Henriette Picard rubbed her eyes and pulled the thin blanket around her small shoulders.
“Henriette, wake up!” “Maman?” The little girl mumbled through the fog of sleep. She smelled the fire burning in the hearth and relaxed a moment listening to its crackling. For a moment Henriette thought it was morning, until she remembered that they slept by day and traveled by night. Her entire world had been turned upside down.
“Non, ma cherie. It’s Lydia. Wake up and eat. We must go soon. Tomorrow you will be safe and we can all rest.”
She sat up and a shiver passed through her slight body. With her fingertips she touched her ribs beneath her blue wool sweater, knitted by her mother in the last weeks before her departure, and which was still not enough to keep her warm. There had not been much to eat these last few months since the Germans arrived in France. Maman and Papa had grown thin as well, but from worry as well as lack of food. At ten years old, Henriette noted the new lines on their faces and their rare, sad smiles, and knew that that they feared the future. Many Jews had already been sent east, to German work camps. They thought they might be safe in St. Etienne, a small town near the coast of the Bay of Biscay. But the Vichy government seemed out to prove that they were as ruthless as the Germans, and the net was closing in.
Now Henriette and two other children from the village were on their way to Spain – to safety. She sat up on the narrow bed, pushing back the memory of her farewell to her parents two days ago. She did not understand why they could not leave with her. They had business to take care of, they said, and would follow soon. Her brother was in England, and they would all be together there soon. Henriette had seen the hopelessness in their tired eyes, and wondered if they believed their own words.
Lydia called again to the children to hurry. Lydia was an Englishwoman, tall and slender with brown hair, but she spoke French like a native. She told Henriette that she had two little girls at home in England, and they were safe with their grandparents. She had come to France on this dangerous mission because she wanted to help other children find safety. Now she came to Henriette, who had pulled on her shoes and tied the laces. She ran her fingers through her dark curls and felt the familiar tears burning the back of her eyes. With all her body and mind she wanted her mother’s hands to comb her hair and tie it back.
“My comb will never get through your curls,” Lydia said, as she gently smoothed the top layer of the little girl’s thick mane. Her touch was light, but the comb still pulled and Henriette flinched. “Sorry,” Lydia said. “My little girls have straight hair. Well, straighter than yours, and they have some waves.”
Henriette bit the inside of her bottom lip until it hurt. She did not want to hear about Lydia’s daughters right now. She wanted her mother, but if she could not have her, she wanted this kind English woman all to herself. She pulled away from Lydia’s touch. “I have to go to the toilet,” she said.
Henriette was the last one to run outside to relieve herself, and then she joined the others in the kitchen where Lydia and the farm woman, in whose house they had slept, were handing out fragrant bread and cheese, along with small cups of warm milk. Henriette hated warm milk, and here on the farm she knew it came directly from the cow. She gagged it down because she knew she needed her strength, and watched as the two older children drank their milk down without a qualm. There was a girl named Rose who was eleven, and a boy Michel who was twelve. Rose was several inches taller than Henriette, and had developed small breasts, which meant that she saw herself as a young woman. She barely spoke to the younger girl, and when she did it was to point out some babyish action of Henriette’s, such as her inability to walk as fast as the others, or the way she reached for Lydia’s hand in difficult sections of the trail. Michel liked to spend his time with the men who led the way up the mountain trail. He made suggestions about when to stop and eat and whether the “women” were getting tired. Jacques and Louis listened to him and considered what he said, but Henriette saw the men exchange glances, and knew they thought of him as a boy.
Lydia was stuffing more bread and cheese and a few apples into her rucksack.
“We need to go, children,” she said. “Jacques and Louis are waiting for us.”
Lydia made sure the three children were bundled securely in their jackets, scarves, hats and gloves. Since they traveled at night and had begun to climb in the mountains, the air was frigid as soon as the sun disappeared. As the youngest, Henriette received extra attention from Lydia. She tucked the little girl’s dark hair behind her ears and pulled the scarf snug so it created a tight bond around her neck. Henriette inhaled the woman’s smell as Lydia put her face close to hers. She did not have the same scent as her own mother, but her caring gestures reminded her of her mother just the same. Henriette felt tears in her eyes and blinked. She did not want Lydia to be nice to her! She clenched her fists, wishing she could hit this kind woman who came from England to escort her to safety. The effort to control this mix of anger and helplessness made her want to cry. She couldn’t cry. Her mother told her not to cry, and even though she had given in on the first day and sobbed quietly when they left the village, she knew she must not. The older children did not cry, and Henriette did not want to be thought a baby.
