Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba

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Reviewed by Helen Parry

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s

Among the many people Anne Sebba interviewed for this book was the playwright Jean-Claude Grumberg. During the German occupation of France, Grumberg’s Jewish mother paid a passeuse to take him and his brother to a place of greater safety in southern France. She was not allowed to know where the boys were taken, lest she later be arrested and forced to reveal this information. Sebba asked Grumberg if he understood how his mother could make such a choice. His reaction was disbelief: ‘Choice? How can you ask me about choice?’ For him, choice is contestable – questionable, disputable – and his mother, whose husband had been arrested, whose freedoms were already strictly curtailed, did not have the luxury of choice – there was nothing else she could do. In another interview, Jeannie Rousseau, now Vicomtesse de Clarens, agreed: ‘You were not given the choice.’ But her perspective was slightly different from Grumberg’s: from the outset of the war she felt a moral obligation to participate in the Resistance, an obligation that was so strong she felt there was no choice but to do all in her power to fight. She was driven by internal, not externally imposed, forces. ‘How could you not do it?’

And yet, as Sebba goes on to demonstrate in this incredibly rich and rigorous examination of the Occupation and its aftermath, women did have choices, although they could be agonising. With most of their menfolk absent and in a society in which a woman could not vote or have a bank account, many of them had to fight to survive and protect children and elderly relatives who depended upon them. Some women, like Jeannie Rousseau, joined the Resistance. Others, such as ‘the little woman who only seeks to do her duty’, denounced Jews, neighbours and family members to the Germans or partied with them. Others again made less extreme choices, but choices nonetheless.

And of course there were constantly lesser choices that had to be made. 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 a choice to walk out of a café or restaurant if German soldiers walked in, or was that deliberately courting danger given that behaving disrespectfully could have fatal consequences? Were those who made lists and saved children of relatives before they saved the children of strangers culpable? Or should one blame only those who forced them to create the lists in the first place?

Drawing on interviews with survivors, published and unpublished memoirs and diaries and an impressive array of secondary works, Sebba has compiled an account of women’s lives in Paris during the decade 1939–49 that not only acts as a scrupulous historical overview but also a record of the kind of dilemmas people face and the identities and paths they choose when subjugated by a totalitarian regime as pernicious and destructive as Nazism. Her book combines a compelling broad story of Paris during the war with the myriad details of individuals’ experiences, ordinary and extraordinary. She has done her best to research all tiers of society, though some are inevitably better documented than others. Here you will find the biographies of countesses, prostitutes, gallery owners, jewellery designers, novelists, teachers and mothers. They reveal a diverse yet always conflicted experience of the war. Sebba writes movingly of Hélène Berr, a young Jewish woman who could have escaped but instead remained in Paris to help Jewish children, working for various relief agencies. She writes with compassion of the foolish young actress Corinne Luchaire, daughter of a Vichy newspaper editor, who was oblivious to the plight of her countrywomen as she befriended and entertained Nazis, never really understanding what she had done wrong. There is Edith Piaf, who flourished by entertaining Germans in nightclubs and cabarets, yet helped Jewish friends to escape. She made tours of prisoner-of-war camps which the Nazis used as propaganda, but she took care to be photographed with as many POWs as possible so that false identity cards could be made for them – which Piaf delivered on her next tour. And there is Anne Spoerry, a medical student who ran a safe house for British operatives in Paris. She was arrested and sent to Ravensbrück where she was so terrified for her own safety she actually executed fellow prisoners. After the war she tried to atone for this by spending the rest of her life as a ‘much-loved’ flying doctor in Kenya.

Sebba has structured her book chronologically, with each year given its own chapter. Thus we begin with the Phoney War, and then the first few months of the Occupation, when privations were not too bad and the Germans seemed friendly. Then things become increasingly dark. Sebba follows the arc of the war and relates her narrative to the wider context of events in France and beyond, but her story is always directed by the words and experiences of women. By continuing until the end of the 1940s, she is able to show the aftermath of the war and the struggle of the country to find itself again and rebuild itself. How to deal with dispossession, homelessness, orphaned Jewish children, rage, guilt? The need to rebuild was so powerful that many women were silent about their experiences – including resisters and survivors of Ravensbrück, the brutal concentration camp where women political prisoners were held. For some, the memories were too traumatic; others felt survivor’s guilt; others were met with incomprehension or ignored. Astonishingly, the stories of some of Sebba’s interviewees have never before been recorded.

Paris is the geographical focus of the book, although Sebba throws her net wide to encompass the village in Burgundy where Irene Némirovsky took refuge, the château near Marseilles where Comtesse Lily Pastré sheltered Jewish musicians and artists, the camps in Germany. Paris of course has its own special mythology as a city of romance, art and sex, the capital of fashion and sensuality, and since the German occupiers wished to appropriate Parisian art and control it, part of the story Sebba has to tell is how the people of Paris struggled to retain their cultural identity. Fashion is a particularly fruitful area of study, as Sebba describes how women considered it a matter of national pride and indeed importance to maintain their elegance in the face of deprivation and rationing, even while some fashion houses were profiting from the custom of Nazis and collaborators. Parisian art collections were also of great cultural importance and stripped by the Germans: Rose Valland, a voluntary assistant curator at the Jeu de Paume, covertly catalogued as much of the stolen art as she could and later directed the commission to recover it.

Sebba ends Les Parisiennes thus:

[S]urviving in occupied Paris for many women demanded some sort of choice, some sort of decision, in how they would accommodate living with the Germans. It is not for the rest of us to judge but, with imagination, we can try to understand.

It seems to me that this sentiment is exactly right, and throughout the book Sebba is sensitive and careful to avoid either condoning or condemning some of the choices made by the women whom she chronicles. We can only be grateful if we never have to make those choices ourselves.

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Helen Parry blogs at A Gallimaufry

Read Helen’s Q&A with Anne Sebba HERE.

Anne Sebba, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London, 2016.  978-1780226613, 452 pp., paperback .

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