Two weeks before my school year started, on Saturday evening, September 12th, 1959, I walked with some close friends, at two in the morning from La Palette, a café on the Rue de Seine in the 6th, which we always frequented, home. It might sound a bit negligent of my parents and my nanny to let me go out until two in the morning. I was only a bit older than 14 at the time. I was always a small person, and obviously, the police who often came into cafés to check customers’ identity nearly always checked me. They checked us because of our ages, but since we usually drank coffee or Coca-Cola or rarely a beer, they left us in peace. They were after drug pushing people. In the places we frequented, there were very few of those.
At the time, the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the ’60s, there was a vicious fight between two Algerian factions, the Front de Libération Nationale, FLN, and the Mouvement National Algérien, MNA. One of the factions was socialist and mainly supported by Egypt’s President Nasser and Eastern European countries, and the other more Western orientated. The fight between them, attempting to eliminate each other, was known as the café war. The almost 4000 victims happened mainly in the 18th, and 19th, arrondissement, working-class districts of Paris where many Algerians lived. The victims were usually blown up sitting in indoor and outdoor cafés in Paris and other large cities in France. The perpetrators parked a bicycle, the tubes filled with Centex, a powerful explosive that looks like chewing gum, detonated it, bringing death and destruction to the people in the café. Other victims were found floating down the Seine, dismembered with their bodies packed in suitcases.
Despite the outright viciousness of that war, we lived a long way from where these things happened. The 6th, the 8th, and the 16th, were not places where many Algerians worked and lived. So, our parents did not think we were in danger. Going to café’s was also something which we regularly did, and the owners of most of the cafés knew us and did not object to us being in these places.
On that particular night, the girl I went out with was Rebecca van Redel, whose father was an economist working for the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development). She was my age, lovely, and I was desperately in love with her. She was a jansonien, went to school not very far from where my aunt had her house, to the famous and highly elitist Lycée Janson de Sailly. It was the school my sister, Rita later attended. I had learned to know Rebecca when I “accidentally” chatted to her on the way to the Metro Station at the George V. Before she went down on her side of the Metro, she smiled at me and asked where I went to school. I said, “Le Louis…!” She made a bright impish face, said “…a scholar then…!” and asked me whether I wanted to meet somewhere. Yes, I suggested a café and gave her an unexpected kiss but forgot to provide her with a day and a time! Later, through Alice Libel, also a jansonien, who was a year older than me, and a close friend whom I knew well because she often came to our house – her mother was a great friend of my mother – I found out who Rebecca was, who her parents were, where she lived, and I then sent her impulsively a card with an eight-line love poem by Francois Villon, a 15th-century rogue, and vagabond, written on it. Though, I forgot to put my name on the card. Her intelligence network must have worked because the card led to a meeting in a café and another much more passionate kiss and some non-sexual love regularly performed on the stairs between the third and fourth floor of the apartment building where she lived. It was non-sexual because Rebecca prevented me from putting my hand down her very tight jeans. Nevertheless, the kisses were passionate and long-lasting. It usually occurred during two hours after three in the afternoon, when neither of us had a class, on Wednesdays, before her parents came home.
That ended abruptly when her mother returned home from her job at the Foreign Ministry. She came up the stairs and had been warned about “the happenings on the stairs” by the ever-watching-and-always-knowing-everything” called the concierge. It is the older woman, the bane of every apartment building in France. After a dutiful and polite introduction and apology to her mother, I was sent home because her mother had a cold. However, she told me in no uncertain terms to come to the apartment two days later at seven in the evening. And, as her mother went upstairs, being kissed again by Rebecca before she followed her mother, I was told with some strictness and possibly trepidation on Rebecca’s part, “buy and bring some flowers; but not red ones…and no roses… .that’s for lovers only….and no white ones either!” by her daughter!
With us was Benjamin Adler, whose father was a well-known Professor of Antiquity at the Sorbonne. Benjamin was two years older than we were, and we had just brought his girlfriend, Alice Libel, to her home at 10, Rue de Seine, a large Hotel Particulier with a vast courtyard. We then walked along the Quai Malaquais to the Ponte de l’Alma. Rebecca lived in an apartment in 4 Rue Marbeuf, an exclusive and expensive street off the Ave George V, and Benjamin lived with his parents in an apartment around the corner in 20, Rue de Boccador. After long kisses in the doorway at the Marbeuf building, I continued my walk alone towards the Ave Foch, my aunt Nadia’s house.
