The Paris Front

THE PARTING AT THE HÔTEL MATIGNON had been painful for Clara, who loved both Jeanne and Pierre Laval. She feared she would never see them again, and she had no idea when René and Josée could emerge from hiding. That night, she faced an even more difficult separation, from Aldebert. She wrote, ‘Heartbroken as I was, and feeling the true gravity of what had happened to us and to the country, life had to go on with thought for the morrow. I was obliged to seek courage where best I could find it, for I could no longer rely on my husband’s reserve stock of optimism. His presence at the hospital was essential, and my own duty was clearly at home.’ The American Hospital needed all of 72-year-old General de Chambrun’s energies if it were to remain, in its final hours under occupation, as free of Germans as it had been throughout his stewardship. Just as importantly, his duty was to save it from becoming a battle ground between the Resistance and the German garrison beside the hospital. The loss of the commanding presence of Dr Sumner Jackson made his task all the more difficult. The general worked day and night, helping the hospital to function amid shortages caused by fighting on the roads into Paris and overseeing the treatment of civilian and Resistance wounded. His round-the-clock presence there left Clara alone in the rue de Vaugirard, which was about to face a crisis of its own.

From her balcony, Clara saw over the hedges and iron fence of the Luxembourg Gardens into what had become a Luftwaffe fortress:

Inside the gardens, there is a small two-storied villa–perquisite of one of the city engineers taken over by the German air service–and heavily fortified. On the side of the house they had built out a broad-roofed terrace on which they had placed a battery of automatic cannon and machine guns commanding the entire row of windows. At the crossroads dominated by this improvised fortress, the Wehrmacht (after mid-August) had erected a sort of wooden redoubt, lined by a triple row of heavy sandbags, with room enough inside for a large armor-plated tank and its crew to take shelter.

The Luxembourg’s defences threatened Clara’s ‘respectable-looking quarter’, but more ominous were the preparations that Clara could not see. The Germans were laying tons of dynamite beneath the Palais de Luxembourg so that, when the order came, they would destroy the seventeenth-century palace with its Senate chamber and its fabulous collection of paintings. General Dietrich von Choltitz, whom Hitler had personally named commander of Grossparis on 7 August, had instructed army engineers to set demolition charges throughout Paris. ‘Whatever happens,’ General Alfred Jodl, the army’s chief of operations, reminded von Choltitz, ‘the Führer expects you to carry out the widest destruction possible in the area assigned to your command.’ Von Choltitz ordered explosives to be planted under every bridge, electricity station and water-pumping plant as well as the most famous monuments. Marked for destruction were the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Hôpital des Invalides with Napoleon’s tomb and the Palais du Luxembourg. Blowing up the palace would take Clara’s house and much of the rue de Vaugirard with it. The explosion would not spare the apartments of Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier close by in the rue de l’Odéon.

‘Going to and fro was getting too unpleasant,’ Sylvia wrote of her daily walks from Sarah Watson’s student hostel to Adrienne’s flat. With the sudden eruption of street violence in August, the Germans had more important concerns than arresting Sylvia Beach. So, she moved back into her flat in the rue de l’Odéon. German troops patrolled the streets with more fear and hostility than they had before the Normandy landings. ‘In the mornings, towards 11 o’clock,’ Sylvia wrote, ‘the Nazis sallied forth from the Luxembourg with their tanks and went down the Boulevard Saint Michel, shooting here and there. Rather disagreeable for those of us who were lined up at the bakery at the bread hour.’

A straight line of only 500 yards separated Sylvia Beach’s apartment from Clara de Chambrun’s house. For four years of occupation, the two American women had shared the Sixth Arrondissement and a love of books. Yet they inhabited different worlds. Clara, 70 years of age and friend of men she believed had shielded France from the worst of German occupation, distrusted the mobs that were forming to take over Paris when the Germans left. They were, in her eyes, ‘wartime profiteers’, ‘ruffians’ and ‘urchins.’ Sylvia, 57 and a friend of résistants and Jews murdered by the Nazis, saw the same militants as heroes. Negotiating the moral maze of occupation, even Sylvia had thanked a Vichy police minister, Jacques Benoist-Méchin, for her release from internment in 1943. And Clara, whatever her sympathy for Vichy, looked forward to the arrival of the American army and never doubted her loyalty to her native and adopted lands. The Countess from Cincinnati and the publisher from Princeton represented, as well as differing French reactions to occupation, opposing American conceptions of right and wrong. To Sylvia, liberty came first. Clara believed liberty was impossible without order.

Clara and Sylvia watched the same armed men and women erecting roadblocks in their Sixth Arrondissement, not that they saw them in the same way. Clara wrote, ‘Amateurish barricades sprang up at about every six or ten blocks, which embarrassed regular traffic, but which meant nothing to a tank.’ The same barricades symbolized defiance and courage to Sylvia:

The children engaged in our defence piled up furniture, stoves, dust-bins, and so on at the foot of the rue de l’Odéon, and behind these barricades youths with F.F.I. [Forces Françaises de l’Intérieure] armbands and a strange assortment of old-fashioned weapons aimed at the Germans stationed on the steps of the theatre at the top of the street. These [German] soldiers were rather dangerous, but the boys in the Resistance were fearless and they played an important part in the Liberation of Paris.

