Springtime in Paris

MARY BERG, HER MOTHER AND SISTER had been living in the camp at Vittel since early 1943. In August that year, Mary’s father arrived with other men from the concentration camp at Tittmoning. At last, the family was reunited. They waited to go to America before they, like other Jews at Vittel whose American passports the Germans arbitrarily ceased to recognize, were shipped to Auschwitz. Even in the luxurious surroundings of the Vittel resort, Auschwitz hung over them.

On 1 March 1944, 160 internees at Vittel were told that they would be exchanged for Germans detained in the United States. The Bergs were among them. They were sent in a train to Biarritz, near the Spanish border, where Mary saw the arrival of German internees. ‘They have come from America to be exchanged for us,’ she wrote. ‘All of us actually pitied these Germans.’ The Germans were going into the inferno. Mary and her family were heading to a land untouched by war and death camps. On 15 March, from the deck of the Swedish-American cruise ship Gripsholm, the Bergs at last saw the Statue of Liberty.

On board the Gripsholm as it docked at Pier F in Jersey City were 559 US citizens and 103 Latin Americans, all repatriated under the exchange with Germany. Among them were thirty-five wounded American soldiers, 160 internees from Vittel and the American diplomats from Vichy, who had been interned by the French at Lourdes and then by the Germans at Baden-Baden. Douglas MacArthur, the embassy’s third secretary, told reporters, ‘It’s swell to be back–but not half as fine as it will be to get back to work at the job.’ A former Vittel internee, a medical student named Helen Landis, said the Nazis had kicked out five of her teeth when they caught her attempting to reach Spain in June 1943. The ship was ‘boarded by an official party of several hundred, including the State Department, Army and Navy intelligence officers, agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and customs and immigration inspectors’. Those whose papers were not in order were taken to Ellis Island for investigation to make certain they were not German spies.

One passenger was a former fashion writer for the New York Times, Kathleen Cannel. She had been in Paris throughout the occupation and had left it only two weeks earlier. Her eyewitness account of life in the city was the first the newspaper had published from a staff member in four years. She said that Parisians were eating less food than ever and many were malnourished or anaemic. Electricity shortages closed the Metro for most of the day and all night. When it did run, its carriages were so crowded that ‘the sardine box is spacious and deliciously perfumed by comparison’. Many civilians on the Metro ‘have their clothes torn off, children are trampled under foot, aged persons are thrown out of the cars and fist fights are so common no one even turns his head to see what the row is about’. Neighbours were denouncing one another, and patriots were murdering collaborationists and black marketeers. ‘In spite of all this sound and the fury,’ she said, ‘Paris is deceptively calm. Avenging bullets echo deep below the surface of daily life. Though there is little bread there are plenty of circuses. People escape from the galling irritation of perpetual difficulties into the realm of art. Theatres and talkies are crowded even in winter when the halls are unheated. The Grand Opera is sold out both for opera and ballet half an hour after the opening of the box office.’

Miss Cannel did not say why she left Paris after having stayed for so long. But she gave the impression that the city was afraid of what would happen to hasten the liberation: ‘The Paris air is more highly charged with menace than at any time since the French Revolution. Invasion, civil war, siege, famine, prison–whatever form the future may take–Parisians are minutely expecting the deadliest phase of the war.’

King John opened for a second season at the Théâtre de l’Odéon in the spring of 1944, when the Allies were bombing the industrial suburbs of Paris. Occasionally, air raid sirens interrupted the play and forced the audience into underground shelters. At the same time, rumours of what Clara de Chambrun called the Allies’ ‘eagerly expected landing’ somewhere on the coast of northern France were giving hope to the increasingly oppressed people of Paris. One short passage in the play that had gone unremarked in 1943 suddenly resonated with the spectators. In Act Four, a Messenger declared to King John,

Never such a power
For any foreign preparation
Was levied in the body of a land.
The copy of your speed is learn’d by them;
For when you should be told they do prepare,
The tidings come that they are all arrived.

The audience reacted with frenzied cheers and applause. Clara worried: ‘Each time the enthusiasm grew louder. We feared the Germans would hear of it and close the theater. To cut out the passage would have been a moral lowering of the flag; strangely enough, it sufficed to warn the actor who spoke the lines not to stress them but to deliver his message in a conversational tone. Thenceforth expression of approval went on more moderately until the last day.’ By this time, ‘foreign preparation’ to liberate France was ready. Clara and her son were not.

The spring of 1944 added aerial hazards to the hardship of occupation on the ground. From March, when the winter weather abated, Allied bombing of German-occupied Europe intensified. ‘Life in Paris,’ wrote Clara, ‘which had become almost untenable, grew steadily more difficult and dangerous owing to the heavy bombardments from the sky by the R.A.F. and the American Air Forces. We took it for the prelude of the dreamed-of landing, and during the month of March as a necessary evil from which the hoped-for good would spring.’

