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IU Northwest professor’s book, ‘The Champagne Cellars of Mareuil,” recalls one French village’s German occupation during World War II

Jean Poulard, political science instructor was born in Mareuil just weeks before the conflict’s outbreak

Les Caves du Mareuil: L’histoire d’une famille et d’un village 1939-1948

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Les Caves du Mareuil: L’histoire d’une famille et d’un village 1939-1948

Jean Poulard, Ph.D., professor of political science at Indiana University Northwest, was born in a small French village, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, in the weeks preceding the outbreak of World War II. His earliest memories are of the German occupation of his village and of its eventual liberation by Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army.

In his new French-language book, “Les Caves du Mareuil: L’histoire d’une famille et d’un village 1939-1948” (“The Champagne Cellars of Mareuil: The Story of a Family and a Village 1939-1948”) Poulard recounts the people and day-to-day life in Mareuil during that tumultuous period. The book, recently published in France, is both a memoir and a thoroughly detailed history of one village’s wartime occupation as experienced by its civilians.  

“These events have left indelible images on my brain, which are like pictures or video clips that I can see again vividly when my thoughts return to this distant past,” Poulard writes in the book’s preface.

In March 2011, a few days before departing for France to attend a salon du livre, a book fair, in Paris, where he would sign copies of “The Champagne Cellars of Mareuil,” Poulard reflected on his experiences researching and writing the story of his hometown.

“It had been floating in my head for years,” he said. “And then, as I say in the preface of the book, Norbert Adam, an old friend of mine from my French high school published a little book, and it’s mostly about his first memories. So, after I read the book, I said, ‘Gee, I’ve got first memories also, and mine are better!’

“As I went along writing the first few pages, I said, ‘It’s got to be more than (just first memories),’” Poulard explained. “And what it turned out to be was a history - to be sure, quite a bit about my family - but also very much about the village where I was born, in the middle of the champagne country, and full of champagne cellars underground.”

Grapes grown on the region’s chalky hills yield one of the finest vintages of champagne anywhere, but Mareuil’s numerous cellars at times served other purposes. Poulard recounts that, in World War I, they were utilized as military hospitals. During World War II, the cellars became a sanctuary for residents of Mareuil. Air-raid sirens would send residents fleeing underground, although Poulard recalls that the village never sustained any serious bombing damage.

The year 1944 brought the young Poulard’s first reliable memories.

“Almost five years old, I did not really understand what was going on around me,” he writes. “I don’t think that I was ever fearful when the air-raid siren howled. I only remember that I was afraid to be in the dark or to go in the water of the Marne River, even when my sisters held me; and I had a real phobia about spiders! The German soldiers who were quartered across the street from my house did not scare me, and I did not ask myself what they were doing there. The notion of enemy was still unknown to me. I could not comprehend what war and death were at such a young age.” 

The portrait Poulard paints of the German occupiers is textured and, at times, sympathetic. He recalls how some German soldiers helped his father, Victor Poulard, a veteran of World War I, move some heavy railroad ties into the courtyard of his home. This, Poulard explains, is one of his first very sharp memories.

He also recalls his mother’s simple explanation to him about human nature.

“With the war still fresh in her mind, my mother explained an interesting fact of life to me: ‘There are good Germans and there are bad Germans.’ I never forgot the lesson given in that phrase,” he writes. “My mother had made me understand that the stereotyping of people was not intelligent. This was an excellent civic lesson containing advice that I have attempted to follow throughout the rest of my life.”

To capture the facts and flavor of daily life in Mareuil, Poulard interviewed a number of the village residents about their recollections of the period before, during and immediately after the war. Those conversations, combined with additional historical research, helped Poulard to reconstruct some significant events in the village that might otherwise have been lost to history.

Among these was the killing of a young man who was suspected of collaborating with the Germans. Poulard recounts that he was thrown into the Marne to drown with a heavy rock tied around his abdomen. Another was the death of a German soldier who was shot by a citizen of Mareuil as he was riding through town on a motorcycle, just one day before American forces liberated the village.

“There were some (in Mareuil) who made remarks like, ‘Oh, why are you bringing back all that stuff?’” Poulard said. “Especially about the guy who was thrown into the Marne with a big rock around his belly. Especially that one, they were not too sure about. But I said, ‘History is history, even when it’s been blurred. You’ve got to try to clear it up, so to speak.’”

Poulard’s pursuit of Mareuil’s history also brought long-awaited answers to the German family of Stefan Kückmann, the soldier who was shot while riding his motorcycle and who had laid buried in Mareuil’s cemetery until he was exhumed and reinterred elsewhere in France in the 1950s.

With the help of a German colleague, Poulard was able to confirm Kückmann’s identity, inspect and photograph the bloodstained papers that were on him at the time he was killed, and recount the facts of his death to Kückmann’s family, including two of his brothers. 

“That was quite an emotional thing,” Poulard said. “Ultimately, the 82-year-old brother stood up, left the table and went into the kitchen. But he came back, and his wife told him, ‘Well, you always wanted to know what had happened. Now you know.’”

Poulard found an Associated Press photo of American soldiers crossing the Marne into Mareuil via a broken bridge on Aug. 28, 1944. He purchased the image for inclusion in “The Champagne Cellars of Mareuil.” As for his own memory of that day, the author offers a simple recollection.

“I see myself holding my mother’s hand on the narrow sidewalk close to the Philipponnat cellars, watching American infantrymen marching down the rue du Pont, one column on each side of the street, their rifles slung over one shoulder,” he writes.

Poulard said he was delighted to find a French publisher for “The Champagne Cellars of Mareuil” and to share the story with his many family and friends in France. Last October, the professor was the guest of honor at a book fair in Mareuil.

Poulard has completed his book’s English translation and is currently looking for an American publisher. The longtime IU Northwest faculty member expressed satisfaction with how his very personal book project turned out; his only regret, Poulard admitted, was not having begun “The Champagne Cellars of Mareuil” earlier.

“I did a lot of interviewing, people I knew by name but had never met,” he said. “I got in touch with this old doctor. I called him from America and interviewed him by phone, and I finally met him one summer when I went back. But he died recently. Several of those guys who gave me good testimony are now dead. That’s too bad. Sometimes I really wish I’d gotten started sooner on this.”


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Jean Poulard, Ph.D.