I had turned into the Rue de Presbourg. The road that goes around the Arc de Triomphe, which smart car drivers frequently use to avoid crossing the Place Charles de Gaulle (Place de l’étoile). I noticed a dark Mercedes which had been following us since we walked up the Ave George V. I had even mentioned it to Rebecca, making a joke about having superior security. At 26 Ave Foch, I turned into the entrance and opened the small side door, which led directly to the part of the house where I lived with Brigitta. Then suddenly, three guys pressed past me, one holding something over my nose and mouth and the other two wearing balaclavas going past me and tackling Brigitta, who had come out of the small living room. The last thing I remember hearing one of the guys say in French, “You want me to kill her?” to the other guys. Then, I lost consciousness.
I woke up in some cold and humid room smelling of mold. I was tied to the frame of a metal bed, and I had something covering my eyes. My feet were also bound with handcuffs to the bed frame, and it was a smelly mattress. I heard some North African music. It was not very loud and must have come from some distance. I thought first of shouting, but then decided it might be better not to make any noise. I still wore my coat and shoes, and I was happy because the cold was penetrating the warm clothing. Strangely, I did not feel any fear. But I was thinking about who these people could be and why I was their prisoner.
I had a headache and a strange smell in my mouth. I did not know how many hours I had been in this place when a door opened and a woman wearing a balaclava brought in a tray with some food and water. I only saw bits of her because she left the door open and my eye covers, the blindfolds had moved a bit. She did not say anything. But I asked who she was. She took my eye cover off and unlocked the right hand from the cuff connected to the bed. She then moved to the left-hand side of the bed, where my hand could not reach her. I could now see that she wore a knee-length skirt, a dark pullover, black stockings, and some half-height boots in the light that came in from the half-open door. She also wore strong perfume. She still did not say a word while I was continually talking to her, asking questions, and guessing who she was and where I was.
Though I had no clue, I was always talking, maybe out of fear. The food was okay and quite spicy, some chicken and couscous. There was also some water in a plastic cup, the kind of enclosed cup one gives to little children so that they can’t spill it. The girl left after a short time, and no one else came. There was no longer any music. The girl had not put my right hand back into the cuff, but I would not reach the end of the bed. After trying for some time, I fell asleep. When I woke up, it was seven. I still had my watch wearing it as usual at the bottom of my hand. Then, towards eight, someone opened the door and came in with a petroleum lamp, which a man put on a table. Now I finally could see the room. He went out again and came back with some rough blankets which smelled like military blankets. He put them on the bottom of the bed and left. Then, half an hour later, the girl came in and brought some food. Like the man, she wore her balaclava. I always talked to her, as I had spoken to the man. But there was no response. She took the old plates, carefully avoiding getting within reach of my right arm. The food was hot, and I was cold. I was at the time more interested in food than in attacking my captors. The plastic cup was full of very sweet peppermint tea, and there was a second cup, the same type of children’s non-spill cup with cold water. I said I had to go and pee. There was no response. Half an hour later, she returned and brought a bedpan and some toilette paper, and a large warm wet cloth.
I could see her eyes through the holes in the balaclava when she looked at me. It reminded me of a visit I had done with my mother to Fez in Morocco, looking at young women who had covered their faces and watching the movements of their eyes. She still had not talked with me and never made any sounds. They left the petroleum light on. But she locked my right hand back into the cuff after I had pooped and peed into the bedpan. I was glad for the warm wet cloth that the girl had left to clean me up.
