Still belatedly educating myself:
After writing at some length about the traumas of Germany during and after World War Two (notably posts on Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and the work of Philippe Sands), and noting the troubled history of tourist sites, I now learn much from
- Anne Seba, Les Parisiennes (2016).
Relating history through the lives of women has become a major theme, as in Guo Yuhua’s account of Maoism in a Shaanbei village.
With most men absent, Paris was feminized, the burden falling heavily on women, having to negotiate with the male occupiers. They faced agonizing choices, with constant moral ambiguity, shades of resistance and collaboration.
For women, choice often meant more than simply how to live their own lives but how to protect their children and sometimes their elderly parents too.
Was it collaborating to buy food on the black market if your children were thin, ill and vitamin deficient? Was sending your children to a cousin with a farm in the countryside acceptable? Was it collaborating to perform on stage for or to sell fruit and vegetables to Germans? Or to sell jewellery and high fashion to them, when French women at home had nothing? Was it a choice to walk out of a café or a restaurant if German soldiers walked in, or was that deliberately courting danger given that behaving disrespectfully could have fatal consequences? 
Yet again, Neil MacGregor’s question arises: “What would we have done?”
* * *
Paris was iconic for the Parisians, the Germans, and everyone. British people suffered grievously too, all over the world, but least they weren’t occupied. It’s disturbing that the closer I get to home, the more easily I can identify with them. All over vast areas further east, populations were brutalized still more thoroughly—and were then further occupied for decades. Yet the traumas of past eras continue to haunt us.
Anti-semitism was as common in France as elsewhere in Europe, and the population was already swollen with refugees from further east as well as Spain. The initial German occupation didn’t seem too bad, as Gitta Sereny, then a teenage nurse, observed (“The German officers with whom I had to negotiate for food, clothes or documents were always courteous and often extremely helpful.”) Museum curators and librarians played a major role in the budding resistance, including those at the Musée de l’Homme—and the great ethnographer Germaine Tillion, whom I have praised in several posts already.
Mass deportations escalated for Jews and resisters. 3,710 “foreign” Jews were arrested on 14th May 1941, and then three months later a further 4,230, both French and foreign. 13,152 Jews were arrested in July 1942, and further roundups continued. They were held in French internment camps before being sent to Auschwitz or Ravensbrück. The latter, subject of Sarah Helm’s brilliant book, features especially.
Perhaps rather at the expenses of documenting ordinary people’s lives, Seba describes all the salons and soirées of high society and fashion; and the compromises made by women in entertainment, like Édith Piaf. But such hedonism makes a suitably hideous contrast with the lives and deaths of those sent to the camps; as Seba observes, by contrast with high-profile stars in the arts,
there has been a prolonged and inequitable silence in France about the role of so many ordinary women who in some way resisted the occupiers—like the young woman who, persuaded by her Catholic priests, cycled around Paris distributing anti-German newsletters, […] an activity for which she could have been imprisoned if caught…
Following the guillotining of abortionist Marie-Louise Giraud in 1943, the film Le corbeau, about anonymous denunciations, was controversial—and remained so. Violette Leduc’s 1964 autobiography La Bâtarde shows the struggles of poor women in a patriarchal system. The role of church and family in Vichy France recalls that in Portugal and Spain.
Pétain used such occasions to bolster the moral and political conservatism of his authoritarian regime, glorifying the family as an institution in which the man was head and the woman occupied her place by virtue of being a mother.
Seba introduces the story of the female agents recruited to the French section of the SOE by Vera Atkins—subject of another great book by Sarah Helm. A sense of guilt as well as duty clearly played a role as Atkins sought to discover the fate of her charges (their average life expectancy in the field was six weeks). Among them was Noor Inayat Khan (1914–44)—yet another pupil of Nadia Boulanger, incidentally. But their whole story deserves another post.
A constant struggle went on between the needs to forget and to remember. Many of us will have met survivors while hardly realizing it. I only belatedly documented the successive flights of my orchestral colleague Hildi (here and here). Now I find that Marie-Claude, whom I sometimes see at my local bridge club, is the daughter of none other than the heroic resistance fighter Odette Fabius (1910–90). Interviewed in the book, asked to reflect on whether it was right for her mother to risk her safety when they travelled together by putting documents and false papers in her case, Marie-Claude replies evenly that “she could never have been different. That was who she was.”
In 1943, when Marie-Claude was 12, Odette left her in a cinema while she went on an urgent mission to try and warn her resistance colleagues they were being watched. But she was caught by the Gestapo, soon to be deported to Ravensbrück.
