The women in WWII Paris who ‘did what they had to’ for survival
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'Every time I went to interview someone, they would begin by saying, 'c'était compliqué'

The women in WWII Paris who ‘did what they had to’ for survival

Author Anne Sebba reveals a female-driven wartime France through series of sweeping vignettes in her new book 'Les Parisiennes'

Genevieve de Gaulle (niece of Charles de Gaulle) and Odette Fabius (center), friends since their incarceration in Ravensbruck concentration camp, after Fabius was awarded Officier de La Legion d’Honneur 1971. (Courtesy)
Genevieve de Gaulle (niece of Charles de Gaulle) and Odette Fabius (center), friends since their incarceration in Ravensbruck concentration camp, after Fabius was awarded Officier de La Legion d’Honneur 1971. (Courtesy)

LONDON — “Don’t worry,” furrier Abraham Reiman told his daughters, Madeleine, 11, and Arlette, aged nine. “Don’t worry, this is the land of freedom, of Voltaire and Rousseau.”

It was July 1942 and one of the blackest periods in the lives of French Jews. Arlette Reiman, her sister and her mother Malka, were among more than 13,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, rounded up over two days by French police to the Paris stadium, or cycle track, the notorious Vel d’Hiv.

More than 70 years later Arlette recounted the fear and anguish faced by the families penned up there.

“The stench was appalling, unimaginable. You could barely breathe. There was nothing to eat or drink… I clung to my mother, berating her: ‘Where is Zola now, and where is Rousseau?’ I thought these were real friends of my father’s and that they would come and help us. But adults had lied to me. That’s what stays in my mind,” said Arlette.

The testimony of Arlette Reiman, now Arlette Testyler, is just one of scores of agonizing stories, many of them Jewish, in a remarkable new book, “Les Parisiennes,” by the journalist and historian Anne Sebba. It seeks to recast wartime France — and, specifically, Paris — as a time when women were in the ascendant as never before.

“Paris was a feminine city,” says Sebba. Its men had either been called up and imprisoned or killed as France fell in 1940, or — if they were Jews — they had been deported to camps from which few returned. The only men in Paris were those too young or too old to serve, or they were the German occupiers.

Anne Sebba, author of 'Les Parisiennes,' published by Orion Books. (Courtesy)
Anne Sebba, author of ‘Les Parisiennes,’ published by Orion Books. (Courtesy)

So the women, as Sebba shows in a meticulously researched series of sweeping vignettes, were faced with the most difficult of choices.

“The women did what they had to do in order to survive. Every time I went to interview someone, they would begin by saying, ‘Cétait compliqué‘ — ‘It was complicated,’” said Sebba.

The choices ranged from full-on collaboration — resulting, said Sebba, in the birth of between 100,000 and 200,000 Franco-German babies from illicit love affairs — to tiny compromises, such as buying black market food for children. And there was also out-and-out heroism, displayed by the women of Paris and the women of the SOE, or Special Operations Executive, parachuted into France from Britain, for extraordinarily dangerous missions that nearly always ended in capture, torture and death.

On the other side of the coin were even tougher choices, such as those facing Rosa Liwarek, today Lady Lipworth, who lives in London. Rosa’s mother had died giving birth to her in 1933. Aged 10, with her elder sisters in hiding and her father under arrest, Rosa ended up in a devout Catholic family, converted from Judaism and baptized. Many other women made the near-impossible choice of sending their children away, desperately hoping they would be saved.

Sebba’s previous book, the non-fiction “That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor” (published in 2011), had alerted her to the fact that throughout the war, many Parisiennes, including, of course, Simpson herself, had continued to indulge their love of fashion and jewelry.

Odette and Robert Fabius on their wedding day, 1929. (Courtesy)
Odette and Robert Fabius on their wedding day, 1929. (Courtesy)

Sebba began to research and discovered that many of the chicest jewelers, such as Boucheron, had become headed by women designers as the men were arrested or deported.

The story of the upmarket Van Cleef & Arpels is a pitiful tale of vanity and delusion: Renee Puissant, daughter of Jewish parents Alfred van Cleef and Esther Arpels, made her way to the Nazi-backed Vichy regime in the south of France to operate the Van Cleef & Arpels boutique there, only to commit suicide by throwing herself out of a third-floor window when she understood the law requiring all Jews to wear a yellow star would apply to her, too. None of her family’s high-level contacts would save her.

