FORTY-NINE

Tout Mourir

THE NAZIS HAD SENT TOQUETTE JACKSON from Moulins to Romainville, near Paris, on 2 August. At Romainville, the Germans were holding 550 female political prisoners. Toquette was one of three American citizens in the camp. The others were Lucienne Dixon, originally French and married to an American engineer, and Virginia d’Albert-Lake. Born Virginia Roush in Dayton, Ohio, in 1909, she spent her childhood in St Petersburg, Florida. She married a Frenchman and moved to Paris in 1937. In 1943, she and her husband joined the Comet Resistance network, which had the twin distinctions of facilitating more Allied escapes and surviving longer than any other network. She had been arrested by the Feldgendarmerie in June, just after D-Day, while escorting South African airmen through the countryside. The Germans interrogated her at Fresnes prison in Paris and moved her to Romainville with most of the other women political prisoners. The Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling was frantically attempting to obtain the release of all the women, as well as that of Jewish prisoners at Drancy, from General Dietrich von Choltitz. Von Choltitz and the regular army exerted little influence with the SS and Gestapo, especially after the failed 20 July plot.

Romainville was one of the camps that the Red Cross was permitted to visit, and conditions were better than Toquette had experienced in Vichy and Moulins. Toquette’s sister, Tat, was allowed to enter the camp on 10 August to spend half an hour with her. Toquette was unable to tell her what had become of Sumner and Phillip after their confinement at Moulins, where she last saw them. With each passing day, the women prisoners listened for news of the Allied advance that would set them free. One Frenchrésistante, Yvonne Baratte, wrote on 14 August, the eve of the Feast of the Assumption, ‘I am full of hope. They will not have time to take us from here.’ The Abbot of Lilas was scheduled to say Mass for the women in the morning. But a German guard, who reminded prisoner Maisie Renault of an orangutan with ‘his gigantic size, his immense arms and his powerful hands that seemed always to want to crush someone’, woke the women early. He shouted, ‘Nicht Messe … Morgen, Alles transport Deutschland, tous mourir … tous mourir.’ This mixture of German and French meant, ‘No Mass … Morning, all [to be] transported to Germany, all to die … all to die.’ The women were herded onto buses. Virginia d’Albert-Lake slipped some letters to the French driver, who told her,

‘Since this morning, I have driven prisoners without stopping from Fresnes and Cherche-Midi to the station at Pantin.’

‘You mean they are evacuating all the prisons in Paris?’

‘Yes,’ the driver answered.

She asked, ‘And the Allies … are they advancing?’

‘Yes. They are at Rambouillet.’

As Toquette Jackson, Virginia d’Albert-Lake and hundreds of other women who had fought hard to liberate France rode in buses through Paris, they knew that the city would soon be free. From the pavements, people who had not resisted looked up, in shame, at the captives. Virginia wrote, ‘They pitied us. As I looked at them, the same thought went round and round in my consciousness: “These people will soon see the liberation of Paris. I’m going to miss the day of which I have dreamed for nearly five years and which was to be the greatest in my life.”’ The Germans took the women to the station at Pantin, where Sylvia Beach and the other American women internees had boarded the train to Vittel in September 1942. This train was not bound for a relatively comfortable mountain resort. Its destination was Germany.

The trains taking the prisoners to Germany were late, so the Germans ordered the women to stand in the hot sun. One of the women, knowing what lay in store for her in Germany, called out to some passers-by, ‘Hello, down there … Listen to me.’ They stopped, and she went on, ‘All the prisoners and the prisoners from Romainville are leaving … Warn the Resistance … Stop the train … You hear me? Stop the train.’ A woman passer-by waved a white handkerchief to signal that she understood. When the trains arrived, the Germans rushed the prisoners, more than 2,000 women and men, into crowded, airless carriages. Amid the wartime confusion, the train moved slowly east towards Nancy. It stopped in a tunnel near Nanteuil-sur-Marne for two hours, while the prisoners in the sealed carriages were nearly asphyxiated. The train could go no further, because the RAF had bombed a bridge a week earlier and the line was impassable. The SS guards marched the deportees out of the train into a field, where they were assembled in military columns. One woman tried to run away, but guards tracked her down and beat her severely.

