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Authors: The New Yorker Magazine

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· · ·

Incredibly, beginning the day after the Belgian surrender, there was a great wave of exhilaration, based on the heroic action of the British and French armies fighting their way out of Flanders. People with relatives in the northern armies had, when they heard of the capitulation, resigned themselves to the capture or death of the trapped men. The German government, in radio broadcasts, had threatened that even if the Allies were able to make a stand at Dunkirk the Germans would sink every boat that tried to embark troops. It was one German threat that didn’t come off. People in Paris began to receive telegrams from relatives who had safely arrived in England. Several of my acquaintances received such messages, so we assumed that the number of troops saved was very large.

My old friends Henri and Eglée had not worried about their son Jean-Pierre, because, having seen him on leave since the Germans drove the wedge between the Allied armies, they knew he was south of the Somme. But Henri’s brother Paul, who at fifty had been called back into service as a lieutenant of artillery, was with the army in Flanders. One evening shortly after the Belgian surrender, I climbed up to the Rue Gabrielle,
just under the crest of Montmartre, to visit Henri and Eglée, and found them in a happy mood, because Paul had reached England. I tried to talk to Eglée about what she and her husband would do if the Germans turned toward Paris after they finished the Dunkirk job. Her answer was simply that she had an order from the Galeries Lafayette for five dozen of the soldiers’ muslin money belts she manufactured at home and that after she completed the order she would have to wait eight days for payment, so how could she think of leaving Paris? As for Henri, he said he now constituted the whole office force of the textile-design company he worked for and couldn’t leave without giving a month’s notice. Peacetime thought patterns were mercifully persistent.

Everyone now was doing his best to forget that the Allied forces had had too few tanks and guns to begin with, and that now the evacuated armies had lost what little they had. We consoled ourselves with stories of individual heroism and with the thought that the Allies, after all, controlled the sea. Only when the evacuation was completed did the enthusiastic French suddenly take cognizance of the fact that there were no more British troops on their side of the Channel. As if spontaneously, the German gibe, “England will fight to the last Frenchman,” swam into the popular consciousness and began to seem like a portent.

· · ·

Two kinds of person are consoling in a dangerous time: those who are completely courageous, and those who are more frightened than you are. Fernand, the night porter at my hotel, was completely courageous. “Well, what do you know?” he would ask me when I came home at night. Before I answered, he would say, “We will have them yet, the camels. It takes a few defeats to get our blood up. They poison our lives by provoking the anti-aircraft into making a noise at night. A surprise is preparing itself for those cocos!” It was a pleasure to see him during the frequent early-morning
Hearing the sirens, he would go out into the small park in front of the hotel and, shielding his eyes with his hands, search the sky for airplanes. Seeing none, he would shake his head disgustedly and shout up to the female guests at the windows of the hotel, “Do not derange yourselves, Mesdames, it is for nothing again!”

The most frightened man I saw in France was a certain well-known French journalist who wrote under various names in a dozen Parisian newspapers of varying political color. He had a broad, paraffin-textured face which, when he was alarmed, appeared to be on the point of melting.
Long before the offensive began in May, he had tried to explain to me why Laval, the appeaser, and Paul Faure, the left-of-Blum Socialist, together with Georges Bonnet, representative of the great banking house of Lazard Frères, were all planning a move to get rid of Paul Reynaud in order to liquidate the war as quickly as possible. They wanted to put Daladier back in Reynaud’s place because they knew that as long as Daladier headed the government there would be no effectual war—that eventually the war would die of dry rot, which was what 90 percent of the French politicians and all the French Communists, along with the Germans, wanted. I had asked naïvely why Laval didn’t try to become Premier himself. “Because, of course,” my journalist friend had said impatiently, “then everybody would
he was going to make peace. Then there would be mutiny in the Army.” Personally, he used to say, he was a decided partisan of both Reynaud, who wanted to fight, and of Laval, who wanted to make peace. You were always running up against things like that in French politics.

