Learning how to write historical fiction about the early months of the war in France meant doing tons of research—and loving it, of course! And my learning curve went sky high! I discovered dozens of events in history I knew little or nothing about and developed close emotional ties with some of those heroes. First Varian Fry, whose story inspired my novel, The Forger of Marseille, and then Donald Caskie, a pastor born in Isaly, Scotland who was tending his flock at the Scots Kirk on Rue Bayard in Paris when the war broke out.
A historical fiction writer needs to absorb the history of the past. To bring alive that time, you need to dig into biographies and memoirs—which offered me a personal relationship with men I call heroes.
Donald Caskie was a hero that you may not have heard of, but when I read about his courage as the Germans attacked France, I was inspired to learn more. In his memoir, The Tartan Pimpernel, he tells the story of how he came to save and protect refugees in Marseille, and later in Geneva.
As the pastor of the Scots Kirk, a Presbyterian church in Paris, he was a humanist to the core and for years had preached anti-fascist, pro-democracy sermons. When the Germans were knocking at the door of Paris, he knew he’d be a target, and joined millions on the crowded roads out of Paris. He ended up in Bayonne where he was offered the last place on the last ship leaving Europe.
He refused the offer. In his book, he writes about his Gaelic gift, a sixth sense, and his deep faith in God. He believed that God had plans for him in France, and as the Germans swarmed the countryside, he set out for Marseille, where thousands of refugees ended up broken, wounded, and starving. When he arrived, he found out that the armistice had already been signed, and he was now in Vichy France, the collaborationist governed by Phillippe Petain.
The Mediterranean port was in turmoil. All traffic was uncontrolled and converging on the waterfront. The streets around the docks were crowded with British soldiers and airmen, the remnants of Dunkirk who had escaped…and made the journey south…. The plight of these men was pitiable. All were hungry, some weak with starvation, others wounded; their wounds, rudely dressed were often dirty and gave them intense pain.
Caskie felt desperately helpless in the face of these tragedies, but he had an enduring faith that God would guide him. He got down on his knees and prayed for a sign about how he could serve the wounded soldiers and airmen he’d seen on the road, soldiers who’d walked south from Dunkirk, and RAF fighters who’d had to bail out.
Someone in Marseille suggested that he open the Seaman’s Mission on the port where he could feed and clothe the needy. The police let him know he could serve civilians there but not soldiers. Caskie set out to save everyone, creating hiding places for the soldiers under the floorboards and behind cupboards. In the two years at the mission, the police raided them every morning at 6 AM but never found any hidden soldiers.
He fed the men, found them civilian clothes, and hooked them up with guides who would send them over the Pyrenees and back to England where they were eager to fight again. They needed false papers and trustworthy guides, which were supplied by other courageous rescuers like Varian Fry. Caskie was part of the very early underground movement, later called the Resistance, who risked their lives to create a line of safe houses and rescue soldiers and refugees.
In 1942, a man Caskie suspected was untrustworthy betrayed him and the entire rescue line, and Caskie was arrested. His testimony was given partially in Gaelic, which confounded his accusers. Instead of being sent to prison, he was sent to Grenoble with strict instructions not to continue his work with refugees. But course his work had to continue, with so many lost souls in camps and prisons. Finally, he was arrested again, and that time he was confined in what was called a “bottle prison,” the size of a man’s body, and he was sentenced to death.
A German pastor he’d known with prayed with him at the prison and put in a good word for Caskie in Berlin. He was sent back to France where he confined in a regular prison until the end of the war. He returned to Paris, where he found his church vandalized by the Germans. Sales from his memoir and contributions from his loyal friends and beloved countrymen raised the funds to rebuild it.
His thoughts as the last ship left the continent for England:
The last ship steamed out of Bayonne. I saw it go, Scotland had been so near and now I was cut off from it forever maybe. My heart sank, but surely I was doing the right thing? At that time I was not entirely certain but I had chosen as a Christian minister should choose in duty to his vocation. Of that I was certain.
As I read his memoir, I was swept away by the rhythm of his prose, and I could almost hear him speaking as if he were talking to me personally. He doesn’t present himself as any kind of hero—he’s doing his duty toward his fellow man as a minister, and his faith in God never leaves him. Over and over, I read his cadences about tormented refugees and the ways that people with a conscience fought hard to survive the most ruthless government on earth, often with tears in my eyes. In my gratitude for him and what he did, how he’d honored the souls of so many, I was moved to include him in my novel, a small contribution so others could know and love him.