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Occupied Paris: The Sweet and the Cruel

The Journal of Hélène Berr

translated from the French and with an introduction and an essay by David Bellos, and an afterword by Mariette Job
Weinstein, 307 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Journal, 1940–1950

by Philippe Jullian
Paris: Grasset, 387 pp., 22.00 (paper)

Jean Cocteau

by Claude Arnaud
Paris: Gallimard, 864 pp., 35.00 (paper)

1940–1945 Années érotiques: De la Grande Prostituée à la revanche des mâles

by Patrick Buisson
Paris: Albin Michel, 521 pp., 24.00 (paper)

Les Parisiens sous l’Occupation: Photographies en couleurs d’André Zucca

by Jean Baronnet, with a preface by Jean-Pierre Azéma
Paris: Gallimard, 175 pp., 35.00
Mémorial de la Shoah, Paris, Collection Job
Hélène Berr and her fiancé Jean Morawiecki, Aubergenville, France, summer 1942; from The Journal of Hélène Berr


Hélène Berr, twenty-one, student of English literature at the Sorbonne:

This is the first day I feel I’m really on holiday. The weather is glorious, yesterday’s storm has brought fresher air. The birds are twittering, it’s a morning as in Paul Valéry. It’s also the first day I’m going to wear the yellow star. Those are the two sides of how life is now: youth, beauty, and freshness, all contained in this limpid morning; barbarity and evil, represented by this yellow star.

Philippe Jullian, twenty-three, artist, and aspiring man of letters:

Read The Poor Folk, and felt like a character out of Dostoevsky, just as I felt extremely Proustian three years ago. I always see myself through the colored windows of my admiration. I’m afraid of having no more great works to immerse myself in. After Balzac, Proust, Dostoevsky and the English, what is left for me?…

How ugly they are, those poor Jews, who wear, stuck to their clothes, that mean yellow star.

Same date, June 8, 1942; same place, Paris; two different journals. Although both were solidly bourgeois, Berr’s background was grander than Jullian’s. She was Parisian; he came from provincial Bordeaux. Her father, Raymond Berr, was a famous scientist who ran a major chemical company. His was an impoverished war veteran named Simounet, of whom Philippe felt so ashamed that he took the name of his maternal grandfather, Camille Jullian, a noted historian of the Gauls. Philippe was a socially ambitious homosexual whose diary proudly dwells on dinners in the company of Jean Cocteau and his circle.1 Hélène’s idea of a perfect evening was listening to a Beethoven trio or discussing the poetry of Keats with her friends from the Sorbonne. But the main difference between them was one imposed by the German occupiers: she was Jewish, and he was not.

This was not an identity that Hélène had sought. Quite to the contrary, the Berrs were secular, assimilated, and felt more French than Jewish. In a journal entry on December 31, 1943, she notes:

When I write the word Jew, I am not saying exactly what I mean, because for me that distinction does not exist: I do not feel different from other people, I will never think of myself as a member of a separate human group, and perhaps that is why I suffer so much, because I don’t understand it at all.

The suffering that she refers to, the daily humiliations, the terror of deportation, torture, and probable death, the experience of seeing her father dragged off to a concentration camp (for just having pinned, not sewn, the yellow star onto his suit), mothers being torn from their children, relatives and friends disappearing without a trace, none of this figures in Philippe Jullian’s diaries. Not that he has any sympathy for the Nazis. But his attention is elsewhere. Thus he writes, in December 1943:

Monday, in Paris, return of [my friends] Clerisse and Grédy, beautifully dressed. Lunch at Madame Grédy, perfectly “natural.”…I go and find the Rilke poems with my prints, which, taken as a whole, disappoint me. However, their fine presentation makes me cry with joy.

From Jullian’s journals the reader might get the impression that life in wartime Paris was almost normal. Germans are barely mentioned. Food was short, to be sure, but something could always be rustled up at dinner parties attended by a young aesthete with the right connections.

Of course, Jullian was not exactly representative of the French population. But the impression that life went on, and that the horrors that afflicted the Berrs, and many others, could be safely ignored by those who were not marked with yellow stars, is not totally false. Paris, unlike other European capitals under Nazi occupation, was meant to look normal. Nominally, it was under French (Vichy) rule, and German policy was to encourage cultural life there as long as it was not unfriendly to the German cause. Francophile administrators, such as the German “ambassador,” Otto Abetz, were sent to Paris expressly to cultivate French writers and artists.

Herbert von Karajan conducted the German State Opera in Paris. Cocteau’s plays were performed all through the war. Jean-Paul Sartre published his books, as did Simone de Beauvoir, and German officers were among those who came to see Sartre’s plays. Albert Camus was patronized by the German chief of literary propaganda, Gerhard Heller. Film studios thrived under German supervision. And Sartre and Camus wrote for the resistance too. Things were even easier for French collaborators. For them, as Robert Paxton observes in Collaboration and Resistance, “life in occupied Paris was sweet.”

A tiny number of people resisted the Germans from the beginning. Some were religious, others were dedicated followers of Charles de Gaulle or committed leftists, and some just couldn’t bear to remain passive.2 The art historian Agnès Humbert was not religious, but fit the other categories. She started the first resistance group in France with colleagues from the Musée de l’Homme, including the poet Jean Cassou. Her gripping wartime memoir, a kind of reconstructed journal written just after the war, was first published in English in 2008.