They walked about five miles through fields to the town of Nanteuil-Saâcy, whose inhabitants called out to the prisoners, ‘Bon courage!’ and ‘Vive la France!’ Strangely, a contingent of Red Cross personnel was waiting at the train station with boiled potatoes and milk for the prisoners. A few hours later, they boarded a goods train. The train trundled slowly east for four days, until it reached the outskirts of Weimar. There, the SS separated the male from female prisoners. The women were taken off the train at Ravensbrück Konzentrationslager, built in 1939 to house slave labour for the Texled textile and leather factory and the Siemens armaments plant. The date was 21 August.

As soon as they entered the camp, the prisoners were forced to strip completely. The guards wrapped their clothes in brown paper, as if they would be returned one day. Each woman was forced to undergo a gynaecological examination for contraband, with no gesture towards hygiene. Most of the women, including Toquette Jackson, had their heads shaved. Virginia d’Albert-Lake was one of the lucky few whose hair was left. They were then issued camp uniforms–baggy trousers without belt, a pyjama shirt and a loose robe. Veteran prisoners warned the new arrivals not to drink the water, which was infected with typhoid. It would be better, they said, to drink the foul-tasting but boiled ersatz coffee. Their daily ration, apart from a quarter litre of pseudo-coffee, consisted of a half litre of soup made from swede and beetroot, 30 grams of margarine and a slice of bread. It was insufficient even for women who were not doing manual labour; the diet could not sustain women doing manual labour through twelve-hour days in factories. Ravensbrück was not a death camp, where prisoners were gassed or shot en masse. It was a place where the Third Reich’s enemies were made to die by starvation, overwork and disease. The prisoners from Romainville were sent into quarantine for two weeks, while they pleaded for any news at all from France. Maisie Renault remembered, ‘With a sort of devotion, they repeated, “Soon, France [will be] liberated”.’ Paris was nearly free, thanks in part to women like Toquette Jackson, Virginia d’Albert-Lake and Maisie Renault. They, who had done the most to set Paris free, faced, not liberation, but slavery.

South of Paris at Rambouillet, Charles de Gaulle pondered how ferociously the Germans would crush the uprising and defend Paris from the Allies. His French Second Armoured Division commander, General Jacques Leclerc, was ready that morning of 24 August to invade Paris and save the insurgents. Leclerc’s real name was Philippe François Marie Leclerc, Vicomte de Hautecloque. He had adopted the nom de guerre ‘Leclerc’, when he joined de Gaulle in England in 1940, to protect his wife and six children in France. It did not work for long. The Vichy authorities discovered his identity, seized his chateau and evicted his family. Leclerc had fought in West and North Africa, leading his division of French and African soldiers across the Sahara to connect with the British Eighth Army for the Tunisia campaign, and also in Italy.

As commander of the French Second Armoured Division, whose tanks had just liberated Alençon and Argentan in Normandy with General George Patton’s Third Army, Leclerc had been assigned to lead the first Allied force into the city. It was a tarnished honour. The United States had made certain that Leclerc’s division expelled all its African colonial troops before it left Algeria via England for France. General Walter Bedell-Smith, Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, had advised, ‘It is highly desirable that the [French] division should be composed of white personnel, which points to the second armored division, which has only one quarter native troops and is the only French division which could be made 100 per cent white.’ Most French units had large numbers of African troops, but the American racism that had prevented Eugene Bullard from transferring from the French to the American army in the First World War had not vanished in the Second. The American armed forces segregated their units by race, and they expected the same of the French. De Gaulle was proud of the African soldiers, who had fought honourably for France and suffered bestial treatment as prisoners of the Nazis. Although he saw no reason to exclude them from the liberation of Paris, he acceded to pressure from his stronger ally. Only white soldiers, French and Republican Spaniards, came with Leclerc to liberate Paris.

