Les Parisiennes - How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s

Review in Speaks Volumes, No. 6, February 2017, the journal of The Leeds Library

I was attracted to this book by the enthusiastic reviews it received plus, I have to admit, the prospect of some salacious anecdotes about Parisian women who were involved in “la collaboration horizontale”!

It certainly lives up to its reviews and it is a formidably researched and well written history of the draconian sufferings of Parisian women under the German occupation from 1940 to 1944. Like, I suppose, most Brits who believe that they have an awareness of the privations of the French under Occupation, I discovered the grim reality of a population barely surviving on the meagre rations allocated by the authorities.  It was far worse than I imagined and goes a long way to understand how that many of the women involved were catalysed to both extremes, either to become collaborators or to be active resistance workers. Those who joined the Maquis took immense risks and Anne Sebba sets out the details of the brave women, including a number sent to Paris from Britain to carry out vital spying duties, who were caught, tortured and sent to Theresienstadt, the Nazi concentration camp for women.  Some of these women were summarily executed for spying.

Anne Sebba also sets out the extent of the complicity of the Petain regime in carrying out the wishes of the German occupiers, including sometimes undertaking the presumed wishes of their occupiers even before their actual demands. To a large extent the cynicism of the Petain regime in its willing compliance with the Germans in their harsh demands for workers, produce, works of art and the general unpleasantness of the alien regime, explains the long bitterness against all those known to have collaborated and even the travesty of the trial of Pierre Laval, Petain’s key henchman. Even though France had more open anti-semites than other European countries, most Frenchmen and women were appalled at the harsh discriminatory measures taken against Paris’ Jewish population, many of whom were deported, incarcerated and executed.

Out of the blue, towards the end of the book, I came across a connection with Leeds. In 1944, after the liberation of Paris but before the end of the war, all the top fashion houses of Paris decided that, to mark the end of the years of rationing and of the lack of opportunities for fashion displays, they would work together to mount a great exhibition to demonstrate all their design skills. They commissioned a large set of one-third size mannequins and equipped them with several changes of every sort of clothes - including lingerie! This exhibition was an immense success, attracting 100,000 visitors over its opening days. Plans were put into operation to tour the exhibition and it went to New York, San Francisco, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Vienna, London - and Leeds! The city was in exalted company with world capitals. Library member, Robert Dyson, believes that it may have been a consequence of his mother’s long association with top Paris fashion houses which before the war supplied haute couture to her shop in Commercial Street, close to the Library.

Les Parisiennes - How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s, by Anne Sebba, pub. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016

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