By David Michael Newstead.
Anne Sebba’s latest work Les Parisiennes is a look at the lives of ordinary women in Paris during the turbulent events of the 1940s. She writes, “Before 1939 women in French society were often politically invisible, without a vote and needing permission from husbands or fathers to work or own property. Yet women were actively using weapons in the resistance, hosting evaders on the run, delivering false identity papers, at the same time as they were performing all the old familiar tasks of cooking, shopping, and caring for their homes.” Beyond heroics though, Sebba also explores the moral ambiguity of these women’s lives under occupation and the struggles of day-to-day existence. Recently, Anne Sebba joined me to talk about her new book and this unique chapter in women’s history.
David Newstead: First, very interesting read. I think I’m kind of a history buff, but there were different things I had no clue about that I learned from your book. For example, I didn’t know that the guillotine was still in use in France in the 1940s and you discussed the abortion doctor who was guillotined.
Anne Sebba: It’s just part of the bigger picture of the situation of women in pre-war France and arguably much of it hasn’t changed. But I shall confine my remarks to the period I’m writing about.
David Newstead: To that point, another thing I guess I never realized was that French women didn’t get the right to vote until 1945. I don’t know how I missed that fact earlier in life, but that was pretty surprising to me.
Anne Sebba: Well, you’re not alone. It’s the single biggest thing that people say to me. How extraordinary! And yet women carried on a role that was far greater than that which society allowed them. In fact, you say 1945 – that was municipal elections. I would argue it wasn’t until 1946, because that’s when they had national elections. You know, we sort of ignore these things. If you like, one of the most ridiculous things was that women couldn’t wear trousers.
David Newstead: Like legally?
Anne Sebba: Yes, legally in Paris. There was a law against women wearing trousers, which was only formally rebuked about three or four years ago. That’s why you had Lucien Lelong having competitions like Day of Elegance on Bicycles. I mean partly, because he was trying to give the couture houses work. But it was partly, because how the hell do women ride these bicycle in a skirt? Well, of course, they ignored the law and they were divided skirts or culottes or whatever it was. But formally, that was the law.
And I interviewed women whose husbands were taken as prisoners of war and they had a real problem having access to money, because they couldn’t have a bank account in their own name. I mean that wasn’t only in France. I think that’s been the case in a lot of countries. But women just were restricted to what their fathers or husbands allowed them to do. It was a very patriarchal country and as I said some would say it still is.
David Newstead: You got to meet some of these women. And I’m curious what that experience was like? What were they like?
Anne Sebba: I met a variety. It’ll probably all tumble out. One of the women who actually has had the strongest effect on me is still alive in her mid-to-late 90s. She must be about 96 now. She forbade me from using her name, because she said “Oh, I haven’t done anything. I don’t want my friends to think I’m trying to make my contribution bigger than it was. So, I’ll be here for you as background, but you’re not to put my name in the book.” So, her name doesn’t appear. But in the course of visiting her, which I did quite a lot, she was moving house. And as she was moving house, her daughter came over to help her and they found three things that were of interest to me. One of them was a Red Cross uniform. And her daughter said to her, “I never knew you had been a nurse.” And she said, “Oh well… I trained with the Red Cross, but I really did nothing.” Well, it turned out that one of the things she did was go to the Vélodrome d’Hiver on July 16, 1942 and dole out soup to the 14,000 Jews who were taken there. And because all she could do was dole out soup and she couldn’t actually help them, she’d blocked this out of her memory and never wanted to talk about it because she felt she’d done so little.
Another thing we found was a box of political leaflets that she cycled around Paris delivering. They were resistance pamphlets that her Catholic Jesuit priests had encouraged her to deliver. And that was quite dangerous, because you had to know that you were delivering it to the right house. If you got the wrong house and they traced you, they would haul you in and torture you until you gave away the name of the printing press. So you know, she said “Oh, it was a little thing…” And it was a little thing, but one of the points of my book is that cumulatively these little things add up.
And the third thing that we found when my friend moved was a letter from the 1960s from a downed Canadian pilot thanking her for taking him in for a couple of nights and then moving with him to another safe house until they could get him out of Paris and to an escape line. And he did get back to North America. So, I have proof that she did three very positive, practical things. But because she wasn’t part of a formal resistance network, she considers that she’d done nothing and I didn’t mention her name in the book. And she’s sort of emblematic of many of these women who did small things. I guess when I started this book, I would say the general attitude in England of what French women did was “Oh, they had an easy war. They all slept with the Germans. They collaborated. They weren’t bombed. Paris was an open city. They’ve got no idea.”
So, my starting point was actually thinking maybe being occupied does have its own dangers and what would I have done? What choice did they have? I met a woman who is still alive. She’s 95. Her name is Madeleine Riffaud. She was only 19 in 1944, but she actually shot a German. And she paid a heavy price for it, not just because she was arrested and freed. But she’s never really I would say gotten over that trauma of killing somebody deliberately in cold blood. But she felt that she had to do it to prove that women could wield weapons and that they were brave. That they didn’t lack courage. She began a war reporter afterwards and has worked in Southeast Asia.
