Dominique D'Ermo will never forget the day he found out why Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo chief in southern France, was called the Butcher of Lyons.
It was shortly after the French underground bombed Lyons' Moulin au Vent, a restaurant the occupying Germans frequented. No one was killed, but Barbie's men rounded up dozens of D'Ermo's friends the next day. Five of them were taken to the Place Belle Cour in Lyons and forced to jump off a pickup truck one by one with their hands tied behind their backs. They were shot dead as they jumped.
"It happened at 11 a.m.," recalls D'Ermo, the urbane, insouciant owner of Dominique Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. "I was not there, but I got a telephone call and I went down there at 3 p.m. The bodies were still there. The blood was running down the street. I recognized one of my comrades . . . . The Germans set up a barricade so people could not walk on the blood. They took pictures and movies of it. They were laughing. This was to tell us that next time they would do anything."
For D'Ermo and several other French-Americans living in the Washington area, the news of Barbie's arrest in Bolivia and his extradition to France has touched off emotional memories of the terror and brutality used by the Nazi in his effort to eradicate both French Jews and the Resistance movement fighting the German occupation. Barbie is accused of executing 4,000 people and deporting 7,500 French Jews to concentration camps, crimes for which he was sentenced to death in absentia twice by French courts.
The return of 69-year-old Barbie to Lyons' Fort Montluc prison, where 40 years ago he allegedly tortured to death the Resistance hero Jean Moulin, was a pleasure too long denied those who lived under his savage rule from 1942 to 1944.
"It's a rare treat to see somebody come back and be put up in the same place where they tortured people," said the Rev. Herbert Stein-Schneider of Great Falls, pastor of the French Protestant Church at St. John's Church Lafayette Square.
"If he had gotten into our hands only one year after 1946, that would have been the biggest feast you can imagine. This way it's a little cold, but it's still a good platter. Vengeance is a platter that can be eaten cold," said the pastor, who was an undercover chaplain for the Resistance fighters with the nom-de-guerre of Pierre Seguy.
"Five of my friends were victims of Barbie," said Stein-Schneider, relating how some of his fellow students at the seminary who joined the Resistance were picked up at Mens, about 75 miles from Lyons, only two weeks before he was scheduled to join them. They were brought to Fort Montluc, interrogated and sent to concentration camps. Only one returned. He told Stein-Schneider that Barbie personally had interrogated them.
When he heard of Barbie's arrest, Stein-Schneider said he thought, "My friends who went through all that, if they were still alive, would be very happy."
"Very pleased" was the reaction of Anne-Marie Landis of Bowie upon hearing of Barbie's return to Lyons. Married to an American she met in Paris, Landis said she left school in 1942 when she was 19 and lived as a boarder in Lyons pretending that she worked in an insurance company. In reality she lived off money her mother sent her and was working for the underground.
"I was in propaganda diffusion," said Landis. "Distribution of newspapers, paintings on the wall. Four of us blew up a blockhouse of the Prefecture, with plastique," she recalled with a slight giggle. "Just to make noise and let somebody know that there were some people there not ready to obey."
"Barbie was a kind of nightmare. He was ready to do almost anything. Very nasty," Landis said.
She recalled a particularly horrifying incident in a suburb of Lyons called Saint-Genis-Laval in which scores of young men suspected of Resistance ties were burned alive. Asked how she knew of the incident, Landis replied with some hesitation: "because I had a boyfriend who died there and I had to go and identify the remains."
"This is the first time I talk about these things," she said. "We were young. That left something on you, even if you didn't want it to. Too many things come back to your mind."
At Chez Camille restaurant, Barbie's recent appearance in the news was "like a movie" for owner Camille Richaudeau. "Everything is coming back," he said, putting his hand to his head. "There are so many souvenirs about that."
Richaudeau lived in Angers working as a waiter in a cafe. At first, he and his friends pestered the Germans by putting sugar in their gasoline tanks and deflating the tires on their vehicles.