In the midst of the random shooting in late August, Sylvia received heartening news:

We heard that ‘they’ were leaving us, and we joined a jolly crowd of Parisians walking down the Boulevard Saint Michel singing and waving w.c. brushes. We were feeling very joyful and liberated. But ‘they’ happened to be leaving at the same moment, pouring down the street with the remnants of their motorized forces. ‘They’ didn’t like the celebration, lost their tempers, and began machine-gunning crowds on the pavements. Like everybody else, Adrienne and I lay flat on our bellies and edged over to the nearest doorway. When the shooting stopped and we got up, we saw blood on the pavements and Red Cross stretchers picking up the casualties.

The jubilation along the boulevard Saint-Michel came too soon. The German units leaving Paris were on their way to engage the Allies north and west of the city. Paris remained a German fortress, and its inhabitants were still prisoners.

Neuilly-sur-Seine was one of the quietest suburbs of Paris. Unlike the working-class districts north of the city, the bourgeois western region lacked communist partisans. Few of its citizens attacked German troops. The American Hospital in Neuilly had been unmolested by the German garrison at its Kommandatur headquarters facing the hospital’s main gate in the avenue Victor Hugo. The area commander, an Austrian colonel named Bernhuber, had at his disposal a thousand combat troops with six large and twelve small cannon, five tanks and about eighty trucks. In addition, he told General de Chambrun, his men had machine guns and an unlimited supply of ammunition. The tanks were usually stationed at the traffic roundabouts to command the wide boulevards. Their strength was sufficient, the Germans believed, to keep order in tranquil Neuilly.

Violence had come in the late spring and early summer, when the Allies bombed Neuilly’s Renault factory. The plant, not far from the American Hospital, was manufacturing military vehicles for the German army. No bombs touched the hospital with its large Red Cross on the roof. When Germans parked their military vehicles near the hospital’s main gate for protection, General de Chambrun went to Colonel Bernhuber and said, officer to officer, ‘I ask you to consider that the flag of the Red Cross protects the hospital, not the cars of the Wehrmacht.’ Colonel Bernhuber immediately ordered the vehicles moved away from the hospital.

On the morning of 19 August, about sixty-five résistants of the communist Francs Tireurs et Partisans (FTP) disrupted Neuilly’s complacency. They captured two German soldiers in a café, dragged them to the town hall and raised the French flag to proclaim the liberation. Barricading themselves inside with the municipality’s staff, the partisans wrapped cloths saying Vivre libre ou mourir (Live free or die) around their arms. They did not wait long for the Germans. A truck carrying a Wehrmacht officer and six soldiers roared up to the entrance. The officer ordered the partisans to surrender. The FTP’s local commander, 65-year-old André Caillette, responded, ‘Surrender yourself. This is the army of Liberation.’ Shooting erupted. When it ended, all seven Germans lay dead. They were quickly replaced by a larger detachment with three tanks. Machine guns blasted, and tank shells pierced the building. In the midst of the combat, someone telephoned the town hall with the joyous news that the Americans had just liberated the cathedral city of Chartres. The partisans stopped firing long enough to sing La Marseillaise, quickly joined by residents of the surrounding houses. For three more hours, fighting could be heard at the American Hospital and in the rest of Neuilly. The résistants lost a dozen men. Another forty fighters and town hall employees were wounded. Most of the survivors escaped through a sewer that led from the town hall basement. Those left behind were taken to Mont Valerian prison, notorious for its executions of more than 4,000 French hostages and résistants.

The Germans erected a large Stüztpunkt on Neuilly’s avenue de Madrid to guard access to the town hall, the Kommandatur and the American Hospital. The bunker was ‘a fortress capable of withstanding a siege,’ René de Chambrun wrote, based on his father’s reminiscences: ‘This strongpoint was under the command of a fanatic officer, Major Goetz, who had ordered his tanks to fire on the town hall.’ Major Goetz’s unit was not under Colonel Bernhuber’s command. It reported directly to General von Choltitz.

