[Unlike, say, Bill Gross, I don’t normally over-share my personal life. But, partly in honor of the 4th of July holiday, I’m going to share a few moments from my recent trip to France to see my great uncle, André Heintz, one of the last surviving members of the French Resistance.]
André Heintz is now ninety-four years old, stone deaf, sharp as a tack, a virtual waif of a man, standing barely five foot three and weighing, on a damp day, maybe one hundred twenty pounds. If you passed him on the street you wouldn’t notice him. And yet, he is quite possibly the most revered man in all of France.
André Heintz joined the French Resistance in the autumn of 1940, barely three months after the fall of France, having just turned twenty. Interestingly, you couldn’t just join up. If you asked to become a member of a Resistance network there was a suspicion that you were a German spy, intent on penetrating and betraying the group. You had to be asked, often out of the blue.
André was recruited by l’abbe Makulec, a Polish-French priest who was a friend of his family. The priest would come by the Heintz home now and then, have dinner, talk about this and that. One day Father Makulec stopped by and André told him he’d come at a bad time, as his parents weren’t at home. “It’s you I wish to see,” said the priest.
“André, ecoutez bien,” he said. “Listen carefully. To end this war and not have another following it, it is necessary for each of us to kill three Germans.”
What was attractive about André to the Resistance was precisely his small stature. Although twenty years old, if you dressed him in a French schoolboy’s uniform he could easily pass for twelve. And that was what he did, riding his bicycle all over Caen. The Germans paid him no attention.
What motivated André to accept the invitation, aside from simple patriotism, was the Heintz family’s lingering resentment of the Germans, left over from the Franco-Prussian War. When the French lost the war, Germany annexed Alsace-Lorraine. Andre’s family – my family – was forced to leave Alsace and settle in Normandy. Since real names couldn’t be used in the Resistance, Andre chose to be known as Courtois (the Alsatian version of “Curtis.”(1))
The Resistance unit André joined was known as l’Organisation Civil et Militaire (OCM), the most active Resistance group in Caen. His apparently aimless bicycling around Caen was in fact minutely choreographed by the Resistance, which had been charged by the Allies with gathering specific information about German positions and headquarters in Caen and German activity at the nearby airport at Carpiquet.
As necessary, André would pass along his findings to his “chief,” whom I’ll call Bernard, while attending Mass at the Eglise Saint-Pierre, a church whose spire can still be seen from the window of André’s current apartment on the avenue de Bagatelle. He and Bernard would kneel and pray in a discreet corner of the church, but what was passing between them wasn’t at all prayerful.
As it turned out, André had several other talents, initially unknown to the Resistance, but which would prove decisive. First, he was what, when I was young, we called a “ham radio operator.” An uncle had given André a crystal radio set(2) several years earlier and André had vastly improved its capabilities. While most crystal sets could barely pull in music broadcast from the top of the Eiffel Tower, André’s set could bring in the BBC. This allowed him to receive instructions from the Allies and de Gaulle and to pass them on to the Resistance.
Second, André had built a tiny camera, so small it could be concealed in a soup can.(3) When the Resistance learned about the camera, they could hardly contain their enthusiasm for what it might disclose about German activities in Caen. As we shall see, however, the camera nearly brought young André’s life to a premature end.
Finally, André turned out to have a great talent for creating fake identity cards, some of which he still has in his possession. (Unlike most young Frenchmen of his day, André spoke excellent English.) Those cards were used mainly by downed Allied pilots, who were escorted by the Resistance through German lines back to England. The ID cards had other uses as well, including smuggling Jews out of Normandy, and, as we shall see, saving the lives of otherwise-doomed Resistance members.
These talents quickly transformed André from a minor scout in the OCM to a key player in the Allied war effort. See my next posts.
(1) In case you were wondering where the “court” came from in “Greycourt.”
(2) A crystal radio is a simple receiver that requires no external power source, using instead the energy in radio waves, which it receives via a long antenna. When I was young, virtually every kid built a crystal radio set. Not, however, me.
(3) In his book, D-Day, which chronicles some of André’s exploits, Stephen Ambrose reported that André concealed his camera in a Campbell Soup can as he rode around on his schoolboy bicycle. In fact, as André told me, the camera was concealed in a Heinz bean can. The bean can may be observed today in the Caen Memorial Museum.
Next up: André Heintz (Part 2)
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