My great uncle, André Heintz, is, at age 94, one of the last survivors of the French Resistance. This is the last in my series of posts reporting on my recent trip to Normandy to visit him on the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion.
André Heintz enters the Caen Memorial Museum on a weekday. It’s early morning and hardly anyone is there except the staff. However, against the wall on the left, seated on a bench, is a former British soldier, now obviously in his nineties but still dashing in his red beret. He spots André and rises painfully to his feet. The two men meet near the middle of the room and talk briefly. “I wanted to shake your hand, Mr. Heintz,” says the Brit. “If it wasn’t for blokes like you, blokes like me wouldn’t be alive today.” “And if it wasn’t for blokes like you,” says André, tapping the Brit in the chest, “Blokes like me would be speaking German!”
The two men have a good laugh and André continues across the room toward a large photograph of himself, aged twenty-four, standing beside a British colonel for whom he was serving as interpreter. On the other side of the room a schoolteacher and her young class – they seem to be about nine years old – have entered the museum, a school field trip. Spotting André Heintz, the teacher quickly hushes her class. “Infants! Silence!”
Against the far wall, André Heintz peers at the text under his photo, tapping the words with his finger as he reads. A museum staff member approaches him and points out that a class of schoolchildren has entered the museum. Ever the teacher, André makes a beeline for the children. He raises his cane to them in welcome and they shout back to him. André introduces himself to the teacher, shakes her hand and thanks her for bringing the children to the museum. The woman is too startled to speak. André Heintz is thanking her?
Scenes like these happen every day. At the University of Caen(1) library there is an exhibit describing an interview of André Heintz by a group of high school girls, Alma-Lia, Mathilde, and Suzanne. Entitled “Reflections,” the exhibit makes it clear that the girls weren’t fooled by André’s slight physique or soft-spoken manner. “Même si nous sommes jeunes, des le premier contact on sent que Monsieur Heintz est un battant.” True, we are young, but from the first moment we felt that Mr. Heintz was a fighter. “Il dégage toujours ce courage et cette ténacité qui ont fait de lui un résistant.” The courage and tenacity that made him a Resistance fighter are always obvious.
Obvious, perhaps, to the girls, but not so much to the rest of us. Indeed, the main characteristic of André Heintz is his ordinariness. He is, as I’ve noted, a small, soft-spoken man who has been a teacher all his life. Even in the Resistance he never sought high office, but was content to carry out the orders of others.(2) If he were to walk the streets of Paris no one would notice him.
The difference between André Heintz and the rest of us is that, when the time came to choose, he chose courage. He is, in other words, a small man in every way except the one that matters most.
And that is what makes André Heintz so interesting. If so unprepossessing a man can have done something so extraordinary, the possibility arises that we, too, might do something extraordinary if called upon. In reality, of course, the odds are against it. According to the Resistance Museum in Lyon, between the Fall of France in 1940 and the liberation of Paris in 1944 the French Resistance never boasted more than five thousand active members.(3) This in a country of more than forty million people.
Still, some answered the call, and many of those who did were just ordinary, everyday folks like André Heintz. However unlikely, the possibility of greatness is there for all of us, and André Heintz is the living, breathing embodiment of that prospect.
André Heintz, teacher, translator, great-grandfather, is a Commandeur des Palmes Académiques, a Chevalier de l’Ordre du Merité (along with Charles de Gaulle and Jean-Paul Belmondo), and he has been awarded the Médaille du Combattant Volontaire de la Résistance (along with André Malreaux). His books include If I Must Die: The Audacious Raids of a British Commando, 1941-1943, La Manche, 1940-1944, and La vie quotidienne étudiantes à l’Université de Caen de 1939 à 1955.
In a few months, God willing, André Heintz will turn ninety-five.
(1) The university was founded in 1432. Laplace was introduced to mathematics at Caen University and, later, Poincaré taught there. The university was completely destroyed by British bombs on July 7, 1944.
(2) True, after D-Day André was asked to reorganize the Resistance groups in and around Caen, but as André himself will concede, this was because all the local Resistance leaders had been shot.
(3) Resistance members came and went, of course, and members who were killed were usually replaced in time. As a result, the total number of Resistance members between 1940 and 1944 was undoubtedly much higher. After the war, the French government officially recognized nearly 220,000 men and women as being active, at least occasionally, in the Resistance movement.
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