Swiss in October: The Basel Bank Robbers

Alex Capus: Almost Like Spring (Fast ein bisschen Frühling)

When I picked up this book (for £1-2 in a second-hand bookshop), I had no idea that it was based on a true story. I had read Capus before – a series of vignettes about his town and neighbours – and I knew he liked to blend fact and fiction, so I just thought it was a stylistic choice to have quotes from witnesses, flash-forwards to people who are not even aware that events took place where they now live or work etc. It is far less experimental than that: while based on thorough research, it also imagines some of the back story and motives of the characters caught up in the events. Capus reportedly spent 15 years writing this novel – he wanted it to be factually accurate but also funny, sad and film-like. He certainly manages to infuse this rather violent tale with much charm and sprightliness.

The author himself makes the comparison to Bonnie and Clyde, the notorious American bank robbers who operated at roughly the same time, in the 1930s. In this case, we have Kurt Sandweg und Waldemar Velte, born on nearly the same day in the depressingly grey industrial region of Wuppertal in Germany. Friends since childhood, joined at the hip despite their differences: Kurt is tall, gangly, friendly ‘like an Austrian’ and can talk the hind legs off a donkey, Waldemar is short and taciturn, serious ‘like a Finn.’ Or so Dorly Schupp describes them when she first catches sight of them.

Dorly is a shop assistant at the Globus department store in the centre of Basel and the two young men walk into her life on the 13th of December 1933, looking to buy a record. They have left Germany, disgusted by the rise of Hitler, and were looking to make their way to India or America. However, they are continually thwarted in their attempts to go further afield – the paperwork is impossible to obtain, America has its own millions of unemployed people – and so they end up in Basel, carrying a gramophone as a souvenir from their stopover in Paris.

Waldemar (and possibly Kurt as well) falls for Dorly and invite her to walk with them on the banks of river. Dorly may be young and pretty, but she is not a naive youngster, and she wants to make sure that nothing untoward happens, so she invites her friend Marie Stifter along. It is this Marie Stifter, who only joins them once or twice, who links the factual part of the story to the fictional one. She is the woman who later becomes the grandmother of the narrator, who is not quite Alex Capus but someone close enough. She is from a village in the Basler hinterland, where everything seems so warm and welcoming, and all the neighbours know each others’ business. Marie is ‘promised’ to the best bachelor in the village, Ernst Walder, the narrator’s grandfather, but their is not the real love story.

What the women do not know, of course, is that the young men are on the run, having held up a bank in Stuttgart and killed the manager. They seem pleasant enough and keep postponing their departure, buying more records and going out with Dorly. On the 5th of January they rob another bank in Basel in a stolen car and with stolen pistols. Once again, they leave with barely any cash but having shot the director and the cashier. The inept duo then try to leave the region, but fail to make it into Spain, fail to board a ship in Marseille. Waldemar writes lovelorn letters to Dorly, wondering if there is any place for the three of them to start over:

All this hassle with passports and visas and transit permits and timetables, this eternal money changing… it goes on forever and what’s the upshot? You realise that the world is one big fortress. A prison, an inescapable Alcatraz… If you really wanted to escape and not simply run from one cell into the next, you’d have to go further afield, much further – to the last blank spaces on the map. There are always some somewhere, but it’s a peculiarity of blank spaces that you can’t get to them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be blank.

So they come back into the lion’s mouth, return to Basel, meet Dorly again. They are wanted men, of course, although no one is sure of their identity yet. As the police operation noose tightens around them, they try to escape, shooting more people in the process. When Dorly finds out what her new friends are capable of, she gives them up to the police and it ends in a predictable bloodbath as they try to avoid capture.

The Wanted Notice, warning that they are dangerous and armed.

The final chapters are in many ways the most poignant. We get to see what the newspapers of the time thought of this, the most notorious bank robbers ever to grace Swiss soil. The left-wing papers call them Nazis, the right-wing ones call them nasty immigrants and anarchists, the Catholics think they are manifestations of evil. Only one young girl shows any compassion for the criminals:

We grew up in the same era as them and have had to experience the world as they did, a world that gives young people no space, no scope for making the most of their talents, and has only one thing to offer: unemployment… Isn’t it understandable that they should turn their energy against that society?

We also get to see the reactions of their families and friends when they hear about their criminal lives and their violent death. Most poignant of all, we hear that Dorly had a hard time following the event, considered either an accomplice or a traitor, and booed by both sides. Her trail goes cold after December 1942, when she was supposed to move to Geneva. She never showed up there, however.

Capus said that, after publishing the novel, he would sometimes have people coming up to him and telling him they knew some of the people involved or had worked at Globus at the time themselves etc. He is still waiting, he says, for an old lady to stand up in the audience at some point and say: ‘But I wasn’t working in the record section of the store!’ There are some reports that she changed her name and lived to a ripe old age, married and had children, but I’m not sure whether we can believe that. Besides, isn’t the wistful and mysterious ending rather more beautiful?

