Claudine LeMoal’s “Children of Breiz”

Being a dual American-French citizen, I have been sharing my time for the past two years between Paris and Berkeley, California. As a consequence of this transcontinental life, I have come into contact with both the American community in Paris and the French community in the San Francisco Bay Area.  In both places, I have met some very interesting people with whom I seem to have a lot in common. One of these is Claudine LeMoal.

Claudine between daughters

In many ways, Claudine and I are “mirror images” of each other. Born in Strasbourg in eastern France, Claudine moved permanently to the U.S. with her mother and G.I. stepfather in 1962, the same year that my parents and I left San Francisco and moved to France. Although I only stayed for three years that time round (my father’s position at the U.S. Embassy in Paris coming to an end),  I later returned on my own and eventually married a Frenchman, raised a family, studied at the Sorbonne, and taught English and American civilization for many years in the French educational system. As for Claudine, she attended the University of California at Davis, married an American, raised two daughters and taught French and Spanish in California schools.

But what we discovered that REALLY links us is a common fascination with World War II and a desire to write about it. Claudine has written “Children of Brez,  a screenplay based on true events that occurred in a village in Brittany during the German occupation, whereas I have written books about GI.’s in France and French war brides. Having this mutual interest in the war induced us to interview each other. You will find Claudine’s recent interview with me posted on my website at: http://sites.google.com/site/hilarykaiserphd/claudine-le-moal-interviews-hilary-kaiser    

As for the interview I did with Claudine, the following article is based on it.

” Children of Brez” was inspired by a story about the brothers and sisters of Claudine’s Breton father, who died when she was three. Claudine’s mother told her the story when she was a young girl, and she never forgot it. Five years ago, after studying script-writing and doing interviews and filming in France, Claudine decided to write an original screenplay.

Claudine told me her grandmother had died at a very early age, leaving behind nine children; then her grandfather died in an accident, and the children were left to fend for themselves. This was about the time the war broke out. The children, including Claudine’s father, were living in very impoverished conditions and trying to make ends meet on the farm that was left to them. Their resources were also considerably limited by the German occupation. Since it appeared that the Germans wouldn’t be leaving, as many Bretons originally thought, some of the older children decided to help out the country and joined the underground; by doing various acts, they were actually quite influential in helping the Allies move from Normandy to Brittany. To the point that local “collaborationists” exposed them, thinking they could acquire their land or whatever their motivation was. The collaborationists actually suggested to the Germans that they go to the farm at nighttime and destroy it and probably the children, too, thus wiping out any possible “terrorists”, as they were called. Fortunately, Claudine’s father and his brothers and sisters were tipped off and were able to flee into the hills before the Germans arrived. They watched the farm burn from a distance.

This story always intrigued Claudine, and five years ago she started researching it. She first thought she was going to do a documentary and went to Brittany to conduct interviews with her aunts and uncles, but they were elderly and somewhat reluctant to talk about their experiences. So it would have been difficult to create a documentary centered on their testimonies. In the meantime, she came across a document that her aunt’s husband had gotten from a friend, a local villager. It’s a first-hand account of another story that occurred about the same time. It’s about a group of young people who had gotten together on a farm to celebrate a birthday and how, again, a collaborationist, tipped off the Germans, wrongly so, saying the young people were plotting a revolutionary attack against the Germans. So the Germans proceeded to ambush them during the birthday party in retaliation. They humiliated them and, over a period of several days, brutalized them in the local villages in the area.

This account left a great impression on Claudine. She began thinking that since both stories were generated in the same local area, perhaps they could be combined as a homogenized over-story. She took several classes in screen-writing and then began writing “Children of Breiz”, which merges both stories. Breiz is the Breton word for Brittany.

Claudine said one motivation for writing the script was to draw attention to the Breton sub-culture. According to her, Brittany is very different from other regions in France. It is Celtic in origin. It’s very traditional and, given that there’s not much industry in the area, little has changed over the years. People are still ethnocentric and clannish in certain parts of Brittany.

Claudine also thinks what happened in Brittany gives a different twist to the French experience during World War II. She said the Germans were attracted to Brittany because of its coastline and proximity to Britain. And when the Germans came to Brittany, many Bretons were actually, at first, in favor of the Germans because they thought the Germans would help them separate from France! But then they realized that the Germans had come under false pretenses and that they were being occupied and abused by the Germans. She used as an example the fact that the Germans made each Breton family give up one of their sons, whom they sent to Germany to work in German arms factories. The Germans thought the Bretons would be more loyal than Jewish workers, for example, because the Germans and Bretons were, at least at first, on good terms. But then the Bretons caught on, and many young Bretons went into hiding.

Claudine admitted that she is very proud of having both Breton (by her father) and Alsatian (by her mother) ancestries. She said that for years, the French would look down upon the Bretons and not recognize the Breton culture as an important sub-culture in French society. To illustrate her point, she said that the Breton language used to be banned from schools, and such epithets as “tête de Breton, tête de cochon” (Bretons are stubborn as pigs) were prevalent. Ever since Brittany was annexed to France back in the 17th century, Bretons have had a “separatist” streak and a desire to be autonomous They have also proudly kept up many of their traditions, such as folk dances, music, and festivals. In many ways, it is the same for the Alsatians, who have their own language and customs. Claudine mentioned that in addition to affecting her Breton relatives, World War II also had an effect on her Alsatian family. Her maternal grandfather was sent to a German concentration camp, and her grandmother lived through the bombings in the countryside and providentially escaped being killed when one fell on a nearby air-raid shelter.

Claudine thinks it is a good thing that French sub-cultures like the Breton and Alsatian cultures are beginning to be recognized in France. She would like Americans to recognize them, too. She also said that the anti-French movement in the U.S. in the 1990’s was very painful to live through. At that time, many people talked about French capitulation and collaboration during World War II. “They called the French cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” she said. Luckily, the Americans and the French seem to be “friends” again, but, as Claudine mentioned, a lot of French people still haven’t come to terms with certain things that happened in France during World War II– with the collaboration, for example. “I have a hard time forgiving what happened in Bleiz,” she confessed. “It was emotionally very difficult to find out and write about it.”

Claudine hopes that her screenplay will be made into a movie, either in the U.S. or France (she’s in the process of translating it into French) or in both, and she has started seeking a producer.  Her hope is that in addition to reaching an adult audience, her film will also be seen by teenagers. “They don’t know much about this period and can learn from the past,” she said. “I’d also like to show them that young people can make a difference if they act, are pro-active, and don’t remain passive. And I think film is such a great medium for teaching teenagers. They can learn about history by watching real people in real situations. It comes alive for them.”

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