Emanuel Pastreich’s Maternal Grandfather:
There is a photograph of my grandfather Louis Rouff holding me in his lap when I visited with my parents at the age of six months in 1965. I was too young to remember anything, or even to be aware of who the stranger holding me was. My grandfather Louis Rouff also had not been well and was suffering from dementia that made him rather unaware of what was going on around him. He died soon after and it was only when I was a professor in my thirties that I started to wish I could have spoken with him and had a deeper understanding of what he had done.
My maternal Grandfather Louis Rouff and his wife, my Grandmother Catherine, surrounded by their children. My mother Marie-Louise stands behind her mother.
My mother tells me that although he was not quite as tall as I am, my face resembles him, and my personality as well. But he was not much of a talker; a product of a rather closed and formal European society of a previous age in which conversations between family members were limited.
Louis Rouff was a creative person who ended up a bureaucrat. He had a profound understanding of contemporary politics and policy but remained a great lover of culture. He was a talented artist, although he never made use of that talent in his life. He was known in the family for his humorous remarks about the state of the world. He liked to clown around when with family and friends, although he was serious at work, and he did a most extraordinary Russian dance when given a chance.
As a young man, he was a very capable student and had dreams of pursuing higher education. He had an opportunity to study as a Jesuit, joining their order and studying abroad. But that would have mean no family life and so he ended up staying with the limited education offered in Luxembourg at the Gymnase.
His father purchased a plot of land near the Gymnase and built a house there that ended up been extremely expensive because of my great grandfather’s desire to make sure everything was of the highest quality. I remember seeing that house when the family was selling it off and I was given a beautiful walking cane from the collection that was part of the estate. Louis lived with his family for ten years and tried to help pay off the debt. Ultimately he chose to take up a stable and predictable job in the Government Tax department. He did not meet my maternal grandmother until he was about 30 years old and they married.
Luxembourg was an extremely catholic country at the time but Louis Rouff did not trust the church much, although his own parents were very pious people. He would not attend church at all, except at Easter when he attended confession and took communion.
He was very much caught up in the politics of the 1930s during moderate parties collapsed in France and Germany, and were replaced by the socialists and communists on the one hand, and the fascists on the other. Luxembourg was right in the middle and very much caught up in the fervor of the moment.
My grandfather had a certain preference for France, reading the French newspapers and French books—even though he spoke Luxembourgish at home, a dialect of German which people thought of as a national language. His family was from France and he felt greater sympathy for the politicians of France who opposed Fascism such as Léon Blum, as opposed to the Nazi’s in Germany, or the Fascists in France. In the heated political debates with family members, he expressed his deep concern that new laws restricting speech applied only to the far left, and not to the far right. But although he was highly critical of the Fascists, he remained an independent, not a socialist.
In specific, Louis disagreed strongly with his brother Emile who had great admiration for the Nazis and agreed with many of their policies. The two would have a complete fall out and never came to terms even after the war.
When the Germans annexed Luxembourg in May of 1940, the entire government administration was changed overnight. Although deeply perturbed by what he saw, Louis continued to do his job, and even went with other bureaucrats for training in Germany as part of administration under the Nazis.
Soon after the invasion, several German officers of the Wehrmacht (the German army) were quartered at Louis Rouff’s house where they ate every night in the dining room. It was on one of those nights that, his tongue loosened a bit by the Moselle wine, Louis Rouff told the officers that the Germans were going to lose the war. His wife was terrified, but as regular officers, not indoctrinated in the SS, they took the comments in stride.
When he was told that he was required to become a member of the Nazi party soon after, and to attend their activities, however, he was deeply upset and was one of the very few who refused to do so. He was dismissed promptly.
Louis managed to make it through the war but it is not exactly clear how. He took long walks and worked in the garden to raise vegetables and chickens to feed his family.
On occasion he discussed politics with the few people he could trust. Somehow his friends within the government, and perhaps even his estranged brother, managed to help him keep above water. Financially and psychologically things were rough for him and his family.
My mother remembers most clearly the humanity of my grandfather from the time in 1942 that he took care of her when she was suffering from typhoid fever. My grandmother was in the hospital with rheumatism and my grandfather cared for my mother for days. He was gentle and tender, never losing patience, or showing any irritation. He fed her by hand and watched over her for hours. He had her hold his hand when she was in pain, although they did not have conversations. .
Long after the war, he was given an award for his efforts in the resistance in a small ceremony. I have heard stories that he helped British and American parachute troops caught behind enemy lines, but little is known of exactly what he did. One day a stranger showed up at the front door and my grandmother quickly sent the children away, lest they learn something they were not supposed to know.
When the war ended, Louis went back to work in the tax bureau, but found that his rank was far below that of many of his juniors who had collaborated. He never fit in with his fellow bureaucrats and was glad to retire and stop working all together.
When retirement age came, he stopped working completely and undertook no serious activities thereafter. Perhaps that complete stop contributed to his later ill health.
This was beautiful – a captivating story of a life, even one you were unable to witness yourself. These kinds of family stories – of real people, connected to us in real ways, tangible yet remote and only vaguely hinted at by those still around us – are what give “living history” so much meaning.
I’ve never met your family, nor do I know your mother, and I can still feel the tendrils of connections and linkages binding these disparate beings together.