From the mother who helped her children escape from a moving train and the teenage ballet dancer who escorted Allied airmen to safety, to the unlikely collaborator who denied her Jewish roots and became a Vichy activist, the “desperately human stories” of women who lived through wartime Paris are revealed in an intriguing new book.
Anne Sebba, author of Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s, undertook a great deal of research to uncover the wide-ranging stories of survivors, heroines and collaborators.
“People are touched by these stories because we have grown up in an era of peace and it is hard to imagine how our parents and grandparents suffered – but we know it’s only a generation away,” says the historian and lecturer.
“These are desperately human stories that might have happened to us – extraordinary violence and gusto for survival, tenaciousness, courage, bravery and bad behaviour.”
Sebba, who won the 2016 Franco-British Society’s book prize for Les Parisiennes, has always been interested in the female narrative, and is the author of several books, including Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother and That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor.
“Historically, women’s version of history hasn’t been recorded. When I saw that, in 1940, nearly two million men were taken prisoner of war and other men went to London to join [Charles] De Gaulle, I realised Paris became almost exclusively a feminised city,” she explains.
“Nobody has really taken a composite look at all women, from prostitutes and concierges, to housewives, dancers, milliners, couturiers.
“It was the women who were left running the city, multitasking, as women always do, looking after the children and the elderly, and they had to decide how to respond to the Germans.”
These decisions could be as small as choosing whether or not to walk out of a restaurant if Germans came in, or more generally how to make the best of a bad situation.
“I found a range,” says Sebba, 65, who studied French history at Kings College, London, before becoming a foreign correspondent with Reuters.
Although Sebba has written generally about women, one Jewish woman she finds particularly inspiring is Arlette Testyler, who survived the infamous ‘Vél d’Hiv’ round-up of July 1942 – when 13,000 Jews were rounded up, most of whom were sent to Auschwitz – and other camps.
Testyler’s quick-witted mother helped her and her sister escape from the camp at Beaune-la-Rolande and then from a moving train, and hid them. After her death, Testyler became an orphan of the state aged 13.
“Life has been so tough for her and she’s such an extraordinarily, generous-hearted woman. She goes into schools and gives testimony about what happened and talks about tolerance.”
Sebba also admires Sadie Rigal, a teenage ballet dancer from South Africa who trained as a nightclub dancer at the left-wing resistant Bal Tabarin and given false papers.
“She rescued downed Allied airmen, putting them to sleep in her dressing room or walking them to safety from one house to another. They were tall American or Canadian pilots who did not look French, and it was very dangerous to hide them,” Sebba remarks. “She was just a teenager and yet she did the right thing and never made a big deal about it.”
She also cites the story of Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar, whose Jewish resistance husband was taken prisoner in 1944 but managed to escape from the last train to Auschwitz.
“After the war, many people decided there couldn’t be a God if he allowed people to do this, but she became much more Orthodox,” explains Sebba. “She was a great force in helping Jewish women find work, welfare and medical care.”
Survivors returning from camps were often dismayed by people’s reactions. Marceline Rozenberg, who only wrote her memories in her late eighties, could not previously talk about her experiences. “She was shocked by people’s reactions. One woman who had special dispensation for extra food was told: ‘Even if you have been in a camp, didn’t they teach you how to queue?’ People had no concept of what went on.”
During the war, individuals used whatever means they had to prevent the Germans from taking away their self-respect.
“Odette Fabius is the woman who is really emblematic of understanding that keeping yourself looking as smart and stylish as you can is not just a vain eccentricity of Parisian women,” explains Sebba.
“She was in the resistance in Marseilles, was betrayed, sent to Ravensbrück, tried to escape, was caught, tortured and beaten. Her daughter told me that in the camps, when everyone was offered an ounce of fat per day to eat, she decided she needed to rub it into her hands.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Lisette de Brinon, an example of a Jewish woman who, behaved “very badly”, says Sebba.
“She was a collaborator; she married a Catholic aristocrat, denied her Jewish origins and became a Vichy activist. It was only in the last few years that her son decided it was time to set the record straight about her.”
Sebba has always been fascinated by revisionist history, turning over perceived views. “The French story has been slow in terms of the French accepting responsibility for their role,” says the West London Synagogue member. But she is keen to point out that she does not take the moral high ground with those who did collude.
“I try not to judge because we [the British] weren’t occupied. I like to think we would have resisted, and it’s certainly what Churchill hoped, but it’s impossible to know with certainty what you would have done or how Britain would have behaved.”
She cites the figures of around 330,000 Jews in France, of whom approximately 77,000 were deported. “On the one hand, you can say how awful it was that 77,000 were deported, but on the other, how amazing three-quarters of French Jews survived. That’s what historians call the French paradox.”
- Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba is published in paperback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £9.99