I fell asleep again and wasn’t sure whether they had added some sleeping pills in the food or the tea. The girl had covered my body with the blankets the guy had brought into the room. Then I woke up again, at five in the morning. Someone was doing something on the outside of the room. The petroleum light was no longer on, so I thought it had run out of petroleum. After the noise had subsided, I heard a motorcycle being driven off. Otherwise, there was silence, and I fell back asleep. When I woke up again shortly before seven, my ankles and my wrists hurt. Then, after seven, the door opened, and in came the girl. I had decided that it was a very young woman. She wore another perfume when she brought me the breakfast, some sweet tea and a warm gruel with sugar and cinnamon, as well as some baguette bread. I said good morning, and she looked at me but did not say anything. I always talked to her, but with no response. She left and then brought the bedpan with the warm wet towel back. She had also unchained me on the right-hand side. After a while, she got some more hot and wet towels and washcloths and then left. An hour later, a man came in with a camera and shot some pictures of me. He was taller than the first man and better dressed. I said hello and asked whether anyone knew I was here. He did not say anything, just took the photos and left. I noticed he had an expensive camera, a Nikon of some sort. Then the girl came in and had some cream in a jar that she put on my ankles and wrists. She had closed the cuff on my right hand again.
Was I afraid that something horrible could happen to me? Probably I was, but I tried to overcome it by continually talking to the people when they came into the room. It was my means of living through the fear of the unknown. It was a sort of defense and maybe reassertion of myself.
Five days later, I was still waking up in the morning to sweet peppermint tea and gruel with sugar and cinnamon. I knew it was five days because my watch had a date, and I could see it was now September 17th, 1959. The girl still came and fed me every day. I talked to her, but she was silent. I had seen another person, the guy, only twice when he came and once made more photos. He did not say anything either. By now, I felt I was pretty smelly; a bit like the mattress, I had the same undefined smell. The girl wore different clothes every day, which did not look like cheap clothes. She also wore some expensive gold chains around her wrists and her neck. They were not every day the same. I commented on it and made her compliments. I just tried to make her talk. Later, I had started to think about the girl without any clothes on. She was thin and had good legs and small breasts. I never saw her head. It was always covered in the balaclava. I just saw her eyes, brown eyes, she sometimes stood there on the side of the bed and stared at me, or when I was completely tied down on the bed, she came close to my face, maybe within two feet, and stared at me.
I don’t know why she did that. Maybe it was some form of atonement or suppressing a fear she had about my impending demise. She did that more often now. I thought about starting to talk to her about sex because maybe it would make her talk. Like saying, “you are disgusting….!” or something similar. I craved for her to speak with me. I dismissed it because I thought she could have become annoyed or insulted, and I did not want to offend her. I was the helpless one, and she could have strangled me or not given me any food or just no longer come into the room.
On the morning of Friday, September 25th, 1959, I was still in that room lying on the smelly mattress, being fed by the girl. I had now seen the guy three times, but he only came in to have a look at me and once more to take photos. Neither of them uttered a word. I started to become worried. I could not remember why I was concerned. Maybe it was the insolation I felt. I was alone. When the girl had left the plate on a tray on the bed with a few small bits of food after I had eaten, a little grey mouse climbed up to the bedside and started to eat the food rests. She looked at me, and I called her Bijou and began to talk with her. If I did not move fast or abruptly, she would walk around on the bed after eating the small bits of food. Sometimes she walked over my stomach. Then after a while, she would disappear. I wanted her to stay because I could talk to her.
I began to walk, at least in my mind. I walked around cities I knew, Manhattan and Paris, Vienna, Zurich, and Geneva, thinking about people I knew. Just not to feel isolated.
I was still tied down on the bed, and my wrists and ankles had become inflamed. The girl put some medicated cream on it every morning and evening, but it would not get any better. I told her that I had to be in Belgium on Sunday night, September 27th, because my school started the following Monday. She just stood there against the wall and stared at me, not saying anything.
On September 29th, 1959, I was woken up at two in the morning. A man put a blindfold over my eyes and put a black bag over it. Then he took my ankle cuffs and my wrist cuffs off before he put my arms behind me, cuffing the hands together again. He shouted in French, “Get up!” I tried to stand up but fell since my legs had not been active.