At this point, "it was fun," said 59-year-old Richaudeau. "But after seeing two or three guys come back from Lyons , we changed our minds. I saw them with hands broken, arms broken, burns on the face. We said to them, 'What happened?' " said Richaudeau, his eyes widening with remembered horror. "They would say, 'La bas, la bas, down there in Lyons, they are tough over there. Don't go to Lyons, you have Klaus Barbie there. Barbie is there.' "
After twice being sent to forced labor camps and twice escaping, Richaudeau said he and some friends retreated to the countryside and procured food for the Resistance activists.
An effervescent man who dazzles diners of his restaurant with his smile and his collection of pins displayed on his lapels, Richaudeau says "the guillotine is too good" for Barbie. "They should do to him what he was doing to other people. I'm so glad they caught him but I don't understand why it took so long. Now he must say who helped him to go out of Europe ."
Reports that U.S. intelligence agencies protected and supported the notorious Nazi after the war in order to tap his knowledge about the Soviets have added insult to injury for many of the French who suffered at Barbie's hands.
"I told the American diplomats that Barbie is going to be a nasty skeleton in their closet. They are going to be reproached for that for a long time," said Stein-Schneider, who teaches a course on "The European Mind" at the State Department.
"For the French it's not so much a political issue as an emotional one . . . . The French still have a very long memory. It's going to irk them very much."
D'Ermo recalls that Barbie lived in the well-guarded Hotel Royale in Lyons and "was considered worse than other Germans because he had a brutal way to deal with people. The Germans called us terrorists, but we were really soliders of France and we knew we had slight chance to survive if we were caught. But we knew that was the price we had to pay.
"But more than what had happened to us was what happened to the civilian population of France, especially the Jews, the women, the children, the wives."
The brutality displayed the day five of his comrades were shot convinced D'Ermo that the "Butcher" was getting too close for comfort, especially since one of the victims had been helping him plaster anti-Nazi posters around town only days before.
"I felt Lyons was no more a place for Dominique to stay," the restaurateur recalls with some understatement. That night he left his home above a hairdressing shop just four blocks from Gestapo headquarters. His father took him to the railway station and, with another friend, he boarded the train for a destination not listed on the official schedule: the woods named Vercors at the foot of the Alps in southeast France where the Resistance was operating in force. D'Ermo was only 17.
"We traveled by bus and trucks, which we stole. We lived the life of desperados. We attacked railway stations, electrical generators," said D'Ermo with some relish.
But after the victorious Allied landing in Normandy, the Germans got desperate and more vicious with the Resistance in southern France, turning their full force against them in the summer of 1944, D'Ermo said. In the fighting that followed he was captured by the Germans and jailed at Nantua.
Since he looked even younger than his 17 years, he was not tortured, but many others with him were. "They had two bathtubs, one full of ice water, one full of hot and they moved you from one to the other. They put electric wires in water and on your testicles. They cut legs with razors and put gasoline in the cuts. Some men came back to the cell with blood running out of their ears and mouths and with no teeth," D'Ermo recalls.
"When these things were happening, it was like your brain was not thinking, like you were already dead," said D'Ermo, who was court-martialed and sentenced to hard labor for life in Germany. But before he could be taken out of France, the Resistance liberated them from the jail.
As for Barbie, D'Ermo believes "there's not enough you can do to this guy to remind him of what he has done. I think they should show him movies of the five kids on the sidewalk, of the Jewish kids at the school whom he deported. He should have a TV or a movie machine in his cell and be shown movies depicting all the crimes the Germans have done . . . . The movie should be endless. And then after, ask him if he forgets.
"You're not talking about a regular human being here. I don't think he ever had any emotions. But maybe by looking at the faces of the people he destroyed he will understand why we don't want to forget."
The interview was over. Somebody smiled and waved at D'Ermo through a glass partition. Silverware was clinking. Coffee cups were clacking on saucers. Diners were joking and talking. And the former Resistance fighter, brimming with awful memories, burst into tears.