De Gaulle gave a thousand medals to resistance heroes – but only six were women. The Parisiennes who survived told Anne Sebba why history forgot them
The myth of the French Resistance goes something like this. French men, except for a “miserable fistful”, all resisted. French women, on the other hand, let the side down. Expecting monsters, many girls succumbed to the charm of the Nazis – who exercised bare-chested, “like Lohengrin”, as one Parisian teenager wrote in her diary. Historians estimate that between 80,000 to 100,000 Franco-German babies were born during the war.
In 1945, France purged its uneasy feelings about the Occupation in general by making scapegoats of these collaborateurs horizontales. With shaven heads, they were forced to parade semi-naked, admitting their sin.
There were other totemic sacrifices. The Wagnerian soprano Germaine Lubin, Hitler’s favourite, who had sung to German audiences at Bayreuth and the Paris Opera, was imprisoned for three years for “national indignity”. She found herself “on an immense material and moral garbage heap… among odious people, nauseating smells, coffee tasting like soup from the night before”.
But other women, faced with the German occupiers, chose different, riskier paths. Vivou Chevrillon, a young music student, went to play her violin outside the walls of the Nazi concentration camp at Compiègne, hoping that her friend inside would recognise the tune and take heart. She came close to being arrested. Later, she forged ID cards. Jeanne Bucher, the avant garde Parisian galleriste, dared to show Kandinsky and other despised – often Jewish – abstract artists. German soldiers often visited to poke fun at the works (and sometimes to buy them, all the same). Once, exasperated, Bucher tore down and stamped on a photograph of a statue by Arno Breker, Hitler’s favourite sculptor, shouting: “That’s German art, so look what I do to it.”
These spontaneous acts of resistance by women didn’t fit with the narrative de Gaulle was trying to weave about the Occupation. He didn’t want the men to feel humiliated even further – shown up by their wives and daughters. Of the 1,038 people awarded the title “Compagnons de la Libération” by de Gaulle between 1940 and 1946, only six were women, of whom four were already dead.
Now, more than 70 years later, that attitude is shifting, slightly but perceptibly. Soil from the graves of Geneviève de Gaulle and Germaine Tillion, two of the bravest female resisters, was last year taken to the Panthéon, defying the inscription on its pediment: “Aux Grands Hommes La Patrie Reconnaissante”. Before that, the only woman honoured there had been Marie Curie.
French women, for their part, did not contradict de Gaulle’s version of events, which said that their experience of war had been less dangerous or less brave than the men’s. After six years of fighting, most women simply wanted to push the horrors they had witnessed to the back of their minds. Even 70 years on, when I interviewed them about their resistance work, they remained self-effacing, insisting they did “nothing” really, “simply” delivering pamphlets or “just” acting as couriers.
Cécile Rol-Tanguy, now 97, for instance, worked as the personal Agent de Liaison for her husband Henri Rol-Tanguy, carrying orders around Paris in the bedding of her baby’s pram, as well as revolvers, grenades and ammunition hidden in potato sacks. But she insisted it was “of little importance”, simply what one did. Other mothers went to extraordinary lengths not to give in, queuing several hours each day for food, sometimes rushing off to find butter in an antiquarian bookseller or sending a child on a long journey to the country for a single cauliflower.
Getting enough to eat was a form of resistance, showing the Germans that Parisians were not to be starved into submission. According to one journalist, food became “the theme song of Paris… At the theatre or movies, when there’s an old play or movie with a huge banquet scene, the audience breaks into delirious cries of joy.” Gisèle Casadesus, then a young mother of two and a hard-working actress at the Comédie-Française, whose audience was always full of non-uniformed Germans, said: “You never knew who you could trust, so nobody ever spoke about anything that mattered just in case. Food was the constant topic of conversation. What can you eat, how to cook it and where can you get it?”
In the same way, dressing well became a point of stubborn pride. When there was no shampoo to wash their hair, Parisiennes wore turbans instead. Whatever the shortages, they were determined to retain some chic. No doubt it drew the Gestapo’s attention away from any suspicious activity, too.
But even before the war was over, women were already being cast as scapegoats for the Occupation. Marshal Pétain, leader of the collaborationist Vichy government, blamed France’s defeat in 1940 on the moral corruption at the heart of the Third Republic. Women, he argued, had neglected their duty through coquetry, frivolity and egoism. Vichy therefore demanded a national revolution: women were to have lots of babies and glory once more in the domestic. They were officially banned from wearing trousers (too masculine) and could hold neither jobs nor bank accounts without the permission of a father or husband.
