'I have come out of the night, and you fed me.'
At the close of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, many supporters of the Loyalist government left Spain and took refuge in France, rather than remain under Francisco Franco's rule. Most were placed in refugee camps, and the AFSC undertook helping some in southern France.
When World War II was declared, Germans-mostly Jewish or with Jewish ancestors-sought refuge from the Nazis and were added to the French camps as enemy aliens. In 1941 and 1942, the AFSC brought some of their children to the United States.
The following letter is from one AFSC staff member who went from camp to camp to select the children. In it, Marjorie McClelland describes a remarkable meal to her friend Margaret Jones at the AFSC's headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The two women she mentions worked with her in Toulouse, France: Helga Holbeck from Denmark, who headed the work, and Ima Lieven from Latvia, an assistant.
The Spanish refugee men they fed were later repatriated to Franco Spain, and their fate is not known.
I want to tell you about the dinner party in Toulouse that occurred about a week and a half ago. For myself, I think it a stroke of great good fortune I could be in on it, for it was a party I shall always remember.
The staff eats together in a big dining room, and almost always several people stay on after dinner to continue the work that never seems to end. So it was on this particular evening that about 9:30, Ima Lieven and I began to talk vaguely of going home. Just then, Helga Holbeck came in and said, "I think I'm going to have a supper party for about 22 people." Ima asked when this party was scheduled to occur. Helga said, "In about five minutes."
A convoy of about 20 Spaniards from the camp of Vernet was being sent back to Spain and had several hours to wait in the train station with nothing to eat. Two of them knew from previous experience about the work of Quakers, and they begged a gendarme to accompany them to our office, on the chance they might be able to get something to eat. The gendarme thought this extremely unlikely, but the men were so miserable and hungry he finally consented. When the men told Helga what they wanted, she said to bring the rest of the men over immediately, and they should be fed.
Well, we rushed into the kitchen to see what we could find to give our guests. A Spaniard and an Austrian who sleep in the building were summoned, and we set to work, setting the table, building a wood fire in the stove, and opening immense cans of beans, which, to our intense joy, turned out to have little sausages liberally mixed in. While preparations were getting underway, the men arrived and were seated around the table. The three or four gendarmes accompanying them were placed at a little table at the back of the room.
They were a sorry-looking group-haggard, wan, clothed in rags, dirty, desperate. Some were almost boys, and others looked unbelievably old. They sat in silence, waiting for food to be given them, with expressionless, beaten looks, as though drained of all emotion, and there remained neither hope nor fear. But when we started serving them big plates of steaming beans, a sparkle came into their eyes. They reached avidly for the hard crackers we put in baskets on the table. This was real food, such as they had not seen in months, and they ate not only with the hunger of men who have missed their evening meal, but of men who have not seen substantial food for many months.
Everyone had two plates of beans, a large serving of grape sugar confiture, innumerable hardtack crackers, and at least three cups of coffee with sugar in it. The coffee wasn't real coffee, of course, and we were sorry we could not give them bread, as they had no ration cards, and we cannot buy bread without tickets. The menu may sound plain, but it was a veritable feast to our guests-we were only afraid to let them eat too much for fear they might be sick from the unaccustomed richness of the diet. There were pitchers of water on the table, and when the last of the coffee was finished, the men poured water in their cups and stirred sugar in it for the pleasure of having every bit of the sweetness there was.
As the meal progressed, the men loosened up and began to talk and laugh. Faces took on new expressions as bodies were fed and spirits were warmed by a gesture of friendliness. When Helga sat down at the table with them to have a cup of coffee and talk as one human being to another, a little stir of surprise and pleasure went around the table. After they finished the meal, they stayed around the table for half an hour, smoking their little twists of tobacco, talking to each other and to us, smiling easily. My heart sank when I thought that what might be awaiting them at the other end of their voyage might not be very different from what they had just left. At least we had an opportunity to be a little oasis at which they could stop off between two lost existences and rest and refresh themselves a little.
The men, on leaving, looked quite changed from the group that had come in-their facial expressions were so different. Each one had to shake hands and thank us separately, stammering it out in poor French, which was the common language we used.
"But, how to thank you?" one of them said. "I have come out of the night, and you fed me. For twenty-two months I have eaten out of a tin pail with a rusty spoon, and you have set me down at a clean table with a china plate and a knife and fork, and you have served me with your own hands. But how to thank you for this?"
The chef of the gendarmes wished to pay us for the food we gave his staff, but Helga explained we were not a restaurant, and we were glad to give our hospitality to his men and the Spaniards. We hoped he would accept it in the spirit of friendship in which it was given. He confessed he did not have the right to allow the men to leave the station but added he could not refuse their pleas to be fed. "These men will always carry with them a beautiful memory of your country. I am sorry I cannot say the same for how they will feel about mine."
After our guests had all gone, carrying with them crackers and cans of meat to eat on the trip, Helga and Ima and I scarcely had anything to say to each other. I think we were all too moved by our supper party and the reactions of our guests. How I wished you and our other friends could have been with us to see this small but concrete example of Quaker work in France.