It is great to approach history from a different angle, especially in order to gain a new perspective on events. In this book Anne Sebba forces us to reconsider a momentous decade for France, beginning with the German occupation of Paris in 1940, from the point of view of the women of the city. It is hard to imagine how difficult it must have been to continue a normal life in such a situation. The vast majority of men were absent, either in the army, as prisoners of war, or among huge number of civil servants who left Paris to set up an administration in the town of Vichy. Put in New Zealand terms, all the civil servants in Wellington would relocate to Blenheim or Hanmer Springs. The women remained in Paris, trying to do their best for children and elderly relatives.
Not only did food become scarce but also rules became more and more brutal. Jews were forbidden to own businesses, then made to wear yellow stars on their clothes and finally completely outlawed. Many had lived in France for more than twenty years and saw themselves as patriotic nationals. Others had left their religion behind, but they were suddenly lumped together, their wealth and possessions plundered, and transported to camps. Not just men, but women too, sent to camps such as Ravenbrück, a female only camp that included Jews, political detainees and resistance fighters. The description of the conditions and treatment is hard to read, but worse is to learn of the complete lack of action by the Red Cross who claimed to be unable to send food or parcels because these were not recognised as prisoners of war.
This is not a depressing book, but one that lights up with flashes of hope and inspiration in the face of so many dark moments. As Sebba puts it in her final line, “It is not for the rest of us to judge, but, with imagination, we can try to understand.” In mid-1943 almost 80,000 French women were claiming support from Germans who had fathered children in the occupied zone. It is a statistic that was washed over after the war, but must have had a huge impact on post-war French life. Some estimate as many as 200,000 children were born to French mothers and German fathers. Most were never told the truth about their identity.
Les Parisiennes briefly tells the story of Irène Némirovsky, author of the book Suite Française which was made into a great film last year. Following her capture she ceased to be a novelist, a wife, a mother, Russian or French woman and became simply a Jewess who quickly died at Auschwitz camp. The hurriedly scribbled writing of her last few months was retained by her children and only published 65 years later. Some Jews were lucky, protected by neighbours or faithful concierges, their children able to escape and live with families in the country. Property was snatched. Often greed was the motivation that led to anonymous denunciations. Some three and a half million denunciations were made in France by the end of the war, motivated by revenge or financial reward.
The recognition of the role that women played in the Resistance has never been fully acknowledged. Only six women were awarded the prestigious title of Campagnons de la Libération out of 1,038 awards. And of the lesser honour of Médaille de la Résistance, 1,000 women received the medal out of 48,000 awarded. Sebba notes her most painful controversy was that those Parisiennes who were deported because they resisted were decorated by the State on their return, while those deported because they were Jewish were simply regarded as victims not heroes. 76,000 Jew from a population of 330,000 were sent to their deaths between 1940 and 1944 with the co-operation of the Vichy state. It is a legacy that France still struggles with.