While the Allies concentrated bombing sorties on the Pas-de-Calais to convince the Germans it was the invasion point, they did not spare the industrial outskirts of Paris. The targets were factories making munitions for the Wehrmacht, and the bombs often exploded in working class neighbourhoods nearby. ‘Those who listened, as most people did, to the British radio on April the twenty-first, learned that eight thousand planes had poured down fifteen thousand tons of bombs over Europe,’ Clara wrote.

We could not then estimate what proportion of these was destined for us. But when midnight struck, the alarms showed that the different workmen’s centers, St. Denis, St. Ouen, La Courneuve, Noisy-le-Sec, Bobigny, the market gardens of Romainville and Athis-Mons, had been subjected to a furious bombardment which cost almost two thousand lives in these regions which lie in the immediate vicinity of Paris. Eleven large shell holes were counted in close proximity to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica at Montmartre. In the fashionable residence section of the sixteenth Arrondissement, the building containing the reserve stock of the Croix-Rouge was destroyed.

Clara watched relief teams speeding to ‘the fallen houses, burning buildings, flooded cellars, and ruptured waterpipes in the unending effort to find the dead, transport the wounded, and lodge the homeless’. Among the dead were two American friends, Miss Lewandowska and Mrs Mygatt. René arranged the funeral for Mrs Mygatt, ‘as he did for all my fellow-countrymen and -women, in the crypt of the American Cathedral under the Stars and Stripes’.

The BBC warned people to evacuate ahead of the raids, but Clara thought the advice was useless. Most Parisians had nowhere to go. Food ration coupons were invalid outside the neighbourhoods where they were issued, so those who left risked starvation. And, as in 1940 when the Germans were advancing on Paris, escape could be more dangerous than staying home: ‘It was an ironical consolation to be told to leap on a train when you knew at the same time that all trains and locomotives would also be destroyed. The Germans, rich in trucks and gasoline, were practically independent of rail transportation; that is why the large death toll was borne by French civilians.’

Clara did not go to La Chapelle, near Montmartre, to see the worst of the destruction. Another American, Alice-Leone Moats, did. The gutsy Madrid correspondent of the New York Herald Tribune, following her perilous border crossing and meetings with American airmen in Pau, was in Paris in late April and early May. Her fluent French and German allowed her to speak at length with French collaborators and résistants, as well as German officers and soldiers. She hired a horse-drawn cart to take her up the hill to La Chapelle.

The quarter presented a gruesome sight. On every street there were houses that had been destroyed. Very little seemed to have been done to clear up the debris. Digging was still going on to get bodies out of the cellars. I overheard a woman saying, ‘The cries and moans stopped yesterday. I guess they’re all dead now.’ Just then a corpse was carted out. The men doing the work were slow and obviously not trained for the job …

Men and women and children stood about watching the proceedings. The faces all showed the same dazed look of suffering. I spoke to several of them to find out how they felt about the raids. I got the same answer as in Biarritz: ‘We can forgive the raids if they are to some purpose, if they really are a preparation for the invasion.’

A man in overalls said, ‘The Allies have sent out warnings that everyone is to move away from the vicinity of railways and factories. But what are you to do if you work in a railway or a factory? Move to the Ritz? A man has to have his home near his work.’

When Alice-Leone asked a dry cleaner whether the people of the quarter supported the Allies, he answered, ‘People in this quarter, Madame, don’t advertise their political opinions.’

Neither the bombardments nor German retaliation for the increasing number of Resistance attacks prevented the Paris beau monde from enjoying life. Alice-Leone observed them at Maxim’s, where she and a companion lunched on pâté de foie gras, boeuf à la mode, salad and wild strawberries with a bottle of Nuit Saint-Georges 1934. Maxim’s was a favourite of René and Josée de Chambrun. Josée still bought her dresses from the salons of fashion houses Rochas and Schiaparelli, whose seasonal shows and access to scarce cloths were not interrupted by the occupation. On 9 April, she and René spent the day at the Auteil races where René won 260,000 francs. In celebratory mood, they went with Pierre, Duc de Brissac, to the Théâtre de La Michodière to see Jean Anouilh’s Le Voyageur sans bagages. The next night, René’s luck brought him 240,000 francs at poker. It was a time of French theatrical revival for a public desperate for entertainment and diversion. Paris saw 400 productions under the occupation, including new plays by Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Cocteau and Jean Anouilh. American Florence Jay Gould’s salon for German and French writers was thriving in her avenue Malakoff apartment. Jean Cocteau, who enjoyed Florence’s hospitality, also attended parties at Baron Robert de Rothschild’s palace that had been confiscated by a German general. The butler told Cocteau, ‘I am not unhappy working for the Baron, I mean the General, since he receives the same people as the Baron used to.’ For such people, the Allied bombardment of France might as well have been taking place in China.

