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Prison and Fashion – an unlikely link?

Brian Stonehouse The Green Dress c 1955

Brian Stonehouse The Green Dress c 1955

As I start to write segments of my book on Paris in wartime (and beyond) it’s hard to get prisons out of my mind – especially Nazi ones. On Monday I interviewed the surviving daughter of a French resistante, one of the bravest imaginable who even tried to escape from Ravensbruck, possibly the only woman ever to try and escape from this particular hell hole. But she was re-captured and made to pay cruelly. Amazingly, she survived her punishment of torture, solitary confinement and a diet verging on starvation and was liberated by the Swedish Red Cross in 1945. One of the most extraordinary documents which also survived, and which her daughter showed me during our interview, was her mother’s prison ID card, stamped with the dates of her various prison stays mostly in France but culminating in Ravensbruck. The barbarity is so hard to believe that these pieces of tangible evidence are more important than ever.

Before her arrest, this sophisticated Parisienne was noted for wearing elegant Lanvin suits while undertaking highly dangerous missions. And the unlikely link between prison and fashion, which will be threaded through my book, (pun intended), continued the day after this moving interview when I visited the unusual exhibition of works by the SOE secret agent and artist, Brian Stonehouse at the London gallery, Abbott and Holder until December 23rd.

http://www.abbottandholder-thelist.co.uk/brian-stonehouse-vogue/

Stonehouse, who moved to the US after the war where he became a Vogue illustrator, (one of the last before photography took over completely), may not be a household name in the pantheon of British secret agents. However, he played a critical role at one point in post war SOE history as his artistic skills enabled him to help identity four women he had seen hours before they were sent to their deaths at Natzweiler-Strutof camp, where he too was being held in the summer of 1944.  He had noticed the women’s arrival and, after the war, dredged his memory to produce sketches of them in order to try and help with identifying them. Within hours of their arrival, the women were given lethal injections of phenol in an attempt to drug them before their bodies were thrown in the crematorium. But one of the women, although drugged, apparently woke up when her body was flung into the furnace and began to struggle just enough to scratch the face of the German executioner forcing her back in. It is believed that this brave woman who resisted until the last, was Vera Leigh, a milliner before the war and another true Parisienne.

Stonehouse, a remarkable man who survived two and a half years of torture and solitary confinement himself in a variety of camps, is now being celebrated in London for his artistic talent. The Imperial War Museum holds many of the drawings he made on the liberation of Dachau and of the War Crimes Tribunal but these fashion sketches show he was a man of many talents. As for the numerous women whose stories I am unearthing, their bravery was second to none but they still cared about how they look. From the moment war was declared in September 1939 fashion was viewed in France at least as yet another small way in which German dominance could be resisted.

There is a book to accompany the exhibition – Brian Stonehouse: Artist,  Soldier, War Hero, Fashion Illustrator – by Frederic A. Sharf with Michelle Finamore

Troubled Waters

Learning that Patrick Modiano was the 15th Frenchman to win the Nobel Prize for literature since the first was awarded in 1901, beating such American favourites regularly passed over as Philip Roth, surely makes anyone interested in culture at least pause for breath…What is it about French literature that the rest of the world holds in such esteem? And it’s not those plain covers, classy admittedly, but full of snobbery too as if a picture on the jacket might lower the tone. These are not books for children after all.

The Swedish academy, in awarding the 2014 prize, described Modiano as ‘a Proust for our times’ since his work has to do with memory and he is troubled by loss, above all lost time. Born in 1945 to an Italian-Jewish father and Belgian actress mother, he has said: ‘Like everyone who has neither ground nor roots, I am obsessed by my prehistory. And my prehistory is the troubled and shameful period of the Occupation.’  And there is lots to be troubled about there. However, since it seems that only one of his 22 novels has been translated into English, The Search Warrant, it is hard for non-French speakers to judge. This novel touches on France’s recent history, in particular the round ups of Jews by fellow Frenchmen during World War Two,  when Paris was occupied by Germans but the orders were given from Vichy, the so-called free zone. Those seized, including hundreds of children, were sent first to Drancy and then Auschwitz. French police using French buses were responsible for the roundups. French president Jacques Chirac apologised for French complicity in the tragedy only in 1995 and many French are still reluctant to address openly the issues of how their families behaved during those appalling five years.