There was a quiet knock on the door, and the farm woman, who had introduced herself only as Madame Claude, opened the door to admit Jacques and Louis. A rush of cold air came in with them, and they rubbed their hands together briskly. They were both of average height, with dark hair that looked as if they had not seen a barber in some time. Louis was thin and younger than Jacques. Jacques had broad shoulders and his stomach bulged slightly over his belt, although he told them he had lost considerable weight since the Germans had invaded France. He blamed the loss both on the lack of good food and the exercise he got working with the French Underground. They didn’t speak this evening, but accepted the mugs of something hot that the woman gave them, nodded at Lydia, and smiled slightly at the children. Lydia had told the children that they would be in Spain tonight. Then they would be safe and could travel in the daytime. They were all looking forward to a good rest and good food.
“We’re ready,” Lydia said softly to the two men. Henriette moved to stand close to her. Michel and Rose saw her step near Lydia, and Henriette stepped away again.
“Baby,” Michel said in an undertone meant only for the children to hear. “You shouldn’t be here. You will get us all killed. You should have stayed with your maman.” He glanced at the adults, who stood together in the chill twilight. Their voices were inaudible to the children, but their faces were serious.
Since the adults were otherwise occupied, the two older children moved to stand one on each side of Henriette. “Are you going to cry tonight?” Rose asked. “Like you cry every night?”
“I don’t cry every night,” Henriette answered, crinkling her face in anger.
“Aha!” Michel said. A quick glance at the adults told him that they were still talking, and he took the opportunity to pinch Henriette’s ear. She stifled a cry, which she knew would only bring on more harassment.
Rose smiled in her superior manner. “But you do cry some nights. And I heard you crying in your sleep today. “’Maman! Papa!’ you said. You know they will be dead soon.”
“No!” Henriette replied, her voice louder than she intended. Lydia turned at looked at her, but said nothing. She was listening intently to Jacques and Louis.
“Never mind,” Michel said. “We will probably all be dead soon.” He looked around to see who was watching, and then pointed his forefinger at Henriette’s chest. “Bang! The Germans will get you. They like killing little children, you know.”
The three adults stopped talking and began to pull on gloves and scarves and gather their rucksacks. Jacques moved close to Lydia as they began to break apart and leaned close to whisper in her ear. Her eyes widened. “Of course,” She turned to the children. “Remember,” she began, her voice just above a whisper, but firm and confident. “Stay together. Walk quickly and quietly. Look out for each other. We will be looking out for all of you.”
Rose and Michel exchanged a last smirk and Rose poked Henriette in the side. Even through her sweater, she felt the pain and the beginning of tears. She swallowed and stuck her tongue out at Rose. Louis saw what she did and frowned. He rarely spoke to the children, and Henriette had the impression that he did not like them very much.
Lydia adjusted her own scarf and shouldered her pack. She was dressed in brown – brown wool coat, brown trousers for walking and sturdy brown leather shoes. But her scarf was red. She had never said anything about it, but Henriette thought the English woman wanted a touch of color, of beauty, as she went about her mission. She admired that quality in her. People said the English were drab and boring, and had no appreciation of culture and beauty, but Henriette did not believe that was true. This sense of beauty that Lydia possessed made Henriette’s heart reach out to her, but she could never let her know. Letting this woman know how much she admired her would be a betrayal to Henriette’s mother, and the little girl could never do that.
Lydia nodded to Jacques and Louis, and Jacques opened the door. The three adults and three children slipped out into the growing darkness.
Jacques and Louis scanned the clearing around the house and turned their heads to indicate that it was clear. It was nearly dark, and a slight breeze had picked up, intensifying the cold. Henriette pulled her scarf more closely around her face. She hated this! They had walked through the forest for three nights, sleeping by day in a farmhouse belonging to a partisan. Last night they had begun to climb a steep path in the mountains, and they would do the same tonight. This was the last night. Before dawn they would cross into Spain, and although there was still a considerable distance before they reached a safe refuge, at least they could walk during the day and sleep in warm beds at night. And they would be safe from the Germans. Henriette had no idea why the Germans hated Jews so, especially Jewish children. She had never heard of anyone who wished harm on children. And although she knew that Jews were different from other people in their beliefs and customs, weren’t they human beings like everyone else? She had never felt that anyone wished her harm – until now.
The group crossed the farmyard at a brisk pace and entered the darkness of the forest. The trees were not as thick now that they had reached a higher altitude in the Pyrenees, but Jacques and Louis knew the most hidden footpaths. The two older children stuck close to the men as they entered the wooded area. Henriette walked just behind them and Lydia followed at the rear. Lydia glanced back once at the house, where smoke curled from the chimney, before quickening her steps until she caught up with Henriette and reached for her hand. The little girl accepted her touch and tightened her fingers around Lydia’s. Her anger was forgotten, at least for the moment. The dark forest frightened her, and she felt the tension of the group. Even though she could not see them very well, she sensed that Jacques and Louis were watching and listening intently to their surroundings. If they heard the slightest sound, or saw an unexpected light in the blackness, they would stop.
