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Marlene Dietrich (1901–1992) was a film actress and accomplished singer, widely considered among the greatest female stars of all time, and ranked number nine on the American Film Institute’s list of the fifty greatest American screen legends. Born in Germany in 1901, Dietrich was a classically trained violinist, but she shifted her focus to acting and singing when she injured her wrist in 1921. Her breakthrough film role in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel led to her contract with Paramount Studios and a string of Hollywood hits, including Shanghai Express. She became an American citizen and strongly supported the Allied effort during World War II; in 1947, she was awarded the Medal of Freedom for her contributions. During Dietrich’s later career, she performed almost exclusively as a cabaret artist, entertaining audiences worldwide. She died in Paris in 1992.
Everybody said that I was still too young to go to school. In the winter, early in the morning, I would squeeze my eyes tightly and tiny tears would change the pale street lamps into long, slim, glittering beams of light. I played this game every morning, and my tears would flow easily. Actually, I didn't have to cry at all. The wind and cold did the trick well enough if not better. I knew all the closed shutters of the stores, all the jutting stones that I could jump over on one leg—with closed or crossed legs—or slide on if it had snowed during the night. My feelings were just as familiar to me: the certainty of having lost my precious freedom, fear of the teachers and of their punishments, fear of loneliness.
The school gate was heavy. I had to push against it with all my might to open it. A leather band muffled the loud clang of iron on iron, and again I was trapped as every morning. I had been prematurely enrolled in school a year earlier than usual, and since I could already read, write, and count, I went directly into the second school year. I was younger than my classmates and even younger than the little girls who were in the first grade. That's why I was so lonely.
Later also, even though not a few of my schoolmates cribbed from my French compositions, I remained lonely and was still excluded from their whispered secrets, their intimacies, and their fits of laughter. Yet I had no desire to know what they were keeping secret from me. Thus, the prison of school contained an additional bar expressly for me because I was too young. I didn't doubt for a second that age is of decisive importance. All grownups first ask a child what its name is, then, its age. Yet it's not the name but the age that always elicits approving nods. Since the obvious satisfaction of grown-ups seemed to correspond to the number of years, I liked to make myself older.
My fate in the school was peculiar and, I thought, undeserved. I knew that no matter how many years went by I would always be too young. I had to find someone who would stand by me, an intelligent person to whom my age would be of no importance. Then Mlle. Breguand, Marguerite Breguand, came into my life.
She had dark brown eyes, tied her black hair together in a loose knot, and always wore a white blouse, a black skirt, and a narrow soft leather belt around her waist. She was the only native French teacher in the school, the other teachers of French or English had learned these languages in Germany Mlle. Breguand spoke fluent German with a French accent. She taught the advanced classes, pupils who had already mastered the ground rules of French grammar.
One day, during lunch break, she addressed me as I was trying to devour my sandwich. I was standing all alone at one of the high windows in the school corridor and was sadder than the rain falling outside. She stopped in front of the window, looked out, and asked me: "Do you have a real reason to be sad?" I pressed my lips over the almost indigestible piece of bread and shook my head. "Because it's a sin to be sad." (She spoke German but said the word "sin" in French.) At this moment the bell rang, the recess was over, and she walked off.
The next day, at the same hour, she came back to me, I answered all her questions. Now she would come every day at the same hour to the same spot. My age seemed to be of no concern to her. What was important, obviously, was that I was there and that we spoke to one another. She was so happy to be able to speak French with me. When the bell rang, I would follow her and carry her books. She would turn her head around to speak to me, and sometimes she came to a halt with a mild exclamation of surprise over my extensive vocabulary. Finally she would enter her classroom, turn around to look at me, and close the door. Then, radiant with joy I would run through the empty corridors to my classroom before the last ring of the bell.
She banished my loneliness, my childish worries, my sadness. She embodied both my wishes and their fulfillment. I spent all my free time thinking up gifts for her: blue-red-white ribbons that my mother had once worn at a French ball, French landscapes I had cut out of magazines, a bouquet of lilies of the valley on the First of May, a cornflower, a daisy and a poppy on the Fourteenth of July. I bought Christmas and New Year cards made in France and even thought of giving her a French perfume, but my mother suggested that so expensive a gift might embarrass Mlle. Breguand and that I should wait patiently until I grew a little older. Mlle. Breguand often waited with me in front of the school if my governess was late, and sometimes she would accompany us for a stretch, but only up to the point where she had come to the end of the story she had begun.
On the last day of school, before the vacation season, she would never fail to give me her address, which she wrote down on a page torn from her notebook. She had divined my secret hopes and knew how to soothe my sorrows.
