Back to Paris

POLLY PEABODY TIRED OF VICHY IN MID-AUGUST and obtained a pass to drive to Paris. ‘It was late afternoon when we reached the Gates of Paris,’ she recalled. ‘We rolled into the Capital which had become a vast garrison. Millions of black boots stomped noisily along the stone pavements, the Swastika fluttered from building fronts, road signs in German characters were pinned on the street corners. A cloud of sadness hung over the city.’ She stayed in a borrowed flat on the Left Bank, where the concierge was wary until she ascertained that the blonde Polly was not German. The concierge told her that she and her friends, despite German prohibitions, listened to BBC radio transmissions from London. It was not the only defiance the young American detected. On the terrace of Fouquet’s restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe, where ‘sword-scarred, bemedalled’ German officers feasted, she saw a drunken old Parisienne watching the Nazis from the sidewalk. The woman ‘put both fists on her hips and yelled out: “Eh bien, moi je vous dis MERDE!” [“All right, me, I say to you SHIT!”] The waiters bumped into each other trying to conceal their amusement, while I and the few French people present laughed heartily into our napkins.’ Polly observed, ‘This was my introduction to the spirit of resistance which existed in the occupied zone.’ It was a contrast to what she had seen in her last six weeks at Vichy, although hardly representative of all Paris.

France’s internal frontiers deprived Clara and Aldebert de Chambrun of news from Paris for the first weeks of the occupation. Train service soon resumed between Paris and Vichy, at least for those privileged to possess a German travel permit, the much-covetedAusweis. Vicomte de Poncins arrived from Paris to tell Clara that Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering had seized the Senate building, the Palais du Luxembourg, opposite her house at 58 rue de Vaugirard, for his headquarters. Empty flats in the rue de Vaugirard became billets for his officers. The vicomte comforted her with the assurance that her housekeeper, Mlle d’Ambléon, ‘continued to hold the fort’ at Number 58. Clara wrote, ‘My old lady, though frightened out of her wits, showed energy and character by insisting that the premises were not empty and that the proprietors would be back before the first of September. “We shall see on September the first if what you say is true,” the German officer said significantly.’

The threat determined Aldebert and Clara to return to Paris. ‘Our cure was finished,’ she wrote of their six weeks in the spa town. On 1 September, they drove home. When Clara entered the city through the Porte d’Orléans, ‘a German official handed out an order to present our car for requisition within forty-eight hours. It was our first indication that what we possessed was not really our own.’ She was relieved to discover the Germans were not, as rumoured, capturing and killing dogs like her darling Tsouni, who was buried beneath her skirts. At Vichy, she had heard rumours about the new German Paris: ‘The use of the sidewalks was reserved for the Wehrmacht; citizens were kicked off the street and French passengers booted in the subway. Curfew was tolled at seven o’clock. Loiterers after that hour were imprisoned. All household linen had been requisitioned for German service. There was a constant interchange of shots across the Champs Elysées, etc. … etc.’ On the contrary, she discovered, the Germans in the early months of the occupation were cultivating both the French and the neutrals, especially the Americans. German soldiers behaved well and left policing of the capital to French Prefect Roger Langeron and his 25,000 gendarmes. What annoyed Clara more than German behaviour was the symbolism.

During those first days after our return to Paris what hit me hardest was an aspect which I could not have foreseen. Supersensitive as I have always been to visual impressions, the horrible and hideous symbols of German domination made the city I loved hateful. Gigantic banners filled the streets and were unescapable. They did not float over the housetops and towers like the flags of civilized nations so that one had to raise the eye to see them, but hung in the direct line of vision, suspended like huge carpets waiting to be beaten. Sometimes they veiled several stories of an unofficial building. Each time I crossed the threshold, or even looked forth from my balcony, it was like receiving a blow between the eyes and a stab which reached the heart.