When I met my journalist at lunch one day the first week of June, he was in as spectacular a funk as I have ever observed. “What a terrible mistake to have provoked those people, my dear!” he shrieked. “What madness to concern ourselves with Poland! Laval was so right to have wished to conciliate Mussolini. I am going to give my dog a lethal injection. He could never stand the nervous shock of those bombs that whistle. Working people are so insouciant. They know they have us in their power. I cannot get a man to dig a trench in my garden for me until tomorrow afternoon, and the bombers may be here any minute!” As he stuffed asparagus into his mouth, large tears welled out of his eyes. “Peace, quickly, quickly!” he shouted, after swallowing the asparagus.

· · ·

Sunday, June 2nd, I visited the country home of a French newspaper publisher who lived with his large, intelligent family near the town of Melun, thirty miles south of Paris. The countryside, hot and rich and somnolent, and the family, sitting on the lawn after a chicken dinner, made me think of Sundays on Long Island. It was as if no war had ever been. We sat around in lawn chairs, fighting against drowsiness, talking unintently, resisting the efforts of one woman to get up a game like charades. We spoke with no originality whatever of all the mistakes all the appeasers in the world had made, beginning with Ethiopia. We repeated to one another how Italy could have been squelched in 1935, how a
friendly Spanish government could have been maintained in power in 1936, how the Germans could have been prevented from fortifying the Rhineland in the same year. We talked of the Skoda tanks, built according to French designs in Czecho-Slovakia, that were now ripping the French army apart. The Germans had never known how to build good tanks until Chamberlain and Daladier presented them with the Skoda plant. These matters had become for every European capable of thought a sort of litany, to be recited almost automatically over and over again.

· · ·

Women in the train which took me back to town that evening were talking about the leaflets German planes had dropped, promising to bombard Paris the next day. The word “bombardment” had a terrible sound, evoking pictures of Warsaw and Rotterdam. The train arrived at the Gare de Lyon after eleven. There were no taxis. In the last month they had become increasingly scarce even in the daytime; the drivers simply refused to risk their necks in the pitch-black streets at night. I could not distinguish one street from another. There was a cluster of dim, moving lights at a distance, like a luminous jellyfish seen by another fish at the bottom of the sea. I started toward the lights and tripped over a plank, skinning my knee. When I reached them, I found they came from the electric lanterns of a group of policemen who were stopping pedestrians and examining their papers. They were polite and quiet. One of them told me how to get to my hotel, which took me almost an hour.

The promised bombardment came at about one o’clock the next afternoon, an anticlimax to its advance notices. It was preceded by a tremendous noise of motors in airplanes too high to be seen, and by the angry hammering of anti-aircraft guns. Technically, I was later given to understand, it was, from the German standpoint, a very good bombardment. Two hundred and fifty planes participated, the largest number that had been assembled for a single operation in this war. The bombing, considering the height at which the planes flew—twenty thousand feet—was commendably accurate. However, the results looked nothing like the photographs of Warsaw and Rotterdam, because Paris was reasonably well defended. “The anti-aircraft fire was well nourished,” the French said, “so the bombers stayed high.” The pursuit squadrons, although they failed to intercept the bombers on their way to Paris, were on their tails so closely that the Germans dropped their bombs quickly and left. If
there had been no defending batteries or planes, as at Rotterdam, the bombers would have loafed along a few hundred feet above the main thoroughfares and dropped their high explosives like roach powder. The bombs hit the huge Citroën factory on the Quai de Javel and knocked down a few scattered apartment houses, but the total effect on public morale was tonic. Forty-eight hours after the bombardment, M. Dautry, the Minister of War Industry, took a group of correspondents through the Citroën plant, which had been the chief German objective. There we found a smell of burnt paint, and a great deal of broken glass on the floor, but no serious damage to the great automobile-assembly lines or the part of the plant where shells were made. The women making shells worked on as calmly as girls in an American candy factory.

