AVENUE OF SPIES: A TRUE STORY OF TERROR, ESPIONAGE, AND ONE AMERICAN FAMILY’S HEROIC RESISTANCE IN NAZI-OCCUPIED PARIS
By Alex Kershaw
Crown, $28.00, 286 pages
In 1940, France suffered what was arguably the worst humiliation ever inflicted on a supposed world power: a swift military victory by German invaders, climaxed by the decision to form governments (one in Paris, another in southern Vichy) subservient to the conquerors. The 84-year-old Marshal Philippe Petain, a hero of World War I, head of the Vichy state, blamed France’s collapse on liberal decadence, “an unholy trinity of socialists, agnostics and urban intellectuals.”
Many prominent Parisians flocked to the German cause, including such personages as the perfume/fashion czarina Coco Chanel, who asserted, “it is your [German] mission to make these Jews cede their property to Aryans.”
But one prominent American resident in Paris disagreed. He was Dr. Sumner Jackson, of the American Hospital, who with his wife Toquette and son, Phillip, then aged 12, were permitted to remain in France. The Nazis respected Dr. Jackson’s surgical skills.
What the Germans did not realize was that Jackson soon put his talents to the service of the nascent French Resistance, a relative handful of brave citizens who chose not to submit to tyranny.
By happenstance, the Jackson home was No. 11, Avenue Foch, the broad, tree-lined thoroughfare stretching from the Bois de Boulogne eastward to the Arc de Triomphe. To Dr. Jackson’s dismay, several of the handsome mansions along the avenue were taken over by various arms of the Gestapo, the German secret police, and its officers. One of the more odious was Helmut Knochen — known as “Doctor Bones” — who commandeered a five-story villa at No. 72, Avenue Foch. Knochen relied heavily on hardened criminals from the Paris underground as his informants and enforcers, and neighbors quaked at the sound of screams of persons being “questioned” in his offices.
A few doors down, at No. 31, was a man Mr. Kershaw describes as “the most deranged” of the Nazis, Theo Dannecker, who would send thousands of French to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Working closely with the infamous SS colonel, Adolf Eichmann, Dannecker and Knochen devised plans to “deport all French Jews as soon as possible.” To explain the mass deportations, a created fiction was that a “Jewish state was being formed in the East.” The French provided the necessary manpower to do the job.
But unknown to these monsters was the surreptitious work being done by the entire Jackson family in support of the Resistance. The Jackson home became known — in Resistance circles, at least — as a way-station on an underground railroad that helped Allied prisoners, chiefly downed airmen, escape from occupied Europe. When wounded men appeared, Dr. Jackson performed surgeries both in his home and at the American Hospital. Given the heavy in-and-out foot traffic expected for a doctor’s office, the house became a “drop site” for intelligence gathered by Resistance agents.
The Jacksons’ contact for this work was a French friend name Deloche de Noyelle, a diplomat’s son who lived just around the corner from Avenue Foche. Soon the “drop boxes” in the medical office brimmed with photographs, blue prints and stolen documents that were forwarded to Charles de Gaulle’s intelligence organization in London.
All these activities took place, of course, scant yards from the epicenter of a very efficient German security system. And Mr. Kershaw’s book is a gripping text on the tradecraft of an underground movement that managed to flourish on the brink of danger. Toquette, for instance, would place potted plants in the windows or mops at a certain angle, to signal Resistances couriers whether it was safe to enter.
These activities continued through the first months of 1944. But in the end, intensified surveillance — and brutal torture of Resistance adherents — prevailed, and orders went out for the Jackson family to be arrested (an act carried out by the Milice, a goon squad of Frenchmen working for the Germans). The family was divided. (Phillip was then aged only 16.)
Even in captivity, Dr. Jackson continued to treat ailing prisoners as best he could. In May 1944, he and Phillip were put on a ship with some 2,500 other prisoners bound across the Baltic to Germany. A British bomber, unaware that the vessel carried prisoners, attacked and sank the ship. Phillip survived; his father did not. When the war ended, he reunited in Paris with Toquette, who had made her way home from a camp into neutral Sweden.
In his concluding sentence, Mr. Kershaw notes that Phillip Jackson — elderly and in a wheelchair when interviewed — “is often moved to tears when he recalls his exceptionally brave and humane parents, who did the right thing at a time when many in France opted to collaborate rather than fight.”
• Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.