I went AWOL from the French
Army on November 11, 1942, when Germans troops invaded Southern France.
With the arrival of the Nazis I knew that Private First Class Herbert Stein-Schneider,
a soldier-student at Montpellier, would have to report to the Barracks
in Albi. He would then be shipped directly to Germany, as either
a prisoner of war or a worker in Hitler's war machine. (My civilian
status made me eligible to be incorporated into the STO, the compulsory
labor service, into which, at that time, the Germans were conscripting
all Frenchmen born in 1921.) I decided that the French Army and the
German military machine would simply have to do without me. To both
the Germans and the French I became, not really by choice, but by dire
necessity, a dangerous, hunted renegade, a rebel and insurgent, at the
ripe age of twenty-one. I had become a member of the French Résistance.
There was a positive side
to the German invasion of the "free" part of France on that fateful November
day. This move ended the ambiguity which had kept the French Army
and many young people on the sidelines. By remaining in office when
the Nazis tore up the Armistice agreement and invaded Southern France,
Pétain was exposed as a German puppet. It was obvious that
we had to switch allegiance and become supporters of the government in
exile, led by General de Gaulle.
As a double deserter and
a brand new member of the French Résistance, both my military and
civilian selves had to disappear. Thus ended not only the three-year
military career, but the very existence, of Herbert Stein-Schneider.
A VOLUNTEER IN 1939
My military life
had begun in September of 1939, at the age of seventeen, as a "volunteer
for the duration of the war," as it was said in the contract. Having
missed, in June 1939, the first part of the Baccalauréat,
the stringent university entrance examination, both my twin brother and
I were at loose ends. Joining the army seemed to be a good way to
serve France. A war was on and it would be interesting to participate
in it somehow.
The war was at a standstill,
with the Germans and the French looking