Sunday, June 17, 2018

At The Broken Places

©2018, Stephen Labovsky


The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.
-For Whom The Bell Tolls

In the early morning light, the four great statues at the base of the Wall of the Reformation, William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox, gazed down upon a young soldier in a Swiss Army uniform, seated on a park bench next to a patch of leafy, green rhubarb.        

There on the bench, the soldier put away the book he was reading, and looked around as he considering the scene before him:  He could hardly recognize his old alma mater, The University of Geneva, which now resembled a farm, with more than a dozens, Victory Garden plots sprawled across the campus grounds.  

It was the middle of June 1944, and war rampaged almost everywhere in Europe.  But here in Geneva and in rest of Switzerland, life continued pretty much as it had before.  Of course there was a partial military mobilization, food rationing, and a night-time blackout was being enforced, but still the country remained an island of relative normality in a sea of death, destruction and dislocation. 

“Alec!” from over his shoulder, a familiar voice called out the soldier’s name.

It was Claude, Alec’s oldest and dearest friend, arriving on his bicycle, and in high spirits.

“Let me look at you, old boy,” Claude teased, grabbing Alec by the lapels of his ill-fitting, wool, army uniform. 

“You look…bloody awful!”

“Oh bollocks,” rejoined Alec. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.  This morning, on the train coming down here, a beautiful, young woman propositioned me, thinking I was Cary Grant.”

Laughing, they embraced.

"It's wonderful to have you back, my dear.  Finally out of the fucking army, mine Generalleutnant,“ Claude saluted.

"So, what’s the latest news, old friend?”  Alec inquired, as they sat down on the bench.

“It’s the same as it was since the last time you were here:  Folks are pessimists one day, optimists the next—all depends on the war news.  Right now, most everyone is optimistic on account of the Yanks and the Brits landing in Normandy

“And you?  Alec wondered.

“You know me— I’m always the pessimist— that way I can never be disappointed… By the way, Solange and I broke up.”

“Shit, what happened?”

“We were constantly quarrelling: She said I was immature, and I drank too much.  Personally I don’t give a damn— life’s too short.”

Claude paused then looking around, before continuing.

“There is something I need to talk to  you about:  I was going to write you, but I didn’t want to put it in a letter.  It’s about...about Roland and JP…”

“Why, what’s happened?”

Claude dropped his voice even lower.  “Two weeks ago, they were out in Carouge, at the border, at night.  They crosses over to meet up with a group of refugees— just three people—a man, his wife and her younger sister.  It was going to be a simple op, just bring them back over the border”


“Roland, JP and the group never came back.  It’s been two weeks, and…nothing.  They’re either arrested or…,”  Claude said, his voice trailing away.

“Do we know what happened to them?

“Nothing so far.  We’ve heard from our friends that the French authorities have been raiding hotels and pensions in Megève, La Clusaz, and Chamonix, looking for Jews. Also, we think there might be an informant, tipping them off.”

“So now what?” 

“Everything’s suspended.  Not sure when it will start up again.” 

Alec handed Claude a cigarette, and the two sat together smoking, not speaking. 

“Bloody rhubarb,” Alec said, breaking the silence. 


“That’s rhubarb planted there,” said Alec, pointing to the plot next to the bench.

“How do you know?” asked Claude.

“My grandmother grew rhubarb in her garden.  Once when I was maybe eight, I went to stay with her, and she made me rhubarb tarts.  They were awful, and I said so.  Later my father told me I shouldn’t have said it.  He said I hurt her feelings.  But I was only telling the truth, that her rhubarb tarts tasted awful, I insisted. So my old man tells me, yes, it's wrong to tell a lie, but sometimes in order to spare someone’s feelings, it was okay. He called it a “little lie.”  

Alec took a long drag on his cigarette.

Merde, Claude said, "looking at his watch.  The Landolt just opened.  Let's go have a pint!” 

