Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
This is the story of Suzanne Spaak, a bourgeois and well-connected Catholic who became embroiled in the protection and escape of Jews in Paris after its occupation. Not quite her life story, but the reader is immediately immersed in a welter of characters in her social circle. It takes the reader some time to settle down into recognition of them all (although there is a very necessary dramatis personae at the book’s beginning). In Suzanne’s ambit was the acclaimed author Colette, whose war was complicated by the fact that her husband was a Jew. In a neat demonstration of the Nazi’s sometimes flexible approach to whom they declared to be Aryan or Jew, Nelson mentions that both Colette and husband were invited to tea at the German embassy!
The book gives in great detail an insight how the Germans made life difficult for those in their occupied territories and how the persecution of the Jews evolved into the deportations. It covers the well-worn ground of Drancy, the Vel d’Hiv, and so on. It also sets out how the Nazis closed down all but the Pétainiste media, and the great dangers run by the Jewish Resistance and their supporters, in trying to disseminate their own views.
The Nazis put the control of Jewish children (whose parents had been deported) into the care of a Jewish organisation, UGIF, and Nelson underscores how its leaders behaved less than honourably to the children when their own lives were under threat. Nelson also emphasises how profoundly ungrateful was de Gaulle after the capital’s liberation – choosing to see it as an achievement of the French, rather than of also “the scores of British SOE agents, thousands of American infantrymen, and millions of Russians who lost their lives on the way to France’s liberation.” I am not sure why (apart from the fact that she is American) that the Canadian and British infantry are excluded from the author’s credits for that one!
For Nelson this was a natural successor to her previous work Red Orchestra, which detailed the efforts of the German resistance in Berlin and the Gestapo’s successful negation of them. However in this volume she has clearly had to rely on many memoirs, including those of who one might succinctly call the “baddies”. It is inevitable that a lot of those autobiographies and testimonies were self-exculpatory, with a tenuous connection to the truth.
Suzanne’s husband, Claude, behaved in a somewhat dishonourable way during the war, spending most of the time with his mistress, and leaving his children for long periods. However, after Suzanne/Suzette met her grisly ending, there is a very moving passage as Claude surveys her last prison cell. And few readers can fail to be very moved by the letters to and from the children to their mother written from her Gestapo cell.
Whilst one cannot but admire deeply the courage of Suzanne, the book is less engaging than say Paris After the Liberation by Mr & Mrs Beevor, or Village of Secrets, by Caroline Moorhead, which explore parallel themes.