It had happened the previous night. The group had been climbing, just as they were now. They were about an hour into their climb, and Henriette was concentrating on placing one foot in front of the other. She was cold, and one of her stockings had slipped down inside her boot. It was uncomfortable and might create a blister, but she knew they would not stop just so she could pull up her stocking. She focused on lengthening her strides so she could keep pace with the older children and avoid being called a baby. She almost collided with Rose when Jacques and Louis signaled a stop. Everyone froze in place and made their breathing as hushed as possible. Henriette could feel Lydia behind her, and felt protected by the woman’s presence. Jacques mouthed the words, “I heard something.”
A gunshot blasted the air, but it was far down the hill. Jacques motioned to Lydia and Henriette to take the lead. That was what they did if there was danger. Lydia and Henriette walked ahead, followed by Michel and Rose, and Jacques and Louis at the back of the line. The men listened and guarded the rear, ready to shoot if they needed to. The men would protect the others, and Lydia and the children would run up the mountain and hide if they needed to. Last night they had not needed to hide or to run. They waited in the darkness, and Henriette began to count her breaths. She counted as high as 300 when Louis whispered, “It’s nothing. Go on.” There were no more gunshots or sounds of any kind that night, only the soft footsteps of the travelers and their steady breathing.
Tonight Henriette listened to the breathing as they climbed. It was more difficult than she expected it to be. The path was rocky and it had grown much darker as soon as they entered the woods. She knew that the faster they climbed, the sooner they would reach Spain and be safe, and she had the shortest legs and the most difficulty keeping up. But Lydia was always with her, urging her along with a smile. It was pitch dark when Jacques stopped and motioned for them to rest for a few moments. They had reached a clearing where a sliver of moonlight allowed them to see the outlines of each other’s bodies, although their faces were still obscured.
Louis gathered them all together in a tight circle and whispered, “You may sit and rest, but only for a few minutes. We have about an hour more of hiking before we are close enough to the border that the Spanish patrols can offer us some cover.” He smiled at the children, and Henriette recognized kindness in his face, kindness and a deep tiredness. Just like her father. Louis nodded to Lydia. “Water? Maybe a little bread?”
They passed around the canteen that Jacques carried in his pack. Lydia handed them each a chunk of the bread, along with a small slice of cheese that had come from the farmhouse.
The two older children were wide-eyed and quiet. They were almost there, and the tension had built to the point where everyone wanted to move. The adults knew the danger was greater now than the first two nights of their travel. There were not many Nazi patrols in this region, but the risk was great enough that the travelers could not risk a moment of relaxation. Jacques, Louis and Lydia munched quietly on the bread and cheese and took cautious sips of water. They watched the children, who copied the manner of the adults and chewed almost silently, their small jaws working until they were able to swallow.
Louis paused mid-chew and flared his nostrils, tasting the air. He mouthed the word “smoke.” Lydia and Jacques met his eyes. They smelled it, too. Louis shoved the last of his food in his mouth and picked up his pack. “Time to go,” Lydia said to the children in a barely audible whisper.
The three children swallowed down the last bites of food and looked at Jacques. He nodded and turned, leading the way up the mountain on the path, almost invisible now in the darkness. Lydia turned to look down the mountain. Did she hear footsteps? Her imagination, she decided. She grasped Henriette’s hand and hurried after the rest, taking steps as long as she dared without losing the small girl at her side.
The climb grew steeper but Jacques and Louis kept the pace steady. Henriette could tell by the set of their backs that they were worried. The only place near enough for them to be able to smell the smoke was the farmhouse where they slept that day. Henriette looked at Lydia and could tell that she, too, was heartsick that their presence could have brought tragedy on the kind woman who sheltered them, but she pushed away the thought and concentrated on putting one foot ahead of the other and keeping hold of Lydia’s hand.
A gunshot blasted the night somewhere down the mountain, but not far enough. The men increased their already grueling pace. Lydia met Henriette’s eyes and they followed, lengthening their stride to keep up with the men. They were so close. The sound of danger acted as a burst of energy, an electric shock, to goad them on.
Another shot, and it was closer this time. Jacques turned around but barely slowed his pace. “They won’t come up to the border,” he said in a barely audible voice. “The Spanish patrols know the area like their own bedrooms. Run!”