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The Questions People Ask

One cover, two books

After giving several talks about Les Parisiennes and speaking to reading groups about the choices facing women in Occupied Paris, I now realise what the number one question from the audience is: what would you have done? I also realise that I don’t have a clear cut answer and have found myself saying different things on different occasions. It is an impossible question. I have always shied away from ‘what if’ questions on any historical subject. We cannot re-create all the other variables that go into making one straightforward answer. If I were a mother I would do one thing (sleep with a Nazi if it meant giving a crust of bread to my child and my action was not treasonable?) If I were a daughter of elderly parents I might do another, if I were a singer or dressmaker would I sing to a German audience or make clothes for a German woman? Who knows? On Monday I might do one thing on Friday another, in 1941 what might be murky could be clear cut by 1944. Would I deliberately cause trouble by walking out of a restaurant if the enemy walked in: what purpose would be achieved by that? Would I instigate a revolt in a prison if by my actions others would suffer? How do I (or those of my generation who have grown up in peace) begin to imagine what it felt like to be frightened, to feel a permanent visceral sense of tension?

Every talk I give results in a fresh set of questions focusing on different aspects of my book. It keeps me on my toes. This week I was asked why didn’t French women instigate more revolts against the Occupiers? Why aren’t there more women in French politics today? (Actually, I think there are quite a few).  Which characters do I like best and what have I learned from my research? And it is not just old people in my audience asking the questions. I have had young history teachers who flatteringly tell me they wish they had brought their ‘A’ level class. I am often asked: What happened to all the Franco-German babies?

Often, the questions aren’t questions at all but statements; so many people have stories of their own that they want to share of an aunt who survived a camp, or of an uncle who was killed, or of a friend of a friend. Did I by any chance come across this particular woman or, is it okay to publish the diaries of someone who their mother knew during the war but did not survive? Often there are questions which I am barely qualified to answer but I can usually refer the questioner to someone who would be and then this torrent that seems to have been unleashed usually has to be stopped or we’d overrun our time. None of my other books provoked this amount of questioning.

 

Ten things I learned while writing Les Parisiennes

One cover, two books1. There is always a choice in life. Choice is inside our heads. How do we think even if choice appears to have been taken away, how do we act? Women in Paris faced an extreme: would I have walked out of a cafe if a German soldier entered thereby risking my life? Would I have delivered political leaflets, what exactly would I have done to help a friend in prison standing up for what he/she believed in?
2. Women can handle weapons and are extremely brave under torture sometimes more than men because they have to prove themselves.
3. Right and wrong are not always clearly defined. There is a great big muddy grey area in between. The photographer who took the image on my book cover, Roger Schall, survived four years of enemy occupation by publishing photographs of monuments and buildings in Paris, and landscapes in France with captions in German for the German market. In return he was allowed to take photographs in and could capture the atmosphere of enemy occupied Paris which otherwise might never have been understood.
4. Learning a foreign language may be a life saver … as several camp prisoners said that understanding what their captors were saying helped keep them sane and retain some power over their situation.
5. Never procrastinate or put off to tomorrow…the story of Miriam Sandzer (and many others) clearly indicates that had she gone to England with her fiancé when she had the chance and he first asked her, she would have been spared much of her subsequent torment but she could not abandon her elderly parents and dithered, however understandably.
5. The world has double standards … Look at the way women were punished after the Occupation, often shaven and humiliated, without trial, for degrees of fraternisation with the enemy while the men, many of whom practised economic or industrial collaboration, often got away without punishment after the war because their businesses were necessary in the rebuilding of the country. One reason for punishing the women was revenge, or ancient settling of scores or to cover their own shame at a humiliating military defeat.
6. French women really ARE different especially the way they think about Fashion. Looking your best at all times was considered a way to show the German occupier that they were not beaten, that they retained pride in their own identity. Even arriving at the prison camp in Ravensbrück other nationalities noticed how French women looked elegant.
7. How much of Paris life carried on as normal during the occupation for some people such as those with access to theatres and cinema life flourished. Cinemas were warm places for couples to go even to make love but keeping the opera houses, theatres and cultural institutions open was playing in to German hands as it pleased the enemy to enjoy the entertainment Paris had to offer.
8. How easy it is to close your eyes to things happening on your own doorstep and do nothing. There were warehouses in central Paris, camps for those who could prove they had an Aryan spouse, which were used as sorting centres for looted goods to be sent to Germany.
9. How privileged I and my generation are to have grown up in peace and security as a child of the post-war period of plenty. I have never experienced real fear.
10. Being a mother puts choice into a different category. Some mothers slept with Germans simply to get hold of food for a starving child, others bravely handed their children over to a passeur, a social worker or nuns, rather than risk their certain death, yet had no idea where they were being taken nor if they would arrive there safely .