Recalling a conversation with Cassou in August 1940, she writes:

Suddenly I blurt out why I have come to see him, telling him that I feel I will go mad, literally, if I don’t do something, if I don’t react somehow. Cassou confides that he feels the same, that he shares my fears. The only remedy is for us to act together, to form a group of ten like-minded comrades, no more…. I don’t harbour many illusions about the practical effects of our actions, but simply keeping our sanity will be success of a kind.

Humbert was arrested, along with most of the group, in 1941, and barely survived prison and slave labor in Germany. She was immensely brave and driven by a strong sense of left-wing idealism. At a time when there was no prospect at all of a German defeat, her actions would have seemed quixotic to most people in France, who tried to carry on as best they could. Since the Germans made this easier in Paris (as long as you weren’t Jewish) than in Warsaw, say, or Minsk, passivity was perhaps not the most honorable option, but at least it was a perfectly understandable one.

When General de Gaulle returned as a French hero in 1944 and told his compatriots that there was only one “eternal France,” and that all French patriots had stood up to the Nazi invaders, this myth was gratefully received. The more complicated reality was slow to emerge. It took an American historian, Robert Paxton, to start the flood of literature on Vichy France. But even though the murkier picture of collaboration and compromise, as well as heroic resistance, is now generally accepted in France, a confrontation with the superficial normality of wartime Paris can still come as a shock.

The French photographer André Zucca was not a Nazi. But he felt no particular hostility toward Germany either. And as the historian Jean-Pierre Azéma remarks in his preface to the riveting book of Zucca’s photographs, Les Parisiens sous l’Occupation, he “was not a shining example of philosemitism.” Zucca simply wanted to continue his pre-war life, publishing pictures in the best magazines. And the one with the glossiest pictures, in fine German Agfacolor, happened to be Signal, the German propaganda magazine. When a cache of these pictures was exhibited at the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris last year, the press reacted with dismay. How could this “celebration of the victor,” “underlining the sweetness of life in an occupied country,” take place “without any explanation”?

Perhaps there should have been more explanation, but the pictures are only tendentious in what they do not show. You don’t see people being rounded up. There is only one blurred image of an old woman walking along the rue de Rivoli wearing a yellow star. There are no photographs of endless queues in front of half-empty food stores. There are no pictures of Drancy, where Jews were held in appalling conditions before being transported east in cattle trains. But what Zucca’s pictures do show, always in fine Agfacolor weather, is still revealing. They are disturbing to the modern viewer precisely because of their peculiar air of normality, the sense of life going on while atrocities were happening, as it were, around the corner.

We see nice old ladies doing their knitting in the gardens of the Palais-Royal. We see a café on the Champs-Elysées packed with well-dressed Parisians enjoying their aperitifs. We see young people bathing in the Seine. We see fashionable ladies in elaborate hats at the races in Longchamp (this, in August 1943, when mass deportations were in full swing). The streets, to be sure, are weirdly empty of cars, and there are German men and women in uniform popping up here and there, drinking coffee, entering the métro, playing in brass bands, paying their respects to the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe. Still, the overall impression is one of a people engaged in what the French call se débrouiller, coping as best they can.


For some French men and women—perhaps more than we would like to know—the occupation was actually a source of new opportunities. That life was sweet for the “collabos” is clear. But a remarkable new book on the sexual aspects of foreign ocupation, 1940–1945 Années érotiques, the second in a two-volume set by Patrick Buisson, shows that the presence of large numbers of German soldiers meant liberation of a kind for large numbers of French women: young women rebelling against the authoritarian strictures of bourgeois life, middle-aged spinsters yearning for romance, widows, women alone, women in bad marriages, and so on. Buisson does not ask us to admire these tens of thousands of women engaging in “horizontal collaboration,” but to comprehend the complexity of their motives.

He is scornful of the movie stars, fashion folks, and social climbers who did better than most, thanks to their German contacts or lovers: Arletty, Coco Chanel, Suzy Solidor, et al. But he is just as hard on the men who took their revenge after the war on the army of unknown women who had strayed into German arms. Such women were stripped naked and paraded through the streets, shorn of their hair, their bodies daubed with swastikas, jeered at by the mob. Buisson writes:

When the Germans were defeated, or about to be defeated, the “Boche’s girl” served as a substitute to prolong a battle that no longer held any dangers and affirmed a manliness that had not always been employed in other circumstances….

In hindsight, especially if one was not alive in those days, it is easy to moralize about the behavior of people under occupation. It is a humbling experience to see the letters, documents, books, and photographs from wartime France, such as the ones displayed at the New York Public Library earlier this year. Since they were not always easy to read in the gloomy light, it is our good fortune that we have Collaboration and Resistance to consult. Though not quite a catalog of the exhibition, it shows much of the same material. There we find enough evidence of bravery, as well as cowardice and shabby compromises, to help us appreciate how hard it was to live under the Nazis, especially in a city where compromise was encouraged and a façade of normality imposed.

  1. 1

    A lifelong Anglophile, Jullian went on to write a well-received biography of Oscar Wilde (1967).

  2. 2

    Communists were the best-organized resisters, but they mainly became active from 1941, after the Soviet Union was attacked.

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