The testimony of Arlette Reiman, now Arlette Testyler, is just one of scores of agonizing stories, many of them Jewish, in a remarkable new book, “Les Parisiennes,” by the journalist and historian Anne Sebba. It seeks to recast wartime France — and, specifically, Paris — as a time when women were in the ascendant as never before.
“Paris was a feminine city,” says Sebba. Its men had either been called up and imprisoned or killed as France fell in 1940, or — if they were Jews — they had been deported to camps from which few returned. The only men in Paris were those too young or too old to serve, or they were the German occupiers.
So the women, as Sebba shows in a meticulously researched series of sweeping vignettes, were faced with the most difficult of choices.
The choices ranged from full-on collaboration — resulting, said Sebba, in the birth of between 100,000 and 200,000 Franco-German babies from illicit love affairs — to tiny compromises, such as buying black market food for children. And there was also out-and-out heroism, displayed by the women of Paris and the women of the SOE, or Special Operations Executive, parachuted into France from Britain, for extraordinarily dangerous missions that nearly always ended in capture, torture and death.
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