And number 11 (because I believe in adding one more for luck! )
War can also be a time of fulfilment and an opportunity to meet people from other milieus and can give an erotic charge to an otherwise dull life…Comtesse Pastré, newly divorced, discovered she could be a force for good by opening her Chateau to refugee Jewish Musicians from Paris and Odette Fabius, from the haute bourgeoisie, disillusioned with her husband’s philandering, became a resistante and fell passionately in love with a Corsican communist trade union leader in Marseilles.

Les Parisiennes Reviews

Read Negotiating with Silence by Lisa Hilton TLS (October 7th 2016)

One of the distinctive features of Anne Sebba’s richly intelligent history is the author’s evocation of sound. Sebba has deliberately eschewed a focus on well-known primary documentation for her history of Parisian women during World War II, choosing instead to alert her readers to a “quieter and frequently less well-known” set of voices. Those voices, belonging to women of all classes, ages and educational backgrounds, weep and sing through this extraordinary book, and through them we also hear the soundtrack to the city’s occupation, the “clackety-clack” of improvised wooden- soled shoes, the sinister clang of iron shutters banging closed on abandoned businesses, the squeak of a bicycle carrying hidden messages after curfew. Sebba’s story is also a negotiation with silence, the silence of the dispossessed, the vanished and the unacknowledged, many of whose stories, through the author’s indefatigable use of letters, diaries, objects and interviews, are heard here for the first time.

From the moment the French government retreated to Bordeaux on 10th June 1940, Paris became a ‘significantly feminized city”. It was women, Sebba argues, who represented the front line as the Wehrmacht poured in, who had to confront their country’s defeat both practically and ethically. The patriarchal nature of pre-war French society was the first obstacle: women without cheque books or bank accounts of their own were financially marooned, attempting to provide for their children without access to cash. For many, the obligation to resist became as urgent as finding food, but as Sebba delicately and compassionately demonstrates, this was, at least initially, no simple matter in the unprecedented atmosphere of moral ambiguity which pertained. Yet even as Paris emptied, life was just beginning for many disaffected women, and whilst resistance demanded both intense courage and sacrifice, the years of occupation were to prove richly fulfilling.

“Resistancialisme”, the term coined in 1987 by Henry Rousso in reference to the myth coined post-war by both Gaullists and Communists, and according to which the French unanimously and naturally resisted the Occupation, remains a vexed issue. As Margaret Atack observes, this myth was not in “monolithic domination”, and discordant voices of collaboration and complicity have found their place in a continuing examination of the legacy of French fascism and anti-Semitism, yet Sebba’s work demonstrates the extent to which, in contrast with Jewish experience, that of women who resisted, who were deported, tortured and killed has remained relatively unexplored. Sebba delineates the unutterable disgrace of Vichy’s treatment of French Jews- from the dehumanizing effects of the expropriation of their property to the deportation of Jewish children on the initiative of Pierre Laval, the head of the council of Vichy ministers. The youngest child sent to Auschwitz under Laval’s direct orders was 18 months old. Of the total of 76 000 Jews deported, just 3%, 2,500, returned to France. In contrast, 50% of resistants returned, designated as patriotic combatants, rather than victims by the provisional post-war government.

Within this vastly unjust disparity, Sebba detects another, that of the women, Jewish or not, whose bravery and suffering were largely discounted as de Gaulle welcomed home his nation’s returning sons. The General’s own niece, Genevieve, was deported to Ravensbruck, “where God”, she described “had remained outside”, yet pitifully few accounts of women’s lives there were given any public attention. The activities of the forty women who served actively in the F Division of the SOE, the Special Operations Executive created by Churchill in 1940 to assist resistance activities in occupied countries have also been neglected- since their very presence in France was in defiance of the Geneva convention, much of their work has been written out of history. Yet they fare better than the many prostitutes who were deported, victims of Vichy’s obsession with moral recovery, women who had perhaps hidden escaping airmen in brothels, but whose many acts of kindness and courage went undocumented. It was women who did penance for the emasculation of their nation- as Sebba describes, during the épuration sauvage in the immediate aftermath of the war, 20, 000 tondues displayed their shaven heads as exculpation for the men who had failed to protect them. Economic collaboration – the practice of a predominantly male commercial elite – was not nearly so severely punished as sexual submission to the enemy. And what constituted collaboration? As the writer

Colette discovered when she relied on the help of Suzanne Abetz, wife to the German Ambassador, to recover her Jewish husband Maurice Goudenet, when family members began to vanish, no one was above using highly placed contacts to help them.

