Tucked away between the river and cliffs in one of those generous curves of the Seine near Rouen, is Val-de-la-Haye. Here you are within sight of that ancient city and possibly walking on what was once the river.
Land has been reclaimed to ensure a sturdy road, with green and fertile allotments in the spare bits. That, and a dramatic change in Val-de-la-Haye’s circumstance, made our match quite tricky.
Harsh changes revealed
Eventually we realised how time had changed the village. Once a vibrant summer resort Val-de-la-Haye is now rather closer to the factories of Rouen than summer visitors choose to be.
Eventually the remains of a little Pigeon turret and an old window revealed our view. To recreate the match we found ourselves standing behind a large overgrown vegetable patch, not sitting in a boat in the river as we had hoped.
Memories of summer parties by the Seine
The road was quiet, there are few reasons to drive along Quai Cavelier de la Salle today. Back when our postcard photo was taken it was very different. The busy Restaurant Cheron offered refreshments to Rouen day trippers in need of some fresh country air and glamorous summer visitors hired local rooms and elegant villas.
A new man in town
In 1936 a doctor arrived in the village who became so beloved they named a street and a bus stop after him. Dr Henri Lobel. His is the story of a small, remarkable life.
Henri was not French, he was born in Romania were his brilliant sporting skills allowed him to be on his university national team, not to study to become a doctor. As a Jew the profession was forbidden to him.
Intelligent, brave and caring Henri was determined to follow his vocation to help others so left his country and family to study medicine in Rouen and Paris.
A vocation in Val-de-la-Haye
It was a suggestion by friend and fellow doctor Albert Desleux that bought him to Val-de-la-Haye. Albert’s practise was across the river in Grand Couronne. He took a boat across the river to see patients when he could, but knew there was more work than he could cope with.
Henri’s arrival changed the lives of the local people and not just in Val-de-la-Haye.
Henri was responsible for the good health of citizens from Croisett, just past the Pavilion Flaubert (all that remains of that great author’s family home) near Rouen all the way around the curve of the river to Saint Pierre de Manneville. In the middle stood his home in Val-de-la-Haye. Here Henri opened his office by the dock, in one room of his small villa ‘le Criquet’.
Out in all weathers, the good doctor
This was a rural district without phones and limited transport. Henri immediately decided on daily rounds, by the only way available to him, bicycle. In all weathers he packed is bag, pushed his hat firmly on and headed out. Although an outsider, his friendly manner soon warmed people to him and a helpful network formed.
Watch out for the flags!
As he toured his practise Henri would look out for a little flag in the window of a local shop, or at Sahurs a white cloth in the window of Madam Ridel’s coffee shop. These signals told him he was needed, and not just for medicine.
Henri was doctor, nurse, pharmacist, midwife dentist and confidant. People who remember him remark on his gentleness and kindness. His genuine love of people made him a remarkable doctor. How could they not love him, as one father recalled ‘he saved our son’…
In time the ancient bicycle was replaced by a modest car, the sound of its little engine a reassuring purr to patients across the many miles of his rounds.
Summer of love
In the summer months sleepy Val-de-la-Haye was shaken awake by the summer visitors. Well-to-do from Rouen wanting fresh air and relaxation came to enjoy beautiful views across the Seine. A view now obscured by trees that hide a giant refinery.
One particular summer visitor caught the eye of Henri and he, her. Germaine Mandel, whose family had a summer home in the village, had grown up and she was exquisite. Years later she recalled that summer and how Henri’s charisma won her heart. She said to her he simply ‘shone’. Henri found her kindness and beauty irresistible. They married and soon a son, Bernard is born.
A centre of village life, happiness radiated from their home, Villa Sans, in Val-de-la-Haye. But the garden was just for them. Filled with flowers it is Germaine’s delight and Henri’s refuge, designed to reminded him of his Romanian childhood.
Family life did not slow Henri’s commitment to his patients, one recalled years later that if you called him during the evening he would arrive in a dinner jacket, call him at night he would hurriedly arrive with pyjamas under his coat!
Dark clouds of WW2 in France
But soon a dark cloud spread over Normandy; invasion. On 6 June 1940 Rouen is occupied by the Germans. The mansions of Val-de-la-Haye become billets for German officers.
As the weeks pass, life for the Lobel family becomes increasingly perilous. As, Jews the family are told to sew yellow stars to their clothes. Henri receives a letter to say he can no longer practise as a doctor and that a replacement has already been chosen.
A terrible conversation
But it is a conversation with an officer billeted in their home that makes their situation horribly clear. The officers is playing with baby Bernard, perhaps missing his own children far away.
In this gentle moment Henri, who has of course heard the terrible rumours of Nazi atrocity, quietly ask could the officer if ordered harm such a child? Nothing is said but as the officer looks at Henri it is hideously clear, he would. At that moment Henri knows the family has to leave.
Journey in fear
For safety they separate. On 15 July 1942 Germaine and baby Bernard with yellow stars sewn to their clothes travel to Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. Two ladies travel with them with the hope of ensuring their safety; Madame Ranger, local teacher and Madam de Gaulle, chatelaine of the chateau at St Pierre de Manneville. Mother and child successfully board their train to the obscurity of the Loire.
The ‘Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup’ of 1942
They had been incredibly fortunate. Beginning at 4am on 16 July, for two days the Nazi ’s captured 13,152 Jewish Parisians and forced them into the glass roofed Velodrome’ d’Hiv. 5802 were women, 4051 children, taken from their schools, homes and the streets to be crowded into this airless space for 5 days without food, lavatories and just one tap.
Those who tried to escape were shot, some took their own lives. Survivors were then taken to internment camps and on to the extermination camps.
Luck for the Lobel family
Germaine and Bernard hid in Cher, in the Loire, until 1945. Back in Normandy Henri made to Igé in the Orne. Thanks to very brave friends he also survived the war.
Fortunate though painfully aware of lost friends, the family is reunited in 1945 at Val-de-la-Haye and within the year a second son, Jean Jacques is born.
A good life well spent
For the next few years life is kind to the family and dramas the small ones of village life; the births, marriages and deaths. But by the 1960’s he begins to struggle with his daily rounds.
With and with heavy hearts Henri and Germaine leave the village and people they love and who love them, for a smaller practise in Rouen. He misses the village but it is changing as Rouen grows.
When a pulmonary embolism forces his retirement just a few years later Henri and Germaine chose to live close to one of their sons in Paris, as the village they once knew so well is no more.
Dr Henri Lobel died in 1985, Germaine lived until 13 August 2001. They live on in the hearts of their children, grandchildren and the families of Val-de-la-Haye, near Rouen in Normandy.