Excerpt: Dunkirk

May 30, 1940, Dunkirk

Thieves of Paris opens with the defeat of French troops and a quickly slapped together withdrawal of Allied troops to England. This excerpt, cut from the final manuscript, gives background on the relationship between the main character Max and his friend Guy de Rothschild.

This was no picnic by the sea.  The two of us sat in a lonely clump of beach grass fronted by an expanse of sand as big as a soccer field and backing onto the scrubland behind.  In peacetime, we might have been taken for bums—disheveled, with splotches of dirt on rumpled clothes, our faces covered with a week’s growth of stubble. But in wartime, one would see our clothes were soldiers’ uniforms, both wearing the identifying patch of the French Army.

My friend Guy, an officer, sat erect with his deep, round French helmet on the ground in front of him, so different from the shallower, saucer-like helmets of the Brits lined up in long queues on the beach. I lay at leisure on the grass, my uniform without the decorations and epaulets of an officer. I opened a tin of rations and offered it to Guy who took out his fork.

Bon appetit, Max,” said my friend, tall and blond, his stylish Parisian haircut only slightly shaggy after three weeks of fighting.

Bonne chance, Guy,” I replied, with a twinkle in my eyes. We ate the wretched rations in the companionable silence of old friends.

I sat up, my bristly blonde hair like a hedgehog whether combed or mussed. My deep blue eyes must have looked startling, peering out of a mud-covered face. I pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “Tu veux?” I offered one to Guy, using the familiar form of address that no enlisted man would ordinarily use with an officer. Guy took a cigarette, then leaned forward, flicking open an engraved silver lighter.

We had been friends since childhood. My step-father was the bailiff at the Chateau Ferrières, in charge of stocking the fiefdom-sized estate for the weekend hunts. Guy’s father, Baron Édouard de Rothschild, headed the French branch of the famous banking family. My two half-sisters and I were the only children Guy and his two sisters could play with at Ferrières.  Then too I had saved Guy from a rogue poacher, who had tried to kidnap my younger companion once he figured out the boy was worth more than a couple of rabbits.

“May your next meal be escargot.” I stretched out once more on the bank.

“And what do you imagine for your next meal, mon ami?”

“Rabbit, roasted over an open fire.” I inhaled deeply and smiled to myself at the thought. I pulled out the non-regulation hunting knife I carried always in my boot and tested its edge. “Behind the German lines, of course. I expect to head for Ferrières before I go to Paris.”

Both men looked out at the beach, at the boats. Their unit had held off the Germans for four days, giving the British time to organize a ragtag retreat. A few large ships were reinforced by a flotilla of little ships—sailboats and barges, fishing boats and ferries, yachts and merchant vessels.  Dunkirk lay about 70 kilometers across the English Channel from the white cliffs of Dover. They said the British Air Force was helping, but the only planes we saw were German stukas, divebombing the long queues lined up on the beach for evacuation.

The sky was clear today, making the troops easy targets, but the black, billowing smoke from a bombed petrol depot blanketed the area, so German bombers could not make out a target. We French would start to evacuate in the afternoon, the Belgian forces soon after. Trucks and equipment, now abandoned and sunk in the seashore, made a jetty for the men to board small boats without having to wade out to them.  Perhaps the protective smoke would be gone by the time French troops boarded. Perhaps the fog would roll in and keep the Luftwaffe bombers away. Perhaps not.

We watched the long queues. Other French troops lay huddled or sat slumped further back from the beach as they smoked or tried to sleep with their heads on their arms around their legs. Some were wounded, with bandaged arms, heads or legs. Some were dying.

Less than three weeks it had taken the German troops, striking through neutral Belgium and the Netherlands, to outflank our French defenses and achieve this quick defeat. The allied troops now lay surrounded by the enemy on a tiny beachhead of land.

“Come with me to England,” Guy said. “It’s safer to evacuate than make your way in a war zone in a French uniform.”

The wind was changing and the small boats had to scramble to get their passengers onboard. Now the petrol smoke blew back, away from the beach.

I stubbed out my cigarette and stripped the paper, leaving the tobacco to blow away in the gentle wind. “No, I’ll slip away. You speak English. I don’t. To live by my wits, I need to speak French. And perhaps my native language German, too.”

A siren started blaring. Guy replaced his officer’s hat with his helmet, and we hunkered down, making ourselves as small a target as possible.

The roar of approaching aircraft threw the beach into an ant-colony of activity. The long lines disintegrated, but there was no cover, no place to hide. The only protection came from the anti-aircraft guns on the destroyers loading evacuees from the long pier. Bunkers held the seriously wounded, three shelves high with little room to accommodate the men running toward them for shelter. The German stukas dived and strafed the running troops before lifting off to see if they could hit any of the ships in the harbor. The little boats took off, if they could, and made out to sea.

Medics ran to the open beach, sorting the bleeding from the dead.

We looked up, realized we were alive and still unwounded. Guy offered me a cigarette and lighted up.

I brushed myself off. “Safer in England?  First you have to get there.” I laughed and took a drag from my cigarette. “And yes, I have to get out of here and travel hundreds of kilometers to Ferrières.”

“We will boast to each other of our adventures when we meet again. ”

We turned to each other in a long look, knowing the odds against ever seeing each other again.

“If you need to reach me, contact me. . . Well, best to write to my tailor, a neutral address. That’s Hawkes—H-A-W-K-E-S—Hawkes & Company at 1 Savile Row, London.”

I threw down the stub of my cigarette. “And you can send word to me through sexton Xavier Benedict at St. Julien le Pauvre.” At Guy’s puzzled look I added, “In the Latin Quarter, across the Seine from Notre Dame.” I crushed out the cigarette under my boot. “Of course, he may have been arrested by the time of your message.”

“Ah, yes, Paris. A better place to hide than Ferrières.”

I knew both places well. Although I grew up in the country, Guy persuaded his father to take me on as a footman when the family left for Paris, only 20 miles away. The move opened the world to me, but it erected a new, impermeable and ordinarily insurmountable barrier between us. And we each joined different worlds when Guy went off to the Sorbonne. By my choice and Baron Édouard’s generosity, I apprenticed as the family’s  chauffeur and mechanic, until I taught Guy’s favorite sister Jacqueline how to drive and put myself out of a job. The war had brought us together again–against the odds, against the division of social classes—and found the friendship deep and strong.

Guy took a final drag on his cigarette. “In Paris, you might look up Hannah Kiesler. She is a very resourceful person.” He raised one eyebrow. “And the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met.”

I felt the crookedness of my smile, as I returned Guy’s knowing look.

“You can find her if there is still a Yiddish theatre in Paris. She comes from Hungary and works to get Jews to Palestine.”

“Yes, she would have to be resourceful. She must know someone who can help me get papers and change my name.”

“I will contact you by the name I gave you,” Guy said.

I felt the pain of bitter remembrance and the solace of Guy’s friendship, but it was a moment before I could control my feelings again and bring back the look of the stolid cynic.

Out of embarrassment, Guy looked away, unscrewed the top of his canteen and lifted it in a toast. I followed suit. “Vive la France.”