Resistance is evoked here in two uniquely “Parisian” forms -art and fashion. Anyone who dismisses the latter as trivial would do well to observe the courage of Lucien Lelong, president of the Chambre Syndicale, who pleaded the case for French couture so successfully in Berlin that 25 000 women workers were saved from deportation. As a German visitor to Paris remarked, the resourcefulness of the women in remaining fashionable brought colour to an otherwise grey everyday life, whilst the re-establishment of the fashion industry after the war was an essential component of France’s economic recovery. Sebba’s definition of a ‘true” Parisienne is captured in the spirit of one woman, who, though nearly starving, preferred to use her daily allowance of an ounce of fat as hand-cream, a stubborn gesture of elegance which suggests the psychological power of chic. Aesthetic defiance was the stance of Jeanne Bucher, a gallerist who staged at least twenty shows of ‘decadent” cubists and surrealists during the Occupation, and whose premises served as a safe house- one man hiding from the Gestapo was amused to find himself sharing a hidden bed with a stack of Braques and Picassos.

Sebba is adept at explaining the changing political climate of Paris as the war progressed, but she never allows politics to overshadow her subjects’ voices. This book does not judge – instead, in the breadth of its humanity, it achieves some of the recognition which the Parisiennes own heroic

See the review online

Read Clare Mulley’s review of Les Parisiennes in the Spectator: http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/keeping-up-appearances-in-1940s-paris/
(June 2nd 2016)

This is a valuable book, not least because it doesn’t shy away from the physical misery of women’s lives — the indignity of having a period in camps with no sanitary protection, the abortionists who were put to death under Vichy while prostitution was legal, the children who died because their mothers were too weak to breastfeed. Although Sebba salutes the bravery of Les Parisiennes, such as Geneviève de Gaulle, who made great sacrifices to resist the enemy, she is careful not to condemn the ones who chose simply to survive. ..To read this book is to admire female bravery and resilience, but also to understand why the scars left by the Second World War still run so deep.”
http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/les-parisiennes-how-the-women-of-paris-lived-loved-and-died-in-the-1940s-by-anne-sebba-f8p6s8dnk
(July 2016)

” Anne Sebba’s tour de force of research and reflection…is a testament of silk and sacrifice of choices to resist or collaborate … Keep this extraordinary and evocative book close by and you will never lift a lipstick insouciantly again.”

By Madeleine Kingsley  http://www.thejc.com/arts/books/162416/review-les-parisiennes 

“Sebba has found an enthralling way of looking at the story by focusing on how the choice was made by French women, and, in particular, by the women of Paris.” By Sarah Helm Observer

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/31/les-parisiennes-anne-sebba-review

Read latest review in the Sydney Morning Herald: Accomplished biographer Anne Sebba has uncovered some extraordinary stories…. The author has also produced some extraordinary statistics …Sebba has produced a clear-eyed view of a bitter decade in the life of the City of Light.

 http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/anne-sebba-portrays-womens-wartime-hardship-in-les-parisiennes-20160905-gr8yo6.html  Sept. 2017

Read latest review in the Sydney Morning Herald: Accomplished biographer Anne Sebba has uncovered some extraordinary stories…. The author has also produced some extraordinary statistics …Sebba has produced a clear-eyed view of a bitter decade in the life of the City of Light. http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/anne-sebba-portrays-womens-wartime-hardship-in-les-parisiennes-20160905-gr8yo6.html (Sept. 2017)

” Anne Sebba’s tour de force of research and reflection…is a testament of silk and sacrifice of choices to resist or collaborate … Keep this extraordinary and evocative book close by and you will never lift a lipstick insouciantly again.”

