Maria Tanczak Fiddler, a WWII survivor, recounted stories from her childhood during the German occupation in France and the experiences that shaped her understanding of the sacredness of liberty.
PROVO, Utah (Feb. 18, 2016)—“Life is beautiful, but one must be free to have a beautiful life,” Maria Tanczak Fiddler said through tears. Fiddler, who grew up in German-occupied France, is just one of a dwindling number of World War II survivors with a profound, first-hand story to share about the hardships of the last world war.
Fiddler’s account of the German occupation in France was given in French, a language she had not spoken in almost 60 years. She traced her story from her parents’ beginnings in Ukraine to the day France was liberated from German occupation, recounting values she learned as a child living during the upheaval of WWII.
Prior to the German invasion of Paris, Fiddler and her parents fled Ukraine because of her father’s political involvement in the Ukrainian resistance against Nazi Germany.
In anticipation of a possible invasion, Fiddler’s father took her family to the Paris suburbs to find temporary work. He made an agreement with a farmer that he would work for free on the condition that should the Germans invade, the farmer would help their family evacuate.
A week later, the Germans invaded Paris. For the first two days, the family travelled on foot to safety. Fiddler recalled that her mother had bought a bar of chocolate with which to feed the family, allotting each family member one square per day as dinner.
On the third day of their journey, the German airplanes finally appeared. Fiddler remembered her mother pushing her into a ravine and holding her close as bullets from machine guns rained from the sky. When the planes left, there were bodies everywhere—some dead, some wounded. Though the wounded cried out for help, Fiddler remembers having to pass them by, as there was nothing they could do for them.
Later on, Fiddler’s family made their way to Orléans, and from there were sent to another village where they were forced by German soldiers to board a train to Doulcon, a commune in northeastern France that housed a Nazi labor camp during the war.
Fiddler experienced some of her most troubling memories at the Nazi labor camp in Doulcon. From morning until night, she and her parents worked to harvest potatoes for the German army in exchange for one piece of bread and a meager serving of potato soup each day.
Fiddler recalled her mother once taking three potatoes from the harvest and hiding them in her blouse. Though most workers looked away, one woman reported her. Fiddler did not wish to relate what her mother suffered as punishment for taking the three potatoes.
Though they faced enormous and indescribable hardships at the camp, one of the German commanders over the camp often showed kindness to Fiddler and her family, and Fiddler said that it was thanks to his help that they were finally able to escape. She remembered the commander coming to their home one evening with false papers to help them escape, a sacrifice that Fiddler said saved them from going to Auschwitz the very next day.
Fiddler’s family eventually found refuge in a small village until France was liberated, but she will never forget the sacrifice the commander made on behalf of her family, as she later discovered that the commander was caught for issuing them false papers and sent to his death.
“Here is a man that saved our lives, but he died for us,” Fiddler said, switching from French to English. “Sometimes I thought the Germans were the bad ones, but they are not all bad. It’s not true. There are some good, there are some bad. You can’t judge people.”
Through tears and profound emotion, Fiddler said, “I want all of you to cherish your liberty. You think I was liberated? No, I was not liberated. My body was liberated, but my scars were not liberated. They are still there.”
“I believe that liberty is sacred,” Fiddler concluded. “If you are not free, that is not life.”
—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)
Sylvia Cutler covers events for the Department of French & Italian. She is a double major in English and French with a minor in women’s studies.
Photos courtesy of Maria Tanczak Fiddler