The Return of Exiles

The steady stream of exiles returning to Paris in 1944 and 1945 came from all classes and several nationalities. Many workers and their families, who had been close to starvation in the city, had sought shelter with peasant relatives. Hitching rides in different sorts of wood-burning vehicles, or on trains once the tracks were repaired, they returned with their few possessions in cardboard suitcases. Wherever possible, they brought a sack or two of flour back with them, either to sell or to keep them through the months ahead. Few took much notice of their arrival in the upheaval of the times. But the exiles whose return Parisians remembered for the rest of their lives were the déportés who arrived back from Germany in the spring of 1945.

The term déporté was loosely used to cover three different categories of prisoner: Jewish and other racial minorities sent to extermination camps, members of the Resistance sent to concentration camps, and conscripts sent on forced labour by the Vichy government from 1943. The prisoners of war from the defeat in 1940 were treated no differently from their British, Dutch and Belgian counterparts.

In April 1945, the advancing armies found themselves liberating one camp after another. The commanders, their attention focused on finishing the war, were unprepared to cope with the problemof feeding and caring for hundreds of thousands of civilians, many of whom were close to death. All too often, they were given ration packs and told to fend for themselves until the fighting was over.

Relatives waiting for news in Paris found the mixture of hope and fear very hard to bear. It often produced a feverish nausea. Sleep was impossible. The novelist Marguerite Duras sat by the telephone, convinced that her husband, Robert Antelme, had been among those executed at the last moment by the SS before the Allies arrived. Whenever it rang, the caller turned out to be a friend asking: ‘Any news?’

Even when transport was finally organized for repatriation, the process was still slow. The journey back to France could take five days. (As soon as the war ended in May, the Americans allocated the bulk of their transport aircraft to ferrying back prisoners and the whole procedure speeded up immeasurably.) Some passed through Switzerland via Geneva, where Pierre de Gaulle, the General’s brother, was consul. The depth of his sympathy was in no doubt. Pierre Daix, a young Communist who had survived Mauthausen, found himself spontaneously embraced.

On 14 April 1945 at the Gare de Lyon, an official reception committee, which included General de Gaulle, Henri Frenay, François Mitterrand and the two Communist leaders Jacques Duclos and André Marty, waited to welcome back the first group of 288 women. * Well-wishers carried lilac blossom to present to them and women brought lipsticks and face powder to distribute. They expected the returning prisoners to look thin and tired from their experiences, but not much more. France had been partially shielded from the appalling truth. The French ministry with responsibility for prisoners, deportees and refugees had been trying to suppress information about the camps, just when General Eisenhower was calling for every available journalist to be brought in to Germany to report on their horrors. Few had imagined the reality of virtual skeletons dressed like scarecrows. ‘Their faces were grey-green with reddish brown circles round their eyes, which seemed to see but not to take in,’ wrote Janet Flanner, the American journalist. Galtier-Boissière described deportees as having ‘a greenish, waxen complexion, shrunken faces, reminiscent of those little human heads modelled by primitive tribes’. Some were too weak to remain upright, but those who could stood to attention in front of the welcoming committee and began to sing the Marseillaise in cracked voices. Their audience was devastated.

Such scenes were repeated many times. Louise Alcan, aged thirty-four, a survivor of Birkenau and Ravensbrück, described her own arrival: ‘Gare de l’Est. Eight in the morning. A crowd behind the barriers. We sing the Marseillaise. The people look at us and burst into tears.’

The few French Jews who returned from the death camps aligned themselves with their compatriots. Vichy had stripped them of their nationality and handed themover to the Germans, but they were no less French for that; they too sang the Marseillaise and the ‘Chant du départ’, that battle anthemof the French Revolution. Only a tiny percentage of almost 80,000 ‘racial deportees’ returned; over a quarter of the entire population of French Jews had perished. Vichy had also handed over another 40,000 foreign Jews who had sought refuge in France. In addition there were around 100,000 political prisoners and the 600,000 conscripts on forced labour, many of whom had worked and died while constructing factories underground to escape Allied bombing. Out of a total of 820,000 French deportees, some 222,000 are estimated to have died.

The first processing point was at the Gare d’Orsay. General Dixie Redman took his military assistant Mary Vaudoyer there, having told her: ‘You must see this, and you must never forget it.’ They stood looking out of a window into a huge space where hundreds of men were walking, completely naked, covered in delousing powder and DDT, such was the fear of typhus.* Their faces were cavernous, their heads bald, either shaved or with alopecia frommalnutrition, their eyes downcast. None spoke. Both Redman and his assistant were appalled that they should be obliged to undergo yet one more humiliation. When they were deemed to have been disinfected, they were dressed in surplus British battledress, coarse, hot and often several sizes too big for them, and heavy ammunition boots.

