- - Wednesday, November 9, 2016



By Anne Sebba

St. Martin’s Press, $27.99, 457 pages, illustrated

Many famous and beautiful European cities fell under the iron heel of the Nazis, but none of them quite tugged at the heartstrings of the world like Paris. The sight of the swastika flying over all those beautiful iconic buildings and monuments brought a unique hurt. A woman living 6,000 miles away told me it was the worst day of her life. And Oscar Hammerstein wrote a song “The Last Time I Saw Paris Her Heart Was Warm and Gay,” ending with the desperate, defiant vow to “Remember Her That Way.”

But if the fall of Paris in June 1940 affected people all over the globe, imagine what it must have been like for those in the city who had to endure all that it entailed. British biographer and journalist Anne Sebba provides a wealth of vignettes and tales, incidents and actions running the gamut from heroic to pusillanimous and every subtle shade between. The picture in most people’s minds encapsulating the emotions felt by Parisiens as steel-helmeted German troops rode triumphantly down the Champs-Elysees from the now ironically named Arc de Triomphe is of tears streaming down the face of a Frenchman. But Ms. Sebba has chosen to concentrate on the city’s female population, the eponymous “Parisiennes.” Her multifaceted portrait of these multitudes ranging from the glitziest high life to the grimmest struggles for survival and worse still coping with torture and death is in itself an invaluable testament not just of those terrible four years but of the half decade following them it took Paris to try to achieve some measure of healing and restoration,

“Les Parisiennes” has something for every reader: glamorous parties and people desperately searching for food. We see fabled fashion designer Coco Chanel doing just fine under the “protection” of a German officer and escaping the postwar retribution meted out to other collaborators possibly thanks to the intervention of no less than Winston Churchill, a cousin of a previous lover, the Duke of Westminster. The stories of the many titled ladies playing up to the occupiers with similar lack of consequences are as shameful as the countless heroic tales of those women, famous and not, who risked everything working for the Resistance are edifying.

And let’s not forget the millions just trying to survive on the most meager of rations supplemented only by the indigestible, unappetizing vegetables obtainable only by indefatigable foraging. A far cry from the prewar glories of Parisian cuisine. If the German occupation of the far-off provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from 1871 to 1918 were sufficient to drape in black shrouds their statues in the city’s main square, how much sharper the sting of their reoccupation, along with so much of the nation and its capital.

For the Jews of Paris an even more ominous specter of terror haunted the city. As always, some were luckier than others: Best-selling author Colette’s husband Maurice Goudeket was plucked from the group marked for deportation eastward thanks to her friendship with the German ambassador’s wife, a fan. But even the couple’s subsequent groveling only brought a temporary reprieve. As Ms. Sebba writes, “They were well aware this was not the end. For most of the others picked up that day, who finally left for Auschwitz with the unhappy distinction of being the first 1,112 deportees from France, it very definitely was.” There would be many, many more following to the horrendous fate awaiting them.

But privilege could not always protect: The Roman Catholic wife of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Lili, achieved the ironic distinction of being the only member of France’s premier Jewish family to die at the hands of the Nazis. After the war, her husband learned of her gruesome fate after she had been deported to the infamous Ravensbruck camp:

“Beaten, degraded and too broken to move, Lili had been dragged from her plank bed by the hair of her head and thrown into the oven alive. She died because she had borne my name . There was no doubt about that poor pretty woman, until they came for her that morning her life had been so easy, all silk and roses.”

Anne Sebba chose as one of the epigraphs to this book the immortal exchange from the movie “Casablanca”:

“Ingrid Bergman/Ilsa: ‘Well, Rick, we’ll always have Paris. Do you remember Paris?’

Humphrey Bogart/Rick: “I remember every detail. You wore blue; the Germans wore gray.’”

The triumph of “Les Parisiennes” is to show that this exchange from a film made during the war only became truer after the city of light emerged from its dark years and tried to put them behind. For there would always be that shadow over the city and it would be impossible to remember it quite the way it had been before 1940 — especially for those who lived through the Nazi occupation.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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