Letters from War – Dining with a French family before returning to the front lines, September 1944

This is part of our “Letters from War” series documenting the World War II letters of Irvin Schwartz of Pine Grove, PA. The letters were all published in the West Schuylkill Press-Herald between 1943 and 1945. 

Read the previous letter here

Schwartz 1944 (1)
A 1944 photograph of Irvin Schwartz

Somewhere in France

Thursday, September 7th [1944]

Hello Mr. Reber:

I am on my way from a hospital to my division which is (censored) and in turn I am finding it extremely difficult. For the simple reason that the front is moving at such a terrific rate of speed which according to this morning’s radio, as you are undoubtedly hearing at this very moment, has carried the Allies well into Holland.

The manner wherein the American First Army liberated the capital city, Brussels, as well as the rest of Belgium, proves my statement that we have the situation well in hand. Further south from the First Army sector of the front you have General George Patton’s Third Army seriously threatening the German homeland. For the British and Canadians, they are, too, proving to the world that we have nothing but the best in the line of both men and equipment.

So you can see where this may be my very last letter from “Somewhere in France.” I am gradually catching up with the front after a six-day stay in a hospital and I will join my anti-tank company any day now. In Holland or Germany – depending on when I shall succeed in reaching my fellow soldiers, and I resume combat, I am now certain I will never receive the necessary time to drop a rather lengthy letter before the end of this near-the-end European struggle, when you back home will receive the sudden news flash that Germany has unconditionally surrendered before the might of the United States-Great Britain-Russia forces.

However, I was hoping to drop you some slightly detailed letters on a number of very interesting subjects such as “Our Field Hospital in France,” “The Wacs,” “Prisoners of War,” “Our Medics,” “The F.F.I. – French Forces of the Interior” and “The Seine,” but I can now very well see that I’ll never accomplish this particular idea. Time will never permit.

I remember a statement made by General Bernard Montgomery in an address the British leader made to us on the Wareham High School athletic field near Bournemouth, England, one beautiful Sunday afternoon in March. Quote: “With the combined forces of our great Allies, we are in a position to weaken the enemy so tremendously by the end of the year that immediately at the start of the new year we can just push him over.”

Well, in my opinion, “Monty” made a very protective statement when he mentioned “the new year.” He said, “I shall make it my duty to visit the ‘home of the brave’ immediately after the conclusion of the war.” Well you’ll probably see “the old boy” on the streets of Pine Grove in not too long a time.

Today, the hedgerows of Normandy – northwestern France – are left far behind and France’s great farming section, which such a short time ago meant so much in our minds, is now only a tiny part of this immense military show. We are coming to the real wealthy section of the country and where I am at present, the French home, town, and city easily compares with any I’ve seen in America.

France is filled with beauty and architecture which one must appreciate seeing. Here many French can talk fairly good English and they are learning more each day. Several days ago I met a Frenchman who is a former Professor of French at the University of Southern California and the gentleman could speak English excellently. He came to France from the States in 1938 to marry but couldn’t return to our “Southern Cal” due to the outbreak of the war and the German invasion of this country.

Here many – I should say at least 60% of the inhabitants – carry a French-English and English-French dictionary wherever they go. You see this is a deep contrast to the farms of Normandy which we encountered from D-Day up until only several weeks ago.

A friend of mine, a New York City resident, and I probably had our first and last meal within a French home. This took place recently in a city on par with Pottsville or Lebanon – in area and pre-war population. I may not mention the name of the city for the present time, but it prompted me to write this letter. My friend could speak French very well, but I find it difficult, although I do understand and can speak some.

We were walking down the street of this city one bright morning each carrying a new German helmet to keep as souvenirs when a gentleman volunteered to show us his garden – at least anything the German soldier may have left. We found everything one can see in the average American garden. Tomatoes, parsley, potatoes, carrots, onions, salad, etc. He insisted on preparing a “garden” meal for us so we in turn surrendered to his terms. He did with the assistance of his only child, an attractive Mademoiselle of about 19 or 20. The mother recently had her entire left arm amputated – a result of an American artillery wound received when the Americans liberated her home town.

When questioned about the accident she smilingly said, “I was willing to sacrifice an arm a long time ago to get rid of the Boche.” She went on to say, “Heaven returned when the American soldiers arrived. We were looking for you for a long time.”

We were invited into the beautiful home, but the family would not allow any Boche souvenir to be taken within their home and suggested we lay the Heinie helmets outside the door. But to make them feel even greater and happier, my friend and I decided to throw our souvenirs away – before the eyes of the mother, father, and Mademoiselle, and that’s exactly what was done.