From the Gare d’Orsay, the deportees were taken to the Hotel Lutetia, which had been the Abwehr headquarters during the Occupation. The whole block was surrounded by relatives desperate for news. Newspapers were full of little advertisements seeking information on missing relatives, or announcements of deaths at last confirmed. Such was the confusion and the scale of the task that some families had to wait several more months.

Marguerite Duras’s husband was saved by a miracle and by determination. François Mitterrand, the leader of Antelme’s Resistance group, was part of a semi-official French mission sent to Germany. He managed to get into Dachau, which had been sealed off by the US army to prevent the spread of typhus. A voice called out, ‘François!’ He did not recognize the living corpse. It was his companion who recognized Robert Antelme, and then only by his teeth.

Mitterrand rang Duras in Paris. He told her to send two members of the group to his office, where he had organized passes and three uniforms. Using a car and petrol obtained by Mitterrand, the two friends drove through the night, reaching Dachau the next morning. They dressed this virtual skeleton in the spare uniformwhich they had smuggled into the camp and carried him out, held upright between them, past the guard post. Fortunately, the American sentries were so afraid of infection that they all wore gas masks and could not see very clearly. Antelme was laid on the back seat of their car and driven back to Paris. The return journey took three times as long. None of themexpected him to survive it. But when they finally reached the rue Saint-Benoît, he was still alive. Despite all the warnings of how he had changed, Duras herself nearly suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be revived with rum by a neighbour. The concierge who had decorated the entrance to welcome himhome shut herself in her loge to cry in anger.

Everything possible was done for the deportees at the Lutetia. By right of suffering, they were known as ‘the best of the French’. Nothing was too good for them: veal, cheese and real coffee, obtainable only on the black market, were produced. But often the best intentions did not effect the right treatment. Deportees needed the simplest food in tiny quantities. Their stomachs were so unprepared for the change that they were violently ill. They also needed peace and quiet, not the pandemonium around the Lutetia. ‘We really felt like Martians,’ wrote Pierre Daix.

Some had survived their ordeals in the most astonishing way. Among those flown in from Germany was the Comtesse de Mauduit, an American who had hidden Allied airmen in her château in Brittany until a maid denounced her. Bessie de Mauduit arrived from Ravensbrück ‘still dressed in the striped uniform of prisoners, yet still very elegant’. She told her story to Jean and Charlotte Galtier-Boissière: ‘I never cried once in two years of captivity,’ she concluded, with a proud smile, ‘but I cried on seeing Paris again.’ A few days later Galtier-Boissière learned that Bessie de Mauduit had managed to look so elegant in her camp uniformbecause a forewoman from Schiaparelli, a fellow prisoner, had refashioned it for her.

The resistants survived best in the long run, while ‘kapos’ and collaborators – with what might be seen retrospectively as moral justice – had the lowest survival rate. Those who had tried to obliterate their own individuality in an attempt to make themselves invisible to kapos or SS guards may have survived better in the short term; but turning off a psychological switch to become an apathetic automaton – they were known as ‘musulmans’ in the camps – made it almost impossible to recover afterwards. Altogether 6,000 deportees died soon after their return, of whom ‘musulmans’ made up a significant proportion.

The difficulty of returning to their old lives was common to all. They were unable to sleep in a soft bed. They suffered from nightmares and a lack of confidence. Worst of all, in a way, was the disappointment in homecoming: their families found it very hard to cope with their depressions, caused largely by survivor guilt. ‘Joy did not come,’ wrote Daix, ‘because we had brought too many dead back with us.’

Their whole relationship with the normal world had been completely distorted by their recent submersion in the nightmare of the ‘univers concentrationnaire’. Charles Spitz, a résistant-déporté who had worked in the Dora tunnel, found that the habits of the prison camp died hard. Two months after his return to Paris, his wife suggested they go and have dinner in a restaurant. ‘She had bought me the whole panoply of civilized man, including a wallet and purse. But, without her knowledge, I still kept in my pocket a little wooden box which a comrade from Dora had made for me. It contained some bits of string, pins, and other treasures which were precious in the camp… When it came to pay the bill, to everybody’s stupefaction, I automatically opened my box and emptied its contents on the table.’


The prisoners of war were processed at the Rex and Gaumont cinemas. One prisoner, just arrived from Germany, when asked where his home was in France, replied that he was from Oradour. The person in charge of interviewing himfainted, unable to tell himthat the village and almost all its inhabitants had been destroyed by the SS Das Reich Division.

