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BONJOUR PAPA
Finding M
y Father in WWII France & Switzerland


My father's forged ID to escape occupied France during WWII


This is a personal account of my recent travels in France and Switzerland while trying to discover my father's roots -- who he really was and how his life has influenced my own even though I grew up apart from him and didn't know him very well


 

  As a child, I didn't know much about my father, Maurice Ramognino.  My parents divorced a decade after WWII ended and my father moved to the southern tip of France while my mother stayed in Paris.  I only visited my father once or twice a year as a teenager. Later, on one of my visits as an adult, he finally told me about some of his experiences during WWII.  It was the only time that he talked about those difficult times and luckily I recorded the conversation. But it wasn't until thirteen years after his death that I discovered some official French and Swiss documents that gave some detailed information about his activities as a refugee in Switzerland during the last years of WWII. And I am now beginning to understand how all this affects my own life. Because my father's experiences during the war have helped me define who I am along with an appreciation for his role in the liberation of France.    
  The long overdue release of classified documents from WWII has made it possible for me to discover who my father really was, and I have became fascinated with my father's activities during that period and this has prompted a trip to France and several weeks of exploration following in the WWII footsteps of my father.  
  This is the story of a French Resistance freedom fighter who walked over 500k to Switzerland to escape the Gestapo. It is the story of a young man in his early twenties who, by using his wits and courage, managed to avoid being incarcerated as a refugee in Swiss work camps, or worse, sent to those in Nazi Germany.  
  My Father was nineteen years old when the Germans occupied France. He was a headstrong French teenager and became quickly involved with the French Resistance. However, as time passed it became more and more dangerous for young Frenchmen around Paris. So Maurice and several of his friends decided to cross the border into Switzerland. Now that meant a 500k trip mostly by foot because it was risky to take the train, and cars were out of the question. The Gestapo was, as my father told me, hot on their heels.  


BORDER CROSSING

Eventually they arrived at the border of Switzerland. Much to their dismay they found that the border was closely guarded. They had to cross quickly or be discovered by the Milice (The Vichy Police who were on the side of the Germans). So they drew lots to see who would be the one to overpower the border guard. But none of them wanted to harm the guard because they didn't know if he was Swiss or German. My father cried when he told me that he volunteered to do it. He was even more sorrowful when he told me that he knew the guard was Swiss because of the buttons on his jacket.


CHATEAU

     
 
 
Part of this story is about my father's father, my grandfather, who was likewise involved in the French resistance. He was a French Passeur who helped guide Allied airmen over the Pyrenees mountains to escape from occupied France into Spain. Some years ago, my husband and I joined AFEES, the WWII Airforces Escape & Evasion Society, to see if we could find more information about the clandestine activities of Gilbert Ramognino, my grandfather, and his experiences during WWII, including his taking eight allied fliers over the Pyrenees into Spain during the Nazi occupation of France. I attended one of the AFEES annual reunions and made several contacts with veterans who had been smuggled out of France during the war. Through them I discovered the original escape and evasion report made by my grandfather. Wow! Reading the report sent chills up and down my spine as I reviewed Gilbert's personal account of the harrowing events during their escape over the rugged mountains of the Pyrenees and how he hid the airmen in the snow, and kept curious French towns people from talking to them while they were at the train station with the Gestapo and police everywhere. I was transported back in time, and was filled with respect and awe for those brave French men and women who risked their lives to help the Allies during the war.


Gilbert Ramognino

 

My husband and I have attended several D-day commemorations, and on one occasion drove from beach to beach surrounded as it were by dozens of restored WWII army vehicles -- mostly jeeps. It felt like a throw-back in time as we followed jeeps being driven by men and women in WWII uniforms with U.S. insignia patches and flags. Bands in several locations played swing music from the 40's, and on one occasion we stood on a high out-cropping overlooking Arromanches and listened to the faint echoes of swing music with vocals in French. For some hardly explainable reason this was a comforting experience reflecting on a time when the world was clear in its directions. Yes, there was the horror of war and death, but people clearly knew what they were doing, and the unity of allies and the French underground was inspiring. I've mentioned my father's involvement with the French Resistance, and my grandfather helping allied airmen to freedom over the Pyrenees to Spain. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I connect to this era in such a positive way.

 
 


 

 
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