I said to Philippe that he must have had an interesting life, moving from western Europe to the USSR and then living through the turbulent transition from the communist behemoth to the quick-changing Russian Federation. He modestly replied that his life indeed hadn’t been dull, but it was nothing compared to that of his father, Roger Bonnenfant. Intrigued, I wanted to hear the story of his father. It was a truly a strange story and a heart-warming one.
It was in Ulm that he met Gerhard Schneider, a supervisor in the factory. Gerhard was an unusual man himself. He was a world-class athlete, who had survived despite his open contempt for the Nazis only because of his legendary reputation as a ski champion. His youthful idealism had prompted him once to visit the emerging socialist paradise of USSR, where he had been interrogated and detained on suspicion, but he had escaped. Incredibly, he would hide himself during the day and ski at night to elude the Russian authorities and reach freedom.
Gerhard treated Roger kindly and got to know him better. On the excuse that he needed a worker to do some chores in his home, he even succeeded in getting Roger to come to his house periodically and meet his wife, Emilia. The couple took pity on Roger and hatched an incredible plan. A plan for Roger to escape.
Roger did not have many choices. The Reich had gobbled up large parts of Europe, including his country. He could not go home. His only chance was to reach neutral Switzerland. His plan, hatched with advice from Gerhard and Emilia, was to reach the southernmost town of Konstanz, on the border of Lake Constance, and then try to reach Basel across the border.
Once in Basel, he had no way to inform the Schneiders of the success of their common plan. Three years later, when the war ended, Roger was finally able to do the two things he had long yearned to do: tell Gerhard and Emilia that he had survived and return home to Paris. In five months, he was able to do more. He arrived in Ulm and hugged Gerhard and Emilia.
For years after that the Bonnenfants – for Roger had married and had his first child, Philippe – always visited Germany for their vacation and the Schneiders in turn visited France for holidays. Philippe was very young when he first saw Ulm, but he remembers being told that his first word as a baby was a German word rather than French. The two families remained closer than blood relations, and the children grew up as virtual cousins.
I had to agree with Philippe that his father had had a more exciting life, fulfilling as well as exciting.