But while Vichy tried to reverse the small, liberal steps made in the Thirties, the facts of the war pulled the other way. Paris was emptied of men: almost two million were prisoners of war; others had fled to be with General de Gaulle and the Free French in London; thousands more were missing in action or in hiding. To be a young man in occupied Paris was so unusual that it was dangerous and invited questions. Because women did not attract the same attention, they became useful for carrying weapons and incriminating documents. For the first time, women found themselves truly in charge of their own lives.
Many of the women I interviewed were teenagers when they began their resistance work, something they played up to pass unnoticed. Jacqueline Marié, aged 17 in 1940, wore short white ankle socks when she travelled on the Métro to deliver political leaflets. Aware that she might have to slip through the underground tunnels to another station if the Gestapo rounded up people at a street exit, she hoped the Germans, if it came to it, would not question “a child”. She was caught, eventually, and sent to Ravensbrück, alongside her mother. Incredibly, both survived the 1945 death march.
The women who resisted came from a variety of backgrounds: working-class communist as well as aristocratic, young and middle aged. There were also a number of Americans who refused to leave Paris.
One, Drue Tartière, was an actress whose French husband had been killed fighting for the Free French. When she was arrested for her resistance work, she brazenly pulling up her overalls to show the kommandant blood trickling down the insides of her legs. Her period had just begun, and she demanded clean clothes and sanitary napkins.
The embarrassed kommandant gave Drue the chance to contact her housekeeper, who brought her not just sanitary napkins but also a false medical certificate, stating that she had cancer of the womb. From then on, to fake that condition, Drue medicated and starved herself to within an inch of her life, but it won her her freedom. She continued to resist.
Some women, those in the upper bourgeoisie, for example, who had had to put up with arranged marriages and philandering husbands, found fulfilment in the war. For Comtesse Lily Pastré, heiress to the Noilly Prat vermouth fortune, and in 1939 a divorcée drifting into alcoholism, the war came as salvation. She began to hide Jewish musicians, including Edith Piaf’s lover Norbert Glanzberg, in her chateau at Montredon. After the war, she felt her loss of purpose acutely.
War was also the making of the supremely elegant Odette Fabius, a Parisian Jew who worked for the resistance, criss-crossing France between 1940 and 1942 with fake Ausweises. In Marseille, she went to meet the leader of the Corsican Sailors’ trade union. She dressed inconspicuously in a Lanvin suit but with no hat or gloves, holding a copy of Das Kapital. They fell in love, and worked together until, in 1943, both were sent to concentration camps. In her memoirs, she wrote that it was he who had shown her the grandeur of which mankind was capable in adversity.
When liberation came, French women believed a new era had dawned, that equality had finally been won. But instead they were told to go home. The returning men needed their jobs back; the nation needed women to make homes and babies. Several magazines urged women to return to a time of innocence and femininity, to “stop making decisions, stop balancing chequebooks, stop being aggressively punctual”. Henri Frenay, a resistance fighter instructed by de Gaulle to oversee the repatriation of refugees, told women to leave their salaried jobs and let men once again be chef de famille so that former prisoners of war “could regain their lost self-confidence”.
For returning female prisoners, on the other hand, many of whom would remain invalid for the rest of their lives, homecoming was often a bitter disappointment. Exhilarated at the thought of returning to a “normal life”, they were now disillusioned and distraught to find their families destroyed, their homes looted, and an acute lack of empathy. Amid the general fervour for punishing women, some of the thousands of emaciated, skeletal women with shaven heads who returned from camps were heckled in the street, confused with the prostitutes guilty of collaboration horizontale.
Simone Weil, the Jewish lawyer and politician who survived Auschwitz, spoke of “being forgotten” on her return to Paris as akin to a second death. Marceline Rozenberg (later Loridan-Ivens) also felt muted. “Don’t say anything – they won’t understand,” she was told. Only at 86, in her memoir last year, was she able to articulate how Auschwitz had killed off her humanity, and the little girl she had been; and how impossible it was for others to understand.
Her own mother asked whether she had been raped. “Was I still a virgin? Good for marriage? That was her question.” Marceline believed that France’s intense post-war desire to forget and rebuild, a frenzy of weddings and babies, was itself a kind of madness.
The end of the war did not settle the women’s question. France was still deeply divided over what exactly was a woman’s “proper place”, so fetishised by Pétain. In 1944, de Gaulle announced that women would be allowed to vote; in 1945, they did, in municipal elections; and again, in the 1946 national election. But Edith Piaf, the working class singer who to many had come to symbolise Frenchness, was so little interested in politics that she probably never voted.
Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s is published by Orion (£20)
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