In May 1941, Herbert von Karajan, the young German conductor and Music Director of the Berlin Staatsoper, came to Paris with his Berlin Staatskapelle to perform for the first time at the Paris Opéra which, miraculously, had been kept open throughout the war by its elderly director, Jacques Rouché. The stars for this gala occasion – two performances of Tristan und Isolde celebrating Wagner’s birthday on 22 May – were the German tenor Max Lorenz and the French soprano Germaine Lubin.
The Parisian-born Lubin, a doctor’s daughter who had studied at the Paris Conservatoire where she was much admired by Gabriel Fauré, had first come to the notice of the German leaders in 1939 when, at Bayreuth, she established friendships with several members of the Wagner family and was even complimented by Hitler himself (a photograph of the pair together smiling would eventually seal her fate. Hitler told her she was the finest Isolde that he had heard. Lubin hoped to follow up her triumph by taking the role to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, having been recommended to the Met’s management by the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad. However, she could not travel during the war and was never to sing in the United States.
In 1941, staging the opera in Paris was an enormous undertaking in wartime as it involved moving scenery, instruments and hundreds of people from Berlin to Paris. Hans Speidel, Chief of Staff of the Military Command in Paris, considered
the enterprise a triumph for German logistics as well as culture, always an important goal. But Speidel had a personal motive too: he was so enamoured with Lubin that he invited her the following year to perform for his own farewell party when he was posted to the Eastern Front. In his memoirs he wrote, ‘I left Paris after a farewell evening… at which the Bayreuth Isolde, Germaine Lubin, sang the Schubertlied ‘Now let us make peace’ [sic: he was probably referring to Nun Lass uns Frieden Schliessen from Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch], after which I could go to the East feeling happy…’
He was to remain a friend and supporter of Lubin to the end of his life as was Vichy leader, Philippe Pétain, who once proposed marriage to Lubin.
As the first performance of Tristan und Isolde was reserved entirely for German officers in Paris the auditorium became a sea of grey-green uniforms. But the second was also quickly sold out, mostly to Parisians with influence who were keen to hear German music. Winifred Wagner, the composer’s English-born daughter-in-law and a friend of Hitler as well as of Lubin, attended both and was guest of honour at the glittering after-party. Lubin received rave reviews for her performance of Isolde. Véronique Rebatet, a Wagner connoisseur and wife of the collaborationist journalist, Lucien Rebatet, was in the audience for the second performance and commented afterwards, ‘I never saw a better performance of Tristan than the one with Germaine Lubin as Isolde.’ The surrealist artist Jean Cocteau wrote to Lubin: ‘Madame, what you have done for Isolde was such a marvel that I lack the courage to remain silent.’
But not everyone rushed to praise Lubin. The writer of one anonymous letter (the sort that was becoming all too familiar in Paris) accused her of being an ‘adored artist who has sold herself’. She always argued that art was not a matter of politics and that she lived only for her art. But there was a fine line between performing and being used by those for whom you were performing.
Arguably, Lubin crossed it, but she believed that her friendship with many in the German hierarchy – including a German lover, Hans Joachim Lange, a naval captain introduced by Winifred Wagner, whom she loved to entertain at her chateau near Tours – gave her useful influence, all the more necessary because by 1942 in Paris everyone had friends suddenly and often mysteriously arrested. Lange was indeed helpful to Lubin personally in securing the release of her only son, who had been in a German prisoner-of-war camp since 1940 following the French defeat. But her later claims, when she herself faced trial after the Liberation, that she had used her influence with the German occupiers to help release her elderly Jewish singing teacher, Marya Freund, from Drancy (the unfinished housing estate where Jews were held prior to deportation to Auschwitz) proved unfounded.
Lubin paid a heavy price for her highly visible performances, as well as her broadcasts on the German-controlled Radio-Paris. She was arrested on 26 August 1944, even before General de Gaulle began marching down the Champs Élysées cheered by a jubilant crowd following the liberation of the city by Allied forces. Although released within hours on that occasion, she was soon re-arrested and, as she revealed in several self-pitying diary entries, was subsequently subjected to filthy conditions in various Paris prisons where she was kept for several months along with well-known collaborating countesses and criminals.
‘For ten hours I waited on a leather bench with no back surrounded by dirty men with week- old beards, concierges, laundrywomen and prostitutes. In the corners garbage was mixed with the hair of women who had had their heads shaved the night before… I began trembling in uncontrollable fear of being suddenly delivered into the hands of one of these fanatics and ending up bald.’
