Simone Veil, the Auschwitz survivor and French politician who died last summer aged 89, was described at her funeral as “a woman who filled our lives with the light that shone within you… and which nothing or nobody was able to extinguish.”
President Macron, announcing within days of her death that she would be buried with full honours in the Panthéon, the first Jewish woman to be thus commemorated, described the honour as a measure of “the immense gratitude of the French people to one of its most loved children.” The Panthéon is France’s secular temple to the great and good yet, until 2015, there was only one woman buried there in her own right (Marie Curie). With the addition of Veil, a woman seen by many in France as the embodiment of courage and moral rectitude, there will be four.
Yet such recognition of the crucial role women played during the War, which ended more than 70 years ago is, many feel, long overdue.
Although born in Nice in 1927 into an assimilated Jewish family, Veil was in every sense a Parisienne, an elegant woman with a warm smile who knew how to use clothes to enhance her dignity. Aged 17, she, along with her mother and sister, were captured by the Nazis in the spring of 1944 and sent to Auschwitz. The girls survived but their mother died of typhoid in March 1945.
Simone’s other sister Denise, later Vernay, although Jewish, was older and so worked as a résistante and was deported to Ravensbrück, the all-women political prison just north of Berlin. Vernay, on returning from Ravensbrück, was made Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur, and awarded numerous medals including the Grand-Croix de l’ordre National du Mérite et Titulaire de la Croix de Guerre 1939-1945 avec Palmes and the Médaille de la Résistance avec Rosette. Veil, however, although she had a glittering political career, and is best known for her determination to legalise abortion in France – the law was finally passed in 1975 after bitter debate – was awarded the Légion d’honneur only in 2012.
In 1993, commenting on the differing treatment meted out to returning Jewish survivors as opposed to political returnees, she complained: “We were only victims and not heroes. What we experienced mattered little, something people did not fail to tell us in a brutal way, even those belonging to the associations of former resisters.” Veil also faced virulent personal attacks, comparing the legalization of abortion to the Holocaust, including a question from one parliamentary député who asked if she would agree to the idea of throwing embryos into crematorium ovens.
Simone Veil’s story is just one of myriad lives I have written about in my book, Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940’s. ** My cast includes milliners, couturiers, jewellers, dancers, actors, singers, teachers, collaborators, resisters and spies, by no means all of them Jewish, nor all famous. Ordinary women – housewives, concierges, prostitutes and teenagers – often lead more interesting lives than celebrities such as Coco Chanel, the designer, who spent the war living in the Ritz with her handsome young German lover, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, known as ‘Spatz’. Yet the disparity between the treatment of Jews, if they survived, and were often deemed victims since they had not necessarily chosen to resist, compared with political prisoners who had actively chosen the noble path of resisting the foreign occupier living off the abundance of their land, became one of the most painful aspects of the post-war drama. Several detainees returning to Paris eight or nine months after the liberation of the city, looking like skeletons and often owning nothing, walked into a gulf of misunderstanding. Nobody wanted to hear about atrocities any more; they hoped to rebuild their lives, establish normalcy if they could. It was, for many, like a second death.
“Don’t say anything, they won’t understand,” was the advice given to Marceline Rozenberg, later Loridan-Ivens. Marceline was 15 when she was arrested and sent to the camps yet she wrote about her experiences only in 2016 when she was in her mid-eighties, the story too painful to recount until then. It became an unlikely bestseller called: “But you did not come back?”
On the other hand historians are keen to emphasise what is known as the French paradox; while the Vichy Government deported to their deaths a shocking 76,000 out of a total population of 333,000 Jews between 1940 and 1944, approximately three quarters of France’s Jewish population survived thanks to good and honourable French who protected them. Renée Fenby, then 3 year-old Renée Wartski, by her own admission “an extremely difficult child,” was one of these. She had always known how lucky she was to have survived the July 1942 Paris roundup when almost 14,000 Jews, including 4,000 children, were taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver.