By Madeleine Kingsley  http://www.thejc.com/arts/books/162416/review-les-parisiennes 

“This is a valuable book, not least because it doesn’t shy away from the physical misery of women’s lives — the indignity of having a period in camps with no sanitary protection, the abortionists who were put to death under Vichy while prostitution was legal, the children who died because their mothers were too weak to breastfeed. Although Sebba salutes the bravery of Les Parisiennes, such as Geneviève de Gaulle, who made great sacrifices to resist the enemy, she is careful not to condemn the ones who chose simply to survive. ..To read this book is to admire female bravery and resilience, but also to understand why the scars left by the Second World War still run so deep.”
http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/les-parisiennes-how-the-women-of-paris-lived-loved-and-died-in-the-1940s-by-anne-sebba-f8p6s8dnk
(July 2016)

Caroline Moorehead in the Literary Review described it as “Sebba’s book, with its phenomenal amount of detailed research and its vast cast of characters, is rich in stories about the tricks of life under occupation, the heroism of those who carried out acts of defiance, the slipperiness of collusion and the vast profits made by fixers, contacts, middlemen and entrepreneurs. She is particularly good on the fashion world and the scheming equivocating social luminaries…”
https://literaryreview.co.uk/occupational-hazards
(July 2016)

Read Clare Mulley’s review of Les Parisiennes in the Spectator: http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/keeping-up-appearances-in-1940s-paris/
(June 2nd 2016)

 

 

Les Parisiennes The Spectator Review

What is it about 2016 and anniversaries and why being in Jersey makes me reflect?

The wedding dress worn by Wallis Simpson’s 1st mother -in-law, now restored at a cost of more than £4,000There’s a huge anniversary at the end of this week and everyone in the literary world and beyond is getting very excited about it. Publishers have spent years preparing books on the great man while scholars are falling over themselves to find something new to say, reinterpreting the will or the plays, discovering a greater depth to what he really meant, why he mattered to suffragettes and just how much did he know or invent?

But, excited though I am about Shakespeare, there’s another date this week that’s been exercising me and I am not talking about the Queen’s 90thbirthday. April 24, one day after the big birth and death date, marks thirty years since the death of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor. I’ve been called by a number of journalists wanting to know how the public perception of That Woman has changed in the thirty years since her death. A German radio station has even prepared an hour long programme on the significance of the Abdication eighty years on…German? Yes, for reasons not difficult to fathom.

To most who ask, I answer that the change came in 2011 with the discovery of 15 unpublished letters which I detailed in my biography of Wallis. But this week I learned another intriguing fact. I am in Jersey to give a talk about Wallis and am told (blushing because I did not know) that Wallis’ first mother-in-law, the mother of Win Spencer, was a Jersey girl! Agnes Lucy Hughes married Earl Winfield Spencer of Chicago in Jersey’s Town Church at St Helier on 10th December 1887. Her magnificent cream silk wedding dress was made by one Madam Henry of New Street, St Helier and was recently restored for about £4,000 by the Jersey Museum for an exhibition which, after it was first shown in Jersey, travelled to America. Now I am intrigued: Agnes was apparently already living in Chicago when she met Earl Winfield Spencer but obviously Jersey mattered enough to her to return there for her wedding. Their unfortunate son, Earl Winfield Spencer Jnr., a handsome pioneer naval aviator, is known to history as the first husband of the infamous Wallis Simpson. But less well known is that another brother, Dumaresq Spencer, died fighting in World War One – a war for which he volunteered and did not have to fight since America initially did not join in the war. I am reminded of him as I walk past Dumaresq Street in Jersey – another clear indication that Jersey was of considerable importance to the Spencers since Dumaresq is one of the oldest names associated with the Island.

Does it matter? Yes actually, it does. I have always known that Win Spencer’s mother was deeply patriotic – so much so that when Dumaresq was killed in World War one she was quoted as saying that if she had another son she would gladly give him to the war effort. I could not understand such exaggerated patriotism. Now I almost do.

But in fact, I was excited to come to Jersey because of its relevance to my forthcoming book, Les Parisiennes, How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s about women in wartime Paris, when it was occupied by the Germans. I have tried hard not to be judgemental in the book since, after all, how can those of us in Britain, who were not invaded, understand the pressures of a Nazi Occupation? But the Channel Islands of course were occupied. Nowhere could they understand quite as well as here in Jersey and Guernsey what Occupation meant on a daily basis.  So, I can’t wait to return to Jersey and talk about this rather different subject. Well … perhaps not so different. If we hadn’t had the Abdication 80 years ago not only would we not be celebrating such a long reign by our present Queen but, who knows, we might not be celebrating anything much at all. But that is to enter into the ‘what if’ territory from which most sound historians run a mile. But,just occasionally, it’s irresistible as well as amusing to contemplate. And that is why anniversaries matter; they make us stop to think of how we got to where we are.