Neither would high-level contacts save the aristocratic Elisabeth de Rothschild, who, despite being from an ancient Catholic family, and who had never converted to Judaism on her marriage to Philippe de Rothschild, ended up in the notorious Ravensbruck concentration camp.

According to the resistance activist Odette Fabius, a pre-war acquaintance of Elisabeth, “she went on her knees at Ravensbruck repeatedly protesting that she wasn’t Jewish, even though her former husband was.”

She was, says Sebba, the only member of the Rothschild family to be killed in the Holocaust.

‘Until the Nazis came for her that morning, her life had been so easy, all silk and roses’

Philippe, who found out her fate after meeting liberated women from Ravensbruck, commented sadly, “Poor pretty woman, until they [the Nazis] came for her that morning, her life had been so easy, all silk and roses.”

Parisiennes were creative, Sebba found, and writes that “Many of them had their own dressmakers who would copy high fashion.”

One such was 21-year-old Elisabeth Meynard, whose “favorite Jewish-Polish dressmaker, moonlighting to bring in extra cash,” had made Elisabeth a chocolate-brown velvet suit. Perhaps it was her fashionable figure which caught the eye of the tall and handsome “Ivan du Maurier,” a sergeant with the British army who entered Paris after Liberation. Six months after meeting, the couple were married.

Du Maurier — born Jan Hoch, and now calling himself Captain Robert Maxwell, MC — was a Czech Jew who had lost most of his family in the camps. He later became an internationally famous media tycoon and member of British Parliament, and died in mysterious circumstances in 1991. Elisabeth, in her old age (she died in France in 2013), became an expert on the Holocaust.

Elisabeth and Robert Maxwell on their wedding day. (Courtesy)
Elisabeth and Robert Maxwell on their wedding day. (Courtesy)

But, of course, against the frivolity of fashion, art and music — and there were many singers and actors who collaborated with the Nazis — Sebba found “a terrible dark core” in wartime Paris. Even today, more than 70 years after the war, she was unable to persuade some people to talk to her, and, indeed, in documenting the love affair of one couple, she has been forced to give them the pseudonyms of “Lisette” and “Johann” as it was still too difficult for the French woman’s family to discuss her relationship with a German soldier.

The research took Sebba five years, during which time she went to Paris for a few days almost every month. It wasn’t hard, she says, finding people to share their WW II stories, though “there were roadblocks.”

One woman, now in her 90s, was persuaded by her Catholic priest to cycle around Paris distributing anti-German newsletters. It was a thoroughly risky and dangerous pursuit for which she could easily have been imprisoned at the time, but the woman still begged Sebba to keep her story anonymous.

“Why?” asked Sebba. “Oh, well, what I did was nothing,” the woman said.

Though there are many famous names in the book, such as Catherine Dior, sister of the fashion designer, and Genevieve de Gaulle, niece of the politician, both of whom did sterling anti-Nazi work. But there are just as many ordinary Parisian women whose stories are being told for the first time. And Sebba casts a wry eye over the wartime records of the singer Edith Piaf and the designer Coco Chanel, each of whom had questionable associations with the German occupiers.

“I didn’t think,” said Sebba, “that I would get a French publisher for my book, as there were still too many painful episodes that France does not want to talk about or acknowledge. But in fact I did get a French translator, a young man who said he had no idea of what the women of Paris had faced.”

She is not ready to make judgments about the behavior of French women during the wartime years, but does believe that today there is still “a deep seam of anti-Semitism in France. During the war that anti-Semitism allowed Vichy to flourish; today there is real fear among French Jews, and goodness knows, I felt it.”

Sebba’s book opens with an iconic quote from the film “Casablanca.” Ilsa, played by Ingrid Bergman, says, “Well, Rick, we’ll always have Paris. Do you remember Paris?” A world-weary Humphrey Bogart, playing Rick, drawls in reply, “I remember every detail. You wore blue; the Germans wore gray.”

Sebba’s Paris is chock full of detail, of clothes, jewelry, food and hunger, of desperate actions and unthought-of bravery.

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