Reading Matters

The women of Paris under Nazi occupation

I’m looking for a long winter’s night and a roaring fire to bury myself in this fat book: Anne Sebba’s “Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died Under Nazi Occupation.”

By 1942, food was in short supply in Paris, and the French women were terrified. Maybe there was “butter at the bookseller’s, wine at the dentist’s or meat at a stationery shop...”

“At night,” writes Sebba, “women were sometimes seen at (the outdoor food market) Les Halles searching the floor to see if any edible scrap had been dropped.”

And things got worse. By June, 1942, all Jews over the age of six in occupied France were ordered to wear a yellow star with the word Juif in black inside the star on their outer garments at all times. And, by July, the round-ups (of the Jews) began.

Some thought not wearing the star was cowardly, “vis-a-vis people who will.” Even escaping the city for the countryside was seen by some as cowardly, though many women sent their children to live with relatives (and strangers) in the French countryside.

On two days in mid-July, 1942, the Vichy government, “aiming to satisfy German demands to reduce the Jewish population, arrested some 13,152 Jews, including more than 4,000 children, mostly from Paris.”

Sebba writes of Rachel Erlbaum who still lives today in the same apartment in the Marais (neighborhood) where she grew up with her parents and younger brother.

Rachel’s mother “took the precuation of hiding during the day, living in the coal cellar, and only going back up to the apartment most nights to see her children. ...By some miracle the police did not enter their building.

“Rachel pauses before continuing, ‘I can still hear the screams and cries of the babies and other children thrown into the green and yellow buses by the French.’”

Not easy reading. But we must never let ourselves forget what can happen when a manaical hate enters the hearts of our fellow men.

Dannye: dpowell@charlotteobserver.com

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