Good Community Relations

Interfaith Community Relations in Bradford

The Book of Marriage Records Bradford Synagogue

The Book of Marriage Records Bradford Synagogue

In anticipation of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day and the importance of respecting other communities, I’ve been thinking about a day I spent recently in Bradford where I witnessed a warm coming together of Muslim and Jewish communities. It’s not what you’d expect from reading an average diet of British newspapers or listening to George Galloway, former MP for Bradford West.

I went to visit the synagogue in Bowland Street, Bradford, where my grandmother, the music hall star and Bradford pantomime favourite, Miss Lily Black, was married more than a hundred years ago. The synagogue, founded in Moorish style in 1880 and now a Grade 2 listed building, is desperately in need of funds for repairs if it is to survive. I’d wanted to see it for years but, with the once flourishing community in decline, I knew I could put off my visit no longer. In 2013 the synagogue was saved from closure only thanks to a fund raising effort mounted by the secretary of a nearby mosque, together with the owner of a popular curry house, a local textile magnate and the leader of the local Jewish community, Rudi Leavor. This released much needed funds to repair a leaky roof. It’s a start. After a most delicious lunch at the Sweet Centre curry restaurant, next door to the synagogue, I was reassured by owner Zulficar Ali that he was keeping an eye on the beautiful old building.

Lily was married in Bradford because, barely out of her teens, she had converted to Judaism. She obviously thought it was better to have the ceremony outside London, where she had grown up in a working class haberdasher’s family without much money, left school at 14 and struck out on her own as an artist’s model and actress. In seven years she had made a career for herself and travelled around the country performing, but what did she know of life beyond the stage?

According to Ernest Aris, who went on to become famous as a children’s illustrator and who often drew Lily for several Bradford newspapers, she was “delightful, the most charming Principal Girl this city has seen since Madge Crichton played Cinderella at the Royal. She will make a great hit,” Aris predicted of her while she was starring in Robinson Crusoe at the Prince’s Theatre, “she is sprightly without being vulgar, she has a sweet voice and a personality which would melt even the heart of a Free Church Councillor!”

Ernest Aris clearly had a soft spot for Lily, who was, he added, enshrined in his susceptible heart. However, while performing at Bradford, Lily met and fell in love with my grandfather, Leo Hirshfield from a Birmingham silver making and jewellery family, when he came to try and persuade her to be photographed for a Raphael Tuck postcard. She was only 20 when she accepted his proposal of marriage, converted to Judaism and the couple were married in Bowland Street synagogue on September 25, 1910.

Lily was sufficiently famous for a reporter to attend the wedding. He commented “there were only a few of us present and among the witnesses were Mr and Mrs Henry Cohen of Leeds (Leonora Cohen was the militant suffragette who became famous in 1913 when she flung an iron bar into a jewel box at the Tower of London. She was remanded in prison and went on a hunger strike) and Mr Jacob Moser, Lord Mayor Elect of Bradford. The bride wore a sensible gown of grey silk and was addressed by Rabbi Dr Strauss who told her that “you, my dear bride, have idyllic Ruth of old as your example. You like her have said and verified the touching words whither thou goest, I will go, thy people shall be my people and thy god my god.”

There was a small reception held at the Midland hotel and, immediately upon marriage, Lily gave up performing and rarely talked about her years on the stage. For seven years she had had had a stellar career touring the country and working hard and long hours. She was also in demand as an artist model largely for her spectacular thick and curly reddish gold hair. Now all she wanted was a comfortable and secure home life and she and Leo produced three children, Desmond, who became Lord Hirshfield, a labour peer, Norman who became a Conservative councillor and Mayor, and my mother Joan, who married, in 1946, Major Eric Rubinstein. I was born in 1951 my sister Jane in 1948.
I wish I had asked her more questions as there is so much I now want to know. I am so thrilled at last to have seen the synagogue where her new life began and happy to know that there is new life in the area which is keen to preserve the past. Zulfi Karim, Secretary of Bradford Council of Mosques, who is on the board at the Central Westgate mosque a few hundred metres up the road from the synagogue said: “It makes me proud that we can protect our neighbours and at the same time preserve an important part of Bradford’s cultural heritage.”