It seems to me that any thinking person of a certain age who wants to write is – eventually -magnetically drawn to writing about the barbarity of the 20th century. For one who grew up in France it must be impossible to avoid those extremely long shadows. I was born several years after the end of World War 2 and in England but have spent much of the last year thinking about les années noires in France for a book I am working on.  And last week, appropriately on the same day that the prize was announced, I saw the much acclaimed French film Violette, based on the life story of French writer Violette Leduc and her painful struggle to become a writer detailed in her bestselling memoir, La Batarde.   

Apart from wondering why French films are always so long, so intense, so full of walks and bicycle rides through woods and so determined to leave nothing to the imagination, Violette is historically fascinating. Not only does the film feature a rather too young and beautiful Simone de Beauvoir winning the Prix Goncourt  for her ground breaking The Second Sex, there is also much about the wartime black market as well as an abortion (illegal of course). It is visually stunning, full of fabulous 40’s fashions and plenty of those plain covered books with nothing but the title. So chic they reminded me of a Chanel jacket. Or was it the plentiful black market food that reminded me? But then apparently Modiano’s father survived the war by making black market deals with occupying Germans. One things for sure, it seems to me that just as important as remembering is not judging.

 

 

A Dying Breed

It’s been a dreadful week for deaths. It always is, I know. But recently, I daren’t open the obits page for fear I’ll meet someone I know or someone I was hoping to interview but left it too late.  There are always far too many obituaries of men and women who die long before their time such as the beautiful and talented Candida Lycett Green, who has just died at 71 from pancreatic cancer. We mourn them all.  But often it is reading the obituaries of women when I let out the deepest sigh…oh why didn’t I know about them when they were alive? Why did they keep all these amazing life experiences so quiet?

The three women whose obituaries have filled my thoughts this week were not exactly young nor unknown. Helen Bamber, aged 89, Aline Berlin, 99, and Philippine de Rothschild, a mere 80, had all lived full and rich lives. Of course for the loved ones and close family there is always a hole left whatever the age of the dead person as well as the hope that the person might just have lived for this birth or that announcement. But, overall, these three women should be celebrated not merely for having lived life to the full but for brushing as closely against evil as it is possible yet triumphing over it.  They embraced life and refused to succumb to bitterness.

I had the privilege of meeting Helen Bamber, a woman who never knew any other life apart from helping others in the direst circumstances. From the age of 20 she dedicated her life to those who suffered torture, trafficking, slavery and other forms of extreme human cruelty. She volunteered to go out to Germany in 1945 immediately after the war and work with the Jewish relief unit under the auspices of the United Nations Relief Agency in the just liberated concentration camp of Bergen Belsen. She spent two horrific years there and promised the dying that she would bear witness to their torment. They could not have imagined how hard she would work to do that over the next seventy years. As she travelled around the world to document torture and its aftermath in many countries those who met her said she seemed determined to help everybody. In 1985 Helen founded the Medical Foundation for the care of Victims of Torture, a pioneering organisation as nobody until then had time to listen. It’s an appalling reflection of the 20th century that the need for her work increased.  She married and had two children of her own but amazingly was never overcome by the harrowing stories and continued helping others almost until the end. There is more here:

http://www.helenbamber.org/

Aline Berlin grew up in an immensely wealthy Russian Jewish family in Paris but privilege did not shield her personal tragedy when her first husband, Andre Strauss, died of cancer five years after they were married leaving her a widow with a young son just as war with Germany loomed. She was ‘lucky’ in that she and her family could pay for exit visas from the American consulate in Nice and she escaped from France just in time spending the rest of the War in North America. She married a second time, to Hans Halban, a French nuclear physicist who had also managed to escape France and although the couple had two sons this was not an entirely happy marriage. In 1956 Aline married Isaiah Berlin, the academic and philosopher who had been in love with her for some years. The Berlins were married for more than 40 years and together enjoyed a life devoted to music, books and travel.

While in New York Aline had befriended Ceçile de Rothschild, another French emigrée, and the women played golf together – something at which Aline excelled. But another Rothschild, a cousin by marriage, was not so lucky. Philippine de Rothschild was ten years old when she saw her mother, the beautiful Elisabeth Pelettier de Chambure, a Catholic living apart from her husband Philip de Rothschild, arrested by the Nazis in her home and taken to Ravensbrück where she was killed. Elisabeth is the only member of the Rothschild family killed in the Holocaust. After the War, Philippine became first an actress working at the Comédie Française and then took over and expanded the family wine business, Chateau Mouton Rothschild becoming a world renowned expert in the business.  She commissioned well known artists to design labels – the Prince of Wales obliged for a 2004 vintage – paying them for the privilege of having their work attached to a bottle with ten cases of selected Rothschild wines.

