Paris Alive: The Republic of Silence






NEVER were we freer than under the German occupation. We had lost all our rights, and first of all our right to speak. They insulted us to our faces every day — and we had to hold our tongues. They deported us en masse — as workers, as Jews, as political prisoners. Everywhere, — upon the walls, in the press, on the screen, — we found that filthy and insipid image of ourselves which the oppressor wished to present to us. And because of all this, we were free.

The more the Nazi venom crept into our thoughts the more each precise thought became a conquest. The more the omnipotent police tried to enforce our silence, the more each of our words became a precious declaration of principle. The more we were pursued, the more each one of our gestures took on the nature of an engagement. The frequently atrocious circumstances of our struggle made us at the same time live —without any deceit, nakedly, in this torn and untenable situation which one calls the state of man (la condition humaine). Exile, captivity, above all, death, which one easily shies from during happier times, were then our perpetual worry, and we were to learn that they were not avoidable accidents, not even constant or objective threats, but that we must discover in them our lot, our fate, the deepest source of our being.

Every moment we lived in the fullest sense of that trite tag, “Man is mortal,” and the choice that each one made of his life and of himself was authentic; for the more it was made in the presence of death, the more it could always be explained in the formula of “Rather Death Than. . . And I do not speak here of our elite who were the true Resisters, but of all Frenchmen who, at every hour of the day or night, during four years, have said NO.

Indeed the cruelty of the enemy pushed us to the extremes of this stale, in forcing us to ask those questions one neglected in time of peace — all those of us (and what Frenchman was not at one time or another in this position?) who, knowing something important to the Resistance, have asked ourselves in anguish, “If they torture me, can I hold on?” Thus indeed was the question of liberty brought to the very edge of the profoundest comprehension that man can have of himself.

For the secret of a man is not in his Oedipus or inferiority complex; it is in his power to resist suffering up to the point of death. To those who led clandestine lives, the conditions of their light brought a new experience. They did not light in the daylight, like soldiers; in every circumstance they were alone; they were pursued and arrested in their solitude. And it was in their loneliness, in their completest nakedness, that they resisted torture, alone and stripped before their well-shaved, well-fed, and well-dressed executioners, who mocked their pitiful flesh and whose complacent consciences and incredible social power gave every evidence of their being in the right.

Copyright 1944, The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

Alone. Without the help of a friendly hand or any encouragement whatsoever. However, in the very depths of this solitude, there were the others, all the others, all the comrades of Resistance, whom they were defending. One single word would provoke ten or a hundred new arrests. This total responsibility in total solitude — was not this the final revelation of our liberty?

This nakedness, this loneliness, this enormous risk, was the same for all — for the officers and for the men, for those who carried messages of whose contents they were ignorant as for those who decided some unique policy for the entire Resistance movement. Imprisonment. Deportation. Death. There is no army in the world where one might find an equality of risks for the private and for the commander-in-chief. And that is why the Resistance was a true democracy; for the soldier, as for his superior, the same danger, the same loneliness, the same responsibility, the same absolute freedom within the discipline.

Thus, in blood and shadows, a Republic erected itself, the strongest of republics. Each of its citizens knew what he owed to every other, and that each could count on that alone. Each of them understood, in the completest loneliness, his historic role and responsibility. Each of them set himself freely, irremediably, against the oppressors. And in his freedom in choosing himself, he chose the freedom of all.

This republic, without institutions, army, or police, made every Frenchman affirm and maintain it, against Nazism, at every moment. No one here failed it, and at present we are on the verge of another republic. But can we not hope that this new republic of the bright day which is now coming will preserve in its sunlight the austere virtues of the republic of silence and the night?



AUGUST 23, 1944. — Am writing you this from the front seat of our truck, on the way to Paris. We are in a long convoy of General Leclerc’s Division, to which our recording unit is now attached. The sun is shining, and aside from all the dust, it is not unpleasant. We are taking all day, advancing in fits and starts, to cover ground one might normally traverse in a few hours.

Yesterday we were sent on a mission to Chambois, where the pocket of fleeing Germans was closed by the Canadian and American troops. We turned off the main road at Bourg St. Léonard. On either side were fields bordered with shrubs or poplars. It was a lovely day, with puffy clouds in the sky.

