84. Addicted to danger.

By Peter Fraenkel

On my very first visit to Paris I called on Zernick, a cousin of my uncle Friedrich.  I found him fascinating – a tall stout man with a fund of stories about working in the French Resistance against the German occupiers. He was a German Jew and many of his family had been murdered by the Nazis so he had been highly motivated. I do, however, have to admit I found some of his tales improbable. But they were well-told and exciting.

We conversed in German.  He spoke no English and, at that time, I had no French.

Zernik took me to a restaurant in the Bois de Boulogne. Usually I do not remember what I ate the day before but I still remember that meal over 60 years later. We still had rationing in England, but not in France. The fillet steak was memorably good and the meal ended with delicious wild strawberries and cream. Then he took me to meet his wife in their apartment in the elegant 16th arrondisement. We climbed the stairs in silence. He had asked me not to speak German. The neighbours did not know his antecedents and he wanted to keep it that way.

In his apartment – framed on the wall – were newspaper cuttings showing him being decorated by General de Gaulle in person.  Next to it hung that well-known a photo of de Gaulle, very tall and very upright, marching down the Champs Elisée while bullets, fired by Vichy supporters, whistled over them. In the ranks behind the general marched Zernik himself, a little younger and a lot thinner but undoubtedly Zernik. I felt ashamed to have doubted his tales. He told me he had also been granted French nationality that very week.

Yes, he had spent the last year of the war smuggling ammunition into Paris to prepare for an uprising. De Gaulle hoped to see Paris liberated by Frenchmen, not by British or American troops. Zernik had carried in ammunition belts for machine guns, wrapped around his body, under his clothes.

“Once,” he told me, “we must have wrapped that ammunition belt around me too tightly. It was a hot day. As I approached a German checkpoint I thought if this takes much longer I’ll faint and if they open my jacket and see what I’m carrying  –  well, that’ll be the end. What to do? I had to act promptly. Fortunately I speak German. I was coming up to the checkpoint but there were three or four others ahead of me in the queue. I started bawling like a Prussian sergeant-major. In German, of course.

“What’s all this bloody dithering?  The Fuehrer wants alert fellows -fighters, not dozy sluggards. I’ll have you all posted to the Russian front,the lot of you. Yes, I bloody well will!”  I was in civvies but I hope they thought this was an officer on a secret mission.  They clicked their heels, saluted and ushered me through ahead of the others.  Kadavergehorsam, you know.”

It was a term I’d not heard before – cadaver obedience. “Where does that come from?” I asked him.

“No idea. Perhaps German corpses jump to attention when an officer comes past their coffin?”

“Terrible times you lived through”, I said.

“No!” he protested. “Not at all. Great times. It was great pitting my wits against all those boche  ... and their thousand year Reich!  Life has been duller since then.  Mind you, even today one can still have a bit of fun. These days I import furniture and toys from Eastern Europe. I travel to Poland regularly.  Most Western businessmen are shit-scared and will not go across that ‘Iron Curtain’, as they call it. So I don’t have too much competition. And the Poles? They’ve fired their most experienced businessmen. Some were Jews, others were politically suspect. Some were both. The new lot are party hacks with no idea of business. That’s o.k. with me. I’m doing very well, thank you.”

Later he expanded on this: “I used to work to a small profit margin. Too small, I thought. So I had a leaflet printed advertising furniture, very similar furniture, from Czechoslovakia but offered at a lower price. I showed it to the Poles. “I’m afraid I’ll have to give up dealing with you.”  They soon brought down their prices! It scared my wife stiff,” he laughed “but it improved my profit margin.”

His elegant apartment in the 16th arrondisement seemed to prove his point.

But perhaps the stress of his risk-taking became his undoing in the end. A year or two later my cousin Patrick came to Paris hoping to visit his father’s cousin. He was met at the airport by another Zernick relative with the news that the day before the resistance hero had collapsed with a stroke. A funeral was being organised.