Long after the film was over, Marie-Claude eventually gave up waiting for her mother and decided to make her way to family friends where her father, in due course, came to look after her.
In Ravensbrück, Odette tried to escape but was brutally punished after being captured. Unlike most inmates, she did somehow survive.
As Sarah Helm also notes, the later French arrivals at Ravensbrück made an incongruous and separate group amidst all the degradation. Seeming pampered, they suffered a double oppression, from both the SS and fellow prisoners; succumbing more quickly to sickness, they had to learn survival techniques swiftly.
* * *
As throughout Europe, the end of the war was far from an end to suffering, as Keith Lowe describes so well in his book Savage continent.
After Paris was liberated, many were shocked by the brutal misogynistic punishments for women accused of collaboration horizontale. This was also related to class. Arletty, star of the classic Les enfants du paradis (first shown in March 1945), though compromised, spending some weeks in the squalor of Drancy, was not punished by head-shaving as were many ordinary women. Others found the épuration sauvage inevitable, a minor suffering compared to all those women tortured and murdered in the camps. But those who returned, sick and emaciated, still found life difficult, receiving scant sympathy; Parisians didn’t want to be reminded of their recent pain by these skeletal figures. Not all the survivors could bear to speak of their tribulations anyway, but there was little audience for those that did feel a need to do so. Oblivion soon reigned.
Still, Lucie Aubrac, delegate in the new parliament,
was keenly aware of the gendered response to Liberation as France enjoyed its new-found freedom, and she was determined that the country should resist falling for the simplistic notion that the women had collaborated while the men had fought. She insisted it was women who had given the resistance its breadth and depth—the women who had been the essential mailboxes because they were at home, the women who had become couriers because they looked less suspect carrying suitcases, as well as the women who had daringly used weapons. Not everyone was prepared to hear her voice—most were preoccupied with trying to resume normal life.
There were further painful complexities:
Half of those deported for resistance activities returned, but only 3 per cent of of the Jews (2,500 out of 76,000 deported), an unwelcome statistic for those in France denying that a genocide had taken place. Yet the attitude which saw resisters as patriots who had been involved in combat entitled to a higher level of compensation than the deported Jews, perceived as victims, persisted until at least the end of the 20th century in some quarters. […] It also fed into the notion that to have been deported as a resister was noble, but to have fallen into German hands as a victim was shameful.
And disparities were shocking: while British, Americans, and rich Parisians resumed a lavish lifestyle, ordinary Parisians were still on the brink of starvation.
On 27th October 1946 the constitution was finally amended “guaranteeing women equal rights to men in all spheres”; despite several magazines urging women to return to a life of innocence and femininity, the mood was changing. But French society was divided.
Meanwhile Barbara Probst was working to publicize the neglect of Spanish anti-fascists, who had played a major part in the liberation of France.
I was intrigued to learn that Anouk Aimée made her first film in 1946, aged 14; in 2003 she starred in the harrowing 2003 film La petite prairie aux bouleaux, as a Jewish woman coming to terms in later life with her time at Birkenau.
* * *
So after all these years of naively relishing the street life and art galleries of Paris, it’s high time for me to seek out memorial sites and plaques, and camps like Drancy and Fresnes.
Little did I know that in 2015 Ravensbrück survivors Genevieve de Gaulle and Germaine Tillion were posthumously honoured with a ceremony in the Panthéon.
At the very end of the book Seba gives a succinct list of questions to discuss, some of which I’ve mentioned above:
- Why has it taken so long for the women’s version of events to become known?
- How different was it for mothers? Some gave away their children to a passeur without knowing where they were being taken; Odette Fabius abandoned her ten-year-old daughter in the cinema. Did mothers have a responsibility to stay with their children? Was it justifiable for some mothers to compromise their children by using them to carry documents for the resistance?
- Why do you think fashion continued to matter to Parisiennes during the war? Was it vanity or can it be justified as a demonstration of self-respect and pride?
- To what extent did all women have a choice during and immediately after the Occupation? Do you think Parisiennes behaved understandably after 1945 or do you think the (largely Jewish) political resisters should have been more supportive of the Jewish resisters who returned from concentration camps?
- After the Liberation, why were so many women punished—often without trial—for collaboration horizontale, while male economic collaborators avoided repercussions? Was head-shaving ever a justified punishment? [SJ: videos like this, with gloating men surrounding helpless women, are hard to watch.]
 Here I’ve combined text from p.xxxii and the book’s final list of questions.