Josée de Chambrun, one of the most social women in Paris, worried about an Allied victory. She told her father one evening, ‘We will be hanged because of the Milice.’ The Milice of Joseph Darnand had since January 1943 been Vichy’s Gestapo, black-shirted thugs who were every bit as ruthless and unpopular as their German exemplars. Pierre Laval replied that she would understand politics if she did not spend so much time at fashion shows. Her mother tried to calm things by saying, ‘That’s just like little Josée, her charities on one side and her coquetry on the other.’

Pierre Laval convinced the Germans to permit Maréchal Pétain to visit Paris and honour the city’s recent war dead, including the 565 killed in La Chapelle. ‘Moreover,’ Clara enthused, ‘they even consented to order their troops to remain forty-eight hours in barracks, and officers were told to keep off the streets. For once, Paris should be left exclusively to Parisians, and the Marshal would not even see a German uniform during his sojourn. These measures were kept so secret that we all went to sleep in Paris on the twenty-fifth of April totally unaware of what was to happen.’ At seven o’clock the next morning, Clara received a telephone call from her daughter-in-law, Josée. She relayed the news: Maréchal Pétain was already in Paris with her father to attend a Solemn Requiem Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The service was taking place in a few hours. Clara dressed quickly and walked through the morning mist from the rue de Vaugirard to Notre Dame, a distance of about a mile. The cramped streets were filling with crowds, as word spread that the Maréchal was in Paris. When Clara reached the open square before the Cathedral, the German sentries who had been there for four years were gone. In their place was a phalanx of French gendarmes. Horse-drawn hearses carried the coffins of the bombing victims, draped in French tricolour palls, into the square. Clara recalled: ‘I hesitated a moment as to whether it was more thrilling to wait outside and see the arrival, or to secure an adequate and comfortable observation post. I decided on the latter solution; luckily, too, for I found a seat in the eighth row of the center aisle. Slowly a half hour slipped away and the Cathedral filled gradually. Silence reigned, broken occasionally by the low strains of the organ.’

Clara’s excitement was unbounded when Philippe Pétain, in Marshal of France uniform, led a procession into the church with Pierre Laval just behind. Even after four years of Vichy’s collaboration with the Nazis, its cooperation in sending a million Frenchmen to forced labour in Germany and its assistance to the Germans in deporting Jews to their deaths, Clara nurtured a belief in the two men she had known and admired since long before the occupation. In her eyes, they were heroic defenders of France, who had remained as ‘shields’ between the German oppressors and a defenceless populace. To most other Americans, especially in Paris, they were traitors to France and enemies of the United States.

Marching with the Maréchal and his prime minister were the Catholic hierarchy, led by the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Monsignor Emmanuel Suchard. Families of the dead stood beside the caskets. The choir sang, and Archbishop Suchard said the Solemn Requiem Mass in Latin. The drama’s mixture of religious and political moved Clara to write, ‘During this ceremony, by far the most impressive I have ever witnessed in Notre Dame and one in which the feeling of hope triumphant was so strangely and paradoxically mingled with the mourning sacrificial ceremony for the victims without whom victory has never been achieved, every one felt and repressed the strong desire to show in some way the heartfelt greeting silently offered by the Chief of State.’ When the Mass ended, Pétain went to the Hôtel de Ville nearby and mounted its balcony. For the first time during the occupation, the French flag was flying atop the main gable of Paris’s city hall. Below the 88-year-old Chief of State, thousands of Parisians were cheering. If critics saw Pétain’s first appearance in occupied Paris as a cynical ploy to demonstrate his popularity to the Americans and the Free French, Clara did not. As a loyal American, she yearned for an Allied victory, but her memoirs betray no comprehension of the reasons the victors would not share her enthusiasm for Vichy’s collaborators.

The clamour from the Hôtel de Ville attracted Alice-Leone Moats, who followed the throng to its source. ‘I imagine that since no one knew the Marshal was coming to Paris,’ she wrote, ‘a couple of hundred people were undoubtedly planted to attract the rest of the crowd. But the ovation was completely spontaneous.’ Moats thought most people had been drawn by the sight of the French flag and the singing of La Marseillaise, both verboten under German rule. German war losses in the East and the impending Allied invasion of France were, she observed, emboldening the Parisians. The next day, she heard music in the street and

tracked it down to a ragged old man who was working hard on a wheezy concertina. At first I couldn’t believe my ears, but as I listened I recognized the unmistakable strains of ‘The Marseillaise’. Playing the national anthem was absolutely forbidden, and yet he seemed to be getting away with it. No French person passed him without giving him some money. Similar old men were to be found in most of the metro stations, picking up a few francs by playing either ‘The Marseillaise,’ ‘God Save the King,’ or Sousa marches.

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