There were many tragedies awaiting them, both great and small. In a number of cases, a prisoner reached his apartment to be told by a neighbour that his wife had gone to live with another man. One arrived home to find a child of whose existence he had never been told. His wife was not there, having slipped out to the shops. The man’s jealousy exploded after five years of prison camp and he killed the child. He then went off to surrender to the police. But the child was not his wife’s by another man. She had just been acting as a child-minder, to earn a little money.

Special Operations Executive, whose captured agents had been sent to concentration camps, devoted great efforts to finding them in the crowds at the Gare d’Orsay. Teams of FANYs (the young women of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry attached to SOE) worked in relays trying to spot survivors who had changed almost out of all recognition. The task was so distressing that one or two of them had nervous breakdowns.

SOE had already set up a base in Paris by taking over the Hotel Cecil in the rue Lauriston, and was doing all it could to help its agents, their families and those who had assisted in other ways, with food from US army bulk ration packs. This had to done discreetly, because it was strictly against regulations. They were all invited to eat at the Cecil, then encouraged to take away as much as they could afterwards.

Apart from its own refugees, France found itself responsible for over 100,000 displaced persons of forty-seven nationalities by July 1945. They included 30,000 Russians, of whom 11,800 were prisoners of war, 31,500 Poles and 24,000 Yugoslavs.

Since long before the First World War, Paris had been the haven for refugees from all over Europe, fleeing autocracy, pogroms and violent nationalism. Bolshevismand then fascismin all its forms vastly increased the flow. Since 1900 foreign communities had swelled in Paris, with Armenians escaping the Turkish massacres; White Russians escaping the Revolution and civil war; and Poles, mainly Jewish, fleeing Piłsudski’s regime. Political fugitives arrived from Mussolini’s Italy and the Balkan dictatorships; then Jews, left-wingers and liberals from Hitler’s Germany and other countries subsequently occupied by the Nazis. Finally, in 1939, came the largest wave of all when over half a million defeated Spanish Republicans crossed the Pyrenees, fleeing Franco’s execution squads.

The largest Jewish ghetto had been in the 20th arrondissement,le village yiddish de Belleville’ just north-west of Père Lachaise. The oldest was in the Marais; but the Jewish professional classes were spread all over the middle-class districts of Paris. People who had undergone the most appalling tortures and humiliations had to relearn how to be doctors, teachers, lawyers and businessmen. The only way they could do this was to lock away the past at the back of their minds and never to refer to it. Richard Artz, who grew up in a French Jewish family in the late 1940s, said that in his house the Holocaust and the sufferings of the Jews were simply never mentioned. When a female cousin became engaged to a German many years later, Arzt was astonished at the depths of rancour and pain that the announcement aroused.

Other returning foreign exiles seemed to inhabit a completely different world, whether on the Left Bank or in the beaux quartiers. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, apparently protected by their innocence or a guardian angel, had managed to live out the war in the Alpine foothills of Savoie. They had never imagined that they were in danger as Jews. German soldiers had been billeted on them but had not realized that Stein and Toklas were not French, and they had gazed blankly at the Picassos on the wall. Fortunately, the friendly mayor had kept their name off the register.

Their return to the rue Christine was an emotional moment. ‘All the pictures were there, the apartment was all there, and it was all clean and beautiful. We just looked, and then everybody came running in, the concierge, the husband of the laundress downstairs, the secretary of our landlord, the bookbinder, they all came rushing in to say how do you do and to tell us about the visit of the Gestapo; their stamp was still on the door.’

While Gertrude Stein found that her apartment had been protected, Nancy Cunard returned to a scene of devastation. She had known Paris from the days of the Surrealists in the Café Cyrano on the Place Blanche, when Louis Aragon had been her lover. Her greatest achievement was the Hours Press, which published original works, mainly poetry, by Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, Robert Graves, Harold Acton and Samuel Beckett.

Nancy Cunard reached Paris at the end of February 1945 and embraced a rather bewildered porter in blue overalls, the most accessible representative of the city’s working class. Over the next few days, she walked back and forth across the city, looking and remembering, and saw friends from the past, such as Janet Flanner and Diana Cooper, whom she had known before the First World War. But when she returned to her house at Réanville in Normandy she found that it had been looted and defiled, not by the Germans but by neighbours she had considered friends. The Hours Press was badly damaged, along with all her primitive statues. She was left in no doubt as to how much the locals had secretly disapproved of her left-wing causes and her lovers, especially her black lover, Henry Crowder.

Samuel Beckett returned from his hiding place in Provence, where he had often listened to music composed by Henry Crowder, played on an upright piano. Nancy Cunard thought he looked like ‘an Aztec eagle’ and that he had a ‘feeling of the spareness of the desert about him’. Peggy Guggenheim, with whom he had a brief affair shortly before the war, described him more prosaically, but no less accurately, as ‘a tall lanky Irishman of about thirty with enormous green eyes that never looked at you’. He was so modest that after the war very few people knew that he had been awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance.

