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Rider of the WWII Storm

It seemed like a rural idyll.

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It seemed like a rural idyll. Mireille Marokvia’s sheep and goat had found a piece of land where they liked to graze; it was, however, some distance from her house, and they refused to go there alone. To summon her, the goat would first knock on the door of the house. If that didn’t work, it would deliberately go to stand on some high ground that clearly could be seen from the second story of the dwelling, where its mistress spent most of her time. The goat would then proceed to make its hair stand on end and slowly puff itself up. Worried the animal was ill, Marokvia would come out at once. The ploy worked every time. The goat would then deflate itself, and the trio would go off to the pasture, accompanied by Marokvia’s orange cat.

Marokvia’s house was in Bergheim, in an isolated part of the German countryside, surrounded by forest. But, animal antics aside, it wasn’t all a Thoreau-like idyll. World War II was raging, and she had moved there because her town, Stuttgart, was under heavy bombardment. She had to share her house with the family of a Nazi officer who was away at the front. And a local Nazi official had taken an interest in her, finding her presence there suspicious and insisting she report to him weekly.

“Sins of the Innocent” (Unbridled Books) is Marokvia’s memoir of how she spent World War II. Marokvia was French; she had married a German man, Artur Marokvia, referred to as Abel in the book, whom she met in Paris. He hated Germany and particularly the Nazis, and she credits him with making her understand how horrible their regime was. “He was very intelligent, and he saw things that other people didn’t,” she says. “But many people in Germany knew what Hitler was. They were scared. There was a lot of fear; you did not dare not follow the rules. Some were interested, and some gained. They knew how to seduce the people, and many people believed. We had tried to punish Germany too much after the first World War. Not only the Germans were guilty for the first World War. That really is what provoked Hitler.”

The couple had only gone to Germany to take care of his mother. They planned to stay just six months; then World War II broke out. The memoir is an account of how they survived the war in a country so inimical to both of them. The book, which received an excellent review in The New York Times, alternates funny or absurd incidents with disturbing, even frightening ones. At one point, the couple attended a dinner party given by Abel’s boss, the head of a Stuttgart advertising agency. One of the guests was a Nazi official, who began ranting and raving about Jews. Abel was so incensed he called Hitler and the man idiots, and proceeded to slap him. As the couple were thrown out of the party, the official muttered threats after them. They were frightened for months afterward, but nothing happened because the Nazi was involved in an intraparty power struggle of his own and was in no position to exact revenge.

Abel, a gifted artist, used his talents to avoid being conscripted into the army; he joined a group called the Operation Todt. Among many other functions, it sent artists to areas newly occupied by the Germans to make propaganda pictures — flower-bearing Russian peasants welcoming the Nazis, for instance. At times, he was sent to places he had long wanted to visit, such as Italy. After having been reprimanded for making sketches that his employers didn’t want — of such things as Russian beggars or soldiers looting (“Our soldiers don’t loot!”) — Abel managed to create uplifting images that satisfied their needs and kept his “inappropriate” renderings for himself.

Meanwhile, to keep from having to go to work in a factory, Marokvia first learned weaving and then took on some translations from German to French. She did something slightly subversive with some of them: She changed the tall, perfectly aquiline Aryan heroes of the romances she was working on to men more to the French taste. They were shorter, darker, sometimes with curly hair or even fleshy noses.

Like most authors of wartime memoirs, Marokvia writes frequently about food — or rather, the lack of it. Even in a restaurant one could get very little to eat.

One hazard of being bombed was having to share the shelter night after night with one’s annoying neighbors. Marokvia noticed that some of them hadn’t even bothered to make any provision for shelter space for their servants.

After the war, the Marokvias emigrated to America. He was almost 50 and she was over 40, so their prospects might have appeared poor. In a startling piece of good fortune, however, she picked the names of several magazines from the telephone directory. Her husband went to Esquire, asked for work, and when he did an excellent job in two days, the magazine offered him a job. Their luck held; he worked consistently as an illustrator after that and she wrote a total of five children’s books that he illustrated. In addition, she translated costumes from sketches to patterns for the theatrical costumer Brooks. When they retired, they took a trip to Mexico; they liked it so much they stayed there for 13 years. Later, they returned to the U.S. to the state they found most like that country, New Mexico. Mireille Marokvia, now widowed, still lives there at the age of 98.

Surprisingly, her husband, who had many other good qualities, didn’t think she should write. He always told her, “You’ll never make it.” She initially destroyed her diaries during wartime when she heard the Gestapo were sniffing around. Later, she wrote a memoir and burned it. It is only in the past few years that she has written “Immortelles: Memoir of a Will-o’-the-Wisp,” published in 1996, about growing up during World War I, and, of course, “Sins of the Innocent.”

She says that she enjoys spending time alone, in her small house, which has a beautiful walled garden with trees. “I’m a troglodyte,” she says. While her publisher claims she’s at work on the third volume of her memoirs, Marokvia denies it. She is writing, she says, about something very specific, a time as a young child when her first toy, a small clown, was taken away from her in the middle of the night. With her characteristically apt use of English, she says of the incident: “I’m still miffed about it.”

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