Clara de Chambrun rose at six o’clock on 24 August. The French police who usually guarded the Palais du Luxembourg were gone, and her sedate quarter had given way to insurrection: ‘This guerrilla warfare was directed against small enemy detachments, isolated trucks and motor cars.’ The skirmishes irritated Clara as much as they did the Germans. At nine o’clock, a friend called to urge her to leave at once. The caller ‘was credibly informed that in an hour the Senate buildings would be blown up and that our whole house was sure to go with it. The same warning came again from another source, but left me unmoved.’ The warnings were genuine.

By the time Clara looked out of her window again, German troops were barricading themselves into the Senate and digging tank trenches in the gardens for Panzers of the Fifth Sicherregiment. The tanks were well positioned to fire on any armed Frenchmen coming their way. General Dietrich von Choltitz was delaying execution of Hitler’s order to destroy Paris. He needed a ceasefire to calm the popular uprising, negotiate with the striking policemen and free his troops to fight the Allies. While he parleyed with the Resistance through Sweden’s courageous consul general, Raoul Nordling, the SS unit at the Palais du Luxembourg argued for the immediate destruction of the palace and a fight to the death against the partisans. On the lawns nearby, German firing squads ordered French prisoners to dig their own graves before executing them. Cornered and fearful, the German army, despite von Choltitz’s caution, became more menacing than at any other time during the four-year occupation.

Clara did not know that, in a school a few streets away, veteran and newly recruited résistants with captured German weapons were planning to attack the Palais du Luxembourg. Their leader, 25-year-old Pierre Fabien, was one of those whose actions, in his case assassinating a German naval cadet at the Barbès Metro station in 1941, had been strongly condemned by Clara. Their assault would give the SS a pretext to blast the explosives under the building. With the clash looming, most of the rue de Vaugirard’s residents evacuated. Clara would not budge. From her balcony vantage, she kept a detached lookout on résistants and German soldiers below. The whole neighbourhood might be destroyed at any moment. But Clara’s only fear was for Aldebert, who rang to tell her that a battle was raging in Neuilly at the gates of the American Hospital.

While Clara was apprehensive about the stand-off below her window, Sylvia Beach was thrilled to learn that résistants were liberating one Parisian quarter after another. She received an unexpected visit from the painter Paul-Emile Becat, husband of Adrienne’s sister Rinette: ‘He came on his bicycle, which was ornamented with a little French flag.’ Becat arrived in time to see the Germans destroy the old Hôtel Corneille near Sylvia’s flat. ‘The Germans had used it as offices,’ Sylvia wrote, ‘and, when they left, they destroyed it, with all their papers.’ Sylvia had been fond of the Corneille, because James Joyce had lived there, ‘and, before Joyce, Yeats and Synge’. Becat said he had come to offer congratulations on the liberation of Paris. Seeing the hotel on fire and the skirmishing near the Luxembourg Gardens, he realized his congratulations would have to wait. He left, carrying his bicycle, through a maze of cellars under the houses.

When General Aldebert de Chambrun called Clara at two o’clock, he was in his office at the American Hospital. The Resistance, which had lost its first battle at Neuilly Town Hall on 19 August, had returned to destroy or capture the German Kommandatur a few hundred yards from the hospital. Aldebert described the scene to Clara, ‘Cannon is roaring. Leclerc or the Americans can’t be very far away, but the trouble is the Germans have organized a veritable fortified camp and have posted big guns in all the avenues leading towards us. They seem to possess quantities of machine guns and wherever you look you can see boche soldiers. It would be pretty sad if they eliminated the hospital.’ Aldebert explained later, ‘The hospital found itself in the middle of the skirmish line and was equally endangered on both sides. After repeated colloquy with the German commander he became convinced that further resistance would only entail much bloodshed and the destruction of the hospital.’ Colonel Bernhuber needed the hospital for German wounded, and fighting while the Germans were about to surrender Paris had become senseless to him. At nine o’clock in the morning, he went into the Memorial Building of the hospital and found General de Chambrun. Without preamble, he announced, ‘I am, General, an officer of the German Army, but I am neither a Nazi nor even a German. I am an Austrian, and, since this war is nearly lost, I am ready to capitulate. But the soldier that you are will understand, I am sure, that I refuse to deliver my men and myself to a gang of snipers. I ask to meet a French officer or an American officer to offer my surrender. ’ (Clara recalled her husband telling her, ‘I asked why he did not surrender. “What? To this mob … I still have strong enough means of defense not to capitulate to such a rabble.”’) General de Chambrun promised to contact the American or French command, but he had no direct means of communication with either. He would have to go out and find them somewhere beyond the city limits of Paris. Colonel Bernhuber provided him with a laissez-passer to help him through the German checkpoints.

