In June 1944 Terese evacuated this same house we were staying in with her family. They left before first light ahead of the allied invasion and the inevitable violence that would follow. She was only sixteen years old.
My French is rusty at best, so Emma, who was teaching near Lille and is fluent in French, translated for Dan and me as we sat before the fireplace with our wine and cheese. The diary began with blasts from the British aerial bombardment and return fire waking them before dawn, with the German officers who had occupied the very rooms we were renting decamping in a hurry, with the chaos of gathering belongings and children and whatever livestock they could herd south toward Caen. Her descriptions were terse, her voice clear. But once on the road, her writing took a turn toward the mundane. As Emma continued translating we found ourselves getting bored. Terese’s main concern was with where she slept and what she ate. Occasionally she mentioned encountering a neighbor or relative, but only in the most telegraphic style. Where was the historical context? Where were the detailed descriptions of war and life as a refugee? Where was the character development, the atmosphere, the action?
Like most of us, Terese wrote about what concerned her at the moment. For a sixteen year old refugee who had known little besides the hardships and dubious perks of living in occupied France, food and safety and whether she had a blanket at night were understandable worries. In the midst of the largest military invasion in history, at a pivotal point of the twentieth century, her perspective was limited to what would happen within the next few hours, the next few kilometers.
The diary’s content was disappointing—potatoes and haylofts and the horse going lame—and Emma skimmed the final pages looking for something interesting to translate. We left the diary for our more informative guidebooks. But the next day when we considered the circumstances surrounding Terese’s account, we realized the diary, for all its dull details, was a small miracle. Hastily tucked away in Terese’s small bag of essentials, pulled out when she had time to scribble down the facts of her journey. Written not in secret, but among crowds of other evacuees the scribbling itself becomes a heroic act.
Underneath the mundane content we see a young girl on the edge of adulthood writing because she had to, recording the things that mattered most to her, trying to make some sense of the world crumbling around her. The act of writing the diary, as sparse as it is, was a creative, defiant act in the face of imminent destruction. It was an act of bravery and hope. Without any expectation of audience or recognition she recorded her experiences in order to make sense of them. In the face of possible annihilation, she wrote.