Worse was to follow as she was transferred to Drancy, now according to Lubin ‘an immense material and moral garbage heap’ and then to the enormous prison at Fresnes, which had housed so many resisters during the war. She was humiliated and terrified and, almost worst of all, knew that her voice was deteriorating in these conditions. By early 1945 she was released but ordered to appear for trial in a civil court before a jury to answer accusations of collaboration with the enemy. The proceedings dragged on but finally, in December 1946, her case came to trial as a result of which Germaine Lubin, the soprano the French had once been so proud of for her ability to interpret Wagner, was now sentenced to National Indignity and told that she had been dismissed from the Paris Opéra with immediate effect and without compensation. She was also punished with loss of French citizenship for the rest of her life as well as confiscation of her chateau home near Tours. Although the sentence was later reduced, her opera career was finished. She continued to teach – among her most famous pupils was the soprano Régine Crespin – but always believed that she had suffered an enormous injustice. ‘Except for having eaten the flesh of children there was nothing I was not accused of,’ she complained. In 1954 her son committed suicide and she died in 1979.
While Lubin was being feted at the Paris Opéra another Germaine, born in 1907 almost twenty years after Lubin, who had similarly grown up in a cultured, bourgeois and opera loving family, took an immediate decision not to cooperate with the German occupier in any way. Germaine Tillion – her mother was an art historian, her father a justice of the peace and talented amateur musician – studied at the Sorbonne and became a highly respected ethnographer, but in 1940 when the Germans occupied Paris she joined one of
the early resistance groups in Paris, the Musée de L’Homme group. She was betrayed by a priest in the group, arrested by the Nazis in August 1942 and accused of five charges which were punishable by death. She was incarcerated first at Fresnes where she spent more than a year before awaiting her fate. Germaine Tillion would never be tried but instead was deported to Germany as a “Nacht und Nebel” prisoner, meaning “Night and Fog”, the phrase describing a category of political prisoners who were kept under the strictest surveillance and whose fate was meant to be kept secret up to and including their deaths.
On 21 October 1943, she left Fresnes in a convoy headed for the all-women’s camp of Ravensbrück, north of Berlin on the Baltic Coast and almost immediately used her ethnographic training to observe the behavior of the guards and how her fellow inmates could best respond to such barbarity. She was shocked to find her mother, Émilie, was already a prisoner and although Émilie was protected by many of the French prisoners, eventually they could do nothing to save her from being taken to be gassed. Germaine concluded that one of the most critical things needed for survival in such a brutal place was hope and so, mostly in order to entertain a small group in her block, she devised an operetta-review called ‘Verfügbar aux Enfers’ – Verfügbar meaning a disposable human being from the underworld and was a term used to refer to the lowest form of humanity in the camp, a person given the worst and most degrading chores. Tillion used well-known tunes from other operas to amuse her fellow prisoners surviving on starvation rations in such hellish conditions and to reaffirm life could be beautiful. The title was partly an echo of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld but she freely plundered other well-known tunes including Habanera from Carmen, Danse Macabre by Saint-Saëns but wrote new lyrics. Although the inmates had no instruments they used their tin bowls and wooden spoons to bat out rhythms.
She was eventually rescued by Count Bernadotte’s Swedish Red Cross mission in 1945 and returned to Paris where she tried to keep the existence of the work a secret. She refused to allow any public performance of her operetta, fearing it would encourage the public to think imprisonment had been fun.
After the war Tillion continued her career as an ethnographer and derived considerable fame from her work in Algeria in the 1950’s. She agreed to a performance of Verfügbar for the first time when she was 100 at Paris’s Châtelet Theatre, with chorus and opera. She was too frail to attend the actual performance but the cast but the cast came to her home and sang to her there. She was, according to the operetta’s music director Hélène Bouchez, ‘terribly moved.’ She died the following year but the work was again performed in 2010 at Ravensbrück itself to mark the 65th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
Verfügbar is today considered one of the most original and humorous texts to emerge from the Nazi camps even though Tillion was not a musician. In contrast to other camp music, or camp orchestras, this was not ‘used’ by the Germans to pretend to the outside world that life was normal in any sense, or that culture was allowed to flourish. It was written clandestinely and performed in snatches in secret.
In May 2015, seventy years after the end of the war, Tillion and fellow resistante Geneviève de Gaulle were finally honoured at a ceremony in the great French mausoleum, the Panthéon, which until that time boasted only one woman similarly honoured, the scientist Marie Curie. Their families asked that their bodes remain untouched but agreed to some soil being taken from
their graves and placed in a coffin at the Panthéon in a long overdue symbolic ceremony that recognised women had played myriad roles during the long years of German occupation of their country. Not all had fought to oppose the occupiers but many had risen to the challenge of defending freedom even at the cost of losing their careers or their lives.
Anne Sebba is the author of Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s (Weidenfeld and Nicolson £20.00)