Sylvia’s War

SYLVIA BEACH’S FRIENDS IN PARIS and Vichy lobbied the Nazis for her liberty. Adrienne wrote to Tudor Wilkinson on 20 January 1943 to remind him of his pledge that Sylvia would be home by Christmas. He responded the next day, ‘After receiving your letter this morning, I telephoned the Authorities and they were like me very surprised that Miss Beach has not been freed. But I have been assured that the order has been given for her liberation.’ The ‘Authorities’, presumably the German police command, blamed red tape in Vittel for the delay. Still, nothing happened.

On the same day that Tudor Wilkinson wrote to Adrienne, Vittel received a fresh contingent of internees. If the American women in the camp were desperate to get out, the arrivals from Poland were grateful to be allowed in. Nominally American citizens, most had never seen the United States. The Nazis had taken them from the Warsaw Ghetto, where they confined and terrorized the city’s Jewish population, because they held US passports by right of birth, marriage or family connection. One of them, Gutta Eizenzweig, wrote of her arrival at Vittel, ‘I stood there in shock, for we had suddenly crossed the divide from hell to paradise.’ Eighteen-year-old Miriam Wattenberg, whose mother had been born in the United States but moved to Poland as a child, was one whose US passport brought her to Vittel that winter morning. Her mother Anglicized the children’s names to make them sound more American, and Miriam Wattenberg became Mary Berg. The teenager wrote in her diary that the Germans did not tell her, her mother and sister where they were going. They and other US passport holders had been in a camp at Pawiak, where she wrote, ‘While we are waiting here we can see transports of people being sent out of the Pawiak to the Oswiecim camp. Is that where the Nazis intend to send us, too?’ By then, young Mary had seen 300,000 people marched off to Oswiecim, the Polish town that the Germans called Auschwitz. It was only when the train taking her from Pawiak headed west that she realized her family’s destination was not to be the infamous death camp. Crossing the frontier into France and seeing Vittel for the first time, the sensitive and thoughtful teenager wrote, ‘Not a trace of the snow that covered Warsaw. Here everything is sunny and spring is in the air.’

After five days in the camp, Mary Berg met ‘a number of American nuns, handsome young girls’. Mary, whose English was fluent, told them she had come from Poland. They asked whether she had received Red Cross parcels there.

When I told them that for six months I had been starving in prison, some of them gave me chocolate tablets. Then they asked me to wait a moment while they went back to their rooms. Soon they rushed out again, their hands full of canned food and sweets. I did not dare bite into the chocolate tablet I held in my hand. One of the sisters, seeing my confusion, broke off a piece and put it into my mouth. It was the first chocolate I had had in four years.

Mary met Dr Jean Lévy, who had done so much for Drue Tartière and other women at Vittel. ‘His wife and child are in a camp near Paris, whence transports are constantly sent to Poland,’ she wrote. ‘He keeps asking us whether all that is said about Treblinka is true. He refuses to believe that people are killed there by the thousands with poison gas and steam.’ She was pleased to discover the camp had a Resistance movement and a secret radio: ‘It seems that the Germans suspect something of the kind, for yesterday they searched the hotel, but they could not find the radio. It is said that while the Germans carried on their search someone was walking in the park carrying the radio in a suitcase. ’

Some of the American internees became pregnant. A YMCA inspector observed after a visit on 8 February 1943, ‘A problem which concerns the International Red Cross more than us was laid before us: How are the necessary layettes to be secured for the 21 babies expected in the next few months?’ More than layettes, some of the women needed husbands. Sylvia wrote that German soldiers respected expectant mothers so much that they found the fathers and told them to marry the women. ‘Resistance was overcome and weddings with the bride in white veil and orange blossoms almost like in peacetime,’ Sylvia wrote. Some of the brides, though, ‘were pale as they had suffered considerably with nausea’.

