Yves, aged 10, Sedan, France
Yves Congar grows up with his two older brothers in a simple family. His father has a shop and is too old to go to war. His grandparents still haven’t digested France’s defeat in the Franco-German war of 1870-1871. Since France lost at the battle of Sedan, the rich provinces of Alsace and Lorraine have been part of Germany. There is also a popular derogatory term for the Germans that dates from that time: Boche, which roughly translates as ‘boulder head’.
Yves himself has but a single wish: to become a soldier and fight. He believes that the transfer of three regiments from Sedan to the French-German border means that the situation is ‘very serious’. An endless stream of army vehicles rolls through the streets and at the end of August, the worst happens. The Germans invade Sedan and search all the houses looking for French soldiers who have fled.
Yves compares the invasion of the Germans to that of the Huns. He is convinced that he will never again in his life experience something this terrible. The Germans force the captured towns and villages to pay high war taxes. They confiscate vehicles, animals and foodstuffs. Individual households are also obliged to part with money and goods. To make their demands felt amongst the unwilling population, they take hostages. Yves father is taken hostage for days at a time on more than one occasion.
A constant stream of new regulations make life harder. A new tax on dogs is introduced in May 1915, but his parents refuse to pay. Yves’ dog Kiki has to be destroyed. The world of the boy, who has just turned eleven, collapses. He decides, together with his brothers, to organise his own resistance against the Boches and spits on the first German that he encounters. In the meantime, the adults develop more subtle ways of mocking the Germans. They throw bottles containing messages such as Dreck für Deutsch! Into the River Meuse, into which the Germans have cast huge nets to intercept the bottle post with its so-called espionage messages.
In early 1918, the name of Yves’ father is amongst the names on the list of hostages, ‘prisoners of war’ as Yves calls them, that the Germans are demanding in Sedan. They need to be brought to the nearby town of Givonne. On 6 January 1918, Yves and his brothers accompany his father to the assembly point. He leaves and his sons walk dejectedly back home. Although their mother and sisters are waiting for them there, the house suddenly seems very quiet and empty.
After the war, father Congar returns to his family unharmed. Yves joins the Dominicans and studies theology. In 1930 he is ordained as a priest. He is strongly committed to the unification of the Christian churches. At the Second Vatican Council of Pope John XXIII in the 1960s, the assembly of the aggiornamento or the ‘updating’ of the Catholic Church, he plays a key role as a peritus, or expert. In 1994 he becomes a cardinal, but in July 1995 he dies in Paris.