“I can still remember the look on my mother’s face when she heard the Paris policeman knock on the door of the concièrge and ask for the Jews on the second floor. Normally I would have screamed.” Renée’s father, a naturalised Frenchman who worked in the leather trade, had emigrated from Poland during World War One when France encouraged such movement, and was now a prisoner-of-war in Germany. Her mother was alone with Renée, her nine year-old-brother Louis, and her parents all squashed into a small apartment in a four storey building down an alleyway off Rue de Crimée, an old cobblestoned street with cafes on each corner in the 19th arrondissement. “The quick thinking concièrge told the policeman: “They’ve left, sorry, gone out of town.”
I feel privileged to have met so many courageous survivors and have tried to do justice to their role in events which may have occupied only four years of their lives but whose effects are lifelong. It may be invidious to single out any, but unforgettable among the stories I heard was that of Arlette Reiman, just 9 when she and her sister Madeleine, 11, and mother Malka also were rounded up in July 1942. Their father, Abraham, had already been arrested and taken to a camp at Pithiviers.
“Don’t worry,” he always told us, “don’t be afraid. This is the land of freedom, of Voltaire and Rousseau.” And so it had been until 1940.
“I remember my mother shouting and screaming at the police who came to our door and throwing furniture at them. They told us to prepare food and drink for three days. “How ridiculous,” my mother replied, “What can we take? As Jews we are barely allowed to buy any food.” Arlette remembers every detail about that hot and humid day, especially how, in their case, the concièrge was watching as the four families in their apartment block left.
After several days at the sports stadium they were transported to another camp at Beaune-la-Rolande. Understanding what fate was in store for the three of them, the ever resourceful Malka persuaded the authorities there to let her travel back to Paris by lying that she had hidden there vital material, furs as well as sewing machines, that would be useful to the Germans. If she was allowed back to Paris with her children she would show them where. Amazingly, they believed her allowing her and the two girls to travel unaccompanied on a military train back to Paris where they were due to be met.
“My mother realising that the train was very slow, regularly stopping, saw a chance. She told us when she gave the nod, we would have to jump out and lie low between the wooden sleepers and that we would be fine. We had to trust her. She would come back to collect us. It was terrifying but we did it. She saved our lives.” The three then walked the rest of the journey, mostly by night, into Paris. Malka immediately set about organising for the girls to be hidden with an impoverished Christian family in the countryside, located thanks to her local postman, while she set about finding odd jobs and selling goods she had hidden in order to pay for their upkeep. Amazingly all three survived the war but in 1946, when Malka finally realised that Abraham, her childhood sweetheart, had not survived she lost the will to live, stopped speaking stopped eating and, according to Arlette, died of a broken heart. Arlette was 13 and became an orphan of the state.
The story of Odette Fabius gave me an insight into a different kind of Jewish Parisienne as her family, the Schmolls, were descended from one of France’s oldest and most illustrious Jewish families. Married in 1929 aged 19, in Paris’ magnificent Grand Synagogue, Odette decided to leave Paris, joined an official resistance organisation in Marseilles, and sent her young daughter, Marie-Claude, to school in the south. But Odette was betrayed, arrested and eventually sent to Ravensbrück where she managed to hide her Jewishness or she too would have been despatched to Auschwitz.
By great good fortune I discovered that Marie-Claude, abandoned in a cinema when her mother was arrested in 1943, cared for by friends and neighbours for the duration of the war, was now alive and well in her eighties in London. She and her daughter, Odette’s granddaughter, have helped me understand how Odette, one of the few women who tried to escape Ravensbrück, was captured, brought back, tortured and expected to die. But she possessed an inner will of steel and when the daily ration of one ounce of fat came around, Odette chose, instead of consuming it, to rub it into her hands as she knew that if she had to build roads, protecting her hands was more important than feeding her body.
** Anne Sebba is the author of Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived Loved and Died in the 1940’s (Orion Paperback £9.99)
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