Alec was in Philosophy class, and having a hard time concentrating.  It was his birthday, and he was thinking that this war had now occupied a quarter of his life.  Long ago, he had stopped thinking about what he would do when the war was over, and like so many of his contemporaries, lived in a state of perpetual suspension.  But now with a year left until finishing University, and a real possibility the war would shortly conclude, Alec was starting to think about the future again.  He had in mind attending graduate school in America, at Berkeley University, or perhaps at a writing program at a school in Iowa he had just heard about.   

At the end of the class, Alec briefly spoke to Claude about a time to meet later that evening, then jumped on his bicycle and raced home.  As he entered his parent’s apartment he could hear his mother in the kitchen, but didn’t announce himself, going straight to his room, and locking the door.  He removed his school books from his rucksack and replaced them with a map; compass; a torch; a first-aid kit, and a small, loaded revolver.

Hearing his mother calling, he went into the dining room where his parents were waiting.  His father stood and proposed a toast:

“To our most wonderful son Alec, on his 21st birthday,” his father said.  “You have blessed our lives with so much joy and happiness.  We are so thankful that you are again safely home with your family. We love you.  Chin-chin.”

Alec’s mother, her eyes glistening with emotion, kissed him, then went back into the kitchen, and returned with her big surprise: Entrecote and pommes frites, Alec’s favorite meal. 

“I want you to know that your mother starved me for a month in order to save up enough rations points to prepare you this meal, Alex.”

“Oh Max, stop making up stories,” insisted his mother.”

“So how are things at school? “his father asked.  “Are you catching up with your studies?”

‘It’s much harder than it was before I was called up, but I’m managing.”

“Oh, by the way, today I went round to Ecolint and had tea with my old English teacher, Mr. Bennett.  He told me to send his best regards to you both,” Alec said.

For a brief moment, Alec considered broaching the subject of graduate school, but decided he’d wait for a more opportune occasion.

The conversation now turned to the war. Max, who Alec called The Armchair Field Marshal, was about to make one of his profound predictions about the war.  Max’s source was someone who knew someone, who had a friend who working for General Guisan, the Commander of the Army.  The Allies, Max reported, were about to land in the South of France, and open the much anticipated Second Front.  The Allied army would then quickly march up through the Rhone Valley,  and the Germans, who had their hand full with the Soviets in the East, and Paton’s army in the West, would be helpless to stop them. 

“Old Mr. Hitler’s is about to get his balls caught in a vice,” Max declared.

“Please Max, don’t use such language,” Alec’s mother gently scolded.

“You mark my word, it’ll be over by Christmas,” Max concluded.

“So dear,” his mother said, turning to Alec, “Have any special plans for tonight?”

“Claude’s picking me up, and we’re going out with friends to a café in the Old Town.   

“I worry about you driving with Claude when there’s the black-out, especially after you’ve been celebrating.”

“You don’t have to worry,” Alec reassured her, “I’ve made plans to stay at Claude’s flat tonight, which is just around the corner from the café where we’re going.”

The dinner concluded with a Black Forest cake, with a single candle on top.  Alec kissed his parents and said goodnight.  Later, as Alec was leaving the flat, he could hear their gentle patter from the salon, mixed with the sounds of Debussy’s Clair De Lune playing on the radio.


At around 9:00p.m., the familiar click-clack-clacking sounds of the Claude’s old Citroën was heard, announcing his arrival.  Alec got into the car, and almost immediately sensed something was wrong.

“Happy birthday, my old thing,” Claude said, slurring his words, ever so slightly.

“Are you alright?” Alec wanted to know.

“I’m fine, just fine,” Claude said, a little too emphatically.

“Christ Claude, you’re bloody drunk?”

“No, I’m not drunk! Okay, so maybe I had a couple of drinks before I came out—a bit of the old Dutch Uncle, if you know what I mean?.”

“No, I don’t know what you mean.”

