Carolyn Porter, a graphic designer based in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, found a stack of beautifully hand-scripted French letters in a Stillwater antique store. She bought a few thinking they would make an ideal base for designing a new font. It was only after her curiosity led her to translate one of them that she realized the gravity of the letters in her possession.
Carolyn could tell that the letters were dated between 1943 and 1944, and, despite not knowing French, that they were sent from someone in Berlin named Marcel Heuzé to someone in a French village called Berchères-la-Maingot. Through translating one letter, she found that Marcel was a French civilian deported to Germany as part of the collaborationist Vichy government’s STO initiative (Service du Travail Obligatoire, or obligatory work service.) These letters that Carolyn stumbled upon were ones he penned at a German labor camp and mailed to his wife and daughters in France.
In the midst of designing a font based on Marcel’s handwriting, Carolyn found herself with nagging questions: Did Marcel survive to be reunited with his wife and daughters? And how did his letters end up in an antique store halfway around the world? In mid-2011, she partnered with two French translators and a genealogy researcher in a search for answers that consumed most of the following year.
“When I started researching this, it was a very selfish search,” Carolyn says. “I wanted to find out about this guy whose letters ended up in Stillwater. It ended up becoming so much more than that, so much bigger than me, and I wanted to make his life known.”
Carolyn didn’t know what she would discover about the man behind the distinctive handwriting, much less that she would write a book about him. Once she delved deeper into his story—and the greater history of France in World War II—she realized Marcel and the story of French forced-laborers building German tanks had fallen through the cracks of history.
Marcel’s story is a story of hope and tenacity. The German factory in which he worked was under constant threat of bombing, and the living conditions in the labor camp were dire. Yet, the expressions of love Marcel penned to his wife and daughters transcended the danger of his circumstances. In correspondence dated April 1944, he writes, “I leave you for today while always keeping the hope that I will see you again soon.” Throughout the months of research that led to her writing her debut book, “Marcel’s Letters: A Font and the Search for One Man’s Fate,” Carolyn felt the desperate hope that Marcel’s family must have felt as they read his letters.
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“Marcel’s Letters” is also a tribute to the power of curiosity. In writing the book, Carolyn shares the curiosity that led her from translating one letter to finding out what happened to Marcel and why his letters ended up in Minnesota. In the book, she recounts her experience creating the font, P22 Marcel Script, parallel to her findings about Marcel’s life and letters. “I’m nobody special,” she says. “I’m not a World War II historian. I’m a graphic designer who wanted to design a font, who ended up finding these letters in Stillwater.”
Carolyn spent her free evenings and weekends researching his story and designing the font, which was finished in late 2013. Soon after, P22 Type Foundry, a font distributor specializing in fonts based on art, history, and design, wanted Marcel Script to be part of its curated collection. The font, Carolyn’s first, has won multiple awards, including the prestigious Type Directors Club’s Certificate of Typographic Excellence.
Carolyn hopes Marcel’s story will remind her readers to keep their eyes open and follow their curiosity. “There’s no reason for people to not be curious about the world,” she says. “This is only my case. I was curious to find out about what the letters said, so I decided to have one translated. This entire thing is nothing initially more than curiosity.”