I felt that two guys were holding me up. I could smell them. One smelled of smoking Gauloise or Gitanes, the black tobacco cigarette typical in France. I was quiet and did not talk much. I thought they were going to shoot me, but somehow, there was no longer any fear. I could not walk properly, and the two dragged me to a sort of van. I heard one opening the rear door, and then they shoved me into the van. It was an icy floor, and the van stank. The smell was important at the time because it was a sense they could not inhibit. I had lost all will to resist and was just lying there on the floor of a cold van. We drove about three hours or something like that. I could not hear anyone talk. Then we stopped, and someone opened the rear door. They pulled me out of the van, and one guy dragged me along some grass and told me to sit down on a wooden bench. I could hear the birds and smell the grass. Somehow, I thought that it would be the last thing I would smell or hear. Then one guy took off the handcuff, saying in French, “when you hear us drive off, count to twenty and then take off the blindfold! Someone will shoot you if you take it off earlier!” Then I heard the van leave. I was exhausted and also full of fear. I did not even think of counting, just waited maybe for ten minutes, maybe more, before I took off the black bag and then the blindfold over my eyes. I just sat there and looked at the trees. It was still dark, and I looked at my watch. It was ten past five, and I sat on a bench in a small area of trees with some wooden benches. There was a narrow dirt road in front of me and some kilometers away I saw some lights in a village. I found it difficult to move. I wore my raincoat and my shoes, but my legs would not work correctly. Several times, I tried to get up; yet, I could not stand up, and I had to stay on the bench. If I started to move the legs up and down, maybe that will help me stand up later. That is what I did. I continued to do that until seven-thirty. It started to drizzle, and I thought I should now begin to walk towards the village. But I had no enthusiasm for doing that. No real emotions or feelings were coming out of me, though once or twice, maybe more often, I said to myself, “Lucky bugger!” but it was almost without emotions, just a mechanical statement.
After a while, I thought it was after more than an hour, a small farm tractor came up the narrow unpaved and wet lane, and I waved at the man sitting in the cab. I had smelled the exhaust smell a long time before I could see the vehicle. The middle-aged guy stopped and asked me whether I was okay. I told him I could not walk properly, and would he give me a lift to someone who had a phone. The driver was called Jean. I had asked him for his name and called him Monsieur Jean. He was a small farmer who had a home in the village and who had been out hunting early in the morning. There was a dead boar on the small back platform of the tractor. Jean asked me whether I was an escapee from somewhere because he said, “only someone who lived in the forest would smell like that. You can’t be a vagabond, you are too young, and your fingers are not worn. You also wear an expensive raincoat, even though it is dirty, and you stink!”
“I’ll tell you what happened when I can get to the phone!” I said. He shrugged his shoulders and looked at me sidewise.
“Can you tell me the name of the village?”
“It is Abbeville-Saint Lucien near Beauvais. Where are you from?”
“I normally live in Paris and Geneva.”
“But how do you end up here?”
“I will tell you after I can call someone to come and pick me up! I promise you will get paid for helping me!” We had driven about twenty minutes when we stopped at the Post office.
“I don’t have a phone in the house, and you can use the phone here!”
“Please, come in and stay with me. I can’t walk properly!”
“I have to look after my animals. But I’ll come back. I live in the house over there!” and he pointed out the house, and then he helped me climb the few steps up to the door and shoved me into the room. I said “thanks” and strolled to the post office counter. My knees were still weak, and my legs did not respond well. Probably I walked like a drunk. The woman behind the counter looked at me, most likely thinking I was going to rob her. I asked whether I could make a reverse charge call and gave her the number of aunt Nadia’s house in Paris. She looked at me, I was not exactly clean, and she asked whether I was sure that this was the right number.
Then a woman came into the door of the post office. She looked at me from the side. Then she let out a shriek,” Are you not the one who is on the front page of all the papers?…… the boy who was abducted…….?”
” I have not seen any papers……!” Then the woman said to the post office employee, “call the police, he is the boy…!”
“Could I phone my father please……?” I asked.
“Yes, but we first call the police!” the post office lady said authoritatively, full of self-importance, French fonctionnaire importance. She called the police and said she had a vagrant with her, and would they come and pick him up……u..r..g..e..n..t..l..y…! She then gave me the phone, dialed the number, and told her that my father would pay for the call. She just looked at me, without saying anything, and I heard the woman who came in state, “poor child…….poor child….!”