You know, there is such a variety of women that I met. Obviously, most of them were teenagers or children during the war or they wouldn’t still be alive, but I’ve met the children of others. And there is just a huge range of how you decided to respond: whether you were going to join a resistance group and abandon your family and go live somewhere clandestinely. Or if you would just walk out of a restaurants where Germans were. Or if actually you would just keep your head down and try to do nothing. Or if you would collaborate and get black market food, because your kids needed to eat. I mean it’s just an umbrella spectrum of different responses.
David Newstead: You talk about this in the book, but a lot of these stories have been omitted or glossed over in history. Why do you think that is? And do you think that’s changing?
Anne Sebba: I certainly think it’s changing, the way that women are being respected. You only have to see that in 2015 that President Hollande decided it was time to rebury two female resistance fighters in the Pantheon. And then, President Macron has announced that Simone Veil will also be buried in the Pantheon. Up until 2015, there was only one woman buried there in her own right: Mary Curie. And there will be five now. So, you know, certainly changing. Why haven’t they talked about their roles? There are so many reasons. I think that’s really what my whole book is about: if women wanted after the war to get married, to have children, to have normalcy, to protect their children from all this ghastliness. So they often didn’t talk about it to their children, but they may have talked about it to their grandchildren. The belief that they survived in such horror that they wanted to forget about it.
I also think that the popular attitude has been “Oh, the women collaborated.” Now, why has that been the case? Well, Paris became a sort of feminized city, because nearly two million men were taken as prisoners of war and other young men of fighting age left to join De Gaulle. Paris was emptied of young men other than those they were fighting. So correct to say, it was the women who had to respond to the Germans. And by and large, many of them decided actually cooperation (which is a word I prefer to collaboration) was the best way. And many of the women cooperated by singing, acting, dancing. They were the performers. You could argue that by performing they had supported the German idea that Paris could be run by the Germans, that the German were benign occupiers, and that everything was fine. Unless you were somebody who refused to perform, most women who performed were supporting the occupation. You know, why is it worst to perform than it is to sell vegetables or be a hairdresser? Those people weren’t charged after the war. But I think the female performers were easy prey. So that’s another reason: many of these women were quite famous.
The other reason why this image has dominated that women collaborated is because when the men came back, many of them settled old scores or they had revenge attacks on the women and cut their hair: these famous pictures of shaven women parading through villages. But often, either the women had been engaging in genuine romantic attachments or perhaps they desperately needed bread for their children or perhaps they decided life is better when you’re friendly with a German and they’re quite attractive. And many of them did have affairs, but it should be remembered that some of the men in Germany also had affairs with German women. But after the war, that wasn’t talked about. The men came back to France and forgot about it. But that’s certainly been a dominating image, because these pictures were so shocking.
After the war, De Gaulle decided quite sensibly that what France needed was not to indulge in a period of recrimination. What France needed was to recover, to build the economy, and therefore many of those who had collaborated in an economic sense were overlooked. And bureaucrats were needed and so they were overlooked, forgiven, pardoned, or not even charged. And that’s why it’s really taken a long time to talk about this very, very sensitive area. When I said to people sometimes, “Oh gosh, I wish I were French. This would be so much easier to write.” They said to me, “You’re wrong there. If you were French, you wouldn’t have been allowed to do it, because people you interviewed would have asked what your parent did during the war.” Whereas because I’m English, they weren’t questioning me in quite the same way.
David Newstead: Until reading your book, I kind of thought about it in polar extremes. I had two pictures in my mind: a woman who was a collaborator and then a woman who was a romanticized resistance heroine. And literally, I don’t think I had considered much of anything in-between. So, the idea that someone had to feed their kids during the war or things like that… I don’t know if I really thought about it like that.
Anne Sebba: I think you’re absolutely right. That’s what most people say to me. And I tried to get away from those extremes although they’re part of the book. And look at the great muddle and mess of humanity in the middle, because that’s really where most of us are. That’s why this word “collaborating” although of course some people did, most people just tried to survive.
David Newstead: So, writing a book is a very large undertaking. And I’m curious what first inspired this project and set you on this course to telling this story?
Anne Sebba: I started really at Reuters as a foreign correspondent. And I was the first woman that Reuters took on as a graduate trainee. Even then, I was the first woman that Reuters sacked when I got pregnant. In those days, you could do that. Forty years ago. And so, I’ve been writing books ever since, which I think I’ve been very blessed and very fortunate. I’m still a journalist, because I love being a journalist too. The long term project – the book – I studied French history at university. And when I was first introduced to a publisher at a party, I thought I’ve got to sign a book contract, I don’t want to be unemployed for the rest of my life. This was immediately after Reuters sacked me. And I said I’d love to write about Leon Blum, the French socialist Prime Minister, because he was a hero of mine and I’d studied him at university. And the publisher looked me and said, “I don’t think we’d sell more than two books. You better come up with another idea.” So, you know it’s taken me forty years to get back to writing about Leon Blum. Incidentally, he ties in to what you asked me right at the beginning. He was trying very hard to get women the right to vote, but his Popular Front half-Communist government didn’t survive and when he was thrown out the project was forgotten. But he was the first Prime Minister who really tried to organize the right of French women to vote.
