Paris—June 14, 1940
Their breakfast cold and any thought of conversation bludgeoned into silence by the incomprehensible enormity of what they’d just witnessed, Walter said his goodbyes and left to return to his hotel.
But when he reached Rue de Vaugirard at the edge of the Luxembourg Gardens, following an urge he couldn’t resist, he turned right instead, crossed to Rue de Tournon, and headed back towards Boulevard Saint-Germain. He could hear German trucks with loudspeakers circulating along the streets broadcasting warnings of the death penalty for any hostile acts against the occupying forces.
Lost in thought, he had reached the intersection of Rue Lobineau when a young man came around the corner at the dead run and collided into him, knocking Walter to the pavement. His assailant, by his dress a student, immediately ran forward stammering an apology as he reached out a hand to help Walter up. “Je vous demande pardon, monsieur. En raison de mon urgence, je ne vous ai pas vu.”
“Pas de problème, Walter assured the boy, dusting himself off. Tout va bien. I’m fine. Really.”
The boy looked around nervously, then said, “I know I’m being a terrible pest, but might you have a cigarette you could give me?”
“Of course,” Walter said. He reached into his pocket for his pack of Gitanes, pulled one out, and handed it and his lighter over to the boy. The boy fumbled with the lighter unsuccessfully until Walter reached up with his left hand, steadied the boy’s shaking hand, took the lighter and lit the cigarette.
“It’s just that I had such a scare. The Boche …” He didn’t finish the sentence. A Kübelwagen carrying two German soldiers and an officer careened around the corner.
“Da ist er! Dort! Er ist est!” one of the Germans cried pointing at the boy, and the German car came to a screeching halt right next to them. The Germans jumped out, weapons leveled.
The German officer strode up to the boy, knocked the cigarette out of his trembling hand and screamed at him, “The penalty for attacking a German soldier is death!”
“But it was just a tomato,” the boy cried. “It was a silly prank.”
“It could have been a grenade. I should shoot you right here on the street. But I think first, we’ll get the names of your collaborators.” Walter was surprised. The German’s French was excellent.
“We’re just students. We meant no real har …” He didn’t finish that sentence either. The German officer cracked the boy on the side of his head with his pistol and the boy fell to the street like a stone. The two soldiers threw the unconscious boy into the back of the Kübelwagen. “Now you,” he said turning to Walter.
Walter had stepped away from the confrontation with the student. His back was now pressed tightly against the wall of the shop next to them. The travel bureau sign said, “Vacances. Meilleures Destinations.” I’d happily be anywhere but here right now, he thought.
The German officer walked towards Walter, his body stiff, his face still flushed with rage and his neck veins pulsing. Walter reacted instinctively. At 6’1” Walter stood half a foot above most Frenchmen and several inches taller than the German. Without thinking he let his shoulders slump and his middle sag, shrinking himself visually, turned his body slightly sideways and avoided looking at the officer as he approached.
“Your identification,” the officer demanded.
Walter considered answering him in German and instantly thought better of it. His passport, as was customary in France, was locked in his hotel’s safe. He carefully reached with his left hand to extract his wallet, took out his driver’s license and handed it to the officer. “I’m an American. A United States citizen,” he said in French.
The officer scanned his license, then asked, “So what, exactly, is your relationship with that criminal we just took into custody?”
Walter now looked at the officer, his eyes and expression calm. “I never met him before in my life. He just asked me for a cigarette.”
“What are you doing in Paris?”
“I’m an academic. A professor. I’m researching material at the Sorbonne for a book I’m writing.” The officer began to relax. Walter slowly straightened his body.
“And where are you staying in Paris, Dr. Hirsch?” Walter noticed the honorific “Docteur.” It was an encouraging sign.
“Hotel Les Jardins du Luxembourg, Impasse Royer-Collard, off Rue Gay-Lussac.” Walter’s answers were as casual and unconcerned as if they had been discussing the weather.
“If I may ask, what business do you have out on the street right now?”
“I spent the night with a sick friend and am now returning to my hotel.”
The German handed Walter his license with a pleasant nod. “The Reich has no quarrel with Americans, Dr. Hirsch, but at this moment, until things settle down and order is established, returning to your hotel would be a wise decision. I should think by tomorrow, everything will have returned to normal and it will be safe for you to venture out of doors. Will you wish an escort back to your hotel?” he added, with a nod back at the two soldiers guarding their prisoner in the Kübelwagen.
“That’s very kind of you, Captain.” Walter guessed at his rank and decided to err on the high side. “The streets seem calm now, and it’s a short walk. An escort shouldn’t be necessary.”
The German stepped back, clicked his heels, saluted, and said, “Then enjoy your day, Dr. Hirsch. Sorry to have troubled you.”
Normal? Walter thought, as the Germans climbed back in their car and left with their prisoner. ‘How bizarre, They imagine themselves in a different reality and expect the world to docilely go along. Then they get angry when it doesn’t. Wonder how long that will last? But he’s right this time, at least. Best if I stay ‘orderly’ for now. He turned and headed back to his hotel.
He replayed the encounter with the German officer in his mind. His father had been an avid hunter all his life and kept a kennel of hounds at the hunting lodge he had built in the Ozark Mountains. When Walter was ten, his father had taken him hunting for the first time. Walter’s initial lesson was with the dogs. “These are not pets like Schatzi at home, Walli. They are trained to attack and kill on command. They have been studying and learning the behavior of their human masters for thousands of years. They often understand our feelings better than we do. When you enter the kennel, they will want to know if you are an enemy and are threatening their space. If they sense fear, it just increases their confidence and aggression. When they first come at you, diminish yourself so you don’t look like a threat. Above all else, do not look them in the eye. They will relax a bit. Then slowly, very slowly, take command of your own space. Stand taller, without fear. They expect fear. If you remain calm, it confuses them. You are not challenging them; you just want the space you are in for yourself. They will understand you and leave you alone.” Walter thought about his instinctive response to the German officer. ‘Thanks, Papi,’ he said to himself.