Response to the terrorism in Paris…

“In an essay he wrote in response to the terrorism that occurred in Paris while he was visiting this week, Ronald C. Rosbottom opened with a response to someone who asked if he was safe. ‘The answer is yes, we are, but we do not live in safe times,’ he wrote. Rosbottom, an Amherst college professor who studies French culture …”

Read the rest of the article here:

Nostalgia for Paris and the Effects of the Occupation

Excerpt from the book: When Paris When Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944

“The Last Time I Saw Paris,” written in 1940 by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern and played frquently on the radio late that year, summed up not only the nostalgia that the world had already developed for the City of Light but also the effects that the Occupation itself must have been having on Parisians themselves:

A lady known as Paris, Romatic and Charming,
Has left her old companions and faded from view.
Lonely men with lonely eyes are seeking her in vain.
Her streets are where they were, but there is no sign of her.
She has left the Seine.
The last time I saw Paris, her heart was warm and gay,
I heard the laughter of her heart in every street café.
The last time I saw Paris, her trees were dressed for spring,
And lovers walked beneth those trees and birds found songs to sing…
No matter how they change her, I’ll remember her that way.
I’ll think of happy hours, and people who shared them…
And those who danced at night and kept our Paris bright
‘Til the town went dark.

Jerome Kern with Oscar Hammerstein (New York: Chappell, 140)

C-SPAN Book Discussion

My Discussion on When Paris Went Dark 

For those of you who might have missed one of my talks this summer or fall, this is a C-Span2 recording from September when I talked about my book, When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944. In my book, I recounts daily life in the city during the four years of occupation, the development of an underground resistance, and the city’s liberation. I spoke at the New Canaan Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

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A Luxurious Hotel and its Sad Past


It is still a magnificent building, looming over the neighborhood, a reminder of Paris’s great past as the shopping mecca of the late 19th- and early 20th centuries. The Hôtel Lutétia, from the Roman name for the city of Paris, was conceived and built by the famous Boucicaut family, the founders of the Bon Marché Department Store across the street. The Boucicauts had created the first grand magasin in Paris, and it had quickly become a destination shopping center, with clients coming from all over France and Europe. They concluded that they

needed a hotel worthy of their richest clients, and thus the hotel was built in 1910.

During the “dark years” of the Occupation, the Hôtel Lutétia had an especially important reputation. Immediately upon the arrival of the Germans, the Abwehr, the Wehrmacht’s counter-intelligence and intelligence section, installed itself there. For the most part, the hotel became a giant office building and dormitory for German agents. The bar and restaurant remained open to the public—that is, to other German Occupiers and their French collaborators—but the canny sommeliers of the hotel had hidden their best wines behind false walls, only to be taken down after the Liberation of Paris in 1944.

Across the street from the hotel was a notorious prison, the Cherche-Midi, where Dreyfus himself had been first imprisoned in 1884. It was there now that members of the French resistance were imprisoned and tortured, including the first member of De Gaulle’s Free French Forces to be executed, Etienne d’Estienne d’Orves, in 1941.

At the juncture, then, of the 6th and 7th arrondissements hummed for four years the machinery of the Occupation’s bureaucracy of spying, torture, imprisonment, and execution. It is difficult now, as we walk along the Boulevard Raspail and the Rue du Cherche-Midi, to put ourselves into the mindset of Parisians who must have shivered as they hurried past these two massive buildings.

The Germans were finally chased from Paris in late August 1944, seventy years ago. The interim government immediately requisitioned the hotel as a transit center for returning prisoners of war, and deportees. Beginning in early 1945, the site was one of the saddest places in Paris. Hundreds of POWs, most imprisoned for over four years, stepped off busses and trucks, searching for their families. Hands were held high with names and photographs, seeking avidly for information about their brothers, sons, fathers, and husbands. Most of the returning soldiers were in relatively good health, having been treated as fellow combatants by the Germans.

