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Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation

Read this Web-Exclusive Book Review by Bill Lenderking.

After the August 1944 liberation of Paris, Beach remained in the city until her death in 1975. Though lionized for her wartime efforts, she never reopened Shakespeare and Company. Another American bookseller, George Whitman, opened a bookshop and reading library with the same name in a location nearby, where it stands to this day.

Beach lived just 500 yards from another American, Countess Clara Longworth de Chambrun, but their attitudes were worlds apart. Longworth, a conservative American aristocrat married to a wealthy French banker, was loyal to the United States yet sympathized with the Vichy government. Convinced that liberty was impossible without order, Longworth befriended people she thought would shield France from the worst of the occupation (while dismissing Resistance fighters as "wartime profiteers, ruffians, and urchins"). Beach, whose circle of friends included many résistants murdered by the Nazis, saw the same people as liberators.

One of Glass's most poignant accounts concerns Eugene Jacques Bullard, an African American who had endured discrimination as a child in Georgia, joined the French Foreign Legion, and became a pilot with the Lafayette Escadrille—the squadron of American pilots who fought for France in World War I. He was wounded at Verdun, received the Croix de Guerre, became a Paris nightclub owner, and in 1940 took up arms against the advancing German blitzkrieg. Fluent in French and speaking good German, Bullard worked as a spy for French intelligence and became a recruiting agent among African Americans for de Gaulle's Free French forces.

Glass details how this American patriot endured humiliating racial discrimination from his own countrymen at every turn. The Free French squadrons were fully integrated; when American soldiers marched up the Champs-Elysées in a victory parade on August 26, 1944, by shameful contrast, black soldiers were excluded. "It was as it had been in 1918," Glass observes, "when General Pershing banned the all-black Harlem Hellfighters from the First World War's victory pageant… Paris had been liberated. America would take longer."

Another American who stood his ground when hostilities erupted was Dr. Sumner Jackson, the chief surgeon at the American Hospital. While enjoying the respect of the Germans, Jackson worked clandestinely for the Resistance, often risking his life to help Allied soldiers escape to Britain. Indeed, Jackson's house became a key way station for couriers smuggling documents to Allied invasion planners. In 1943, with German U-boats based in the French port of Saint-Nazaire exacting a heavy toll on Allied shipping, the Resistance desperately needed to pinpoint the subs' reinforced berths. Yet unauthorized entry to the submarine base was punished by summary execution.

The Resistance therefore asked Dr. Jackson to enlist his 15-year-old son, Phillip, in a daring plan: the teenager would slip onto the base and photograph the submarine pens. Phillip, who up until now had been carefully shielded from the war's violence, was smuggled onto the base by a relay of Resistance fighters; he made it to the forbidden zone and managed to shoot an entire roll of photos. Another relay then secreted him through German checkpoints and back to Paris, whence the precious film was sent on to London.

Glass's book appears amid a recent surge of distinguished books about D-Day and the liberation of Europe, notably William I. Hitchcock's The Bitter Road to Freedom (2008) and Antony Beevor's D-Day: The Battle for Normandy (2009). Americans in Paris deserves a shelf perch alongside those compelling histories, heightening our awareness of the numbing destructiveness and mass tragedies of all-out war. For those lucky enough to have survived, we learn, liberation was often a mixed blessing—a far cry from the jingoism and triumphalism of the home front.

Bill Lenderking is a retired Foreign Service officer and a current freelance journalist. He previously reviewed Zoë Heller’s The Believers for AARP The Magazine Online.

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