We soon discovered that, despite the fact that the Germans robbed many homes of electric refrigerators, stoves and furniture for barracks and officers’ quarters, this home had most of the latest facilities. Excepting electricity which is accounted for by broken lines all over France.

We were invited to a well decorated table in a spacious kitchen and when I first saw sliced tomatoes, parsley, onions and salad, fresh from the garden just outside, and the bread, real good Bordeaux wine, cognac, and coffee with cream, I simply couldn’t believe my eyes. Naturally neither my friend nor I knew how our average table manners compare with the French and we were deeply interested.

We therefore asked a favor of the family – to show us what manners are practiced at the table in a French home, and we told them more times than one not to hesitate in demonstrating their own table manners to us Americans.

No, Mr. Reber, they didn’t need to tell us to get in Army terms, “washed up,” but I believe they told us everything else, since their highly stricted table manners are well-respected. No one at home has the slightest idea of how mannerly the Frenchman feasts.

First of all you cut only on small piece of bread – about ¼ the size of the average American slice – and you can cut it using either your left or right hand. If there is butter you spread it very, very thinly – much to my dislike. When taking, for instance, tomatoes from a large dish, one never taken more than two slices and in many cases only a single piece. And the proper procedure is to use the left hand of the fork. Also take a single piece of salad, a few pieces of onion, and a leaf of parsley.

You always keep both knife ad fork in hand – as is the custom in England. Whether you keep the fork in the left hand and the knife in the other, or vice versa, depends entirely on what type of food you are eating. Meat, eggs, vegetables, etc. For example, in eating tomatoes, you cut one piece, using the knife in your right hand at all times, and a very small piece at a time. Never cut another piece before eating the previously cut.

You may at any time cut another piece of bread. And conversation is carried on, but commonly among the individuals seated at the table only. When a special dish is brought and held before you, you use both knife and fork in the proper hands in taking your food, but do not thank the person serving it. Whether you may use bread, more or less as a knife in putting food onto your fork again depends on what kind of food you are eating.

You may drink your water or milk at any time and may have more upon request. But your cup of coffee and cognac combination (which is good) is strictly kept until last. And if there is good old Bordeaux wine, as was in our special case, it comes at the end of the meal, and is in many cases, drank for some specified rejoicing.

For instance, in the course of the meal, the father asked whether we were on the front lines. My friend up to this time wasn’t quite as fortunate, but upon knowing that I was among the first to hit the Normandy shores that eventful June 6th morning, all shook hands and drank one glass of wine after our eating had ceased.

During the meal a little Mademoiselle next door brought us each a large delicious apple as her family’s appreciation toward the arrival of the Americans. The girl left immediately, which would be the customary manner.

At the conclusion of our meal – the first like it since I left home – both my pal and I decided we were full and couldn’t eat our apples right at that time. Asking if it was O.K. to take the apples with us, we were told “no.” They should be eaten during the meal. Cut in four equal parts and peeled. If in such case we couldn’t eat them with the meal, the proper procedure is to ask permission of the person who gave the apple or whatever it may be, or leave the food in place.

However, we couldn’t possibly leave two delicious apples as them, but we were told that that was considered the mannerly way. Also at the close of the meal it is proper to thank the various members of the family which compares with the same situation in the American home. In leaving the place it is proper to shake hands with everyone as the French shake hands each and everytime they say “Hello,” “Good Morning” or “Good Day.” And in many cases when saying “Goodbye,” Farewell,” or “Good Night.”

I don’t mean to persuade you not to make that vacation trip to France after the war, Mr. Reber, because as I said before this country is filled with architecture – beautiful homes, churches, bridges, colleges, etc. And at places the effects of World War II may be interesting to men as you. And the Seine is beautiful. I myself expect to take a good look at this country after the end of the Pacific war.

Before closing my last letter to America from France, as in World War II, I wish to add that I have also learned that it’s right in the home where the French youth and the Mademoiselle are taught that the seven letters, A-M-E-R-I-C-A, stand for “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of the press, and all other qualities included in a democratic form of government, as well as “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” – the symbolic colors of France’s Tricolor.

From liberated France I now say farewell to you, as well as to the great inhabitants of another great France – set free of German control for good. My stay within her borders I shall never forget.


Irvin R. Schwartz,

U.S. Army

Featured Image: A French family showing the “V” for victory hand gesture in 1944 (AP)

This is part of a series titled: “Letters from War.” Read more of the letters written by Irvin Schwartz during World War II

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