“I’m feeling nervous, okay?  It’s been a long time since we’ve done one of these things, and I’m ....  I’m nervous.  I woke up this morning and a little voice inside my head kept saying,  ‘Claude, this isn’t the night you should be going out…”

As Claude turned a corner, the car started to drift toward the side of the road.  Alec reached over and grabbed the wheel.

“Christ Claude, look where you’re going!”

They were now on an empty stretch of road heading out of town toward the border, at Veyrier.

Alec grew quiet, and there and then, decided he’d have to  cross over by himself.  Claude was drunk, and in his condition he would only be a liability.

They soon arrived in Veyrier and parked just down the street from the village’s only café.  From there, Alec could see the Swiss customs station, up ahead, in the dark. He imagined the agents were inside, probably sleeping.  By the dashboard lights, he consulted his map, and located the farm where he planned to cross into France.

“Listen Claude, I’m going over by myself, but I need you to stay here with the car until I get back.  Won’t be more than an hour.  Okay?”

“You can’t go on your own, dear boy.  I'm going with you.”

“Claude, listen to me.  You need to stay with the car.  Should the flics show up and ask why you're here in the middle of the night, just say you had a little too much to drink at the café, and decided you’d stay here and sleep it off.  Okay?

“Alec, my oldest and dearest friend, my dear, dear birthday boy: it’s dangerous to be out there tonight. Way too dangerous.”

“I hear what you’re saying, Claude, and I understand about the danger.  But honestly, I’m not afraid.  As they use to say in the army: you can die in your sleep, or God can spare you in battle— in the end, it's all in God's hands. 

With that, Alec exited the car, and disappeared into the night. 


“Good evening, my name is John Bennett.  

For those who don't know me, I was one of Alec's teachers at the International School.  First,  I would like to say how honored I am to have been asked by Alec’s parents, Max and Irene, to speak on this occasion, as we come together to celebrate Alec’s life.

When Alec was in the 6th form, he was in my English class. That year, one of the class assignments was the short story, “The Snow of Kilimanjaro,” by Ernest Hemingway.  At the end of the semester, Alec told me how much he enjoyed the story, and asked if I would recommend one of Hemingway’s novels.  So I loaned him my copy of “A Farwell To Arms.” And that was the beginning of our friendship—a friendship that shared a mutual love for literature— especially the works of Ernest Hemingway.

After Alec matriculated to University, and later when he went into the army, we kept in touch. The last time we saw each other was this past June, Alec’s twenty-first birthday. That day he seemed so upbeat when he spoke about his plans to go to graduate school in America, to study writing.  Then, as usual, the conversation turned to books:  Alec had just finished Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, and he was anxious to talk about it.  

For those not familiar the book, it’s about an America expatriate, Robert Jorden, who goes to Spain to fight on the side of the Republic, during the Spanish Civil War. 

I remember Alec telling me that to risk your life for a country and a cause that is not your own, was one of the most courageous acts you could do.  And men like Robert Jorden are exceptional because their words and actions are in harmony with their beliefs and values.  

Now, some have said that what Alec did was courageous, and some that it was senseless and fool hearty.  I will leave it to others to judge which of these thing is true.  What I can say is that Alec was certain about what he was doing, and more importantly, why he was doing it.  He was not someone who could stand by and do nothing if the opportunity to do something was there.  For that, Alec will always be remembered in my heart.

It has been 6 months since the war in Europe has ended. Only now are we even beginning to understanding the magnitude of what has befallen the countries and the peoples of this great continent.  Taken together,  I sometimes feels like it is more than I can bare.  But then I am with my students, and I see that despite everything, they are optimistic about the future.  And I believe in my heart that they are the generation that will not so much change the world, but teach us all how to live in this world, in a new and better way.

I’m afraid I have spoken for far too long, so I would like to close with something Robert Jordan says at the end of the For Whom The Bell Tolls.”

The world is a fine place and worth fighting for and I hate very much to leave it. 

So to you, Alec, we say we are so sad that you have left us, but we are so much the richer for you having come.”