So, I have very genuinely always been very interested in French history. My father fought in France during the war. He drove a tank on D-Day into Normandy and that’s where we took our holidays. It goes deep. But my immediate prod to writing this book was because the previous was a biography of Wallis Simpson and I discovered how much jewelry her husband bought her including ordering her jewels for her birthday on June 19, 1940 when the Germans were knocking at the door of Paris. So, what did her husband think was the most important thing? To go off to Cartier. And that was really something that stuck with me. How can jewelry flourish in wartime? You know in England and America, women during war feel if their men are at the front it’s only right that they should dress down and not look attractive. But French women were different. They thought we must wear lipstick, we must wear wonderful clothes because our men would expect of us. So throughout the war, Cartier and all these shops continued to operate. Although most of the sales were to German officers or German soldiers, there were also French people buying and selling. So, I wanted to understand how that could be. And then I realized that the whole German project was to show the world that the Aryan race was quite capable of looking after the gem that was Paris. Hitler understood perfectly well that he needed to show the world that the Aryans were a cultured, civilized race and that was all part of it: jewelry, cinema, theatre, couture dresses. I learned myself as I went along. Of course, that’s what writing a book is all about, you don’t know before you start. And much of it was surprising even to me.
David Newstead: And to your point about fashion, one that I particularly liked was the purse that turned into a gas mask.
Anne Sebba: And of course, there was no gas attack.
David Newstead: But they were ready… they were ready.
Anne Sebba: Yes, they were ready with their very elegant cylindrical shaped gas mask holders in every color and fabric and all the rest of it. But you know, I didn’t want to write about fashion for the sake of writing a book about fashion. Fashion played a very real role in keeping 20,000 of these women in their workshops, many of whom were Eastern European refugees. And Lucien Lelong, by resisting the German demands to take the fashion industry to Berlin, kept them alive and kept their jobs, but he had to keep finding work for them. So, there was a very real reason for writing about fashion.
David Newstead: You’re right. It is Paris, after all.
Anne Sebba: Yeah, but it was also people’s lives. Exactly, it is Paris. And I do believe it’s different. I don’t think I know of any other city that gives its name as an adjective to the feminine part of its population.
David Newstead: How’s the book been received so far?
Anne Sebba: What can I say? It’s had lovely reviews. It’s sold well and I’ve won a little prize for it, which amazed me because it was given at the French embassy. I mean that is what amazed me. I didn’t think that the French would be remotely interested in what on Earth an English woman can have to say. It’s being translated as we speak. It’s appearing in a month in France. So, that’ll be the real test.
I think what I love doing is mixing oral history with archives and the written word. You have to have the archives and the documents, but I do think oral history plays a role. And one of these elderly women I’ve interviewed said to me a couple months after publication, “Oh Anne, we’re all calling you a declencheur.” Well, that’s a plumbing term for an unblocker. And I’m very happy if I’ve unblocked memories and people are now talking. It’s not too late. I just hope in France people will accept that even an English person can possibly have something to add.
David Newstead: Speaking of unblocking memories, tell me a little bit about your next project focused on Ethel Rosenberg and do you hope that will unblock some memories as well?
Anne Sebba: Well, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. I have always been interested in prison and women. My mother was a prison visitor actually and she used to go to the mother and baby weighing. And when I worked for PEN on the Writers in Prison Committee, I went to Turkey to visit a woman who was in prison. It’s something I’ve always struggled with: what would I have done? How would I have survived? The other thing that has prompted me to look at Ethel Rosenberg’s story is this question of being a mother and why does being a mother hold you to such a different standard? Part of that is what really intrigues me about Ethel Rosenberg’s story. Going and visiting one of Ethel’s friends in California recently, I said to her, “How do you explain that her children have survived and are such flourishing, fulfilled human beings?” And she said three things: one is that Ethel gave them such huge love in the early stages, two that they are super intelligent, and three as you’ll have guessed is the Meeropols. And those three things together is what explains the children’s survival as fulfilled adults and I just find that really, really interesting. But it was a fascinating and horrific period, this madness that overtook America. How can one not be interested in looking at that, especially now when a state becomes hysterical and kills human beings? It’s important to look at it and these people paid a heavy price. In 2021, it will be seventy years since Ethel faced trial. How did she find the strength to survive three years in prison? Where does it come from? I think it’s important that we look at it again.