Next week’s obituaries may reveal another crop of extraordinary women – and no doubt some men too – who hid their lights. Of course none of us wants another war in order to prove ourselves but I can’t help wondering if my own generation will yield obituaries half as interesting as this generation now leaving us.

 

Strangers you meet on holiday …

Seven years ago, wandering along a sunny Cretan beach, I was approached by a striking duo; the mother, an elegant American with curly, white blonde hair and her sophisticated daughter, a tall and poised twelve year old with a mane of equally curly, brown hair.  This was their first holiday since the woman’s husband and father of the girl, had died suddenly the previous year and they were looking for friends. What could be more natural and appealing, especially since we had a daughter roughly the same age? We struck up a conversation and a friendship.

Today the mother, Sheila von Weise Mack, is dead, battered and bruised to death, her half naked body dumped into a suitcase. Heather, her daughter, now 19, and her 21 year-old boyfriend, Tommy Schaefer, have been arrested in conjunction with the murder but not charged. The threesome had been on holiday in a luxury hotel in Bali, Indonesia.

Ever since I heard the tragic news I have thought of little else. Our two families had dinner together that night and, I rather imagined, that would be that – a holiday friendship lasting as long as the holiday, especially since the two girls had little in common. But, as soon as Sheila heard I was a writer, she craved deep discussions about literature, especially Saul Bellow, her particular passion. He was one of her teachers while she was researching for a PhD at the University of Chicago and obviously had had a huge influence on her. When she heard I was coming to the US that Autumn to promote my forthcoming book on Winston Churchill’s American mother, Jennie Jerome, she immediately invited me to stay at her luxurious home in Oak Park (a house stuffed full of memorabilia from her late husband, US composer and arranger, James Mack) and insisted on organising launch parties and book groups for me to address in Chicago. She was as good as her word and generously produced one of the most lavish launch parties I have ever been given. Some of the friends she introduced me to that night are still my friends and it was from one of them that I first heard of Sheila’s untimely and shocking death.

After that launch, we kept in touch occasionally with Sheila trying to arrange further meetings in London or Chicago.  Christmas cards were never a simple greetings card but a package of photos and news about Heather, a stunning girl and talented ballerina who, it seemed to me, Sheila idolised and devoted her life to. Whenever I was in the US she begged me to stay. She wanted to give me a literary guided tour of Chicago to show me the Ernest Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright homes. When I was researching Wallis Simpson, my next book, she offered to help with research into the family of Wallis’s first husband, Win Spencer who came from Highland Park in Chicago, another wealthy suburb.

But something held me back which I could not identify at the time. Much as I liked her, I sensed a deeply troubled and needy individual but, until yesterday, I could never have guessed quite how troubled.

Rhodes – a lost culture

Greek Island - RhodesI have just spent a few days on the idyllic Greek island of Rhodes. We ate well, enjoyed the tourist shops and explored some fascinating ancient and medieval sites. But the heart of the visit was the short time we spent inside the oldest Synagogue in Greece, now the only one remaining on Rhodes. The day we are there, July 22nd, it is – unusually – bursting with vibrant international life.

Seventy years ago, it was a different story.

In 1943 Rhodes, formerly ruled by the Italians, was taken over by the Germans. On July 23rd of the following year, even as the tide of World War 2 was turning against the Nazis, 1,673 members of the Jewish community were rounded up and shipped off on a long and arduous journey to Auschwitz, where most of them were killed on arrival. Forty two Jews who were able to claim Turkish nationality were saved from deportation, thanks to the actions of the Turkish Consul General, Selattin Ulkumen, and one hundred and fifty one survived Auschwitz. Today there are just a handful of Jews living on the island but, for the 70th anniversary commemoration of the deportation, descendants of those who once contributed so much to the island culture and history have reassembled from Canada, South America, the USA, Africa and Europe and we, with no connections to Rhodes beyond friends whose family was once a pillar of the community, find ourselves among them in the boiling sunshine as they search for homes where their grandparents or great grandparents once lived and flourished.

Greek Island - RhodesFor the Jewish community of Rhodes has a rich history dating back to the second century and, at its height in the 1930’s, had a population of almost 4,000 people and six synagogues. Many were Sephardic Jews who fled Spain at the time of the Inquisition in the late 15th century and spoke to Ladino, a particular variant on Spanish and a language now in danger of dying out. Although there were periods when they were not welcome, generally Jews on the island lived in harmony with their rulers. It is good to be reminded not only of this rich heritage but the important contribution Jews made to the island culture.