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Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation

Read this Web-Exclusive Book Review by Bill Lenderking.

The American community in Paris has an illustrious history, marked by a great love for the city and residual gratitude for the French soldiers who fought for American independence with Lafayette after 1776. By the 1920s, many deep-rooted American institutions flourished there, among them the American Hospital of Paris, the American Church, the American Library of Paris, and Shakespeare and Company bookstore—a beacon for American and European writers, artists, and other intellectuals. Sylvia Beach, the bookstore's Baltimore-born owner, very likely saved the career of James Joyce by publishing Ulysses (mainstream U.S. and British publishers had rejected it on grounds of obscenity).

Nearly 30,000 Americans lived in or near Paris when war broke out in 1939, whereupon Ambassador William Bullitt urged every one of them without vital business to leave immediately. At least 5,000 refused to go. Although their reasons for staying varied wildly, they are perhaps best summed up by a lyric from famed African American entertainer Josephine Baker: "J'ai deux amours, mon pays et Paris." ("I have two loves, my country and Paris.") Not every American supported the Resistance, but Baker regarded the Nazis as an extreme version of the racial hatred she had encountered in the United States. She was therefore happy to help the Resistance in a number of ways, including smuggling crucial documents out of France between the pages of her sheet music.

In Americans in Paris, Charles Glass's richly anecdotal account, these expats were "among the most eccentric, original and disparate collections of their countrymen anywhere—tested as few others have been before or since." They bore the stress of Nazi occupation in vastly different ways: some collaborated, others resisted, and still others were forced into slave labor. Most simply tried to survive.

When the French government abandoned Paris to the advancing German Army on June 14, 1940, and set up a collaborationist government in Vichy, nearly 200 miles due south of the capital, it handed the reins of city government to Bullitt, a cousin of FDR's and the only foreign ambassador who had not departed the City of Light. On the day Ambassador Bullitt was named the provisional mayor of Paris, he attended a prayer service at Notre Dame—where, "kneeling in the front pew, he was seen to weep for the city and country he loved."

Paris had been declared an "open city"—that is, the Germans agreed not to bombard it so long as the French refrained from resistance. Bullitt negotiated a peaceful transition from French to German rule, but when someone fired on German truce officers, the German commander ordered a full-scale air and artillery attack to be unleashed on Paris the following morning. Working frantically through the night with improvised communications and only hours to spare, Bullitt patched together a compromise—and Paris was spared.

The U.S. declaration of war on the Axis powers on December 8, 1941, transformed the Americans in Paris into official enemies of the Third Reich. The Germans ordered them to register, arrested many, and interned suspects and Jews. For the next three harrowing years, what had been standoffish austerity became a daily struggle for survival. Food grew scarce, luxuries rarer still, and civilians were subject to search and seizure. Conversations and daily behavior had to be conducted with extreme caution.

Up until then, Glass notes, Sylvia Beach had managed to save her bookstore and its inventory. Literary salon cohost Alice B. Toklas nicknamed Beach "Flagstaff"—not just for her bony figure but for "flying the banner of American literature on French soil." Beach managed to move her books into hiding just days before a likely German confiscation. Living in near-privation, she visited and comforted downed American pilots being sheltered by the French Resistance. She was also interned in a concentration camp in Vittel, France, for her anti-Nazi views.

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