General de Chambrun left the hospital. His route took him past the battle in the avenue Victor Hugo towards the southwest, where the Allies were rumoured to be advancing. After crossing the German lines with Bernhuber’s laissez-passer, Aldebert found an American advance unit about twenty-five miles from Neuilly. The American colonel in charge contacted his commanding officer to ask who could accept Colonel Bernhuber’s surrender. After a short telephone call, he turned to General de Chambrun and said, ‘The French have to receive the surrender, because a French division–Leclerc’s, I believe–is going to be the first to enter the capital.’ The task now was to find Leclerc. If Aldebert did not contact him soon, the hospital would be destroyed.

General de Chambrun had dealt at the hospital with a man he knew only as ‘Monsieur Jean’, a chief in de Gaulle’s underground Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI). At three o’clock, when Aldebert returned to the hospital, he got in touch with Monsieur Jean and asked him to find Leclerc. Then, he called Clara. The battle outside had not abated. ‘More wounded have been brought in,’ he told her, ‘and the cannon sounds much nearer.’ Hearing the explosions down the line, Clara commented, ‘I did not need the telephone to tell me that.’ Soon, Monsieur Jean called General de Chambrun to relay a message from Leclerc’s Second Armoured Division headquarters. Aldebert was to inform Colonel Bernhuber that Leclerc would send one or two tanks in the morning to the traffic roundabout where the boulevard Inkermann crossed the avenue Victor Hugo, a few hundred yards from the hospital. A German officer should ‘carry a white flag to confirm the surrender without conditions by Colonel Bernhuber and the troops under his command’.

Bernhuber accepted the terms, but no one had the power to stop the fighting until he surrendered in the morning. In the hospital, doctors operated all night on the battle’s most severely wounded victims and prayed they could hold out until the shooting stopped.

While battle raged outside the hospital, Clara saw a few tanks of General Jacques Leclerc’s French Second Armoured Division rolling past the rue de Vaugirard on their way to the Hôtel de Ville. Clara had known Leclerc by his real name, Philippe de Hautecloque, and as the cousin of her old friend Henry de Castries. However much Clara disliked Leclerc’s commander de Gaulle, she was relieved to see the arrival of his regular force under a professional, Saint-Cyr-trained soldier, who also happened to be, like her husband, an aristocrat. Leclerc, she believed, could control therésistants who remained, to her, so much riff-raff.

A small vanguard of Leclerc’s tanks reached the square of the Hotel de Ville during the night, and ecstatic crowds assumed Paris had been liberated. Although the Germans still controlled 85 per cent of the city, résistants who captured the radio station broadcast an appeal to the churches to ring their bells to proclaim the liberation. The Left Bank churches responded immediately. Then, at twenty-two minutes past eleven, 13-ton ‘Emmanuel’, the largest of Notre Dame’s bells, rang out in F-sharp so loud it could be heard at least five miles away–for the first time since Robert Murphy heard the bells at midnight on 14 June 1940. Nearby, in the Hôtel Meurice, Paris commander General von Choltitz was speaking to Berlin. Holding the phone to the window, he told General Alfred Jodl, who had been ordering him again to destroy Paris, ‘What you hear is announcing that Paris is going to be liberated and Germany without doubt has lost the war.’ Outside, Parisians sang La Marseillaise. Celebration by the ‘Resistance of the Eleventh Hour’, as the real résistants derisively called the majority who declared their opposition to the Germans only that night when the bells pealed, was premature. The bulk of Leclerc’s Second Armoured Division had yet to arrive, and the Americans, who had the only force strong enough to defeat the Germans in battle, were massing for an assault in the morning.

