Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Narrow Escape


 Descending to La Chatreuse, August 8, 1944
As I was plummeting back through time to Fort Saint André to mediate the battle between the French and the Holy Roman Empire (see previous entry), the mistral unexpectedly let up, and I parachuted precariously down into the courtyard of La Chartreuse. It was August 8, 1944, and yet another battle was raging. WWII was peaking in Europe, and Villeneuve-lez-Avignon, as many other towns in France, was occupied by German forces. What I observed here was a piece of the history of which few are aware. The Allied forces were preparing to launch Operation Dragoon to liberate the south of France. An American plane sent to destroy bridges and rail lines along the Rhone River was hit by German artillery above Villeneuve, splitting the plane in half and killing most of the crew. There were two survivors. One, Louis Capawana, parachuted from the plane and, much like me, came down right in the courtyard of La Chartreuse. The second survivor, R.S Hirsh, landed in a field just outside the cloister and was rescued by members of the French Resistance. Unfortunately Capawana's parachute got tangled on a chimney, and he was stuck in mid air, unable to free himself. The Germans had spotted the two men coming down and were in full pursuit as soon as the air raid sirens stopped. Both men's lives were in great danger.
Area where Capawana's parachute got stuck

But the Germans were not the only ones who had spotted Capawana and Hirsh descending toward Villeveuve. Seventeen year old Robert Zurbach, who was in an air raid shelter in the Fort Saint André at the time, and members of the the French Resistance (Maquis), had also spotted them. Robert and a few friends courageously ran back to La Chartreuse and found Capawana suspended from the roof with his feet on a window ledge, unable to undo his harness. They hurried to the window and managed to free him and bring him inside one of the cells. By then the Germans were hot on his trail. Robert and friends took Capawana to another cell occupied by a family with a young daughter. They changed his American uniform for a pair of French blue work overalls. To cover his true identity, they then put their daughter in his arms to make him look like her father, and rushed him to a back exit of La Chatreuse where he was smuggled off to Apt by members of the French Resistance. Both Capawana and Hirsh were later safely reunited with their American unit in Corsica.
In 1998, fifty four years after being rescued the French Resistance in the field outside La Chartreuse, R.S Hirsh, the only remaining survivor, came back to Villeneuve and was reunited with Robert and the other rescuers.
Robert visiting the Chartreuse 2012

 Robert Zurbach is now 85 years old and still lives within the ramparts of La Chartreuse, right down the street from my friend, Helene, on Rue des Greniers. He has his own home, simple but comfortable, and a plot of land nearby with a vegetable garden and 21 olive trees which he cares for with love. 

In this day and age, it is hard to imagine someone like Robert who still lives only a few hundred meters from the place he was born and raised. Perhaps it is the thick, stone walls of the ramparts that gave him protection so long ago that still give him comfort today. Or it might be the delicious olive oil that he presses from his olive trees down the road. But he seems perfectly happy with his life, and fondly remembers that August 8, 1944, when an American, just like me, fell from the sky and landed in his front yard.

NOTE:
Robert telling his story - Foto Helene Thevenet
In 1944, no monks lived in the La Chartreuse. After the French Revolution in 1789 the land was expropriated and given over to the people of France. La Chartreuse became a haven for those who had nowhere else to live. Robert and his grandparents were among those living there in 1944 when this event occurred. On November 4, 2012, My friend Helene and I took Robert back to the place that he spent the first twenty one years of his life. He had not been back inside since 1995, as it now costs 7 Euros to enter the historic monument. When we explained Robert's story, they gave him free entry for the remainder of his life. It was a pleasure to see his reaction to his return "back home", and to hear the amazing stories that being there brought back to mind. Strange how even war can bring back fond memories.
Robert's childhood home in La Chartreuse
1917-1948
Ft. St. André as viewed from La Chartreuse


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