Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba (4 Stars)

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Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an advance copy of this book in return for an honest review.

The only reason for 4 instead of 5 stars is that sometimes the writing was disjointed and choppy (particularly the first half of the book), making it hard to follow and comprehend. Otherwise, this is a book that was well-researched and should be read. I needed to read this book in small doses, as it is powerful and thought-provoking as you can see from all my questions below. Sebba takes us through the lives of French women during World War II, from occupation to liberation and through reconstruction. There are vignettes about women from every class, prostitutes to royalty, as well as resistance fighters to collaborators.

The book goes into great detail of how the fashion houses continued to operate, albeit on a limited scale, during the war. Style and couture are a distinct trait of Les Parisiennes, and that may have included the need for a matching tote for your gas mask, or using parachute silk to make stockings. Far from being vanity, I look at this as a means of hanging onto any shred of normalcy these women could find. However, I found the most interesting parts of the book to be the individual women’s stories, especially the incredibly courageous women who joined the resistance. “Heroism isn’t a matter of choice, but of reflex” based on moral values. Would I have been so brave? Would I have been so morally certain that I needed to do the right thing, even if it cost my life? What about my children’s lives? Wouldn’t I want someone to do that for me?

At the time, French women were not allowed to vote, could not have bank accounts and were not able to find employment without their father or husband’s approval. How do they survive once war begins and men are called to the front? If sex with the enemy becomes a commodity perhaps vital to your existence, how does a beautiful young mother with children to feed respond? Later, this mother likely would have been publicly humiliated by having her head shaved, paraded naked through town, spit on and beaten. But was that collaboration, or simply survival? There are stories of brave concierges who would lie to the Nazi’s about their tenants, or help hide them. There is also one concierge who sells out a family for a pair of silver candlesticks.  How did this woman pass by those candlesticks in her dining room each day and not see the ghosts of those she betrayed? Why did some offer only to help others in return for payment? As a resistance fighter, would I have the strength to take drugs and starve myself to mimic ovarian cancer in order to stay alive and continue with my mission?

Liberation and reconstruction are also covered, and how sad that some were not welcomed home from concentration camps. Indeed, there were different classifications for reparations, with resisters receiving more than victims (concentration camp survivors), causing even more social division as the victims were predominantly the Jews and Gypsies. The suicide rate for camp survivors is reported at three times that of the general population, and so heart-wrenching to know that those who managed to survive the horror of the campus were sometimes unable to survive in the outside world.

For further reading, I would recommend Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp by Sarah Helm as well as the historical novel Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, which is based on true accounts.

It is not for the rest of us to judge but, with imagination, we can try to understand.

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