On the Misinterpretation of Content

Fernandel

After the war, my father had established a pleasant home with a woman named Olga, in an apartment at the other end of Brussels.  I guess that was the reason that both he and my mother were now working on a divorce instead of remaining in the blessed state of separation in which they had been living during the war years.  I enjoyed my Sunday mornings with my father, the food Olga prepared, and the stationery goods that were now available in their apartment.  They were now in the stationery business.  The allowance my dad gave me contributed considerably to the more favorable view I had of him than that held by my mother.  I guess the bribes worked.

As mentioned before, I had become a lover of movies, and each Sunday, after I left Olga and my father, I went to the movies, literally three of them, and enjoyed them all.    Naturally, there were some movies I couldn’t or shouldn’t miss.  The ancestral memories of movies children had seen before the war and which they thought great was powerful, assuming almost mythical proportion.  Among these, naturally enough, were the Tarzan films, which I eventually got to see and that were every bit as good as had been foretold, although I did miss the sense of anticipation afterwards.

However, there were some films that had a greater, although unexpected impact on me.  One of these was a French movie titled “Simplet,” starring the great French, comic actor, Fernandel, a long faced, toothy, superstar of that time.   It has now been nearly sixty-five years since I saw that movie, yet I still remember the melody and lyrics of the refrain of the title song:

“On m’appele Simplet,

L’innocent du village,

Doux comme un agnelet,

Je maine la vie d’un sage.”

My French spelling was always lousy, and I suspect it hasn’t gotten better with age, but these lyrics are quite accurate.  Both movie and song dealt with a gentle village drunk or supposed simpleton who was far wiser than he appeared, and who was also much gentler than the world around him.   Just before the start of the song, he claims to be able to converse with birds in their several languages, including Owl.  The movie was a comedy, but I took if very seriously.  It made me realize that gentleness as a lifestyle was worthwhile, and that you didn’t always have to let the world know what you saw, felt and understood.  Wrongly, I took it as fable on the value of self-restraint and to look somewhat deeper than superficial appearances.  However, that misinterpretation, like several others, worked for me.

On one of my visits to my father and Olga, I was given a choice of presents for my birthday.  On the one hand I was offered a beautiful, red and white, Höhner accordion, on the other a black, heavy-duty, butcher boy’s delivery bike.  Of course, I chose the accordion, but what I got was the bike.  I don’t think I showed my disappointment, nor did my father detect it.  I said thank you, and sadly walked my bike home because I didn’t know how to ride a bike, and I had really wanted that accordion.

As this is being written many years later, it might not be amiss to show you this clip: http://www.dailymotion.com/ /x65xwt_fernandel-chante-simplet_shortfilm It is of course a dated film, but I enjoyed it anyway. The movie was made in 1942, yet I’m sure I didn’t see it then, being in the Couvent St. Joseph at the time. I must have seen it soon after the war, but it is often difficult to remember what happened when in childhood, although I’m sure it did happen.

About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the “Final Solution” by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.

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4 Responses to On the Misinterpretation of Content

  1. Margit says:

    Mr. Levy this blog is truly a wonderful gift, a great read and should be turned into a book. You’ve written such a detailed, frank portrait, from a young boy’s point of view, of the horrible things that transpired – and some of the bits of joy, too. The matter-of-fact tone makes it that much more compelling and real: the post about the risk of going to the hospital, learning to walk again…eating the whole apple core and all to this day because you were so hungry…attending Catholic school as a kind of shelter and keeping an eye on your cousins so they didn’t actually convert…your mother hiding under the bed while the Gestapo searched. It’s so vivid, harrowing and a story that’s so important to tell. As you write, “We shrink from the lesson in all this horror, and what it says about how thin our veneer of civilization really is.” So true.
    Your portrait of your cousin Lily, handicapped and housebound in a world of movie magazines and jazz records, teaching herself to write and play cards was particularly moving to me.
    Love the humor too: Driving around Berlin being “responsible for all the right turns” or the picture of a five-year-old walking into a cafe, sitting down and making himself comfortable. Laughed out loud at that 🙂
    Note to Jennie: You could see these stories turned into an iPad app — an interactive story with all the great old photos you have, links out to relevant material (a clip from the voyage of the damned, for one)., interviews with survivors, relatives, pictures of old cigar rings and travel brochures (though I guess, Mr. Levy, those are long gone?), the Fernandel clip and, of course, a whole section on cockchafers!

    You do a great job of creating these cliff-hangers at the end of each post! Reads like a novel. You were clearly meant to tell these stories.
    -Margit

    • AlexLevy says:

      Hi, Margit!
      1. No one, but absolutely no one, calls me Mr. Levy. I’m Alex to my friends, old and new. However, you just reminded me of a story when I heard myself called “Mister” for the first time. I was crossing Washington Square, somewhere around the Washington Centennial Commemorative Arch (in which someone was living at the time). I was in my new Army uniform, and a ball rolled by, when I heard a little kid yelling, “Hey, Mister! Mister! The ball!” and I suddenly realized he was calling me. No one had ever called me that before! I was a newly minted grown up!
      2. Thank you for all the nice things you say about my blog and how I write. I was afraid I was writing with a German accent! It is really good to hear you are enjoying all the little stories. It is positive reinforcement of a powerful sort for doing something I’m really having fun with. I hope I won’t disappoint.
      Thanks, again!
      Alex

  2. Melissa says:

    Fernandel is quite charming… irresistible, really. Thanks for sharing the link.

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