But the road soon became cluttered with shattered vehicles of all kinds. There were overturned carts, demolished trucks with camouflage branches sticking out of them at crazy angles, burned-out tanks. The roadsides were strewn with debris of all kinds: boxes, sheets, blankets, papers, helmets, clothing, unexploded shells. The ditches were full of corpses, and in the fields you could see German soldiers with arms bent and fingers frozen in some final gesture, flat on the grass like statues hurled to the ground. Bloated cattle studded the landscape with legs sticking out. The stench was horrible and there was no escaping it. When we got there, the town of Chambois was still smoldering.

The road was crowded with gigantic tanks. American soldiers stood around them in groups, discussing tactics. The main street was full of trucks and ambulances. A building taken over by an Army hospital unit exuded the smell of medicaments. They were carrying in some wounded on a stretcher, from a German jeep with an identifying flag strapped to it. Prowling soldiers carrying their guns circulated cautiously. There were no tapes yet to designate areas cleared of mines. Our dead had been removed, but German victims lay about, their faces mostly covered with a helmet or a cloth.

I walked past the facades of these little French dwellings, and through the blasted doors and windows saw amazing sights. There would be a still life of a dinner table, all set with plates, glasses, a bottle of wine, half a loaf of bread — even a vase of flowers in the center. This was heavily powdered by falling plaster. An alarm clock on the sideboard still ticked. A chair was overturned, but otherwise little seemed disturbed.

Through other windows I saw one scene after another that reminded me of waxworks exhibits — Madame Tussaud’s, the Musée Grévin in Paris — and odd displays in fairs at home. Dead Germans lay in all manner of awkward positions, stiffened as death had struck them. Some stared up at me from the floor, their hands clutching a broken rifle. The fingers of ot hers were loosely closed like those of a sleeping baby. Their disheveled hair was gray with dust; their flesh was a pale-green tinge and they seemed unreal, shrunken by death into something inhuman, poor effigies of what real soldiers are like. Several rooms had men tumbled over one another, clothing torn off them, displaying wounds or roasted flesh. Dressers had the drawers yanked out, frocks and women’s underwear hanging from the brims, and the rest of the contents strewn wildly all over the room.

An American artist who studied in Paris in the days of peace, EMLEN ETTING was sent to London by the OWI as French announcer and script writer for ABSIE (the American Broadcasting Station in Europe). In July his office sent him into the Psychological Warfare Division attached to General Patton’s 3rd Army. In this capacity he was radio commentator for the BBC and ABSIE, and recorded interviews in newly liberated towns through Normandy and Brittany. Subsequently he was attached to the 2nd French Armored Division, and with it he entered Paris on liberation day. This account is extracted from letters written to his wife.

One house had a dead horse in the parlor, its eyes burst from the sockets and maggots seething all over the head and out. of the gory nostrils. Farther along, a cow’s legs descended through the ceiling of a room. Curtains and rafters hung disconsolate into the street. Bottles and bedding had been hoarded, then violently cast aside as though by a tornado.

We ate K rations by our truck, parked at the juncture of three roads. A torn French flag hung from the public school building. A dead Nazi lay a couple of yards from us, a dirty wrinkled hand protruding from the mass of greenish uniform. Shortly some Yanks chewing gum appeared and lifted the corpse onto a stretcher. There remained only a helmet and a dark pool of blood. Al Leach, who cuts our records, looked a bit pale and didn’t finish his tin of cheese.

A German jeep looking very much like an overturned beetle drove past with five wounded prisoners aboard and a Red Cross flag thrown over an officer on a stretcher. They were unshaven and expressionless. Smoke rose from a building the front of which had caved in, exposing walls with photographs of saints and colored postcards.

The fields outside town were violent scenes of carnage and frustration. The Germans in trying to make a break-through had assembled masses of tanks and army vehicles of all kinds, including stolen carts, horses, and bicycles. Charred bodies of men escaping from tanks stood like ebony carvings in active poses. Dead men and animals were strewn about everywhere, in orchards, down sloping fields. Two live horses in the midst of all these rotting carcasses stood side by side, motionless, their eyes staring at the ground, lost.

There was a row of peasants and soldiers, their feet all sticking out like those of marionettes. They looked like discarded dolls. Between them and a slit trench lay a GI. When he lifted his arm I realized he had only been sleeping.

