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Americans in Wartime Paris
As the anniversary dates approach, reminiscences of that tragic period are certain to flourish. What seldom has been spotlighted so far, however, is the fate of Americans living then in the French capital who found themselves suddenly in a worrisome and unusual situation.
When France and England, officially declared war on Germany in September, 1939, as a response to the Third Reich’s invasion of Poland, an estimated 30,000 Americans, artists, writers, businessmen, dual nationals and others lived in or near Paris.
Although that declaration was followed by roughly nine-months of what often was called the “phony war” or “drôle de guerre,” a period of cautious immobility on both sides before serious fighting began, the inevitability of coming conflict led most of those expatriates to leave France while they could.
The inevitable arrived, however, with massive German attacks in, June, 1940, and when, after scarcely three weeks of battle, Nazi troops marched uncontested through the gates of Paris, some 5,000 Americans still were in the French capital.
For various reasons, such as family ties, professional obligations or simply a deep-seated love for France, they had chosen to remain in Paris.
But none were unaware that their status was precarious and would become dangerous if America also entered the war against Germany as it appeared increasingly likely to do.
At that moment, America was not at war, however, and not militarily allied with anyone. It was still a neutral nation. German occupying forces were legally obligated to treat U.S. citizens gingerly and cautiouslyeven though many were bi-nationals with French passports as well as American ones
And so the Germans did to a certain extent. Americans who stayed in the capital for one reason or another endured most of the shortages and hardships of their French neighbors but, by and large, for nearly a year and a half they were not imprisoned or molested by German occupying authorities.
To say the least, however, their lives were not easy and often tragic, in particular for African-American or Jewish Americans frequently singled out by the Nazis for harsher than normal treatment.
Initially after the Franco-German armistice, Germany occupied only the northern half of France. The southern half, declared to be a “Free Zone,” nominally remained in the control of a reconstituted French government. Its capital was in Vichy, a resort town roughly 400 kilometres south of Paris, and its new President was first world war hero, 84-year-old Marshal Philippe Pétain.
On June 10, shortly before German troops arrived, France’s former government, headed by Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, had fled from Paris to the city of Tours in the Loire Valley.
Before leaving, Reynaud declared Paris to be an “Open City” that would not resist occupation and officially left the responsibility of dealing with German occupying forces in the hands of America’s ambassador to France, William C. Bullitt.
Bullitt accepted and recognized the arrangement and helped ensure that German troops did not destroy the capital. Quickly thereafter, however, on June 30, 1940, he moved the U.S. embassy and staff from Paris to Vichy.
America thus, in principle retained its diplomatic relations with France, but with Vichy France’s Pétain government, not the exiled and now powerless one of Paul Reynaud.
Because America still remained neutral, the German occupying forces at first allowed long-standing institutions in the French capital such as the American hospital, the American library, the American church, the American Chamber of Commerce plus various others of a commercial or charitable nature, to remain open.
The hospital, in the suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine on Paris’ western border, continued to treat patients, including wounded French and British soldiers, although it’s chief surgeon, Dr. Sumner Jackson, studiously ensured that all the institution’s beds and facilities were constantly occupied.
That manoeuvre allowed him, throughout the war, constantly to turn aside demands by Nazi officials to admit German patients. In fact, unknown to Paris’ German occupiers, Sumner spent the entire war using the hospital as a cover and escape network for French and British soldiers who had avoided capture by the Germans.
Similarly, the American library continued to welcome readers and lend out books in English although German regulations prohibited them from being on certain subjects or being lent to Jews. The library simply circumvented that latter restriction by sending books to non-Jewish clients who then passed them on to Jewish readers.
As did numbers of French citizens, many of the Americans nominally living under German control still found myriad ways to express their defiance.
Some whose professional lives involved frequent contact with German occupying forces, such as famed American singer and Paris resident Josephine Baker, often used those contacts to glean and transmit information useful to the Allies. Others sheltered Jews who risked persecution, helped pass messages clandestinely to Allied intelligence or escorted would-be escapees to freedom across France’s borders with Spain and Switzerland.
