Sometimes the city slips past us so quickly that we don’t have time to pick up all of its tiny details. Even if we take the same routes each day, there are parts that never become entirely solid to us, and we forever wonder what role they play in the overall fabric of the place.
On a train journey this is even more true. A reader of this blog, Richard, was travelling between Bagneaux and Bourg la-Reine (a few kilometres to the south of Paris) on the RER line B when he saw something that appeared to be a grave near the railway line.
“It takes the shape of a white cross with what appears to be a name plate where the arms of the cross join; there also is a small brick surround at the foot of the cross” he explained, before going on to ponder just what significance it has; “Is it the grave of someone killed by a train, a railway worker who loved his job so much that his wish was to buried near his workplace? Or is it the final resting place of a French resistant executed for sabotage during the war?”
This is exactly the kind of challenge I like. Online research leads nowhere and there is no alternative but to go out and discover the object for myself.
Richard positioned the cross quite precisely, but on a moving train I feared that it would still be a tricky job to locate it, and even more difficult to read any words written on its arms. Fortunately, two things helped me. Firstly, the cross is situated just outside of the Bagneux train station meaning that the train didn’t have time to pick up much speed, and secondly I have very good eyes! In the fraction of a second I had to make sense of the object, I was able to read the inscription – André Ox, FFI.
With a name, everything becomes easier, although some aspects of the story will seemingly forever remain mysterious.
André Ox, was born in Moscow in 1925, but soon afterwards his family moved to France. They lived in Bagneux where André later began work as an ‘ouvrier’ (a vague term that could mean factory worker, construction worker or even a craftsman). At the beginning of his adult life though, the overriding fact of his daily existence was that he was living in a city occupied by Nazi forces.
As a young man he had three choices; collaborate, keep his head down or join the resistance. He chose the third option and became the interpreter of a Russian captain who had arrived in the area after escaping from a German prison camp. Although risky, it is likely that his daily existence was quiet until the allied forces began to march towards Paris in the summer of 1944, and the local resistancy cells began their own uprisings.
On August 24th 1944, a clash between a group of German soldiers and a barricade manned by a group of resistants (calling themselves the FFI) in Bagneux led to two soldiers being shot dead and another being seriously wounded. The situation was apparently calm following this, and Ox, perhaps the youngest or the most daring of the group, was sent from the barricade to go and collect the weapons from the soldiers.
Appearences were deceptive though, and when Ox arrived allongside the bodies, shots rang out from another hidden group of soldiers, and the young resistant was hit in the head by a bullet. He was picked up by other members of his group and taken to a nearby school, but the situation was hopeless and he died shortly afterwards – apparently the last person from Bagneux to die before the town was liberated. He was just 18 years old.
Two elements remain mysterious though; exactly where André Ox was struck down, and who built his commemorative cross and placed it alongside the railway line. Some reports place the incident a couple of streets away from the tracks, but if this were the case, why would the cross be positioned in this unusual spot, particularly as André Ox seemingly had no links to the railway?
Most sources seem to confirm that the cross was originally the work of an employee of the railway, and that this person continued tending the site until his retirement many years later. The cross was originally a simple dark one with no inscription, as this photo, from as late as 2004, confirms. Clearly it has recently been renovated and is still being looked after. Although André Ox was not buried at this spot, it manifestly marks an event that was of great significance, and continues to play an important role - that of making travellers reflect during their daily commute!
Seen something in Paris that has caught your eye but remains a mystery, or ever wondered about obscure people or events in the city's past? Challenge me to find the answers!