By DAVID GREEN
Jeannine (Beem) Price wasn’t yet a teenager when her best friend from school was taken away by German troops. She doubts the girl and her wealthy Polish family survived.
The year was 1939 and Hitler had already invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland. Jeannine lived in Belgium, but the impending war hadn’t yet touched her Jewish family directly.
That would soon change.
In 1940 German troops invaded Holland and moved on across the border into Belgium. To stay ahead of the German advance, Jeannine’s mother decided the family should move back to Paris where Jeannine and her two sisters were born.
The family boarded a train with hundreds of other refugees for a slow, frightening trip into France.
“The Germans were always just right behind us,” Jeannine said. “You could hear the bombing far away and the German planes shooting overhead.”
Their mission was to destroy the transportation system before the troops marched in.
Once in Paris, the family was directed to a warehouse with many Dutch families, since her father had a Dutch passport. The warehouse was located in a neighborhood of upscale stores and the girls soon learned to beg for clothing.
Before long, word arrived that the German army was advancing toward Paris and the Dutch government sent a bus to move the refugees about 250 miles south to the town of Confolens.
This was the beginning of a five-year adventure in a rural chateau, while the war raged on across Europe.
The Beems were among the first to arrive at the deserted chateau, and also among the last to leave. There was a constant flow of residents, Jeannine said, because those with money could afford to move on to safer territory in Europe or sail across the Atlantic.
The chateau was never completed before the first owner died. There was no electricity, no running water and no heat.
A man who lived down the road in a neighboring chateau is credited with the successful o
peration of the refugee center.
Monsieur Conrad Kickert served as the organizing force, assigning tasks such as cooking, cleaning and teaching. He brought a sense of discipline to La Partoucie. A busy mind would keep pe
ople from dwelling on their circumstances—both at the chateau and at what they lost through the war.
“After a while, everyone had their room to stay in and we all tried to live the best we could in a 19th century castle,” Jeannine said.
In 1943, French police who were in collaboration with the Germans came and took Jeannine’s father away to work in a camp. He was a good cook and a good singer and those skills helped him survive.
The Beem girls often made the three-mile walk into Confolens on market day, but they also spent time collecting blackberries, cherries and other wild fruit.
La mure—large blackberries—could be made into jam and pies or eaten raw.
“We ate what we could find,” Jeannine remembers. “We had little else to do in the summer.”
Near the end of the war, Jeannine and her sisters, Rosine and Berthe, found jobs in Confolens. They worked for families and had duties such as washing clothes in the Vienne River.
The Germans never occupied Confolens, but soldiers occasionally appeared, including on a frightful day in 1944. As the war drew to a close, Jeannine said, the danger for civilians grew.
The Germans knew they had lost the war and a lot of indiscriminate killing was underway.
One day army trucks arrived in Confolens and blocked streets and the bridge over the river. The girls’ mother had told them if there was ever trouble in town, they should meet and take the back roads back to La Partoucie.
“I remember on the way home we were singing and laughing,” Jeannine said. “We wer
e so young. We didn’t realize how serious the situation was.”
The girls learned later the same troops had recently committed one of the worst massacres in France. In the nearby town of Oradour, German troops rounded up the village residents into a church—more than 600 men, women and children—then burned the church and nearby houses.
The war ended with the residents of La Partoucie never recognized as anyone but Dutch refugees. The Beems survived.
“Those were very, very bad times but we made it through,” Jeannine said.
Maintaining a positive attitude was essential, she said.
The best of times
The Beems returned to Paris and the girls were off to school. Jeannine, 17, studied at the School of Art and Berthe, 18, went to business school. Rosine was pregnant with her first child.
Jeannine describes post-war Paris as a wonderful place to be.
“The war was over and we were in the most beautiful city in the world,” she said. “We had the time of our lives. We were in Paris at the right time and at the right age.”
The city was full of GIs who were said to be “over here, over fed and over sexed.”
One of those GIs was a young man from Morenci named Vernon Harper. He and Berthe were married Dec. 2, 1946, and soon set sail for America where Berthe would take the American name Betty.
Jeannine began saving her money to join them, and in April 1948, she boarded the Mauretania for the journey across the Atlantic.