Finally came the day on which I became one of her pupils. At last I was in her class! Yet she didn't give me more attention than the other children got. At times she would cast a glance in my direction as if she wanted to make sure of my attention. Our familiarity floated like a pale blue ribbon in the motionless air of the class and filled my heart with the ecstatic happiness praised by poets, but which leaves others untouched. After school I would run home quickly to work on my French compositions, to findsplendid expressions that would astound her and to draw out the best from a language whose richness she always praised. Her comments in her beautiful handwriting, composed in telegram style, contained moderate praise that earned me tender looks from my mother. Thanks to Mlle. Breguand the school was no longer a prison, but a big city of sorts in which I knew how to find my secret love. Every morning, throughout that winter and spring, I went to school with a light heart at the thought that another happy day lay before me.
But when classes resumed in the autumn of 1914, all the pupils and teachers were ordered to gather in the auditorium.
Thunderous speeches were delivered, of which we didn't understand a word. I tried to find Mlle. Breguand's face. I didn't see it. The English and French teachers were seated next to the Latin and Greek teachers. She wasn't there. I then combed the rows of the science and mathematics teachers. Neither was she there. She surely must have heard the big school bell that summoned us. Where was she? Then slowly the terrible truth dawned on me with a chill. Marguerite Breguand! France! French! You are a Frenchwoman! You, Marguerite Breguand, you are a French-woman! Germany is at war with France! That's why you're not here. We are enemies. These thoughts actually made me faint.
I was made to drink some water, and they said the air in the auditorium was too stuffy. The speeches came to an end, and we returned to our classrooms chattering like magpies. Now we had to knit for the soldiers during school hours. The youngest of us made mittens, the older ones sweaters. Scarves, too, a simple task. Wool was stored in the gym. The dead languages were still being taught, but what was going to happen with English and French? New teachers would replace the old ones now fighting at the front. If we were lucky, they'd be old and drowsy. And we were lucky. The school rules were made less rigid. Every morning in all classrooms, from eight to nine o'clock, from the fourth grade through the fifth form and from the seventh through the eleventh, academic instruction was replaced by knitting lessons.
The soldiers marched through the streets with flowers clasped to their rifles, they laughed, they sang, kissed the women. Flags hung from windows as people celebrated the war against France. The festival of the war. The barbarians were celebrating the declaration of war with a flower clasped to a rifle.
Nobody could have forced me to participate in the war against France. I loved Marguerite Breguand, and I loved France. I loved the soft and familiar French language. I was the first to wear mourning. I had lost Mlle. Breguand, I had lost the French language, I had lost a promise that was not kept, an honorable, pure promise that my teachers had made to me—they who had been telling us: "A promise is a promise."
We had been promised a peaceful childhood: school, holidays and picnics, summer vacations with hammocks, beach, pail, shovel, and a starfish that we could take home with us. We had been promised plans, plans to be forged, carried out, actualized, dreams to be dreamed and made to come true. A secure future—and it was up to us to take advantage of it. And now? No more plans, no secure future, and no knowledge that could be of any use to the war. Since we couldn't form a military unit, we knitted. We sat in the classroom barely lit by the daylight and knitted to warm the soldiers digging trenches far from home. They made us knit to make us feel useful, to fill the gaping void caused by the war. The wool was "field gray," rough and constantly tangled. Field gray. For me the fields were not gray, but wherever the fighting was going on, they probably were.
Life in school sank back into a gray monotony, becoming again what it had been before Mlle. Breguand's guest performance: a prison. But I didn't forget her. Each time I was punished for speaking French (the language of our enemy) and had to drop ten pfennigs into the glass till, this donation was made in her name.
My passionate love for France overcame the first shock: It went underground and survived all the prohibitions. I didn't tell a soul about it. With head held high, I bore my secret in the depths of my heart.
The first members of my family who fell in combat were distant cousins and an uncle. Their deaths left no void in our small family circle. My mother showed no grief. Her great concern was, and had always been, her childrens' health. My father was onmaneuvers when the war broke out. He went to the front without returning home to bid us good-bye. It seemed to me as if he spent all his time writing to us, his letters seemed to have kept him out of the fighting. He never related anything about the war, but instead described the various countrysides, the villages, and the woods through which he trudged, and the seasons that he saw come and go.
Summer vacation was drawing closer, and with it the mountains and the scent of the pines at sunset. Some teachers had stayed put and had organized summer courses to which I was sent. I loved the lessons outdoors, the feeling of freedom, the cheerful and sunburnt teachers. Nobody talked about the war. Yet not too far away was a POW camp, off limits to us.