Someone in aunt Nadia’s house took the call. I can’t remember who it was, and I said,” It’s Berti. I am in the post office in Abbeville-Saint Lucien. It is near Beauvais. Just look it up!” and then I heard some people talking and my mother came to the phone and asked, “Are you all right?’
“Yes, I am. Is Brigitta all right?”
“We’ll tell you afterward, give all the details to the police! I’m glad they found you! Love you!” my mother said. “We will see you shortly!” and then gave the phone to someone else, to whom I had to explain in detail where I was and also that someone here had called the police.
A few hours later, I was back on the Ave Foch and found out that I had made the headlines for several days. More importantly, Brigitta was all right, though she had many bruises and a cracked skull. The guys who had come into the house had not shot her. Instead, he had kicked and beaten her. She was in a nearby hospital. After bathing and telling the tenth time a policeman what and how things happened, I was allowed to visit her. I kissed her when I saw her with the white bandages, a large discolored blue-yellow eye, and some bruising, and I cried. The doctor said she was okay and could probably leave the hospital in about two to three weeks. I think I kissed her again and again and then kissed everyone around me, my father, my mother, my brother, and my sister. The police had asked that we would not make any statements, my father said. I was okay with that. The last thing I wanted to make was statements or even see other people. I just wanted to be in our home in my bed. Warm and not smelly. I still had the foul mattress smell in my nostrils. I could not get rid of it. It was probably the mind playing a trick.
During the next few days, I had to tell my story to police officers several more times, and then I had to see a psychiatrist. I thought the guy was a bit loopy. He said, so my mother told me afterward that I was overexcited and under extreme stress. I did not feel like that. But everyone had an opinion!
Four months later, I was back in school in Belgium, they called me into the principal’s office, and five policemen were there. I first thought they had found out about an incident that happened at our school. But it was about the people who had kidnapped me. The chief, a French policeman who stank of smoke, told me that six people had been identified in a place near Le Havre. They had all been shot dead because, so I have been told, they opened fire when the CRS, the riot police, and the Gendarmerie had surrounded the building. The kidnappers were all French anarchists led by a crazy thirty-year-old Spanish Basque. The police showed me photos of the faces of the people. The girl, Emma Caron, was 24 and a philosophy student at the University of Strasbourg in the Alsace. She had a lovely face, and I wondered why she would have embarked on some nutty event like a kidnapping. I felt sorry for her, and I cried about the unnecessary deaths when I was back in my room.
My father thought it would be best to take up my life, where I had left it, and go after a week to the school in Brussels. I agreed, and so did mother and aunt Nadia. I went every day to see Brigitta at the hospital, and she improved very quickly. I also had many visitors, Rebecca, Benjamin and Alice, some school friends and Brigitta’s mother came from Geneva. My father and my mother also had many long talks with me. Probably to find out whether I had been “damaged” mentally. I hadn’t, though two psychiatrists argued that it would probably come later. My grandmother Johanna also came to Paris and talked to me. She explained how my brain was likely to absorb the event and how I could cope with it. I liked her a lot better than the French psychiatrists because she did not think I was stupid. The others implied I was some sort of damaged goods, ready to be returned to the seller! Nothing changed. The most tiring part was the repeated and endless questioning by different police detectives.
Many years later, I found out who the girl’s parents were and where they lived. She came from Colmar, a beautiful town in the Alsace, and her father, an énarques, Etienne Louis Caron, a select few who went to the French École Nationale d’administration, the ENA in Paris. Her mother was a surgeon in Strasbourg. Her father had lost his prestigious job as a préfet for Bas-Rhine’s department when his daughter Emma was identified as a kidnapper and later killed by the police. I wrote to her parents and asked whether I was allowed to visit them. Her mother agreed but told me that her husband had killed himself in 1964. Years later, I went to visit her mother. We walked to the grave of her daughter Emma and her husband, Etienne. It was in a cemetery in Colmar. I was putting a few small stones and some flowers on the graves. We both cried a bit about the unnecessary loss of a young life and the destruction of her family.
©2019 ajs 4884-2 – Bert Berger
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