Eventually she met Vernon’s cousin, Bob Price, at the Devils Lake dance pavilion.
“He was very American,” Jeannine said, “and just what I had dreamed of.”
First, Bob had to choose between Jeannine and another woman he had been dating. He made his choice.
Next, Jeannine needed to make her decision between Bob and a wealthy man she met on the ocean liner.
She made her choice, also, and a long marriage began—59 years and counting.
Daughters connect stories with places
The story above about the life of Jeannine Beem Price omits one important detail—an item from her past that leads to the future and involves her own daughters.
Little did the Beems know, Kickert was an artist of renown. In fact, his paintings had a showing at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1936.
They knew he was an excellent painter. He used the “tower” at La Partoucie as a studio and he asked Rosine Beem to serve as a model. He also gave some instruction to her younger sister, Jeannine.
Move forward more than 60 years to the Price’s home on Yankee Road in Morenci where Jeannine’s husband, Bob, is helping with some research from her past.
He’s looking through a section of the Conrad Kickert website, maintained by Kickert’s daughter, he clicks on the refugee link and finds another link to Life at Partoucie.
Scrolling down, he sees a painting of a young woman who looks familiar.
Bob is known to have an easy-going, calm personality, but the Price house suddenly became rather animated.
He called Jeannine and she confirmed his discovery. That was a painting of her sister Rosine, completed in 1941.
The discovery rates only a paragraph in a book Jeannine and her daughters, Rosine Downing and Chris Wood created, but it made a large impact on the family.
It prompted the daughters to take a trip to France to see with their own eyes the places mentioned in their mother’s stories.
Last April, Rosine and her husband Bob and Chris and her husband Eric flew to Paris to begin their adventure. They stopped to visit Aunt Rosine, met up with relatives they’d never before visited, then headed south to Confolens.
“We followed the story from the book,” Rosine said.
“We’d see the bridge that she mentioned, the river that she talked about,” Chris said.
The connections were made between her memories and real life.
Eventually they arrived at La Partoucie, now a bed and breakfast facility owned by a Dutch couple. Several former residents from the war years had visited, but this set of Americans was the first to bring details about the painter, Conrad Kickert, and his studio in the tower.
“They were just as interested to learn about the past history of the chateau as we were,” Rosine said. “They were thrilled to get our mother’s book.”
The owners had obtained information from the University of Amsterdam, Chris said, and they had reproductions of historic photos hanging in a hallway.
“We were walking down that hallway the first day looking at the photos and I said to Chris, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s Grandpa Beem!’”
They looked at more pictures and found their Aunt Betty.
The inn wasn’t yet open for the season and the guests had the entire place to themselves. The owners live in an adjacent building—a converted horse stable.
Seeing the photos was exciting, but there was one other thing they were hoping to find. They told the owners that their grandfather had scratched his name onto the door of the family’s room and they wondered if it was still visible.
The owner didn’t recall seeing that at the time, but he wasn’t connecting the name Beem with this group of Americans.
On the day they were to leave, the owner said he had something to show them. When refurbishing the chateau, he had rehung all the doors so what was on the outside was now on the inside.
He opened a particular door for them and there were the words on the back: “Monsieur Beem.”
Mother, daughters put history into a book
“I could make a movie,” Jeannine Price used to tell her daughters when recounting tales from her past.
That’s probably true, but she settled for a book, simply called, “Jeannine.”
In an introduction on the back cover, daughters Chris and Rosine recall hearing many, many stories of their mother’s life as they were growing up, but the tales didn’t always make a deep impression.
As they got older, their mother’s past began to have more meaning. They knew they were finally ready to really listen.
In spring 2006, recording sessions got underway in the Price kitchen. One day Bob Price lugged out his wife’s old suitcase that she brought across the Atlantic, still filled with cards, letters, photographs, news clippings and other memorabilia from her past.
Eventually, their mother filled 10 cassette tapes with stories that were transcribed into the chapters of a book. It was sent off to the publisher a year later and a proof copy was available to take as a guide for the vacation the daughters took to France last spring.
The idea behind the book, Rosine said, was to preserve a piece of history for future generations of the family, to keep the memories alive.
It’s a process she encourages others to take.