Polly’s Paris

SOON AFTER HER ARRIVAL IN PARIS from Vichy, Polly Peabody volunteered to drive ambulances for the American Hospital. She and a young American colleague named Jean moved into a flat in Passy near the Trocadéro on the Right Bank. Off-duty, the two women shared a bicycle–Jean driving with Polly on the handlebars: ‘Thus we sailed down the Champs Elysées, with my skirts flying high, and feeling very much like the daring young man on his flying trapeze; some Frenchmen stooping for a better view screamed out, “O! les belles cuisses,” ruining completely the little balance I had so painfully managed to maintain.’ The American girls, though working hard for the American Hospital, adapted exuberantly to life under occupation. Like other Parisian women deprived of hosiery, they dyed their legs the colour of nylon stockings with a line at the top where garters should have begun. Daringly, they tied little British and French flags from Chanel around their necks. One evening, Polly and Jean gate-crashed a Nur für Deutsch Gesellschaft (German Community Only) nightclub by following two German officers inside.

The room was full of uniforms: the majority of the men sat in pairs or small groups; some of them had girls with them–the lowest form of Paris tarts–and they looked bored–almost as bored as their companions. I noticed that the conversation flowed like glue between the Germans and their ladies. There were scenes occasionally, when the Nazis treated them roughly, and I once saw a pink-haired blonde retaliate with a resounding smack across the flabby fat face of the Prussian who was with her.

The waiters, while serving the cheapest champagne to the Germans, charged for the most expensive. The sommelier whispered to Polly that he could not bear to see his better vintages sliding down the throats of ‘beer-drinkers’. As one evening came to an end, Polly recalled, ‘The curfew hour was heralded by the blowing of a siren, and police cars with loud-speakers travelled through the streets, warning the population that there was only a quarter of an hour to go before bed-time. Then, as soon as the French had been safely removed, the Germans would take over. They would sit at tables which the waiters hastily finished clearing, and order wine: (I saw one squirting soda-water into a glass of claret).’

In September, Polly saw posters that forbad Germans from dancing. An officer explained, ‘We cannot dance while so many of our brave men are being shot down over England.’ In one night alone, Polly heard, the British had downed ninety-two German planes. The Luftwaffe, as René de Chambrun had predicted in June to Ambassador Bullitt and President Roosevelt, was losing mastery of the air to the RAF. The invasion of Britain, nonetheless, remained Hitler’s objective. One German told Polly that his army was ready to sacrifice 300,000 men to conquer Britain. As the months wore on and German air losses outstripped Britain’s, Polly noted, ‘A new hope sprang up and even the most hard-bitten sceptics began to pin their faith on England.’

The Germans assigned soldiers to accompany the American ambulances that Polly, Jean and other volunteers drove to the prisoner of war camps. ‘At the camps,’ Polly wrote, ‘they insisted on distributing the goods, and would not tolerate any American supervision.’ To Polly, German interference in American humanitarian work meant only one thing: ‘The truth is that they were longing to get rid of the Americans residing in Paris. Too many stories were leaking out, told to the Press by Americans returning to the States. They were also accusing many of us of aiding the British prisoners to escape.’ The accusation, although Polly may not have known, was true. Some of the culprits worked alongside her at the American Hospital. ‘In any event, we were destined to become increasingly unpopular as Uncle Sam took bigger and better steps to assist England in the fight for freedom.’

Polly drove her ambulance in mid-September to a hospital for wounded prisoners at Rouen, near Paris. A physician there said that hospitalized French soldiers who were well enough had been taken to a train three days before, part of the German programme to transfer 1.58 million French prisoners of war to camps in Germany. When two French officers leaned out of one train to take a last breath of French air, a sentry shouted at them in German. The doctor thought that ‘they either hadn’t heard or hadn’t understood, for the two officers went right on looking, and talking to each other. The sentry addressed them again; still nothing happened. He then picked up his rifle and shot them both through the head.’ One was killed instantly, and the other died in the hospital an hour before Polly arrived.

The American Volunteer Ambulance Corps, forced out of service by German meddling, let most of its volunteer drivers go. ‘With no more work to do,’ Polly wrote, ‘I began thinking of packing my bags, but I couldn’t quite adjust myself to the thought of leaving the country, knowing it might be years before I was able to return.’ She was young and had enough money to live, so she stayed. ‘The first of October, ’ she noted, ‘found the schools opened. The streets and the “Metros” were crowded with children carrying their satchels full of copy-books and sharpened pencils. Most of the children had been removed from the Capital at the outbreak of war, and had only just returned. Their funny little faces were serious and composed: they too reflected the tragedy of defeat.’ Many Parisians remained traumatized by the German bombing of the refugee columns the previous June. In the Gare de l’Est, Polly saw a distracted woman clutching a blue flannel bundle. When a railway official approached her, she said, ‘You can’t have him.’ The woman was sobbing. ‘I have buried four of them. Four of them along the road … this is my youngest and my last … nobody shall take him from me!’ When the official looked inside the blanket, it was empty.