Treasures of loot had been gouged out of trucks and tanks and fell away from them in cascades of linen, clothing, and crazy assortments of objects. Over the grass and mud lay brassieres, silverware, letters, cartridges, knives and forks, toothbrushes, spools of thread, clocks, washbasins, army equipment of all kinds, bottles, photographs. It was like a nightmare, or some surrealist painting that could be looked at with morbid curiosity and forgotten. I could not help wondering how it would be to return to your ruined house and find each room harboring dead soldiers and exuding a smell that must linger in one’s nostrils for an endless time.

Our men were quiet in the streets. Some were so exhausted they lay on the ground and slept. A few peasants were walking back with belongings done up in a towel or an apron. A woman with haggard eyes asked us where she could find some bread. We gave her a couple of our ration boxes. She thanked us and went on, dazed, uncertain of what might come next. Suddenly a duck waddled down from a side street, beak high, looking proudly from left to right. It was almost as though Donald Duck with his clot hes off were coming toward us to make some protest. A few minutes later I saw him being carried off unceremoniously under the arm of a French boy who saw his next meal and grabbed it.

In pursuit of material for recordings we returned toward Bourg St. Leonard. There in a butcher shop we interviewed a doctor who had done some splendid work with our medical units. The butcher’s apron he wore was covered with blood.

RAMBOUILLET. August 24. — I began this in a dusty convoy, to continue now in a field with the rain pouring down steadily upon us. I am now attached to the French Armored Division. The soldiers are dressed in American uniforms but they wear flag-red overseas caps which give them a jaunty touch. Once when we stopped in a wide plain of wheatfields, Helen Kirkpatrick tripped in getting out of a German jeep she was riding in with Lieutenant John Reinhardt and turned her ankle. She was awfully plucky about it. It’s tough for a woman alone among so many men. I thought of you all the time as I watched her beige beret in the car ahead. We still wear our steel salad bowls.

Evening came upon us and we ate our dinner from tins without stopping. Rain began to fall. Roy, our driver, had lost the crosspieces that held up the cover to our truck, so we rode on with the water pouring over us. Soon all we could see was the tiny red light of the car ahead. Driving was difficult and of course we had to progress very slowly. We began to think we should go on like this all night. My raincoat had been stolen in one of our camp moves, so I sat in a puddle and soaked up the rain like a bundle of blotting paper.

It was after ten when we made another long pause. Roy turned off the motor; and over the rumble of the unseen trucks, we could hear the sound of water running. Someone came along with a flashlight. Orders were to turn into a field. We had no idea where we were or what we were going to do.

At last most of the convoy was apparently collected in this enormous field. We were in three columns. No further orders came, but we figured this would be where we would remain for the rest of the night and we made some attempts at sleeping. I ended up under the tarpaulin cover in a wet uniform, my head resting on top of the recording generator, which reeked of gasoline.

This morning when I emerged I nearly stepped down onto the face of a lieutenant from the car behind us. He had lain down in a mud furrow between our vehicles. He was covered with a blanket, and a little mongrel he had picked up on the road lay curled up beside him. His face glistened with rain.

At nine we started to move, but when wo got out on the road again the order came only to drive into an apple orchard and “make ourselves at home.” Everyone was terribly restless at being so near Paris and having to wait. I walked to the highway, where a steady stream of trucks and tanks was moving up. Thumbing a ride on a jeep, I rode into Rambouillet, getting off at the Hôtel du Grand Veneur. All kinds of journalists, photographers, and radiomen I had run into at various places in the Normandy and Brittany campaigns turned up here, collected in one seething spot. The air was electric with excitement and impatience.

In the afternoon we drove through Limours, arriving finally at Longjumeau. Outside the mairie, people stood in groups. Emissaries dashed in and out. FEI soldiers hurried about. Flags flew. Great expectancy in the hearts of everyone.

Outside town, up a hill we were ordered to halt, but off in the distance we caught our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower! A great elation came over us, and the name Paris in our talk made our hearts beat faster.

There was great activity on the hill. Along both sides of the road that pointed straight to Paris, tanks were digging in for battle. Branches were torn from the trees for camouflage. Guns were turned and aimed toward the north. From time to time we could hear the rumble of bombardments somewhere to the west. The French faces were gay under the red overseas caps and ready with smiles. The long-awaited day was near. Very soon now the heart of France would beat again.

