Monday November 25, 2013 | 11:44 AM
A French conversation group sparked the idea for writer and musician Alison Johnson of Topsham to bring together an oral history discussion with three people who were in Europe during World War II. Fifty people attended the November 24, Sunday afternoon program hosted at the Highland Green Community Room, in Topsham. They heard first person experiences from American pianist Frank Glazer, who was in Germany when Hitler rose to power. He shared his experiences with photo journalist Robert Freson, who is a French speaking Belgian-American from Harpswell, who lived in France and Belgium during the German occupation. German-American Rolf Oesterlin, is a chemist who lives in Topsham. He grew up in Germany during the war.
“It’s an honor to hear simultaneous histories from an American, a Belgian and a German at the same time,” said Johnson.
Johnson also read a written account of living in France during World War II by Francoise Inchardi, who came to the States as a French war bride shortly after the war and taught French at MorseHigh School in Bath, for many years.
Johnson’s idea to host the discussion came through her networks with French speaking friends. For the past 47 years, Johnson has coordinated French speaking friends and neighbors for bi-monthly lunches held in their homes. Their purpose is "parler le français seulement” (to speak only French). Sunday’s panel was conducted in English.
Alison Johnson came to the idea of the oral history discussion because of her association with the bi-montly French group. Two members of the group are Richard L'Heureux (left) of Topsham and Robert Freson (right), of Harpswell, who was also an oral history panelist.
Freson said his family fled to southern France after the Germans invaded Belgium on May 10, 1940. At the time, they believed the war would end quickly. “We didn’t expect the war to last for a long time. As an 8 year old, I had little understanding of how dangerous the war would be,” he said. Freson’s family were particularly fearful about the fate of an uncle who was an officer at the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael. During this battle in 1940, the Germans eventually overtook the strongly defended Belgian fortress by launching light aircraft into the heavily armed structure. As an officer, Freson’s uncle was taken prisoner by the Germans.
Freson said he wasn’t hungry or especially fearful during the war. Nevertheless, he recalled experiences of being in bomb shelters, and hearing how Jewish people and others were the victims of denunciations and disappeared.
Being in Germany when Hitler came to power was the experience of Glazer, a youthfully handsome 98 year old pianist who now lives in Topsham. As a matter of fact, Glazer is an artist in residence at BatesCollege in Lewiston, where he performs regularly.
Glazer was in Germany in 1932 when he was a 17 year old high school student from Wisconsin. He sailed trans-Atlantic to Europe, traveling only four years after the 1927 historic flight of Charles Lindbergh. His purpose was to study piano in Germany with the famous pianist Artur Schnabel. In 1932 and 1933, Glazer said he saw the German arts and theaters thriving but the politics were awful. At the time, there were 33 political parties, prostitution was evident and the economy was terrible. Nevertheless, opera and the cabaret life was wonderful. An ominous harbinger of dangers to come occurred when he and Schnabel were walking on a Berlin street. Storm troopers pointed them out. These accusers told them they “must die”, with no reason given. Schnabel and Glazer left Germany a short time later. Glazer later participated in the American liberation of France.
Oral history panel from left Frank Glazer, Robert Freson, Alison Johnson and Rolf Oesterlin in Topsham
When the war began, Oesterlin was only 8 years old. “My father, who was also a chemist, came home from work very unhappy because he was a veteran of World War I. He couldn’t believe Germany was at war again, only 21 years after the first war.” Nevertheless, life was fairly normal for his family when the war first broke, but quickly changed. He was required to participate in a compulsory youth movement.“We met once a week receiving orientation about Hitler and Mein Kampf,” he said. He resented being forced to attend the meetings.Oesterlin recalls waves of Allied bombing attacks when his family fled to shelters. “Night was English bombing and day was American bombing,” he recalls. “It was a horrible time.” Some people literally moved into the shelters. This caused the shelters to have horrible odors. Schooling was difficult. “After the war, I worked on a farm because eating was more important then education, at the time,” he recalls. He told how his mother donated a fur coat to help keep German soldiers warm in the winter when they were trapped in Russia.
This historically fascinating discussion may have sequels in subsequent programs.
For information about pianist Frank Glazer see the website http://www.jsonline.com/entertainment/arts/104618669.html
A link to information about Johnson’s biography of French King Louis XVI and the French Revolution is at this site:
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