Sylvia Beach was desperate to leave Vittel as her sixth month of captivity began in February 1943. The camp, however comfortable, meant the denial of the companionship, mainly of Adrienne Monnier, and freedom she needed to survive. Mary Berg, coming from Poland, discovered freedom in Frontstalag 194. ‘There is no more wonderful feeling than freedom,’ she wrote in her diary for 24 February 1943. ‘In Vittel I have a taste of it for the first time in three years. Although I can see the barbed wire and the Nazi guards a few steps away, I feel myself under the protection of the American flag.’ Yet the protection of her mother’s flag and passport did not stop her mind from roaming back to Warsaw. ‘The internees try to make the time pass by organizing all sorts of entertainments, dramatic circles, sports clubs, education groups, etc. But we do not share in all these games. My thoughts are constantly in Warsaw. What is happening there?’ In March, the Germans moved the Polish Americans into the Hôtel Nouvel, where the Berg family’s rooms ‘were pleasant and clean’. In the hotel, Mary observed the American and English women: ‘The relations between them are not of the best, for the English are rather snobbish.’ On 29 March, the Germans sent all the American males who had been allowed to stay with their wives at Vittel back to Compiègne. Mary wrote, ‘The Nazis gave the ridiculous excuse that German war prisoners are being badly treated in America. The camp authorities exempted from this order only Mr. D., who was recently operated on and is still in the hospital, Rabbi R., as a clergyman, and the [Brazilian] consul and his son. It is very lonely here without the men.’

Sylvia’s detention allowed her to write to her sister, Holly Beach Dennis, via the Red Cross. A letter that she sent to Holly in October 1942 arrived only in March 1943. Neither Holly’s reply nor a package of clothing she sent reached Sylvia at Vittel. In the early spring, Sylvia learned that her release might be imminent: ‘Various friends at home who were on sufficiently good terms with the Enemy were continually working on our problem.’ Sylvia placed her hopes in Tudor Wilkinson. Adrienne, on the other hand, had lost faith in Wilkinson’s promises. She appealed to Jacques Benoist-Méchin, the early devotee of their bookshops who had been first to translate parts of Ulysses into French. As a minister for police in the Vichy government, he had helped the Germans to round up Jews, Freemasons and résistants. Adrienne’s beliefs were in direct opposition to everything Benoist-Méchin represented, but under the occupation friends made compromises to help friends.

In March, the camp loudspeaker called Sylvia Beach’s name. She was told she could leave Vittel at once. Mabel Gardner helped her pack, and she went to the commandant’s office to obtain her release papers. When she told the officer in charge that she had no money to pay for the train to Paris, he threw her documents into the waste basket. Mary Dickson from the Paris students’ hostel lent her money for the ticket, and the officer retrieved Sylvia’s papers. A soldier was ordered to escort her out of the camp. Sylvia, who had been craving her freedom, nonetheless took no satisfaction from it: ‘And what if my dear dear friends left behind in the camp were not released? This thought spoiled all the pleasure of release for me.’

Occupied Paris in the spring of 1943 was a harder place to live than the camp at Vittel. Although Sylvia could walk or cycle anywhere in the city, she was afraid of being interned again at any moment. ‘I came back to Paris and hid for fear they’d think I was well enough to go back,’ she said. Rather than move into her flat, where the Germans could find her, she took the advice of friends to ‘disappear’. She wrote, ‘Miss Sarah Watson undertook to hide me in her Foyer des Etudiantes (Students’ Hostel) at 93 boulevard Saint-Michel. I lived happily in the little kitchen at the top of the house with Miss Watson and her assistant, Madame Marcelle Fournier.’ She enjoyed student life for the first time in twenty-five years, taking lunch with Sarah Watson and the girls in the cafeteria and using the hostel’s library. Best of all was that ‘nobody let on that I was there’.