It was an interminable night, and the light of dawn found an army of unshaven men at their posts. A heavy mist held everything in a mysterious hush. The highway began to throb with vehicles. A double line formed, with certain cars sneaking up ahead whenever they saw a break. General Leclerc suddenly appeared out of the fog, sitting straight in his open jeep, looking intent and handsome, and he flashed past toward the head of the column. We all began to advance. It was still hazy when we came into the town of Antony. People were coming up out of shelters, their bedclothes showing under coats or wrappers. The gray morning heightened the atmosphere of mystery and suspense that surrounded us. People standing among the remnants of recent tank battles were not sure whether to cheer or hide. Ambulances were stationed at several intersections, and every now and then one would hurry back toward Longjumeau.

Blue signs with bold white letters read: Paris 6 kilometers, then 5, 4, 3. The mist evaporated and with it the doubts in the minds of the people along our path. Waving arms were accompanied by shouts of joy. It was the Porte d’Orléans — we were in Paris!

It all came back to me now with a pang, the look of those buildings when I had passed them setting out to drive to the Riviera. But now one could only see the crowds. General Leclerc in his jeep loomed just ahead, and disappeared in the surf of gesticulating arms. For a moment it made me think of the opening of the Red Sea. Every time we were forced to stop, the people would swarm wildly over us throwing flowers, fighting to embrace us, shaking our hands with tears in their eyes and calling, “Mercil” Children were thrust up at us as though to be blessed; women grabbed violently to embrace us. One pale man took my hand and held it against his heart. And always the expression that rang the loudest and clearest in our ears was “ Thank you — Merci!

Our triumphal procession went round the Lion de Belfort and then seemed to split up. There were breathless warnings of places where the Germans were expected to give battle. But we went on like a tidal wave, down the Boulevard du Montparnasse, past the Dôme and the Rotonde, past the station, over torn-up streets with barricades, and on toward the Seine.

As we approached the Invalides there was the deafening explosion of a gun, repeated again and again with furious insistence. The crowd scattered, the tanks rolled into positions right and left. Soon the streets were almost deserted, while the sporadic firing of guns and rifles went on.

We followed some tanks down to the Esplanade des Invalides and saw the battle of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Flaming bottles came hurtling out of the windows. Smoke rose into the blue sky. Tanks whirled and shook. The foliage of the trees shuddered. Ambulances painted white and resembling ice-cream wagons dashed past. A man would stand on the running board brandishing a large Red Cross flag. Stretcher bearers ran into the fray with never a hesitation. They were a truly admirable spectacle — those men and women who went to get the wounded.

Now these stones that had been strewn with petals glistened with spilled blood. Wounded soldiers were led away, others carried by on stretchers. Two stretcher bearers came running with one soldier. His arm dangled wildly as they fled breathless down the pavement past us. His uniform was soaked with blood. In his agony his jaw opened and closed spasmodically. As he passed I could just hear the hopeless call: “Maman! Maman! Maman!”

It was terrible to think of those boys who had fought so long and so far, since the days of the African Campaign, having to be killed on the great day when Paris was at last to be liberated. And one thought then of our boys from Arkansas, Texas, New Jersey, and Maine who had left their homes and their girls to fight this war on foreign soil, thousands of miles from their native land. How many of them had been killed or wounded under the tender sky of France for a war they didn’t want, but to preserve freedom for the people of this earth! Our armies were not going to enter the capital of Europe on this historic day. They were going on with the horrible job of war, fighting on for the day when they too could return to their cities and those that belonged to them.

Groups of prisoners were led our way by FFI men. They had hunted, mean faces. There was the look of the tracked beast about them. One woman, when she saw a particularly brutish specimen who had small, vicious eyes, shot forward and struck him across the face with her bag. She hit him with such violence that he staggered back a few steps. His cheek swelled immediately and flushed while the rest of his countenance paled. He walked on, dazed and breathless. The others hardly looked. Their collars were open, their nostrils pinched. Capa, the photographer, ran up alongside of them and I guess he got about as pretty a picture of human beasts as one could see.

There was a lull in the fighting. An English officer who had come up with us from Normandy turned up in great agitation. “Get into my jeep and we’ll see what excitement we can find.” A French girl wearing an FFI armband and a poilu helmet rushed past leading four men in shirtsleeves. They carried bloody hand grenades taken from the wounded. Somehow even in the midst of all this we realized we were hungry, but our rations like our cigarettes had been given away long ago.

