Columnist John Paradis: A story of liberty, freedom and doing the right thing

  • Gaston Joyeux and his daughter, Chantal, as seen in their passport photos upon arrival to the United States in 1954. As a French soldier, Joyeux survived five years of confinement in several German stalags during World War II. His daughter, Chantal Joyeux-DuPuis is now 75 and lives in Greenfield. Together with a friend, Sally Laubin, from “Bonjour,” a French conversation group in Bernardston, a presentation has been made that chronicles Gaston’s wartime experience and in becoming a U.S. citizen. The next presentation will be held at the Bernardston Unitarian Church, 49 Church St., at 11 a.m., Jan. 29, 2023. CONTRIBUTED

Published: 12/8/2022 2:53:35 PM
Modified: 12/8/2022 2:53:14 PM

At the Bittersweet Bakery and Café in South Deerfield recently, I met Chantal Joyeux-DuPuis and her good friend, Sally Laubin, two members of “Bonjour,” a French conversation group that meets in Bernardston.

With the help of Laubin, a retired French teacher, I am transported in time to France during the dark years of the Second World War.

Laubin has created an extraordinary presentation about Chantal’s father, Gaston Joyeux, a French soldier whose story is fascinating to me because it’s one of liberty and freedom, but it’s also deeper than that — much deeper.

On May 9, 1940, Gaston, then 20, an electrician, enlists in the military engineering arm of the French Army. Chantal lovingly describes her dad as charming with a certain swagger about him — “a bon vivant,” she says.

In his teens, he learned his trade as an apprentice at the Eiffel Tower and at the opera house in Paris, and he seemingly had the whole world before him, she says. But the very next day, Germany invades France, and his life and the fate of his fellow French citizens are changed forever.

One month later, on June 14, German units march down the Champs-Élysées in Paris. French citizens line the avenue with tears and silence. The French tricolor is taken down and replaced with the swastika. Clocks are set on German time. The French are now under the control of a collaborationist Vichy government, led by Marshal Philippe Pétain.

Gaston is captured the next day, on the outskirts of Paris, and sent walking 170 miles to northern France. There, some days later, he and his friend, René, escape and, together, they make the long journey back toward Gaston’s home. But home was now a different place. People are taking opposite sides. Neighbors and even family members betray one another.

The local police, conspirators with the Gestapo, find Gaston and turn him over to the Germans. René is hiding nearby. When Gaston refuses to give away his friend’s location, they bludgeon Gaston and slit Gaston’s tongue. Gaston is sent away again, escapes again, and is captured once more. He is then sent to an Auschwitz labor camp where he spends the last year of the war.

I wish I had more newsprint to tell you about the first time Gaston saw an American G.I. — a Black American soldier who saved his life. I could also share with you Chantal’s memories about her father’s struggles after the war, his nightmares at night, and the trauma that surely was with him until his last dying breath. And finally, how he and his wife, Louise, came to the United States in 1954 to give a better life with greater opportunity for their daughter.

I can say this: Gaston chose to live his life with conviction and with courage and for liberty and justice for all.

There are crossroads all of us face in life. Do you do the right thing? Or do you do nothing?

About 2 percent of France’s 41 million people, it is believed, in various forms, both organized and otherwise, resisted. All under the eyes of the Gestapo and under the heels of occupation. Many who resisted were killed and tortured and were deported.

The myth of a large-scale French resistance only serves to demean the memory of patriots like Gaston who did serve courageously. Many French people did nothing. A considerable number became “collabos” or collaborators. There were those who actively helped round up thousands of Jews for shipment to concentration camps, from which few survived. History is their judge, recrimination their legacy.

“Freedom is a blessing that should never be abused,” Gaston wrote in a letter a few years before he died in 1995. “It is too precious.”

In the 1930s, the American government mirrored public sentiment that what the Nazis were doing to Jews was none of our business.

Two days after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt in a radio address to the nation noted the collaboration between the “Axis strategists” of Japan, Hitler, and Mussolini during “a decade of international immorality.”

And yet, most Americans during that decade looked the other way. Prominent Americans, like Charles Lindbergh, were fascist sympathizers and racist demagogues.

“It’s astounding to me that people forget what happened and don’t see the similarities today,” says Chantal.

Sally and Chantal finish the chronicle of Chantal’s father, and we return to the present day and the present world before us. Antisemitism is on the rise. Iran cracks down on protesters. The World Cup bans “OneLove.” Putin continues his war crimes.

When Chantal sees old black and white photos of the Nazi brown shirts, she sees the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, white nationalists, and the Proud Boys.

“History is repeating itself and what have we learned?” Chantal says.

We ponder that question together before I say “au revoir” to my new friends and part company at the Bittersweet. I leave thinking of a man named Gaston Joyeux — a man who resisted evil and stayed true to himself. I head into the cold, praying for peace on earth. In his memory, I whisper, “Joyeux Noel.”

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a monthly column for the Gazette. He can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com. The next presentation on Gaston Joyeux will be at the Bernardston Unitarian Church, 49 Church St., at 11 a.m., Jan. 29, 2023.

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