Sanctions against Jews in Paris became the norm. From 15 September, the Germans prohibited all Jews, as well as Africans and Algerians, who had fled Paris during the invasion from returning to their homes. The property and safe deposit boxes of the absentees were then seized. Polly witnessed a savage assault by French youths, who smashed the windows of Jewish-owned shops on the Champs-Elysées. Another American eyewitness to the pogrom, French Vogue editor Thomas Kernan, recalled, ‘One day in September, 1940, I happened to be standing on the balcony of my office in the Champs-Elysées, talking with one of my colleagues, when we heard shouting up toward the Etoile. A yellow roadster sped down the almost deserted avenue at 50 miles an hour, with a vaguely uniformed young man standing up in the tonneau yelling, “A bas les Juifs!” (“Down with the Jews!”).’ Kernan watched uniformed thugs hurling bricks through each window the roadster passed. ‘Before my startled eyes, the great windows of Cedric, Vanina, Annabel, Brunswick, Marie-Louise, Toutmain–a million francs worth of plate glass–fell into shards on the pavement. Most, if not all, of these shops were owned by Jews, and had been reopened by their faithful French employees, who stood trembling and weeping in the aisles.’ Kernan saw the perpetrators strut into the headquarters at 36 avenue des Champs-Elysées of the fascist Front Jeune, Youth Front. Its members, in Kernan’s words, were ‘pimply-faced youths of fifteen or sixteen years, of the Montmartre gutter type’. The police pretended not to notice, but a German officer coming out of the Claridge Hotel grabbed one of the brick-throwers. The youth handed the German a card. Kernan wrote, ‘What it said I do not know, but I saw the officer glance at it and then promptly release the prisoner.’

Kernan felt that ‘Paris had no stomach for this sort of vicious vandalism.’ The Nazi-controlled Paris dailies portrayed the attacks as ‘spontaneous outbursts of indignation by the populace against their Jewish exploiters’. (Most Parisians called their newspapers ‘the German press in the French language’.) Kernan detected the opposite: ‘The following days, behind boarded up windows, Toutmain and Annabel were filled with more customers than these shops had served for many months, customers they had never had before.’

The anti-Semitism fostered by both the occupation authorities and the regime in Vichy repelled Polly. She wrote, ‘The newspaper France au Travail, which–like all Paris papers–was under German control –suggested that the Jews should be isolated on some island, such as Australia, Madagascar or England, where they could establish their own government.’ Anti-Semitic demagogues like Jacques Doriot, a former communist turned fascist, staged rallies at which they condemned Jews and blamed them for France’s defeat. Polly saw ‘No-Jews-Allowed’ notices in restaurants. Jewish businesses that failed to display ‘Jewish Enterprise’ signs were subject to fines and confiscation. American Jews, including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who had left Paris before the occupation remained in the so-called Free Zone, where the Vichy government–to maintain cordial relations with Washington–did not discriminate against them as it did European Jews.

On 6 October, an American newspaper correspondent took Polly on an excursion that let her forget, for a moment, what Paris had become. The reporter had borrowed ‘a crazy little buggy’ with ‘four wheels, a steering gear and two sets of pedals; it was puce colour, and so small that instead of getting into it, we put it on like an apron. With a large American flag waving out of each door of the contraption, we pedalled frantically around Paris, alternately bringing one knee up under our chin, stretching out the other.’ Traffic police laughed, and ‘pedestrians hooted and grinned and when on the Avenue de l’Opéra we got caught in the middle of a convoy of large trucks full of Nazi troops, there was pandemonium. The officers and soldiers stared wide-eyed at the Stars and Stripes, and the ridiculous vehicle, containing two crazy Americans, and for once they laughed too.’

Polly and the journalist, falling in with the German convoy, circled the Arc de Triomphe. A lone French workman was pedalling a three-wheel cycle beside a Wehrmacht touring car. ‘Twice the grey car was stopped by red lights, and each time the man on the bicycle passed it. At the third light the car drew up at the kerb: the officer jumped out and halted the Frenchman, who was coasting along quite happily. He roared at him in broken French, accusing him of lacking in respect towards his superior, by passing him twice on the wrong side.’ The officer ordered his driver to take the air out of the cyclist’s tyres. ‘Crowds gathered to watch the ludicrous picture of the infuriated officer, the silent Frenchman and the soldier on his hands and knees unscrewing the caps of three pairs of tyres.’ The Germans drove off, leaving the Frenchman to refill his tyres. A mile ahead, the cyclist came upon the Nazi car again with its hood up and a soldier trying to repair the engine. ‘The cyclist rode past once more, this time with a faint smile on his lips.’

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