Others took longer to return home. Julien Green booked his passage back across the Atlantic on the Erickson, a former troopship which had lost little of its discomfort, but the poems of John Donne took his mind off it. Even if the danger of submarines was over, mines still floated in the English Channel. But what struck him most was the advice he received on reaching Paris when he asked after friends: ‘It’s better not to ask after this person or that.’

André Gide, whom he went to see, was scarcely more encouraging from another point of view. He told Green that he would die of cold and hunger in Paris. To escape such misery, he himself was off to Egypt.

Foreigners returning received a slightly different impression; not one of external dilapidation, but of an internal decay while the exterior remained untouched. Isaiah Berlin wrote to a friend: ‘Paris seemed terrifying to me – so cold and abnormally clean and empty and more beautiful than I have ever seen a city to be – more so than Leningrad, and I cannot say how much that means – but empty and hollow and dead, like an exquisite corpse; the metaphor is vile and commonplace, but I can think of nothing else.’ And Susan Mary Patten, the wife of an American diplomat, wrote that ‘it was like looking at a Canova death mask’. But the city’s empty elegance soon began to be filled with those who regarded it as the most civilized setting for their entertainment.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor reached Le Havre on the liner Argentina on the morning of Saturday, 22 September 1945. Their first concern was to smuggle ashore their little Cairn terrier, Pookey, who had been brought on to the ship with the help of an American general. Now they needed to get himpast the French authorities. ‘H.R.H. asked me to smuggle Pookey ashore,’ wrote Brigadier Daly in his diary that night, ‘as I was the most unlikely person to be caught. I hope nothing is ever heard of it.’

The Duke spoke to the large group of waiting newspapermen of the terrible damage around them, and the Duchess said that she hoped to join a relief organization for helping war victims. Finally, after the 134 pieces of luggage and packages had been dealt with, the Windsors climbed into the British Embassy Daimler with Daly. Their staff – the Duchess’s secretary, a maid and their black butler Sydney – were put in the car behind. Meanwhile, the drivers of an American military escort in five jeeps revved their engines impatiently. The British military attaché was still far from relaxed at breaking the law. ‘There was a terrible moment when Pookey was in the car safely ashore and the journalists crowded round for a final cinematograph show and photographs. The little beast kept quite quiet in his covered box shaped like a suitcase – he must have known he was a stowaway.’

Within a couple of days of the Windsors’ return to their rented house at 24 Boulevard Suchet, Adrian Holman, the minister at the embassy, had a talk with the Duke of Windsor – still referred to as ‘Edward P’, from his signature when Prince of Wales. Holman warned him that things had changed since his departure from the Côte d’Azur in 1940. French politics had moved sharply to the left, and he and his wife must recognize the new state of affairs. They should also be careful to avoid French people who were notbien vus – the safest course would be to stick to British and American friends for the time being – and they should not patronize the black market. But it was clear that the Duke and his wife, whatever her pronounced intentions to work for war victims, had not emerged from their egotistical cocoon. The Duchess remarked that Paris now offered ‘the most expensive discomfort she had ever known’.

There was no shortage of people ready to provide their luxuries. Count O’Kelly, a member of an Irish expatriate family who had a well-established wine business in the Place Vendôme, was able to provide much more than just wine. Nor was there a shortage of guests. ‘The house was looking extremely well, with masses of flowers,’ wrote Daly in his journal after a party there. ‘One of the best dinners we have ever had in Paris in a private house.’ Others were curious to see at close quarters this famous couple, rather less than fairy tale, but still unreal. ‘At fifty,’ recorded Jacques Dumaine, ‘the Duke remains the royal Peter Pan… his wizened jockey’s face, his fair hair and his debonair appearance contribute towards his persistent youthfulness and make one understand the note of novelettish sentimentality in his abdication.’ Janet Flanner observed that the lines on his face were the result of too much sun and not too much thought.

Duff Cooper’s greatest problemwas that the Duke was ‘so anxious to do right’. The ex-king was still angling for an official position, preferably in the United States. The Duke asked himwhether he should pay calls on General de Gaulle and Bidault. Duff Cooper found it sad that he still hankered after public life.

The Duke’s next preoccupation, however, was the Communist menace in France. It does not seem to have occurred to him that events like his meeting with Hitler offered perfect material to promote Communist Party propaganda. But the Communists evidently felt they had better targets. They pointed ceaselessly to the extermination camps, with the argument that only an international Communist order could prevent such horrors happening again.

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