We drove back toward the Montparnasse Station and tried to approach the river down the Rue de Rennes, which was apparently clear. In the meantime I saw the sign of a little restaurant on a side street and we steered toward it A crowd collected at once. The patron said he had no food but, getting quickly over his surprise at being accosted by American soldiers, begged us to come in.

From this moment on, the little restaurant was a madhouse of clamoring women, men, and children. The proprietor’s wife offered wine and potted meat she said they had saved for such an occasion. Everyone was singing the Marseillaise, Madelon, Tipperary. We rose and did the best we could with the Star Spangled Banner, sitting down amid wild cheers and waving arms and hands. The proprietor then announced there was something very special for us Americans out in the street, and would we please come take a look.

Outside was a spectacle that gave a vivid idea of wdiat the French revolutionary times must have been like. On the back of an open car, seated high on the folded top, was a woman with her hair shaved off. A swastika was painted on her skull with black paint and she wore around her neck the sign, “Je suis collaboratrice.” The crowd seethed around her, jeering and making threats. She sat motionless in the center of this tumult, looking straight ahead. There was dignity in her bearing, but one could almost hear her beating heart.

The people turned to see if we approved. We were so stunned by the rapid succession of events that all we could do was gape. My companions were momentarily out of sight. My vision was crowded with jeering faces and clamoring limbs. The woman flashed a glance in our direction but didn’t see us. There was nothing we could say. It was not a moment. for histrionics, shameful as the hysteria was. This was part of the tidal wave of war. It swept everything along with it, and there was no holding back until the fatal mass had lost its force.

Paris never seemed more beautiful as we came to the Seine and darted across, wondering every moment if we should be machine-gunned or blown to junk by a shell. Here were the serene expanses of the Tuilleries on either side, and the buildings of the Louvre. The statues still stood in arrested grandeur on their pedestals of stone. Joan of Arc on her steed in a fresh coat of gilt thrust her sword to the sun as though she had been a live model from the equestrian groups in the circus. She seemed to breathe, and one expected her to move like the flags and pennants that waved in the air around us.

Then there was the Opera with its statues raising their green bronze arms to the sky. Remains of tanks, like the shells of broiled lobsters after a picnic, cluttered the foreground. We turned down the boulevards under the chestnut trees and came to the Scribe Hotel, designated headquarters for the American Press and PWD.

Few of our gang had as yet crossed the river, and the lobby was empty and dark, for there was no electricity. An excited porter showed us our rooms and we tossed our bed rolls and duffel bags to the carpeted floor. I glanced with delight at the bed and hurried out, for we had an out lined schedule for the afternoon.

The underground radio station called the Poste de Radiodiffusion de la Nation Frangaise was in an old house behind a court. The place seethed with excitement. Gendarmes stood at the door. Every room was full of activity. Typewriters, turntables, even lights — everything was going full blast. Making arrangements for the short-wave broadcasting of the records, I went into the studio to speak the live call to the BBC and ABSIE. On the way out someone said the director of the station, Mr. Schaeffer, wanted to see me. He had hardly had any sleep for a week and was lying down in a darkened room in the front part of a building. He was so exhausted he talked like someone in a dream, but he greeted me warmly and asked me to come back and have dinner with him, when he would feel more rested.

Darkness fell. The English and American outfits had recording trucks in the street. With ours I made transcriptions of people’s voices and the singing of the Marseillaise and Tipperary. People came and spoke their hearts to the microphone, then disappeared in the tumult. Nobody knew anything about the censors. Larry Lesueur and I spoke over short wave. We had no idea if our messages would be picked up, but at least we were trying to do the jobs we had come for.

Suddenly it was midnight. I had had no dinner. To my surprise, I learned Mr. Schaeffer was expecting me still and that he had not. originally planned to have it any sooner. About ten men and women who worked at the station convened in an upstairssalon with an elaborate crystal chandelier, gilt furniture, and endless objets d’art. It all made me think of Marcel Proust somehow. We talked excitedly of everything from t he amazing days of Paris’s liberation to the latest work of poets and painters. Paris had starved and bled, but even without electricity it still was the Ville Lumiere and the cultural center of the world.