Lise Pommois was a very young girl who paid little attention to the American soldiers who liberated her native France during World War II.
But she vividly recalls hiding at the sight of Nazi soldiers, who forced everyone in her occupied French homeland to speak German. She remembers not liking her father -- "because I didn’t know him" -- when the medic in the French army returned after two years as a prisoner of war.
None of that compared, however, to "the most traumatic experience in my life," when the Germans in 1944 uncovered the family secret . . . her mother was Jewish. Both parents were arrested and sent to prison, along with their infant daughter. Pommois’ Catholic father was released, but mother and baby sister were headed for a concentration camp until a family friend intervened and they were allowed to return home.
"When she came back, I wouldn’t let go of her." Nightmares of the Germans coming to get her were prevalent until the 1980s.
Madame Pommois (pronounced "pom-waugh") has spent much of her adult life researching her country’s plight during WWII and sharing what she has learned the past 19 years visiting battlefields, befriending veterans and chronicling the events.
Everyone is invited to hear her speak on "Winter Storm: War in Northern Alsace" Tuesday, September 23, at Rend Lake College. The program is sponsored by the Rend Lake College Foundation Institute for Learning in Retirement but is open free of charge to students, staff and the general public alike from 10:30-11:30 a.m. in the RLC Theatre.
"I want to make the French understand what they owe to Americans," Pommois summarizes her research efforts.
She will be the Southern Illinois guest of Mt. Vernon resident George Webb, one of the hundreds of U.S. Army vets helped by the accomplished historian upon their return to France to retrace wartime routes and rekindle memories.
Pommois is an honorary life member of the 36th and 42d Infantry and 14th Armored Division Associations and an associate member of numerous others.
Webb also arranged for Pommois to address those at Scott Air Force Base. His advice to Madame Pommois: "Convey to these airmen the spirit of comradeship that develops between people like yourself and myself.
"We know the meaning of ‘War is hell!’ and we know ‘Freedom comes with a price.’ All we want now is the peace of mind that comes with the knowledge that they have a deeper appreciation for the legacy they have inherited."
"In short," Webb concluded in his suggestion, "we don’t want our effort to have been in vain, especially our buddies who gave their tomorrows so we can enjoy today."
For her Rend Lake College audience, Pommois says, "I’ll talk about being an Alsatian during WWII and what we were liberated from and by whom . . . the U.S. Seventh Army. This includes Hitler’s secret Operation Nordwind, of course. I will use quotations from various GIs so people can begin to understand what that operation was all about."
Pommois holds both a Masters in Art and a Ph.D. degree from the Sorbonne. She began her career as an educator in Chalons-sur-Marne, but moved with her husband to Alsace in 1968. She later taught English in Niederbronn-les-Bain from 1976 until retirement from full-time teaching in 2001.
According to a profile in the Aberjona Press: Who We Are, "Her introduction to her first American combat veterans in 1984 sparked what has become a passionate interest in the fighting in Alsace during the War.
"Since then, she has provided extensive support to both public and private commemorative activities, including her instrumental role in preparations for the 40th anniversary celebrations of WWII in Hatten-Rittershoffen in June 1985 and countless instances of liaison and consultation with U.S. Army veterans’ groups and local, department and national government offices in France."
"Winter Storm: War in Northern Alsace, November 1944-March 1945" (Turner, 1991) is now in its third printing. She travels frequently to the United State in order to attend unit reunions, share some of her 2,500 photocopies and knowledge gained from time spent at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and renew old acquaintances. She also holds the appointed volunteer position of French Liaison and International Consultant to the Board of Directors for the 12th Armored Division Memorial Museum.
Control of Alsace has wavered back and forth between France and Germany; none of the experiences, though, was more traumatic for the Alsatians than when the Germans annexed the province in 1940.
Inhabitants were deprived of their freedom, even of their identity, when they were forced to adopt German names. In 1942, the men had to give up their citizenship so they could be drafted into the German Army, a real tragedy for the province considering 20,000 are still missing.
Is it any wonder why GIs from the Seventh Army had a hard time adapting to the situation? Were they in France or Germany?
Northern Alsace actually experienced the sad privilege of being liberated twice.