All that changed radically, however, in December, 1941, when Pearl Harbor brought America into the war against Japan and Germany and suddenly transformed all those Americans from neutrals to “enemy aliens.”
That American entry into the war led quickly to a clamp down on U.S. citizens in German-occupied northern France. Many were rounded up and sent to internment camps. Those who were not still were obligated to report regularly to German occupying authorities or French police.
Internments applied initially only to men although, in September, 1942, German authorities began to intern American women as well.
Initially, before the Germans had sufficient internment facilities arranged, some of them were held temporarily in the cleaned-out monkey house of the zoo de Vincennes on the eastern edge of Paris. While visits were not allowed, their friends quickly figured out that they could at least come and wave to them by paying an admission fee to the zoo.
The German grip on Americans in France and on France itself was tightened once again, however, when the Allies landed in North Africa in November 1942, and Germany responded by taking over control of what had been the “Free Zone” in the south.
In the process, they occupied what had been the American embassy in Vichy and sent the American diplomats there as well as other U.S. citizens in the south, including American nuns living in French religious establishments, to internment in the town of Lourdes.
Roughly 17 more months would pass, however before American and allied landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944 provided Americans interned or living under tight German controls throughout France a much-welcomed sign that their liberation was on the way.
It still was going to take allied forces, including those of General Charles de Gaulle’s Free French movement, another two and a half months to fight their way from Normandy to Paris and, on August 25, turn that liberation into reality.
But luckily, in the process, the city escaped widespread destruction because its then German military commander, General Dietrich von Choltitz, disobeyed Adolf Hitler’s orders to blow much of it up.
Also important was the bravery and initiative of Count Adelbert de Chambrun who, on the eve of the city’s liberation, saved the American hospital from probable destruction in battle.
A direct descendant of the Marquis de Lafayette, the Count held both American and French citizenship and, at the time, ran the American hospital. His wife, Clara, a sister-in-law of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice, simultaneously ran the American library.
With allied troops already in outlying quarters of the capital and German defeat inevitable, the local German military commander told the Count he was willing to surrender his troops in Neuilly and the area around the hospital but only to a French or American military officer.
He insisted, however, that he would not surrender to what he called the rabble-like mob of French citizens uprising everywhere throughout the city. Those he threatened to resist ferociously despite the likelihood that the hospital would be levelled in the process.
Luckily, Chambrun, not without difficulty, managed to pass on the message to French General Jacques Leclerc’s forces as they approached Paris and arrange for the German commander, on an agreed street corner near the hospital, to surrender to his French military adversaries honorably, properly and without a conflict.
Interestingly, the liberation of Paris did not end the problems for the Chambruns because they then had to deal with the post-liberation anger of Parisians against anyone suspected of collaborating with the Germans or the now disgraced Vichy government of Philippe Pétain and its prime minister, Pierre Laval.
The Count and Countess, despite all their efforts on behalf of the American hospital and library, were particularly harassed because, as fate would have it, their son René de Chambrun, was married to Laval’s daughter, Josée, and the Laval and Chambrun families had maintained tight relations during the war.
In the end, the Chambruns were spared arrest and imprisonment by Free French forces but, unable to erase the taint of Nazi collaboration, they were eased out of their jobs at the American hospital and American library and spent the rest of their lives in retirement.
Their son-in-law, Pierre Laval, an unrepentant Nazi sympathizer, who had fled France after the liberation, was captured, brought back and executed in 1945.
The American hospital’s Dr. Sumner, who had been arrested by the Germans and deported to Germany perished in an allied bombing raid there. His body never was recovered; Josephine Baker whose intelligence transmissions had proved of great value to the allies, left France to aid and entertain U.S. forces when they arrived in North Africa in November, 1942 and spent the remaining war years in similar efforts. After the war and quite exceptionally she received France’s highest national award, the Légion d’honneur, and its highest military honor, the “Croix de Guerre.”
All these stories and others about how the American expatriates in France coped during the eve-of-war and war years are magnificently detailed in the book Americans in Paris—Life and Death under Nazi Occupation, 1940-44, written by American journalist Charles Glass and published last year in London by Harper Press, a division of Harper Collins Publishers. A French-language version was published in France this February.
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