Funnily enough, after reading the book, I realised that I had read Caroline’s review (she lives in Basel so is even closer to the locations described there), but had forgotten the bit about the ‘true story’ part.

Thoughts on L’Adversaire

adversaireA couple of months ago I mentioned that I discovered that we lived in the same village as a notorious mythomaniac and killer, who has been the subject of a book and a film. I recently succumbed to my morbid curiosity and read the book, which pretty much reiterated all the things I had found out from my neighbours. The author Emmanuel Carrère has been accused of romanticising Romand, but I don’t think he does that at all. In fact, he allows Romand to be condemned by his own words and actions (his coldness and lack of remorse are completely chilling), but also revealing the charm and intelligence of a man who managed to fool so many people for so long.  The author is a proponent of the Catholic idea of evil residing in all of us, and that perhaps this ‘adversary’ has been so cunning in this case that the perpetrator has started believing his own lies. 

Instead of a conventional book review, however, I just wanted to share a poem inspired by the whole story.

Village Blues on a Sunny Day

We lived nearby but
in the growth of tulgey wood and velvet moth
he went unnoticed.
A busy town, a hasty life.
We knew each other for hello,
discuss the weather, will it snow,
school events to plan for,
but no substance to the smiles.

I peer from my upper window now
with less envy at your hammock of ease
poolside limbs perfectly tanned
flower tubs pregnant with beauty.
For beneath the poised completeness
who knows what lies, ice fraud,
the curdling compromise of a heart fraught
with keeping up appearances.

There Goes the Neighbourhood…

fete_des_voisinsFriday 29th May was the Fête des Voisins here in France – an initiative designed to help everyone get to know their neighbours better. In our little close we already know each other quite well (the children play together in and out of our gardens all the time), so we decided to avoid the large-scale affair organised by the Mairie and take out tables, chairs and the BBQs just in front of our houses. We had a lovely time eating, drinking and chatting. And for my family of relative newcomers to the area, we also discovered a little more about local history.

For this crime fiction fan here, I was fascinated (and slightly queasy) to discover that one of the most notorious murderers in France had lived (and killed) in our neighbourhood.

OMSJean-Claude Romand is an impostor and murderer, born in 1954 in the Jura mountains. Having failed to pass his second year exams at medical school in Lyon, he began to lie to everybody around him (including his parents and his wife). He never qualified as a doctor but pretended to be a specialist at the World Health Organisation in Geneva, participated in the local (admittedly, transient) community in this area and spent his days studying medical journals and travel guides to maintain his deception. He lived a luxurious lifestyle as befits somebody working for an international organisation by convincing friends and relatives to entrust their savings for him to ‘invest’ in Switzerland.

Romand and his family, video-streaming.orange.fr
Romand and his family, video-streaming.orange.fr

He kept up this double life for nearly 20 years but, when he was in danger of being exposed in 1993, he killed his wife, their two young children, his parents and their dog, and also tried to kill his mistress (who was asking for her ‘investments’ back). She managed to escape. He set fire to his house – which is on the corner just at the end of our road – to make it look like a suicide attempt, but was arrested and finally sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996. However, he has been so well-behaved in prison, impressing his fellow prisoners, guards and parole board with his sober, mature ‘doctoral’ manner, that he will be released some time this year.

French author Emmanuel Carrere corresponded with Romand in prison and wrote a book based on the case, L’Adversaire (The Adversary). There has also been a film adaptation of it, with actor Daniel Auteuil playing the main character.  It’s a story that continues to fascinate with its sheer audacity: one other French film and a Spanish film were also loosely based on his life, while some UK and US TV crime series have also used his story in a couple of episodes.

What was interesting, however, was seeing how the local neighbourhood is still traumatised by the event, after more than 20 years. His former friends and neighbours still cannot believe that they never suspected a thing. His wife was working at the local pharmacy and was well liked, the children went to the Catholic school nearby. Romand himself participated in meetings of medical associations (except when there was any WHO involvement). A friend once tried to contact him at the WHO but was told there was no such name on their phone list: he put it down to the fact that he was a specialist, possibly working on a short-term or freelance contract.

What people cannot understand is why he put in so much work and effort to maintain a deception, when he could have just as easily worked for real. Yet in an area where so many people stay on short-term contracts and then move on, where luxury can seem to be the norm, where you are on the border between two countries and their respective legislations and taxation systems, it was so easy to succumb to the temptation of a life of ease and to slip through the cracks.

RomandhouseThere was some talk initially of pulling down the cursed house where those events took place, but it has been rebuilt and there is a family living there who are the descendents of the original landlord. (Romand was renting the property and was not always able or willing to pay the rent. The landlord himself died in a suspicious fire in the caravan where he was living, but it has never been proven that Romand was involved.)

Of course there are conspiracy theories that say it’s too unbelievable for Romand to have duped so many people for so long, and that he did in fact work for the WHO and know many high-level politicians, as he claimed. He knew too much, so he had to be silenced. Although, in that case, surely it would have been easier to just kill him instead of everybody around him?

So, yes, get to know your neighbours, but can we ever really see beyond the carefully painted façade?