A Hospital at War

ON 4 APRIL 1943, DR SUMNER JACKSON watched well over a hundred American B-17 bombers, the famous ten-man Flying Fortresses, bomb Paris in daylight for the first time. The roof of the American Hospital afforded a clear view of the planes unleashing tons of high explosives on an island nearby in the River Seine. Their target was the Renault car factory, which manufactured tanks and other armoured vehicles for the Wehrmacht. German Focke-Wulf 190 fighter planes, scrambling only after the raid had begun at 2.16 p.m., pursued the bombers and clashed with their British fighter escorts. The spectacle encouraged Dr Jackson and the other physicians and nurses who had been longing for the United States to fight in France with more than words. France would not be freed immediately, they knew, but the American liberation of the skies had begun.

The heavens above Neuilly that spring afternoon saw the drama of bombardments, dogfights and crews leaping from their planes in parachutes to avoid being burned alive. Below, the Renault plant was on fire. The Luftwaffe shot down at least four of the B-17s and just as many fighter escorts. The air war was beginning to cost the Americans, as it had the British for two years, thousands of planes and crew-men. It was also magnifying the danger to Dr Jackson and the other résistants who were dedicated to saving the Allied survivors. Americans, British, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and free Poles and Czechs were parachuting onto French soil in greater numbers. Some were captured immediately, but others were found by sympathetic Frenchmen who handed them over to clandestine organizations. Many waited in the homes of French and American friends of the Resistance or at the American Hospital for the false documents, civilian clothes and guides they needed to undertake the perilous route back to England. Most spoke no French, and they were vulnerable to capture if the wrong person asked them a question. The pilots, navigators, bombardiers and radio engineers with their valuable training and combat experience were assets the Allies could not afford to lose. For the Resistance, including Sumner Jackson, returning them to fight the Nazis was worth the risk of torture and execution.

The Germans used the air raids to rouse French fear of America’s long-term intentions. ‘German propaganda was falling upon willing ears in France,’ Ninetta Jucker, the Englishwoman who was not interned because she had a young child, remembered. ‘We were told that the air raids were intended to destroy French industry so that the “Yankees” should find no competition here after the war; while the “systematic” destruction of French cities would create vast markets for American industry when the time came to build them.’

In 1943, the lack of food in Paris had, in General de Chambrun’s words, ‘reached its crucial point’. The hospital had to feed 500 staff and patients, who desperately needed a sufficient calorie intake to guarantee their recovery, as well as fifty unpaid volunteers and a group of elderly Englishmen in a hostel. Ninetta Jucker wrote that the house for old Englishmen beside the American Hospital had been a retreat for old women before the war. The Germans requisitioned it and left it empty, until the American wife of a pro-Vichy French diplomat managed to have the house reopened as a hostel in the spring of 1943. Its inhabitants paid no rent, but contributed the small sum of thirty francs a day for three meals at the American Hospital. The hostel somehow came under the supervision of a retired British general. ‘He was suffering from a combination of sex, religious and persecution mania,’ Ninetta Jucker wrote. When the general forced some elderly Englishwomen to move out of the hostel, Mrs Jucker complained on their behalf. ‘There used to be women here,’ the general told her, ‘but I had to get rid of them. Couldn’t do with women around. Females, you know.’ When Ninetta complained to the Red Cross, the general was soon ‘deprived of his powers’. The hospital, though, had to feed the elderly British subjects along with everyone else–more than six hundred people daily–when France was nearly starving.

‘The problem was solved,’ Clara de Chambrun wrote, ‘by making large farming contracts for regular supplies. Three departments collaborated in this effort: Comte de Caraman and M. Hincelin in Seine-et-Oise, M. André Dubonnet in Seine-et-Marne, and Alexandre de Marenches in the Eure lent their acres to furnish vegetables and fruits.’ Otto Gresser recalled that the lawns and flowers that had made the grounds of the hospital so congenial to patients like André Guillon in 1940 were dug up and replaced with furrows of tomatoes, beans, carrots and potatoes. Gresser himself was buying as much food as he could on the black market and from the wholesale food outlets at Les Halles, where the vendors knew him as the hard-bargaining ‘Ferdinand’.

Allied air raids around Neuilly raised the fear that the hospital might be cut from its water supply. ‘So,’ Gresser said, ‘we did some digging in the hospital grounds and after about fifteen meters down we found unlimited quantities of water. In fact, it was an underground Seine.’ The well was easier to hide than the increasing number of Allied flyers in the hospital.

René Rocher, the French dramatist whom the Théâtre de l’Odéon had just appointed as its director, invited Clara to translate Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John. Rocher had already produced and acted in many Shakespearean plays, but King John had yet to appear on a French stage. Clara, as translator of Hamlet and author of many Shakespearean studies in French, was an obvious choice. She, however, declined. ‘The Life and Death of King John was no favorite of mine, and I did not see that it held any elements of success at the theater.’ When Rocher somehow convinced Clara to attempt an original translation, she spent months going over the text and thinking about the play’s meaning. Once she began, she completed the translation in three weeks. King John had obvious advantages, she came to see, for a wartime Paris audience: ‘The play is short, demanded no cuts, and could be produced even during the brief playing-time which was allowed, for curtains had to be down and lights extinguished by ten-fifty. ’ For four weeks, Clara attended rehearsals. This led to an amusing exchange with one of the actors. When Rocher instructed him to begin reading his part aloud, the actor asked, ‘How can we begin? We don’t understand how the lines should be read.’ The actor demanded to see the author. Clara, from the stalls, said he was not there. ‘Why the devil isn’t he here? Does he think he can get us all out and not take the trouble to come himself?’ Clara replied, ‘I am afraid you will have to excuse the author as he has been dead for more than three hundred years.’

King John opened on 3 May 1943 to good reviews, including praise for Clara’s ‘miracle of translation’. In the first night’s full house were Clara’s son, René, and his wife, Josée. They had dinner with Pierre Laval afterwards. A week later, someone hurled a grenade at German soldiers outside the Théâtre de l’Odéon. The show, however, went on.

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