BY CHELSEA DIANA
To the Nazis, Eugenie Ceklarz Prescott was a teenage girl scouring the countryside of northern France for food for her starving family during World War II.
Prescott regularly slipped past the German troops guarding the French-Belgian border virtually unnoticed on her beat-up bike with tires crafted from an old hose.
What they didn’t know was that the 14-year-old girl was smuggling notes from the Polish and French resistance effort in the handlebars of her bicycle.
“I was just a young girl looking for food,” she said, speaking with a slight French accent on Thursday, sitting at her kitchen table in South Portland with a small dog curled on her lap. “And they were just soldiers.”
Prescott said she didn’t learn until years later what was in the notes: Information about trains headed to Germany that the resistance used to derail or delay them.
“The less I knew, the better off I would be,” she said. “I really didn’t know much at the time.”
At 14, Prescott was one of the youngest members of the Polish and French resistance, an underground movement led by the French Forces of the Interior that sprang up in German-occupied France during World War II.
The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram first learned Prescott’s story when her son, James Prescott, wrote a letter to the paper about his mother last week as the world prepared to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion at Normandy, France on Friday.
Department of Veterans Affairs officials in Maine said they do not know if there are other Allied veterans in Maine like Prescott, now 86. Allied veterans are citizens of nations that were allies of the United States during World Wars I and II, who are eligible for certain U.S. veterans benefits.
Prescott documented her early life in a memoir, “Angel on My Shoulder,” she wrote in 2010 for her children.
“Whenever I had dreams and was thinking about the past (I would write),” Prescott said. “Off and on I would get back to it, and my mind was racing so far I couldn’t write fast enough.”
Many resistance fighters in the French countryside were involved in intelligence, sabotage, and writing and distributing underground newspapers in support of the Allied forces. For the Ceklarzs, it was a family affair.
Her father, Joseph Ceklarz, was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1902 and immigrated at the age of 20 to northern France to work in coal mines. During World War II, Ceklarz worked as a photographer and coal miner, and soon rose to lead the local Polish resistance movement in France.
Her father asked Prescott, who also worked in the coal mines, to carry small pieces of coal, salvaged from the mines and wrapped in a burlap sack, on her bicycle. She went to Belgian farms after work to exchange the coal for food.
“I was just a kid,” Prescott said.
When Ceklarz realized that his daughter could easily get past German checkpoints along the border, he started slipping messages to fellow resistance fighters in the handlebars for her to deliver to his counterparts in Belgium.
“He had faith in me,” Prescott said, cradling a black-and-white photo of her father. “I didn’t know what (was in the notes) but my father really stressed, ‘Don’t tell anyone, don’t get nervous, don’t cry.’ ”
PEDALING FAR FROM HOME
Prescott carried the notes across the northwest corner of France twice a month for two years, from 1942 to 1944.
Riding over hills and streams that she committed to memory, Prescott covered dozens of kilometers on her bicycle. Several times, Prescott said she rode as far as Tournai, Belgium, about 40 kilometers away from her home in France.
“It was quite a ways,” Prescott said. “I had to stay overnight in various farms and when I got there they fed me, they gave me bags of potatoes, dried peas and cottage cheese, and in return they must have put messages in my bike, too. I didn’t know that then, but they must have.”
Years later her father told her the notes contained information about the trains that delivered coal to Axis military bases in Germany. Resistance fighters used the information to derail the trains.
Though she was stopped a few times by the Gestapo, Prescott said they never suspected that she was carrying anything but food for her family. When the German officials questioned her, Prescott said she cried and pleaded that she was just trying to find food for her family. The soldiers let her pass.
“It was scary but we were used to it; it was part of our life then,” Prescott said. “But the hunger, the hunger was horrible.”
After curfew, the Ceklarz home served as a meeting point for the Polish resistance community in their mining town.
While Prescott and her older brother, also named Joseph, were not allowed to sit in on the meetings, they served as lookouts to make sure no German soldiers were around.
She later discovered that the resistance group was not only passing messages but harboring paratroopers from England and helping the town’s Jewish community acquire identification papers.
“You’re in it. You’re not alone, and you do what you have to do. You don’t think about it,” Prescott said. “I remember a lot of stuff, oh God.”
THE GOOSE AND THE ENGINEER
One of Prescott’s most powerful memories from the war was meeting the town’s coal mining engineer. Her family had little money and she needed new shoes, so she took the family’s fluffiest goose to the engineer, in hopes he would buy it for a few francs.
Prescott said the engineer had a large manor and sprawling gardens with a large iron gate, compared to the miners’ small row houses.
“The goose got loose in his yard and we were both chasing it,” Prescott said, laughing at the memory. “We finally caught the goose and he said, ‘Here’s your goose and your five francs.’ ”
A gaggle of porcelain geese sits on a table in the entryway of Prescott’s home – a small reminder of her European past.
