In the Blink of an Eye: Project Proposal

Growing up in a quaint house in suburban Kennesaw, I always passed what seemed like an ancient black and white photo hanging in our stairwell. The picture is of my Bon Papa, Bernard Gaillet, and his family who had just landed in a bleak New York airport after escaping the turmoil that France endured during the Nazi occupation. Bon Papa, his five sisters, and parents are all dressed in their Sunday best, despite the circumstances they were in, and are taking their first steps onto American soil. The Catholic family fled the clutches of Nazi Germany seven years after the invasion of France on May 10th, 1940. Bon Papa Bernard was only six years old, but in the blink of an eye he lost the innocence of childhood and was forced to grow up. He was thrown into the real world filled with despair, heartache, and loss well before his time. The Gaillet family was able to survive the opposing powers of World War II and immigrate to Larchmont, New York in June of 1946 by the narrowest of margins. Living close to the Belgian border, my Bon Papa’s house was in immediate danger when Hitler’s army attacked France. The sounds of bullets were looming and in due time the war would be knocking on my family’s front door. My Great Grandfather, Emile, had foreseen the start of the War in France by reading the evening paper and tried to acquire a truck in a brief amount of time to help his family flee to find a safe haven. However, through countless complications, the truck was not ready, and all the Gaillets were to accomplish at the start of the war was moving from the house in direct danger to a house slightly further from the border. They would soon be greeted by men in dark tan uniforms with red bands on their left arms. My family was forced to spend countless hours in a dreary, dusty cellar and years in exile from their home until they made it to safety in New York.

My Great Aunt Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard at three years old in France

I have spent my whole life hearing “oh, the story of how your Grandfather came to America is so amazing” and if I am one hundred percent truthful, I never paid too much attention to it, until now. The summer after my senior year of high school I was visiting with my Mom’s side of the family when suddenly my sharp-witted maternal Aunt cut me off mid-sentence and asked us if we had read the book my paternal Great Aunt Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard recently published. My sister and I nonchalantly brushed her off and told her we heard all about it acting like it wasn’t some major deal. Tante Hélène was able to compile the Gaillet Family history after my great grandmother passed away when she found carefully recorded letters and journal entries in my Bonne Mama’s bureau. In the blink of an eye, years of family history was revealed to my Tante Hélène, who was only four when her family relocated from France. It’s truly astounding to understand ways in which my family braved death when the Nazi’s invaded. The Gaillet family lived in conditions similar to those you would only find in horror movies and nightmares.

My Tante Charlotte, my cousin Charlotte, and I meeting for the first time in Rydin-Hy.

I always knew my family was French, but I never realized the magnitude of French Heritage I had until attending a family reunion the summer after first grade at the Rydin-Hy Ranch, in Warrensburg, New York. The ranch was filled with vibrant green trails, fancy dining consisting of chicken fingers for a seven year old, and horses with names like Sassy (which perfectly matched my personality). My family is not big on traveling, and so this extreme trek from Georgia to New York remains vivid in my mind to this day. My Dad, being the engineer that he is, had hooked up a VHS player in the car to watch movies and to keep us from asking “are we there yet” for the four-hundredth time. During the never-ending drive there, I remember hearing stories, in-between watching the great cinematic works of Toy Story and Cinderella, from my Dad about his many Aunts and making a pit-stop to show us the house where he grew up before moving to middle-of-nowhere Mississippi. When we arrived in New York, almost no one was speaking English, and as a seven-year old everything was hard to comprehend. They played weird card games called Spite and Malice, drank coffee with their dinner, and in the blink of an eye I gained a whole new family who came from all over the country to spend one week together riding horses and reminiscing. Looking back on the trip as an eighteen-year old, I wish I had asked questions about how all these relatives came to reside in the United States and the trials they endured to prosper in America.

I have never embraced my French heritage. My sister took French lessons when she was six and sometimes we eat croquembouche, cream puffs dipped in white chocolate, but that’s as French as my immediate family gets. Through this project, I would like to explore my French heritage by tracing the events of World War II that led the Gaillet’s to America and how in the blink of an eye the path of my family history was altered. I want to truly understand the trials and tribulations it took to land safely on the coast of New York and honor my late Bon Papa by interviewing my Great Aunt Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard and my Father.

Interview Questions for Philippe Gaillet

1. When and where were you born?

2. What is your favorite story from your childhood?

3. What is the fondest memory of your Father?

4. Did Bon Papa ever tell you stories about his life in France? If so, what were they?

5. How often did Bon Papa talk about his French upbringing and his trek to America?

6. Did your Dad uphold French Traditions in your household growing up?

7. How do you think your life would be different if Bon Papa didn’t come to America and you lived in France?

8. As a kid you moved around quite a lot, why? How many times did you move? Where was your favorite place to live?

9. How did you end up living in Mississippi where you met Mom?

10. Have you ever visited France to witness where your Dad grew up and escaped the war as a child?

11. What would be the most important thing to know about your Dad?

12. How do you think your siblings and you have been affected by having a French background?

13. Can you describe your Aunt Helene? Has her book impacted the way you view her family history?

14. Could you describe the relationship and bond Bon Papa and Tante Helene had?

15. Has being a first generation American effected your life in any way?


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