I grew up in a little town in Northern France that, from 1939 to 1945, was occupied by the Nazis. I hadn’t been born yet at the time, but my mother and her family were forced to live for five long years with two German officers as “guests” in their own home.
As a result, my childhood was colored by first-hand stories of life in a town where even in my youth, physical reminders of World War II still lurked around every corner.
I heard many stories of scarcity, like that of the nuns in my mother’s school serving rodents and rutabaga for dinner—or that of my grandfather setting up a soup kitchen in his small factory to help feed the families of employees.
One story my mother used to tell me sparked in me an interest in gold and a lifelong appreciation for its true value.
It revolved around my grandfather, a Swiss immigrant who moved to France in the early 1920s. A skillful tinkerer, he was an electrical technician and entrepreneur. His arrival in France coincided with the electrification of the country when remote towns and villages became connected to the grid.
Up until that point, farmers had been working the fields and processing their crops entirely by hand or with the help of animals. Basic machines where powered by cranks, ropes, and pulleys, or treadmills.
My grandfather, seeing the opportunity, invented an electrical motor that could adapt to power different types of equipment. Farmers around the country very quickly adopted his product, and by the late 1920s, he ran a small but successful business, selling his electrical motors and a variety of mostly farm-related equipment. (One of his inventions was a device to automate the ringing of church bells!)
Being Swiss, my grandfather always associated money with gold, and he used all of his excess savings to buy small Swiss gold coins called Vreneli. Over the next decade, he accumulated hundreds of them.
In 1939, following Hitler’s invasion of Poland, France declared war on Germany. Within weeks, German tanks were rolling through Flanders into Northern France. Hundreds of thousands of French families fled south, taking the few belongings they could pile onto bicycles, horse-drawn or hand-pulled wagons, and into automobiles, which were still rare at the time. The exodus quickly became a chaotic nightmare as Luftwaffe (German Air Force) planes bombed roads and bridges along the way.
After evaluating the situation, my grandfather decided to take his wife and two daughters south to his mother-in-law’s farm in rural Normandy. As his wife prepared for their departure, he retrieved his stash of gold coins and headed into the basement.
There he cut lead pipes into five-inch sections and melted one end of the tubes to seal them. After filling the pipes with his gold coins, he sealed the other end and within a couple of hours emerged from the basement with twelve short lead tubes filled with gold and a shovel.
He went out into the yard and buried the pipes with his life’s savings in a deep hole next to a big tree. With the gold safely hidden, the family left their home and joined hundreds of thousands of refugees heading away from the advancing German troops.
Normally, the ride to Normandy would have taken a few hours, but it ended up lasting three days. Fortunately, due to his work with farmers in rural communities, my grandfather knew the countryside well and managed to avoid the main arteries by taking backroads. Even so, their journey was constantly interrupted by broken-down vehicles, bombed-out bridges and roads, and traffic jams at every intersection.
Throughout, German planes were flying low overhead, and the sound of explosions could be heard as the planes bombed strategic infrastructure like bridges, railroad stations, and main intersections. Occasionally, they would dive down and strafe the refugees. My mother recalled that destruction was everywhere—the way to safety paved with devastation, misery, and death.
After what seemed like ages, they arrived at the remote family farm. After unloading the car and making sure his wife and two daughters had settled in safely with his in-laws, my grandfather turned around and headed back to take care of his home and factory.
By the time he got back to Senlis, the Germans had already passed through the town on their way to capture Paris. The French government had surrendered and was now negotiating a truce that allowed it to keep some control over the southern half of France, called France Libre.
The passing German soldiers had looted some of the houses and factories on their way to Paris, but they were in such a hurry to get there that they mostly only stole food and easily transportable valuables. As they started to occupy Northern France and reestablish order, my grandfather and the handful of his workers who had not fled set to work cleaning up and repairing the factory. Other families returned and were happy to find that their old jobs were still there.
After some semblance of stability and normalcy returned, my grandfather decided to bring his family back home. By that point, the Germans had declared that French families had to host German soldiers in their homes, with the larger and more comfortable houses reserved for officers.
So two young German officers showed up one day with orders stating that they were to be housed in the family home and would spend the rest of the war living under the same roof and sharing meals with the family. Fortunately, despite being unwelcome occupiers, according to my parents, they were generally polite and respectful.
In August 1944, the German troops retreated and Paris was liberated by the Allied forces. As France started to heal from the wounds of war, life in the quiet town of Senlis slowly returned to normal.
Many years later, my grandfather fell ill and became bedridden, and so my mother stepped in and began running the day-to-day business. It was then, near the end of his life, that my grandfather called my mother to his bedside and instructed her to get a shovel, go to the tree, and dig up the twelve little gold-filled lead tubes.
After decades underground, the coins were still there, and my grandfather split them between my mom and her sister.
A couple of decades later, my parents decided it was time to pass the gold coins on to their children—and so in 1984, the tubes were opened, revealing their precious contents as shiny and new as when they were first buried.
Each Vreneli coin contains 5.8 grams of gold. My grandfather had bought them in the late 1920s and early ‘30s at a cost of 75 to 90 French francs.
In 1960, the French government declared that new French francs were worth 100 old ones. By 1984, they were worth the equivalent of 54,000 pre-war French francs.
By the mid-1980s, the French franc had lost 99.9% of its purchasing power, which then dropped by another 60% (in 2002 replaced by the euro).
My grandfather’s gold coins, however, have retained their value to this day.
If my grandfather had kept the money in bank notes instead of investing them in gold coins, the value of the 36,000 French francs would be approximately €3.00 today. On the other hand, the value of the 480 gold Vrenelis he bought would be approximately €105,600 today.
I hope you liked my gold story… I can’t wait to hear yours.