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Yorkshire, Home and Migration

Madeleine Blaess (1918-2003) was born in France and moved to York in England with her parents when she was an infant. She was raised in York and educated at the Bar Convent in the town before going to the University of Leeds to study French. She graduated with a first class honours degree in French in July 1939 and was awarded a grant to go to the Sorbonne University in Paris to begin doctoral studies in the field of medieval French. However, in September 1939 after Germany had invaded Poland Britain and France declared war on Germany. Madeleine hesitated before taking up the offer of her university place but after having received reassurance about her safety, set off for Paris from Folkestone at the end of October 1939.  Until May 1940, Madeleine was able to live a relatively normal life, studying for her doctorate and socialising with fellow students she had met at her lodgings and at the Sorbonne. However, when the German army overran Belgium in May 1940, her life in Paris began to change. Many of her friends, fearful of impending conflict, left for the ports and from there to Britain as the streets of Paris were flooded with Belgian refugees fleeing the fighting. Madeleine decided that she too should leave to return to Britain, if only for the summer to see her parents, and began to make preparations to do so. She bought a train and boat ticket and organised the necessary visas. Unfortunately for Madeleine, the German advance was so rapid that it cut off her route to the port and she was stranded in Paris. She joined thousands of other civilians fleeing south and finally returned to Paris in July 1940.

Madeleine returned to a capital city under German occupation. The French army had offered no resistance and the city was occupied on June 14th. On 22 June 1940, France surrendered and signed an armistice, the terms of which set out the terms of an occupation which would require the support of a newly formed French government. The first formal collaboration in Europe between a government of an occupied state and the Nazis had begun.

Yorkshire, Home and Migration

Migrant experience and culture and it is recorded is of increasing interest in academic research. In particular there has been interest in how migrants over the past two centuries have recorded their experiences in diaries and letters to friends and family in the mother country.  The experience of migrants in their country of adoption varies and depends largely on the economic circumstances which largely determine the potential of the migrant to adapt well to his or her new cultural and social environment and sometimes to a new language. What we see in letters home and diary entries are descriptions of material hardship and social isolation. There can be a yearning for the motherland articulated through memories and nostalgia. There can also be a desperation to return but without the means to do so. At the same time, the letters and diaries of these adventuring, ambitious people who left their homes for a better life can be reluctant to disclose hardships and unhappiness whether out of pride or kindness because they do not want to cause distress to those they have left behind and who they hope may one day join them.  Of course, some might not want to write of great success and wealth lest they are called upon to contribute to the budget back home or else be pressured to return. There are other gaps too. The passing of time means that important relationships in the home country are displaced in immediacy and importance by new ones which have been forged in the new country. There is also a desire to record in diaries and tell in letters of the newness and strangeness of the adopted land. What might seem commonplaces for the native resident may be vaunted and foregrounded in the testimony of a migrant.

Madeleine was a migrant. Unusually, she was a migrant in both Britain when she moved there from her birthplace in Alsace, France when she was an infant and she was a migrant once again when she moved back to France in 1939 to study for a doctorate at the Sorbonne.  However, she always regarded her home as being in York, Yorkshire, England with her parents and yearned to return there for the duration of the Occupation. In the letters she sent to her parents during the Phoney War we do get a sense that she has the eye of a tourist, a visitor as she describes novelties, peculiarities and oddities particular to her new life. In the diary, there is less of that and more of the challenges presented by the Occupation which she has to face alone.  The loneliness she experiences may well be magnified by the fact that she is trying to adapt to a foreign culture and country. Although she has been brought up speaking French and English, she feels that she does not speak French well and struggles to make herself understood at times. She introduces memories and people and places back home, often framed within lush description of pastoral landscape or domestic cosiness.  Nature and animals feature in these recollections and as the diary progresses there is much more description of the natural environment in Paris through each of the seasons. As such, there is a strong sense that she strives to make a connection with memories through the evocation of pastoral scenes of flowers and trees which are as universal as rainbows and the stars and the moon she also keenly observes and describes.  England and Englishness, memories and hopes for return are always present in Madeleine’s diary entries.  She is an avid novel reader and many of the books she reads evoke British university life and education and the landscapes she has had to leave behind. The regular noting down of her reading activity again acts as a link between the host and home country.