childhood friends suddenly went missing—just disappeared, and never returned..
By 1939 Ariane had relocated to the United States. She developed her own ice-skating show and toured the United States and Canada until she met and married Georges Didisheim. Ironically, Georges was French-speaking, from La Chaux-de-Fonds, along the Swiss border near the Doubs. Ariane spoke German and had a French last name—and Georges spoke French and had a German last name.
This all happened in the real-life towns and countryside one reads about in The Resistance Between Us, in the area surrounding fictional Duchamps. Stories and people who emerge in the book could have been real. Their stories are especially poignant because so many happened in an area of France made of rivers, streams, forests and mountains, to courageous people like Ariane and her father, and a farmer who had to swim mighty Lake Constance to save his life and his livelihood—all in a time of war, a time of horror, that is never far from our minds—and appears regularly in our newspapers, today.
copyright March 2018; all rights reserved