Clara did not brood long over the Swastikas. When Aldebert surrendered their car to the Germans, she accustomed herself to long walks and to the novel experience of riding the Metro. She took a bus over the Seine to the American Library, where she was still on the board of trustees, in the rue de Téhèran. The library had yet to reopen, but its appearance had altered for the better. The brown paper pasted on the windows against bomb-shattered glass had been removed, as had the anti-fire sandbags blocking the doorways on the top floor. The US Embassy seal guaranteed that it was American property, safe in law from German seizure. Two flags, American and French, still hung over the ornate doorway. The building housed about 100,000 books, mostly in stacks at the back where desks and chairs beside French windows faced a small garden. An ornate staircase led to the periodicals reading room and the office of the directress, Miss Dorothy Reeder. On this, the countess’s first visit since her return to Paris, she found Miss Reeder at her desk. Behind the directress hung a large aerial photograph of Washington, DC, where Miss Reeder had trained and worked in the Library of Congress for six years before coming to the American Library of Paris in 1929. Miss Reeder was a popular librarian, whom the American writer Marion Dix had described to American radio listeners the previous February as ‘young, attractive and full of pep–with, at the same time, that quality of friendly but efficient leadership which has made a smoothly running machine as well as a useful organization of the library’. Dix thought the librarian had ‘a grand sense of humor, as well as good sense’.

Miss Reeder told Clara about her work for the American Embassy at the Hôtel Bristol since 14 June. For two and a half months, she had been living in the hotel and had ‘pasted U.S. seals on U.S. and British property, helped take over the British Consul General’s office and tried to console those left stranded … My job was to check to see that only American passports were admitted and to inform all others they could not live there.’ Miss Reeder was either unaware of or ignored the non-American Jews whom Anne Morgan had smuggled into the hotel for their safety. Of her employment by the embassy, she insisted, ‘This in no way interrupted or interfered in my work at the Library.’ She added that she regularly carried books from the library to the Bristol so the Americans there would have something to read. Some were too old to walk to the library, and reading filled the long curfew hours that confined the Americans to the hotel at first from 9 p.m., later relaxed to eleven and finally to midnight.

Soon after the Armistice of 22 June, four members of the library’s staff came back to Paris. They had taken refuge at Angoulême, where they assisted the emergency American Hospital facility. The library remained closed all summer, but Miss Reeder allowed subscribers who rang the bell to borrow and return books. The staff, meanwhile, wrapped books that the American Red Cross, YMCA and Quakers delivered to British prisoners of war in German camps. Some French prisoners wrote to the library requesting English books. ‘It is a funny point that the Germans would allow requests of this kind to come through,’ Miss Reeder noted, ‘but would not allow us to fulfill them.’ Only French books could go to French soldiers. The occupation meant that the supply of new publications in English from Britain and America stopped, but Miss Reeder declined German offers to order them through Berlin.

German officials paid regular calls on the library. Miss Reeder recalled that they always spoke French, because she knew no German and they did not like to use English. She told Clara about one ominous visit from the German Bibliotheksschütz (Library Protector), ‘a stiff Prussian-looking officer with full authority to do as he deemed proper in regard to the administration of such centers of intellectual activity, whether in Holland, Belgium, or French occupied territory’. She told Clara that the official in full-dress Nazi uniform made her afraid. But, several minutes into his inspection of the library, she recognized him as the director of the Berlin Library, Dr Hermann Fuchs. They had met at international library conferences before the war and ‘held each other in high esteem, so everything went very smoothly from that moment’. Dr Fuchs praised the library, stating nothing in Europe compared with it. He assured her that it could reopen on two conditions. ‘You will necessarily be bound by the rules imposed on the Bibliothèque Nationale,’ he said, referring to the French National Library, ‘where certain persons may not enter and certain books may not circulate.’ ‘Certain persons’ were Jews, and ‘certain books’ were those on the so-called ‘Bernhard List’ of publications that the Nazis had already banned in Germany and the other occupied territories.

Dorothy Reeder asked whether the banned books had to be burned, as they were in Germany. ‘No, my dear young lady,’ he assured her. ‘What a question between professional librarians! People like us do not destroy books! I said they must not circulate!’ Works by Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and the journalists William Shirer and H. R. Knickerbocker, along with ten volumes in French, were removed from the shelves and held in Miss Reeder’s office, taking a total of forty books from the stock of 100,000 out of circulation. The American Library fared better than the libraries of the Alliance Israelite and the Freemasons, both of whose entire collections were seized and sent to Germany ‘for purposes of study’. The Germans destroyed the Polish Library.