But soon another type of returnee began to appear: the desperately thin, variously clothed (some still in prison stripes), men, women, and children who had been liberated from concentration camps. Here the waiting crowds were even more anxious, for no word—of survival or of death—had reached them through government channels or the Red Cross. Many of these lost souls were not from Paris, and had arrived at the city’s major railroad stations because all major international lines in France begin and end in the capital. Janet Flanner (writing as Genêt), the inimitable Paris correspondent for The New Yorker, described in a cable dated April, 1945, one especially moving arrival:

“The first contingent of women prisoners arrived by train, brining with them as very nearly their only baggage the proof, on their faces and their bodies and in their weakly spoken reports, of the atrocities that had been their lot and the lot of hundreds of thousands of others in the numerous concentration camps our armies are liberating, almost too late. They arrived at the Gare de Lyon at eleven in the morning and were met by a nearly speechless crowd ready—with welcoming bouquets of lilacs and other spring flowers, and General de Gaulle, who wept.”

The same scenes played out at the Hôtel Lutétia for weeks, until the crowds waiting were much larger than the pitifully few survivors arriving. I think of these scenes every time I walk into and alongside this grand old hotel, today welcoming the healthy, the wealthy, and the free.

Note: The Hôtel Lutétia is now closed for a three-year renovation. A massive auction was just held, and many of the traces of those awful years have almost certainly been removed. Still, memories have a way of clinging to even the most sanitized buildings.

About the Book

CaillebocheForthcoming August 2014

On June 14, 1940, German tanks entered a silent and deserted Paris. Eight days later, France accepted defeat along with foreign occupation. Parisians were stunned, humiliated, yet curious; the Germans too were curious, wondering how to treat a city that had shown not a trace of resistance.

The Occupation would last for four years and would be defined by many  misconceptions.  An eerie sense of normalcy settled back over Paris, at least on the surface, as occupiers and occupied struggled to coexist.

In WHEN PARIS WENT DARK, Ronald C. Rosbottom explores how beneath the bustle of urban life thrived an underground resistance of impressive force. As the Occupation became increasingly onerous, a muscular, resistance rose up that included every type of Parisian-from the Jews, immigrants, adolescents, communists, rightists, Gaullists to cultural icons such as Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, and police officers, teachers, students, store owners, and landlords.

Weaving a rich tapestry of stories that describe this era from the pavement up, WHEN PARIS WENT DARK brings readers from the first days of the Occupation until the last, and evokes with stunning precision the detail of daily life in wartime in a city under military and civilian occupation, and the brave people who fought against it.

One of the most often asked questions about the Occupation of Paris concerns how and when its citizens resisted the imposition of a foreign host. Why was the city surrendered without a shot being fired? What sort of organized resistance developed? How unified were the different groups who did resist? What forms did that resistance take, and why was it not more successful? In the end, is it true that the French were more passive than active in their acceptance of German authority?

The main character of this book is Paris, both the geo-political site as well as the imagined one. There are many, many references here to specific streets and boulevards, Métro stops, neighborhoods, monuments, restaurants, cafés, churches, museums, cemeteries, parks, hotels and so forth.

In some ways, this is a retroactive guidebook, for the city that the Nazis occupied has not changed much in the last seventy years. The other story is how two complex national and cultural entities—Parisians and Germans—reacted to each other, how they lived in an intimate embrace where the moves or caresses of one brought forth a reaction from the other, and so on. Neither was strong enough to control the other, but slowly, because of fatigue rather than strength, one finally manages to break away.

The story of the Occupation of Paris fascinates us the same way that fictional works imagining the Nazi occupation of London or New York do. How can a city so well known— thanks to poetry, fiction, history, film, painting, photography, postcards, songs and the innumerably recounted visits of thousands upon thousands of world tourists—adapt to a sudden jolt that, unlike an earthquake or even a plague, lasts much, much longer than expected?

The reader asks: what about the neighborhood where I stayed as a student? What about that cinema I went to so often? What about my favorite park? What would I have done had my neighbor asked for help? How did such a familiar environment become uncanny, and then how does one adapt to that sense of strangeness, even of danger? The tale is a universal one.