It was love that brought Prescott, a Polish and French national, to South Portland. She met Myron Prescott, a Mainer, in a cafe in Valenciennes in 1944, when he was stationed in northern France.
“I was almost 17, Myron (her husband) was 21,” Prescott recalled. “I made my own wedding dress.”
Prescott and a group of her friends went to the cafe where young girls and boys – many of them American soldiers – were dancing.
“And he, I never forget it, he just stood there and he kept looking and looking and then he (pointed to me),” Prescott said of meeting Myron.
“And he said, ‘Mademoiselle, dance?’ And I said, ‘Oui.’ I couldn’t speak English, you know,” Prescott added. “And then he wouldn’t let go of me.”
Prescott danced with Myron all night, then gave him a false name. She missed the train and had to walk home 10 miles.
But a few days later, she came home from secretarial school to find Myron sitting at her parents’ kitchen table, drinking coffee with cognac.
“He got my name from a friend,” Prescott said. “He was so forward. That was new to me.”
“I was so red in the face and my mother said, ‘Oh, I know what you’ve been up to,’ ” she said.
Three weeks later, Myron came with marriage papers in his back pocket.
“I wanted to be a secretary, I wanted to be an actress, I wanted to do so much,” Prescott said.
The two were married in France in a traditional Polish ceremony, but then Myron left almost immediately, without a honeymoon. He was first shipped off to Japan to fight the war in the Pacific and then was sent back to the U.S.
Prescott, by then pregnant with their first child, could not join Myron in the U.S. until the baby was 3 months old, so they spent the months apart, communicating by letter.
In her memoir, Prescott wrote about that time, describing it as “the loneliest and frightening time of my life, as I was pregnant, we were far apart.”
In 1946, Prescott’s immigration papers were approved and she and their newborn son, John Edwin, boarded a Liberty ship, a cargo ship manufactured in Maine, for the voyage to the U.S.
“Some of the girls were going to Puerto Rico, New York, Boston, Florida, and all over, but I was the only one going to Maine,” she wrote.
SCARY ENCOUNTER IN PORTLAND
After surviving bombing raids, evading the Nazis and traveling by ship to the U.S. alone with an infant, Prescott said the scariest moment of her life actually occurred after she moved to Portland.
Pregnant with their second child and a few months after her arrival in Portland, Prescott described being home alone one Sunday when a tall, blond man in his 30s rang the doorbell and pushed his way into the house, uninvited.
When he asked if anyone else was home, Prescott, thinking quickly, lied and said her husband was upstairs, sleeping.
She said the man searched the first floor of the house and the basement, appearing to be looking for something. As he left, his blazer moved and Prescott caught a glimpse of a gun holster.
“That was the most nervous thing that I ever encountered,” Prescott said. “You know what? I looked over my shoulder for, you know, 30, 40 years.”
In her memoir, she recalled that the Press Herald had published a photo of her and described her as having been a Polish resistance fighter in the war. To this day, Prescott does not know who the intruder was. But she said he came looking a few days after the story ran in the newspaper.
Her family, who only recently heard the story, speculated that the man could have been a U.S. intelligence officer with the CIA or a Nazi sympathizer.
Prescott and her husband eventually raised eight children and bought the house in South Portland where she lives. Prescott’s husband died in 1983, forcing her to work three jobs to pay the mortgage.
James Prescott said his mother has since been recognized as an Allied veteran and has received health care from the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
He said that every time she visits the hospital, the veterans ask to hear her stories, although some of them have only come out recently.
“I heard things today that I’ve never heard before,” he said Thursday.
Prescott’s home is filled with memories of her remarkable life, with photos of her parents, her siblings, her own wedding and trips back to France lining the stairwell. A box in the living room is filled with more photos.
Sitting on her couch, Prescott sorted through the photos, a mix of old and new, with memories of her life as a little girl tumbled in with those of her granddaughter’s college graduation.
“I’ll have to organize these,” she said as one photo, showing her in her youth with bright red hair, peeks out from the stack of others.
By Chelsea Diana of the Portland Press Herald
Excerpt from Eugenie Ceklarz Prescott’s 2010 memoir about her experience with the French Resistance:
“My brother went twice on this task with me and after that I went alone and actually it was better for me that way. Father told me that I would be picking up some food and that the less I knew the better off I would be, and he told me especially to never leave my bike anywhere, and so for twice a month for two years from 1942 to 1944 we accomplished this work for the French and Polish resistance (Force Francaise Interieur). I had to memorize the area and the farms and when I arrived at these different farms – usually only two in a trip – the people would quickly take hold of my bike and retrieve the messages. I had never seen the written messages myself. The farmer and his wife would provide me with food and shelter, and, in turn, place messages in the same fashion in the rim of my bike. They also loaded two bags of food with some cottage cheese, dried beans, a few potatoes, and sometimes some butter. The next day I would be on my way home and always on the lookout for the German patrols. Several times I was stopped and asked for my identification papers that you were required to have with you at all times.”