The sound of the bells reached all the way to Neuilly. As Otto Gresser recalled, he, Aldebert de Chambrun, Elisabeth Comte, the other nurses and doctors ‘went to the roof of the hospital, we heard all the Paris bells ringing in the churches to celebrate the victory, while we were still surrounded by German troops with guns and tanks’. This was the roof where, for four years, Dr Sumner Jackson had gone to look at the night sky and enjoy a cigar. A year earlier on the same spot, he and his son Phillip had watched American and German warplanes duelling for control of the Paris skies. All that General de Chambrun knew for certain was that Jackson, his wife and his son had been missing since 24 May. There were many rumours: they had been arrested by the Gestapo, detained by the Milice, interned as Americans, tortured as résistants, deported, lost, killed. General de Chambrun had approached the Red Cross, which usually had access to internees and prisoners of war. The American Legation in Berne was informed, and the Swiss Consulate asked the Germans for information. Aldebert appealed to his friends in the Vichy government, but Laval’s arrest and departure on 17 August had closed that avenue. On 19 August, even General Karl Oberg, whose secret police knew where the Jacksons were, had fled Paris. The one member of the hospital’s staff who had done more than any other to hasten the liberation was not on the roof to witness it.

On schedule, a command car and a tank from Leclerc’s Second Armoured Division appeared near the American Hospital at nine thirty on the morning of 25 August. Austrian Colonel Bernhuber, carrying a white flag of surrender, walked cautiously to the boulevard Inkermann–avenue Victor Hugo roundabout. A French officer accepted his capitulation, and Bernhuber ordered his men, ‘Stack arms.’ The battle of Neuilly, however, was not quite over.

The ‘fanatic’ Major Goetz and his men refused to abandon their Stützpunkt without direct orders from General von Choltitz. The French tank fired on their bunker, setting their trucks ablaze. Before Goetz and his men were burned alive, they laid down their arms and surrendered. The American Hospital of Paris was saved.

Supplies for the hospital had run short. To find food for more than five hundred staff and patients, Otto Gresser drove out in a hospital car into almost-liberated Paris. He recalled that ‘we met within three hours German, French, American and British troops and again German troops when returning to the hospital’. Gresser, whose resourcefulness had kept the hospital well victualled for four years and was revered in the food markets of Les Halles as the buyer ‘Ferdinand’, brought back enough for the hospital’s personnel to survive until the American army brought fresh provisions. In the meantime, Gresser managed to save the rifles, thirty grenades and 2,000 rounds of ammunition that he had taken from the German patients in the hospital. When more units of Leclerc’s Second Armoured Division arrived, he proudly donated them to the French army. General de Chambrun was not as fortunate with the weapons and military vehicles of Colonel Bernhuber’s unit: they were pillaged by the Resistance.

Secretary of State Cordell Hull sent an urgent telegram to the American Minister in Switzerland, Leland Harrison, on 25 August. ‘Telegraph exact location Moulin [sic] and request Swiss to report urgently latest known whereabouts of Jackson family.’ The Americans were out of date, Sumner and Phillip Jackson having been sent from Moulins to Neuengamme concentration camp a month earlier. The State Department put together what information on Sumner, Phillip and Toquette that it could from a variety of sources. Minister Harrison informed Cordell Hull on 28 August that all three Jacksons might have been moved to Germany ‘as hostages’. Hull fired back instructions that the Swiss insist, on America’s behalf, that the Germans reveal their whereabouts. The Germans did not respond.

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