‘No Jews are allowed in the Library by the Nazi police regulations,’ Miss Reeder complained to the countess. ‘Some of them are our best subscribers, and I don’t see how we can permit them now to take out their books.’ Clara was not troubled. In her brisk, Yankee manner, she dismissed the problem.

My simple solution recalled the old story of Mahomet and the mountain. I fear it hurt her feelings. I went on: ‘I possess a pair of feet, so do [staff members] Boris [Netchaeff] and Peter. I am ready and willing to carry books to those subscribers who are cut off from them by any such ruling, and feel sure that every member of the staff would be happy to do the same.’

Would that all of our difficulties could have been so easily arranged?

On 18 September, the American Library reopened. The New York board of directors sent a telegram: ‘GREETINGS BEST WISHES DR. GROS CONGRATULATIONS COMTESSE CHAMBRUN REEDER ON REOPENING LIBRARY.’ In a letter to the Rockefeller Foundation dated 19 September, Miss Reeder wrote, ‘We are now open to the public between 2 and 5 every afternoon. During the morning, we try to take care of the necessary work which cannot be done when dealing with the public. We still take care of books to the prisoners of war as best we can. We are a staff of four including myself. I do hope this arrangement will continue and that we shall be able to carry on.’ Most of the active subscribers were now French. ‘Few people came to the Library, as a matter of fact,’ Dorothy Reeder wrote, ‘in the first day or two, but as soon as word got round that we were open, there was a rush, which has been growing in size ever since.’ Within a month, the Library had lent 1,500 books.

In September, the Germans introduced food rationing at a mere 1,300 calories a day, about half what an adult needed to survive. The concierge began cooking for staff in the Library. Miss Reeder remarked, ‘It is enough to say that the first day she gave us fried chicken, so you can imagine our joyfulness. The only bad part is that we are all gaining weight.’

Clara had the ‘rare opportunity of sending a letter out of the zone where we are now living’ to Edward Alleyne Sumner in New York on 26 September, eight days after the Library reopened. Sumner had been the Library’s third vice-president. Before his departure from Paris with his wife Ernestine in June, he had lent cars from his American Radiator Company to evacuate staff, particularly the British and Canadians who would be interned, from Paris to Angoulême. In New York, he became chairman of the executive committee with responsibility for the library’s survival in the most difficult moment of its existence. Clara wrote to him on her personal writing paper with ‘58, rue de Vaugirard, VIe’ printed at the top. The typed letter reached Sumner’s New York office on 29 October 1940.

I want particularly that you know what remarkable work Miss Reeder has done during these troublous times. There has never been a day when she has not been at her post at the Library, more than that, except for about twelve days, our institution has been open and accessible to all those who really needed it. For the last week, we have been and shall continue to be open to the public. What I most particularly want to say is this: we on the spot are the only possible judges of what can and must be done; without flattering Miss Reeder or myself, I may say that we are both people of intelligence and are extremely well advised [‘extremely well advised’ is underlined in black ink]. What is done here has been, and will be, the right thing to do, and if you can persuade those who are interested over there to realize this, we shall succeed in keeping the American Library in Paris going and maintain its spirit alive until better times. I am afraid that you will be much shocked upon seeing our president who will whortly [sic] arrive in New York, if not already there. He has had what I fear will prove a knock out blow in all these happenings.

The president of the American Library was Dr Edmund Gros, who was also director of the American Hospital. Directing the two primary American institutions in Paris, at the same time operating on war wounded alongside his surgical colleagues, had taken a toll on a man of seventy years. Dorothy Reeder wrote on 19 September, ‘Dr. Gros has been quite ill and plans to go to the States.’ By the time he left Paris later that month, he had suffered an emotional and physical breakdown. With his departure, the library fell to the charge of Dorothy Reeder and the hospital to Dr Sumner Jackson. Clara worked with Miss Reeder at the library, and Aldebert de Chambrun, for years on the hospital’s board of trustees, assisted Dr Jackson. Edward Sumner found Clara’s letter reassuring, as he did the earlier one from Miss Reeder, and he circulated both to the other trustees. He sought library funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Institute. Without financial support, Dorothy Reeder’s and Clara de Chambrun’s hard work would not be enough to preserve the American Library.

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