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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.

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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