The day we visited the factory, June 5th, was also the day the Germans began their second attack, the push southward across the Somme that was to carry them to the Spanish frontier. “It is the beginning of the second round,” Pierre Comert announced at the press conference that evening. None of us could admit to ourselves that the war might be a two-round knockout. The French would surely be dislodged from the Somme-Aisne line, we conceded, but it would take weeks to do it. Then they would defend Paris and the line of the Seine, then the line of the Loire. By that time, perhaps, the British would be able to do something. Even the United States might begin to understand what was at stake. But this fight was not to have even a decent second round. The rest after the first round had not been long enough; the French were still out on their feet. Unarmed and outnumbered, they were led by two old men who were at loggerheads. As for Reynaud, he had called into his government Ybarnegaray and Marin, two reactionaries whose only surface virtue was a blustering show of war spirit. Raised to power by Socialist votes, Reynaud had turned toward men whom he trusted because they were of his own Rightist background—Pétain, Mandel, Ybarnegaray, Marin. All his Rightist friends except Mandel joined in smothering him. They felt that by making war against Hitler he was betraying his own class.

When I got back to my hotel that night, tired and discouraged, Fernand the porter, looking radiant, said to me, “What they must be digesting now, the Boches!” He showed me a copy of
Le Temps
, which said the German losses were stupefying. All the attacks had been “contained,” but the French Army had executed a slight retreat in good order.

· · ·

By now there were perceptible changes in the daily life of Paris. There was no telephone service in the hotels, so you had to make a special trip afoot every time you wanted to tell somebody something. Taxis were harder than ever to find. My hotel, which was typical, had six floors. At the beginning of the war in September the proprietor had closed the fourth, fifth, and sixth floors. Now I was the only guest on the second floor, and there were perhaps a half dozen on the first. The staff, naturally, dwindled like the clientele. Every day somebody said goodbye to me. One by one the waiters left, and then it was the headwaiter, who had been kept on after all of his subordinates had been dismissed. The next day it was Toutou, who left the bookkeeping to the housekeeper. A couple of days later, the housekeeper herself left. Finally, there were only a porter and one chambermaid in the daytime, and Fernand at night. “Perhaps, if the line holds, there will be an upturn in business,” the proprietor said.

It was at about this time that my restaurateur friend, M. Bisque, with whom I used to make the rounds of the markets, decided to close his restaurant. It was not that the Germans worried him, he explained to me, but there were no more customers, and also his wine dealer was pressing him to pay his bill. M. Bisque, and his wife, who kept the books, and his daughter Yvette, who possessed the
tour de main
for making a soufflé stand up on a flat plate, and his son, who had been an apprentice in the kitchen of the Café de Paris, and Marie-Louise, the waitress, were all leaving the city to run the canteen in a munitions factory south of Fontainebleau. I wished them Godspeed.

For a few days I had lacked the heart to visit Henri and Eglée. Then Henri had come to my hotel to tell me joyfully they had had another letter from Jean-Pierre, who said he had been working twenty-one hours a day repairing tanks for his division. On Sunday, June 9th, which was a warm and drowsy day, I returned Henri’s call. On the way I stopped at a florist shop and bought some fine pink roses. The woman in the shop said that shipments from the provinces were irregular, but that fortunately the crisis came at a season when the Paris suburbs were producing plenty of flowers. “We have more goods than purchasers,” she said, laughing. When I arrived at the apartment, I found Eglée busy making her muslin money belts. Henri was amusing himself by reading a 1906 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, one of his favorite possessions, and drinking a
vin ordinaire
in which he professed to find a slight resemblance to Ermitage. “This time I think the line will hold,” Henri said. “I
served under Pétain at Verdun. He will know how to stop them. Only I don’t like that talk of infiltration near Forges-les-Eaux.”

“Infiltration” was a grim word in this war. The communiqué never admitted that the Germans had pierced the French line, but invariably announced, “Motorized elements have made an infiltration. They have been surrounded and will be destroyed.” Two days later the “infiltration” became a salient, from which new infiltrations radiated. When I left the apartment, Henri walked down as far as the Place des Abbesses with me. He wanted to buy a newspaper. As we stood saying goodbye, we heard a series of reports, too loud and too widely spaced for anti-aircraft. “Those sound like naval guns mounted on railroad cars,” Henri said. “The Boches can’t be so far away, then.” That was the last time I saw Henri.

BOOK: The 40s: The Story of a Decade
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