One day I was sitting on the veranda busy with my homework. The last sunbeams cast a yellowish light on my paper. Suddenly I noticed that I had written the date of July 14 in my notebook. The Bastille! France's famous day! The holiday of holidays! "Allons enfants de la patrie." By the time it was twilight, I had gathered as many white roses in the garden as I could carry. I ran to the edge of the woods. The thorns pierced my summer dress. I cried in pain and fear. But I was firmly determined to go through with my adventure, come what may.
I stood still right in front of the barbed wire.
Some figures were discernible behind the fence. Too late to make a retreat. They had seen me. I was small, but I was wearing a white dress and carrying a bouquet of roses of the same color. The men had black beards, black eyes, they didn't stir. Bells were pealing in the village. Peace, suppertime—and again the fear of being discovered, of not being able to transmit my message to them. For a long time I just stood there, motionless. The bells ceased to peal.
"Let's go," I thought, "let's go! After all you're a soldier's daughter."
I drew a rose from my bouquet and held it up to them. I couldn't notice any movement on the other side. They just stood there, rigid and stiff like tin soldiers. Then I drew a little closer to them, and in my childish voice and in my best French, I said: "Today is the Fourteenth of July. I thought the roses would make you happy." I pushed a rose through a hole in the barbed wire fence, a hand suddenly moved, grabbed, then other hands also dared to reach out. Breathlessly, I quickly handed over all my roses, as though accomplishing a glorious and forbidden feat. No other word was spoken.
I ran, and my heart pounded as though it were about to burst when I secretly slipped into the house through the cellar door. The anniversary of the storming of the Bastille came to a quiet close. Nobody had noticed my absence.
On the following day a teacher came by to see my mother. I had been seen. The teacher was ready to forgive me, to forget this "childish" prank, but the mothers of my schoolmates had demanded my expulsion from the summer school.
My mother remained quite calm. No anger, no nervousness. I was ashamed of myself for her sake and broke into tears. I didn't get to hear the familiar phrase: "A soldiers daughter doesn't cry." When I raised my eyes she was standing there, motionless, looking at me and weeping.
Now that I was left to my own devices for the rest of the summer, I gave a lot of thought to the notion of justice, confused thoughts, questions without answers, buzzed through my head. The war was unjust. Good and evil, these poorly defined concepts, have a clearly etched meaning in the world of children. They are like a primal law: unchangeable, always explainable, inexorable and mighty. Outside the world of children, on the other hand, good and evil seem to be changeable, deceptive, and invented arbitrarily.
I lay on the grass and thought about God and about Mlle. Breguand.
Both were somewhere, very far from me. God would come back after the war, I was as much convinced of this as I was of His absence. Yet I wasn't so sure in the case of Mlle. Breguand: First of all because she was a young woman, and then because I knew her less well than I knew God. I could rather easily foresee what God would do. Mlle. Breguand's image, however, was blurred and yet fascinating, full of surprises, it would suddenly turn up, flooded with light and vanish again as suddenly as it had appeared. Why should she have to come back after the war? The peace, perhaps, would not reconcile the French and the Germans, and besides, I might be too old to still be at school. God, on the other hand, had to come back, as He is responsible for us and, unlike us, does not reckon in years. He would come back to us again and reward those who suffered in the war permitted by Him. Yet none of these reasons spoke for the return of Mlle. Breguand.
Deep down I thought it was proper that God and Mlle. Breguand should keep their distance for a while, because men were slaughtering each other and making a mockery of human and divine laws. Summer came to a close, and sadly, I boarded the train that brought me back to the city.
I sang "Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles" in the spacious school courtyard amid my girlfriends. But I kept my mouth hermetically closed when the imprecation "May God punish England" reverberated from the walls. And again more victory celebrations, again holidays in exchange for gold pieces we were told to elicit from our mothers and grandmothers. Holidays in the event of death in the family. Once more, girls absent from school, more girls in black, food ration cards, lists of the wounded, lists of the missing, lists of the dead. Family gatherings with coded words, phrases overheard through closed doors: "The children mustn't notice anything. Careful, speak softly, there are children in the house."
Grief of the grown-ups. In the church, religious services for the missing. Tears hang like silver pearls from veils that flutter in the cold gusts and summer winds. The hope that you will never have to experience war when you are grown up.
Excerpted from Marlene by Marlene Dietrich, Salvator Attanasio. Copyright © 1987 Marlene Dietrich. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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