On the French side, there was some initial wariness. After all, hadn’t the war started in Poland? Without Poland, France would still be at peace!
On the Polish side, there was unity.
These teachers and pupils, who came from such wide-ranging backgrounds and led an isolated existence at a time when current events left no one indifferent, formed a strange amalgam.
They were united by fear and hardship; the fear of a visit from the French or German police, of arrest and of deportation; the fear of seeing their loved ones in Poland, Lorraine or elsewhere disappear; the fear of famine; and hardship in their everyday lives. They had to do everything themselves. Having one more potato in your plate than your neighbour could lead to tragedy…
They were united by fear and hardship, but above all, they felt a need to close ranks. Be proud to be Polish. Form a pocket of resistance. Not have too much contact with the inhabitants of a country that had surrendered to the enemy and signed a heinous armistice. Get ready to return to a free Poland having upheld all its values. Turning inwards was thus a virtue; integration into the outside world tantamount to treason.
You might think therefore that tension would inevitably arise between the Poles and the Villardiens (the name given to the inhabitants of Villard), but actually, quite the opposite happened. As time went by, ties developed between the two communities.
In fact, before the pupils had even arrived, the Polish High School had been warmly accepted and the food supply issues resolved as well as they could be. Once the pupils and teachers were there, the locals sympathised, sharing the pain and anguish of these exiles.
Putting together sports teams was an excellent move because it enabled the school to find a shared language with the local population. The Poles took part in tournaments and competitions with or against the Villardiens.
The two traditional refuges of the Polish people – singing and the Church – were opened up to the Villardiens. Everyone in the village was invited to attend the Poles’ mass and the concerts the school put on in the film theatre. They watched on as the Poles celebrated their traditional holiday and feast days with patriotic singing, folk customs and sometimes even traditional costumes.
These activities all helped a great deal to strengthen ties with the people of Villard, initially arousing curiosity, and then sympathy and respect. Some French people asked if they could be given Polish lessons to improve their connection with the school’s population. The material conditions of the Poles’ lives were exactly the same as those of the French, with the same everyday restrictions. The presence of a number of French teachers at the school also made things easier, especially in the beginning when they acted as intermediaries.
The years passed, one class followed another, and the ties with the local population grew stronger. Finally, the young Poles lived in an atmosphere of increasing cooperation and friendship.
However, for all that, things weren’t always perfect.
When the time came to renew the lease in 1943, the negotiations were quite a saga. The owners said that the pupils used the premises “in a dreadful way” and claimed compensation for the acts of violence perpetrated and material damage caused. The school did not have the money to pay. In the end, the Prefect of Isere, in the name of public order and the national interest, requisitioned the buildings and the lease was renewed with no change to the initial rent terms.
Some Poles always remained wary, yet never did they put any blame for their mistrust on their French teachers or the population, nor did they make its weight felt.
For example, in his very first lesson, Philippe Blanc, a young teacher, decided to explain why he was still proud of his country despite France’s surrender, upon which his young pupils stood up and sang the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, which they knew off by heart. “It was unforgettably moving. The pact was made,” said Philippe Blanc.
Another example: on 27 November 1942, the French fleet in Toulon was scuttled to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Germans. The headmaster, Zygmunt Lubicz-Zaleski and then each of the teachers present solemnly saluted Marcel Malbos in front of the school’s pupils, who stood grave and silent. Later in the dark of night, Zygmunt Lubicz-Zaleski sat at the piano in the Hôtel du Parc’s dining room and played a sad piece by Chopin.