It takes a lot of nerve to interview an oral historian. And a tape recorder, I thought, until Meg Ostrum set me straight. Most of the conversations she conducted over a period of 20 years for The Surgeon and the Shepherd, her book about the French Resistance, were never put on tape. The Montpelier author recalls being advised by a folklorist friend that "tape recorders can often get in the way of people talking to you."
So how did she gather details for about half-century-old events from dozens of informants, most of them French speakers, with just a pen and paper? "I listened very, very carefully," she explains. The listening paid off -- Ostrum's book, published this month by the University of Nebraska Press, bears an admiring cover blurb from veteran historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
The saga of The Surgeon and the Shepherd began for Ostrum in 1983, when she was on vacation hiking through the rugged Pyrenees Mountains. She asked a village priest for directions and, in the process, mentioned her home in New England. The Abbe asked if she could carry a letter to a certain "Monsieur Perot," a renowned eye surgeon in Boston. The priest told her that Perot had plied a different trade from 1942-43, when he resided in the priest's remote Basque village. Concealing his true identity, the Belgian doctor ran a sawmill that doubled as a resistance operation and successfully smuggled nearly 100 people out of Nazi-occupied territory via the Spanish border.
Intrigued, Ostrum volunteered to try to find Perot -- a task complicated by the fact that the priest could only supply his nom de guerre. Happily, says Ostrum, "there were as many coincidences involved in the research for this story as there are in the story itself." Six weeks later, she found Dr. Charles Schepens through Jane Beck, then her colleague at the Vermont Arts Council, who happened to be a patient of the Boston-based Belgian ophthalmologist. During a benefit concert at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston, Ostrum came face to face with M. Perot for the first time.
Schepens didn't exactly fit the image of a rough-and-ready resistance fighter. "He was so serious, so understated there was nothing that called attention to him," Ostrum says. Except that he'd become a giant in the field of ophthalmology -- the result of inventing a device that made it possible to see the retina in three dimensions. He impressed Ostrum with his modesty and Old-World politesse. She realized that his "chameleon-like character" was precisely what had made the doctor successful as a covert operative.
Ostrum soon discovered other compelling co-conspirators. Behind Schepens was a sort of "Schindler" -- his Russian friend Cyrille Pomerantzeff, a trained philosopher who made his fortune selling office furniture to the Germans. Schepens used Pomerantzeff's capital to start the sawmill-cum-resistance-operation.
An even more unlikely resistance hero -- and one who eventually became the book's second protagonist -- was the Basque shepherd Jean Sarochar, who had risked his life to guide fugitives through the harsh border terrain patrolled by German guards. Schepens considered Sarochar, now deceased, to be the real hero of his tale, so Ostrum went to the shepherd's native village. She found his reputation as an eccentric storyteller alive and well.
Her book depicts the middle-aged peasant leaping from crag to crag with his trusty dog, nourishing himself with pinches of salt and pretending to communicate with Charles de Gaulle through a haystack. But this buffoon was also a decorated World War I vet with a ferocious appetite for risk and physical challenge. He was the perfect accomplice for the cerebral, strategy-minded Schepens.
Ostrum is no stranger to the field of oral history -- from 1992 until early this year she worked as an editor and administrator at the Vermont Folklife Center -- but her research for the book is the first sustained fieldwork she's done herself. The search for informants who remembered the war years took her to some incongruous places, among them a French nursing home, the headquarters of an agriculturalist known as the "king of the French kiwi," and a remote mountainside where she encountered Spanish border guards toting machine guns.
None of these stories appears in the book, with its tightly focused, almost novelistic narrative of Sarochar and Schepens' parallel lives. Ostrum says she made a conscious choice to keep herself out of her work of creative nonfiction. "I was reluctant to inject myself into this story. There is a real danger that the writer becomes the hero, and that would have been absolutely the wrong thing to do in this context."
"This context" of wartime clearly fascinates Ostrum, especially in light of our current imbroglio overseas. She explains, "War is a period that forces us to make choices. It is the test of moral courage. It's so unpredictable who is going to rise to the occasion." Jean Sarochar is a prime example: "He could be lackadaisical about work, but when put to the test," she says, "he had the stamina to run up and down those mountains."
Ostrum noted how differently her two protagonists related to their war-time pasts. Sarochar revelled in his memories, regaling the village with tales of his daring escapes. Dr. Schepens, on the other hand, "didn't want the war to be the defining moment for his life. He wanted his medical work to be his signature."
Indeed, Schepens was reluctant to give interviews at first, because his story had been misrepresented in earlier French accounts. Ostrum convinced him she was serious about getting the facts right when she returned to the Pyrenees to do firsthand research. "It was a leap of faith for him. I told him I was working on something, but I wasn't sure what it would turn out to be." When the book was published, she delivered it to him personally. "I wanted the experience of putting [it] in his hands. He's thrilled."
Though she's finally told the story she set out to tell in 1983, Ostrum still puzzles over its implications. One character in the book suggests, "We were living in an unnatural state." Ostrum queries, "But is war an unnatural state, or is it a human one that repeats itself periodically? I'm not sure."
Factual questions persist, too. "The biggest remaining mystery is the identity of the people who escaped" through the Pyrenees, says Ostrum. "Only two have ever come forward." She hopes to publish a French translation of the book, so it might "get into the hands of the children of some of those men." While the story is bound to reawaken harrowing memories, it might also give aging survivors of the Occupation their first insight into the shadowy man who saved their lives.