The German wounded needed emergency treatment. For the first time during the occupation, the Germans requested admission to the American Hospital. ‘It is impossible for me to evacuate about forty of our wounded from the Kommandatur,’ Colonel Bernhuber said to General de Chambrun. ‘Would you be able to receive them?’ Aldebert agreed at once, and the German casualties were brought in on stretchers. Because the hospital’s rooms were full, the Germans had to be lodged in the corridors. Otherwise, the staff cared for them just as they did for the French. René de Chambrun wrote, ‘Strange spectacle that, in this corner of American earth, my father achieved a miracle: sleeping side by side were French and German soldiers, seriously ill Americans and English, bourgeois Parisians and railway workers from the suburbs who had been wounded in the bombardments of the train yards.’ The French and German soldiers were not quite side by side. General de Chambrun had taken the precaution of installing the soldiers in separate wings, Germans in the east, French in the west. It turned out to be a wise decision. While on her regular rounds, Elisabeth Comte uncovered rifles and bullets under the Germans’ stretchers and pillows. She went at once to General de Chambrun: ‘General, the Germans have arms and ammunition.’ The general informed Colonel Bernhuber, who, once again, behaved correctly. He ordered his men to turn over their arms to Otto Gresser, the hospital superintendent. Their cache included thirty grenades and 2,000 rounds of ammunition that Gresser stowed away.

Having recaptured the town hall, Germans patrolled the darkened streets of Neuilly. Apart from an occasional sniper shot at a passing Panzer, the suburb went quiet. Neuilly for the moment was pacified, but the uprising was spreading to the rest of Paris.

The Paris police, who in accord with Vichy policy had collaborated with German authority for four years, followed the example of the Neuilly résistants later that day. They suddenly declared a strike and barricaded themselves in the Prefecture of Police. That was the cue for thousands of Parisians to set up makeshift roadblocks, snipe at German troops and attack German positions. It was a dangerous gamble. Left to themselves, the résistants could not hold out long against the Wehrmacht.

Rising early again on 20 August, Clara de Chambrun noticed more changes to her ‘respectable-looking quarter’. The area around the Luxembourg Gardens had been invaded by ‘many persons of extremely rough appearance in the streets; dark-browed youths with sleeveless undershirts, a considerable portion of Algerians from the Parisian outskirts, and a large sprinkling from red Spain. They were not in the least warlike, merely camp followers and wartime profiteers to whom the strike of the Parisian police, ordered the night before, presented a favorable position for taking anything that came handy.’ She observed events from a balcony that might be struck by machine-gun fire at any moment. A German Panzer patrolling the streets suddenly found itself face to face with a woman in a scarlet skirt, who was pedalling her bicycle directly towards it. Clara had seen the woman before: ‘I recognized her as one of the communist functionaries at our neighboring branch post office and high placed in the C.G.T. [Confédération Générale du Travail]. On coming level with the tank she leaped from her wheel, fished from her very décolleté bosom a small pistol on a chain, fired two or three shots into the tires of the tank, which being solid were not damaged, then scuttled around the corner on her bike and found shelter inside the porte-cochère of number 4 rue Guynemer. ’ The woman escaped, but Clara’s house did not.

German machine gunners on the terrace in the Luxembourg Gardens reacted by spraying fire at the buildings opposite. Clara’s house took bullets from ground to roof, shattering every window in between. While she and a few guests crouched on the floor, the fusillade smashed up her home. When the shooting stopped, Clara saw what looked like smoke, but turned out to be plaster dust, rising from her library shelves. One bullet ‘had traversed six volumes and remained so deeply buried in the wall behind that we never have been able to find it’.

Outside, the tank continued its patrol, and an officer ordered French workmen to demolish a roadblock. They ripped it down, and he told the crowd, ‘Anyone can take the wood.’ It took only a few minutes for people to grab all the firewood they could carry, leaving a pile of sand where the barricade had been.

Clara had promised ‘the children’, René and Josée, to protect their apartment in the Place du Palais Bourbon, ‘to see whether all was going well, to inquire if their domestic needed anything and if a high morale was being maintained’. That meant walking a couple of miles each way, past one German Stützpunkt, strongpoint, after another and through the Resistance barricades that had been erected all over Paris. To impress guards sporting French tricolour scarves and Gaullist Crosses of Lorraine at the roadblocks, Clara wore the ribbons and medals that she had been awarded over the years: ‘a jewel-studded cross of the Legion of Honor and the palmes académiques offered me by the town of Fez’. She also wore a social work medal and ‘the blueribboned insignia of the Society of Colonial Dames’. She pinned them to her breast in a distinguished row, like a general: ‘I must say they looked very smart on a black Creed tailor-made suit.’ She marched from the rue de Vaugirard to the boulevard Raspail without hindrance, but at the rue de Grenelle a crowd of armed youngsters stopped her. Imperiously, she told their leader, ‘My young friend, here it is I who command.’ Undoubtedly stunned by the 70-year-old countess’s hauteur, he let her through. Soon, though, Clara found herself in the midst of a fire-fight, with bullets coming ‘more or less from every direction’. She made it to René and Josée’s house, where Elie Ruel, the cook, assured her that all was well. She walked back, ‘arrived safely at home not having been asked even to “show cause” at the three barricades made principally of kitchen chairs and tables’. Young résistants facing Wehrmacht tanks were too prudent to confront a determined American matron in a Creed tailor-made suit with a chest full of medals.

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