Every day, Sylvia made secret visits to Adrienne in the rue de l’Odéon. In Adrienne’s shop, she read the first copies of the underground Editions de Minuit. Jean Bruller, Yvonne Paraf and Yvonne Desvignes had begun publishing the Midnight Editions’ books shortly after Pearl Harbor with 5,000 francs donated by a Paris doctor. The first was Bruller’s war classic, Le Silence de la mer, which he wrote using the nom de plume ‘Vercors’. Vercors was the region where, even then, their friend and Hemingway’s old sparring partner, Jean Prévost, was fighting in eastern France. Many of her and Adrienne’s other friends were writing for the series under pen names. ‘François la Colère’ was in reality Louis Aragon, the poet who had fallen in love with Cyprian Beach twenty years earlier. ‘Forez’ was François Mauriac. ‘Mortagne’ was Claude Morgan, editor of the underground newspaper, Libération; ‘Jean Noir’ was the poet Jean Cassou. Bruller also published John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down in French. Sylvia’s friend, the poet Paul Eluard, was, she wrote, ‘active in bringing out and hawking about in the bookshops the Midnight Editions and other clandestine publications and dodging the Gestapo. He was obliged to sleep in a different place every night.’ Copies were sent through the post and passed from reader to reader. Every hand-bound copy was inscribed, ‘Ce volume, publié aux dépens de quelques lettrés patriotes, a été achevé d’imprimer sous l’oppression à Paris.’ (‘This book, published with the aid of certain literary patriots, has been printed under the oppression in Paris.’) One of the writers working on Midnight Editions, the poet Jean Paulhan, was arrested and spent months in solitary confinement. He later told Sylvia he kept his sanity by reciting to himself every poem he could remember. Adrienne took a risk merely reading the volumes, but she went further and hid copies in La Maison des Amis des Livres.

If the literary résistants were winning a battle to keep the culture of free France alive, other battles were being lost. Sylvia learned after her return from Vittel that her close friend and former assistant, Françoise Bernheim, had been arrested in one of the rafles, round-ups, of Jewish people in Paris. The Germans took her to Drancy and put her on the train for Oswiecim. By then, having heard from the Polish Jewish women at Vittel, Sylvia knew what happened to prisoners at Auschwitz. Another love of her life had been taken from her.

To complicate matters, she had to thank one of those responsible for turning women like Françoise Bernheim over to the Germans, Jacques Benoist-Méchin, for her own liberty. Adrienne confided in a letter to her assistant, Maurice Saillet, on 30 March, ‘Sylvia has been to see Benoist-Méchin (it seems that it’s really him who set her free, through an SS general). He was very kind, very affectionate and [he] promised to release her again if she is taken.’ Nowhere in Sylvia’s letters or memoirs did she refer to a courtesy call that she must have found distasteful.

When Drue Tartière asked Sylvia to visit some of the American flyers she was hiding at friends’ apartments in Paris, Sylvia seized the chance. She and sculptress Elsa Blanchard went with Drue to see ‘the boys’ and ‘to keep them from getting too bored’. The young Americans would have been delighted to hear her stories about Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and the other ‘lost generation’ writers Sylvia had known in the 1920s. She gave them some of the clothes that Jim Briggs, Carlotta’s husband, had left in their Paris flat with instructions for her to use them as she thought best. Sylvia’s friend, Sarah Watson, brought the aviators meat from the refrigerator at her students’ hostel. These American women welcomed the chance to do something for the young men whose bravery was bringing their own liberation closer.

Note from a reader:

Directly afterwards, the author comments that "Nowhere in Sylvia's letters or memoirs did she refer to a courtesy call that she must have found distasteful", but in my research I have come across a potential reference to such a meeting between Sylvia Beach and Jacques Benoist-Méchin after her return from Vittel, in a letter from Beach to Monnier dated August 7th, 1943:

"During the day other things occupy me. Our friend J.B.M. finally sent a nice letter and it was necessary that I pay him some visits."

Now, the use of initials here in lieu of full names keeps this reference from being completely conclusive, but the editor's note on this line does identify J.B.M. as Jacques Benoist-Méchin. The letter and this note are found on pages 193-195 of The Letters of Sylvia Beach, published by Columbia University Press in 2010.

Americans in Paris was published one year earlier in 2009, so it is entirely possible that the author did not consult the August letter when writing it. But when I saw the absolute statement made here ("Nowhere in [her] letters... she must have found distasteful"), I thought it might be worthwhile to complicate it with what evidence I've found.

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