Book corner: The French women who survived WWII

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of France Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s is a fascinating and well-researched study of the women who were left “in charge” of Paris from 1939-1945 when most of the men were either serving with the Allies, or doing forced labour in Germany, or were Prisoners-of-War.

Author Anne Sebba shows that no matter how deprived, Parisian women retained their elegance, their beauty and their charm during this time. Fashion continued to be all important and even when clothes became shabby with age, they still were worn with elegance and pride.

In 1936 France had its first Jewish Prime Minister, Lion Blum, who though short-lived in this position, worked towards championing women’s rights. At that time women were not entitled to vote, nor could a married woman hold a bank account in her own name. In spite of France’s longstanding revolutionary ideals and declaration of human rights there was a growing undercurrent of anti-Semitism, fuelled by the huge influx of Jews fleeing the Nazis.

Some women, like the heiress Beatrice de Camondo or novelist Irene Némirovsky, converted to Catholicism; others like lesbian racing driver Violette Morris embraced the Nazi philosophy; only a handful, like Coco Chanel, retreated to the Ritz with a German lover

However, this was still Paris. So early in the war, entertainment thrived and it was an area where it was acceptable for women to work. Many films were being made, and the city was full of Germans. Nightclubs and cabarets were overflowing with customers. It was also a time of fear. Rules changed. Many Jewish women converted to Catholicism. Jewellers were in high demand with many couples marrying before the men left for war.

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It was a time of double standards and the divisions between right and wrong were no longer clearly defined. There was little food available. Mothers needed money to keep their children alive. Some even ‘gave’ their children away to anyone who would have them in hopes of a better chance of survival, without knowing if they’d ever see them again. Some were intimate with the invaders. Many hid their Jewish neighbours. Others stole from houses which had been left vacant.

Sebba details how Jewish women were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp in northern Germany, and how 92,000 women from all over Europe either died or were killed.

Yet, when the few surviving women returned virtually as skeletons from years in concentration camps they were greeted with a lack of empathy and understanding.

“It is not for the rest of us to judge but, with imagination, we can try to understand," is how Sebba ends this magnificent work

A fitting thought.

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