My father grew up in Nazi-occupied Greece. Many years later, when he told his children about bombs exploding in his neighborhood and jars of honey falling off the kitchen shelves, I learned that personal histories from firsthand witnesses to horrific events bring an immediacy that dry recitations of facts can’t match.
Historians know this, too. In the devastating “Paris at War: 1939-1944,” David Drake quotes from the journals and correspondence of citizens who lived in the city through the years of occupation after the Germans defeated the supposed impenetrability of the Maginot Line and took over Paris.
By incorporating excerpts from diaries and letters that until now had not been translated into English, Drake adds fresh perspective to events — Verdun hero Philippe Pétain’s willingness to lead the collaborationist Vichy government, Charles de Gaulle’s Free French resistance — that have been documented many times before.
Some of the observers Drake quotes were famous, such as Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote of an empty moonlit square when the invasion was imminent, “It was like a novel by Kafka.” But the most vivid passages were written by lesser-known figures such as Ilya Ehrenbourg, a Russian journalist who described the exodus before the Germans’ arrival: a little boy clutching a beloved wooden horse, an elderly woman with a bird in its cage, a grandmother pushed in a wheelbarrow.
Some scenes described here are mild forms of resistance, as when cinema patrons blow their nose, pretend to sneeze or, in one instance, imitate a sheep to drown out the narration in propagandist newsreels. But others are chilling for the barbarity and superciliousness they exposed. A secondary school teacher wrote that after an Allied bomb fell on a racecourse in the Bois de Boulogne, the victims’ bodies stayed on the track for 90 minutes and were finally taken away so that the first race of the day could start.
The message of this powerful book is that most Parisians were neither heroes nor collaborationists but ordinary people trying to survive: women stuffing cushions under their coats and pretending to be pregnant in the hope of getting to the front of a queue for rationed provisions; Jews rounded up and sent to Drancy, the internment camp outside Paris that, according to one person, was worse than Dachau. Paris and France, Drake writes, adhered neither to the Gaullist myth that they liberated themselves, nor to the “everyone collaborated” revisionism of films such as “The Sorrow and the Pity” and “Lacombe, Lucien.” The French, like many in Europe, struggled to withstand an unprecedented nightmare. The luckiest of them would one day share their stories with their children and others in the hope that these experiences would never be forgotten.
Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Iowa Review and other publications.