Claude Blum (1910-2002) was my grandfather from my mother’s side. He was an officer in the French army. Though Alfred Dreyfus was acquitted in 1906, I dare to assume that Jewish officers in the French army never fully felt at ease. With the collapse of France in June 1940, and the armistice with Germany, Claude Blum joined the Resistance and was condemned to death by the Vichy government for rebellion. In 1943, his life was spared by a German officer in unexpected circumstances. My grandfather recorded his story in an article published in 1965 in a veterans’ journal. Having come across this article, I decided to translate it from French and to republish it. I do so not only to honor the memory of my grandfather but also to share the story’s message: there can be decency and brotherhood in war, even between sworn enemies, even between a Jew and a Nazi. Claude Blum was granted the highest military and civilian honors: Croix de Guerre (Cross of War), Médaille de la Résistance (Resistance Medal), and Légion d’Honneur (Legion of Honor).
A peaceful tourist
On the 28th of May 1943 at 11 am Charles Blond vanishes. He was arrested that morning by OVRA (the Italian political police). An Italian officer politely explained to him that, under his real identity, he enjoys the name recognition of a rebellious French officer condemned to death by Vichy. The Italian officer also explained that the German authorities had noticed him since the 8th of November 1942. For it is on that date that the Gestapo started providing him food and shelter.
In other words, it seems to Blond that he is suspected of spying against the Axis powers. Blond decides that it is time to vanish. On that day, his escape is brilliantly planned and executed thanks to sympathetic Corsicans.
Corsica, a giant aircraft carrier
Shortly afterwards, Claude Bussières decides to tour the costal villages around Bastia, as well as the central Corsican towns of Ponte Leccia and Moltifao. Those hikes were recommended to him by the “Travel Agency” in charge of his whereabouts. Then the Agency sends him the following message:
“The Germans want to turn Corsica into a giant aircraft carrier in order to maintain their positions in North Africa despite their retreat. The Allies need to know the sites chosen by the Germans for their airfields. Your in-depth knowledge of German shall enable you to overhear conversations. Also, from now on, you are a taxi driver named Benini. You and your cab will be requisitioned by the Germans for their base in Borgo. Obviously, you’re not supposed to understand a word of German.”
The dangers of collaboration
Benini starts his job. He’s altogether committed and clumsy, but also much appreciated thanks to his good driving. Could it be said, however, that he is scared?
Yes, he is scared; not of the Germans but of Corsican patriots. They keep threatening him with reprisals if he continues his shameful collaboration. But Benini is relentless and keeps telling Corsicans that the Germans are nice and polite.
Yet it is not because of those patriots that Benini will have to quit his job. He eventually joins them in the underground, and this is how.
Patrimonio and lobster
On a fine summer day, an air force second lieutenant from the Africa Korps asks Benini to drive him to Bonifacio. The German officer doesn’t seat in the back but next to his driver, and he starts a conversation. He expresses his desire to eat a lobster in Bonifacio. The driver, eager to satisfy his master, begins his search of the coveted animal. Not an easy task, despite the abundance of lobsters in the area, because Corsican fishermen do not want to help collaborators. Yet Benini eventually gets hold of a lobster and the thankful German officer invites him to join him for lunch. Honored -and bon vivant- Benini accepts.
Le lobster is delicious and the patrimonio (a local wine) flows. So does the mare (another Corsican spirit). Hence does the meal end up euphorically in some kind of mutual understanding. In the car, the officer continues the conversation on a friendly tone, and Benini answers at will.
“You are a spy!”
It’s sunset, and the taxi drives along the seashore. Suddenly, Benini (aka Bussières, aka Blond, aka me) feels his arms being grabbed. The officer screams: “What’s going on? We’ve been talking in high German for about fifteen minutes!” Pulling out his gun and pointing it at me he says: “You are a spy!”
Not proud of myself, I reply: “Think what you wish. You are a German officer and I’m a French officer; we both fulfill our duty.” Then I speed up the car toward a cliff and tell him that the two of us shall die.
“Wait. I understand your point and I think we can reach a gentlemen’s agreement.”
After pondering for a few minutes, the officer says: “Drive me back to Borgo. At about three miles before reaching the base you’ll stop the car pretending a breakdown and you’ll flee. Ten minutes later I’ll report that you quit.”
He laid down his gun between us, and so did I with mine. Our conversation continued in German. I even told him my real name. To which he replied, probably in good faith, that he was a member of the Wehrmacht and of the Luftwaffe, and that he had no interest in politics and in anti-Semitism.
Once in Casamozza, about 10 miles from Borgo, he offered me to have a last drink together and warned me that there would probably be some Germans in the bar. And, indeed, we had a drink under the careless gaze of feldgendarmen. Before departing we exchanged our addresses. And then I disappeared according to the plan.
A solid friendship
In September 1945, while on a mission in Frankfort, I looked for the officer’s parents. It was quite a challenge: Mainz, his city, had been flattened. Yet I eventually found them in a shack made out of tarred cardboard, and I inquired about their son after telling them my story. But the last time they had heard of him was when he was in Cherbourg.
Back in France I looked for his name on the French army’s list of prisoners. He was nowhere to be found. I asked for the help of an American officer who was a friend of mine, and I found the German second lieutenant in a prisoners’ camp in Cherbourg. I was allowed to visit him, and Colonel Hamsteadt agreed to hand me his prisoner after I told him our adventure. Hence did I have the joy of returning him to his parents.
Needless to say, we have since then become close friends.
One last word
In November 1943, having reintegrated the regular army, I took Allied officers to the sites chosen by the Germans for their airfields. I knew the pros and cons of each selected site. And this is how nearly all the infrastructure of the Corsican Air Sub-Area was in fact chosen and planned by the enemy.
Claude Blum being decorated