Portrait of a Woman in White

portrait of a owman in whitePortrait of a Woman in White by Susan Winkler is the story of a family of wealthy Jewish art collectors in Paris that begins before World War II. That’s all I need to say, and you can imagine the rest. You already know what tragedy will befall them even if they don’t. We know they will be forced to flee France, or worse, and that their art will be looted.

But it’s what we don’t know that makes us keep turning the page. Who will survive and how? What becomes of the family’s most precious possession, a Matisse portrait of their mother? And finally, what will become of the young lovers who are separated at the border of France and Spain?

By now most of us know about The Monuments Men, the story of how the Nazis systematically looted the art of Paris. We’ve seen the images of Hermann Göring marching into the Jeu de Paume in Paris to claim more trophies for his art collection under the watchful eye of Rose Valland. But to hear the story from the point of view of one young woman, Lili Rosenswig, brings it all to life and makes the tragedy that more real.

First, Lili witnesses her mother posing for Matisse in his studio on Boulevard Montparnasse in a lovely white satin gown. The portrait becomes a prized family possession, and hangs from the wall of the Rosenswig’s salon in a gilded wood frame. As the Rosenswigs prepare to flee France, they hide the Matisse at their relative’s country villa, planning to see it again soon. Instead, the family is betrayed and the portrait is seized by the Nazis along with most of their other valuables, and taken to the Jeu de Paume.

As Winkler explains in the book:

The Jeu de Paume was a serene pavilion set in the northwest corner of the Tuileries Garden, opposite the Louvre, in the center of Paris. Napoleon had built it to house tennis courts, and its high white walls had served most recently as an impressionist museum. But when the Nazis arrived in Paris and began seizing private Jewish collections, the initial storage rooms in the nearby German embassy were soon filled to overflowing. Urgently, four hundred cases of work were moved to the Jeu de Paume, which then became the official repository and sorting center for all the art that the Nazis confiscated in France.


Rose Valland is the lone French member who remained on the staff of the Jeu de Paume after the Germans requisitioned it, and managed to keep a secret record of all of the stolen art that came in and out of the museum.

Jeu de Paume Plaque

The plaque on the side of the Jeu de Paume commemorating Rose Valland’s heroism on behalf of French art. It explains that from the fall of 1940 until the summer of 1944, the building was requisitioned by occupying German forces storing art stolen from the French. Rose Valland took great risks to record the location of the stolen art, which resulted in the restitution of over 45,000 works.


Rose Valland (on the right) and Edith Standen posing with art being returned to France in 1946

Rose Valland (on the right) and Edith Standen posing with art being returned to France in 1946. Source: Archives of American Art, http://www.aaa.si/edu

In Winkler’s book, Valland watches as Göring marches into the Jeu de Paume with his entourage of German officers and curators. The Matisse portrait catches Goring’s eye and leaves him breathless. Lili’s mother looks just like Göring’s deceased wife Carin. Göring claims the painting for his personal collection in his hunting estate near Berlin, named Carinhall after his first wife.


Goring and the SS at Carinhall. Source: Wikipedia

Göring and the SS at Carinhall. Source: Wikipedia


The painting has its own journey, just as Lili Rosenswig and her family do. What became of the thousands of pieces artwork that Göring had installed in Carinhall by the war’s end? As bombs fell near Berlin, Göring was loading trucks and trains with his 1,375 paintings, 250 sculptures, 108 tapestries, 75 stained-glass windows and 175 objet’s d’art, sending them to secret locations in various mountain villages, including a mine shaft in Altausee, Austria and Bertchtesgaden in Bavaria.

Matisse, Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace (1937)

Matisse, Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace (1937)

The story of A Woman in White is even more interesting because a very similar art mystery was just resolved earlier this year. A real-life Matisse painting called Woman in Blue in Front of a Fireplace was the property of Paris art dealer Paul Rosenberg, was looted by the Nazis and sold to an unscrupulous French art dealer. A Norwegian art collector bought it in 1950, unaware of its provenance, and proudly installed it in the Onie Onsted Art Museum near Oslo, Norway. In 2012, Rosenberg heirs asserted a claim against the museum, and in March, 2014, after its own investigation, the museum agreed to give the $20 million painting back to its original owners, in accordance with the 1998 Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, to which Norway is a signatory. To read more, click here.

The road to reunite pre-war owners of Nazi looted art is long and complicated. And so it is for Lili and the Portrait of the Woman in White. Will Lili and her family every see their beloved painting again? You’ll just have to read Susan Winkler’s book to find out.


For further reading:

A previous post reviewing the book Pictures at an Exhibition by Sarah Houghteling












My prior post about The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal



Lee Miller: The Beautiful American

The Beautiful American by Jeanne Mackin 

Beautiful American Jeanne MAckin

Jeanne Mackin‘s new historical novel (NAL 2014) offers us a captivating story of love, friendship and betrayal during the heady days of 1920s Paris, based in part on the true story of the famous American model and photographer Lee Miller and her lover, the celebrated French photographer Man Ray.

The story is told by a fictional character, Nora Tours, who grew up with Lee Miller in Poughkeepsie, New York. They meet again in Paris, and Nora tells us the whole madly tragic story. And much of it is true.

Perhaps you’ve heard of Lee Miller, but chances are you don’t know her whole story. All I really knew about her before I read the book was that somehow, she was  not only the iconic 1920s face on the cover of Vogue Magazine, but also, the famous female combat photographer who was photographed in Hitler’s bathtub.

Who wouldn’t want to read more about a woman like that?

Her story begins, of all places, in the town of Poughkeepsie, New York. Lee and Nora are acquaintances but only because Nora’s father is the Miller family gardener. Lee endures a devastating childhood event and Nora knows her secret.

Lee moves to New York where she is discovered by Condé Nast (he actually saved her from stepping into the path of a truck on a busy city street). Miller becomes a famous model and her face becomes the iconic image of 1920s beauty.


In fact, this image is so iconic, I spotted it just yesterday at a Brocantes Fair on rue Cler just the other day:

An image of Lee Miller at a brocantes fair on rue Cler in Paris.

A copy of  Lee Miller’s famous Vogue cover at a brocantes fair on rue Cler in Paris.

Lee Miller flees to Paris, as so many Americans did in the 20s, and brazenly introduces herself to the famous photographer Man Ray. The embark on an intense love affair and creative partnership. In the meantime, Nora and her boyfriend, an amateur photographer, are also lured to Paris, which by that time had become “the center of gravity” in the art world.

The two couples – Lee and Man, Nora and Jamie – meet at the Jockey Club on rue Rabelais, and Mackin captures the moment nicely:

A moment, frozen in my memory like a photograph: a winter night on rue Rabelais outside the Jockey Club, where two girls from Poughkeepsie bumped into each other, each clinging to her beau’s arm; the four of us in the falling snow, music from the club wafting out with the smell of tobacco, perfume, whiskey; each of us looking in a different direction . . . .


From there, the story goes on, advancing through the magical years of Lee Miller’s partnership with Man Ray, their glamorous life in Paris alongside such legends as Pablo and Olga Picasso, to Lee and Man’s tortured break-up, and finally, into Lee Miller’s own career as a professional photographer.

Nora suffers a devastating betrayal and escapes on her own, without Jamie, to southern France. Nora comes into her own as she pursues an interesting career in the perfume industry and she waits out World War II . Lee Miller becomes famous as a female World War II photographer.

The Beautiful American is a well-crafted novel, a pleasure to read and hard to put down. Nora Tours might be make-believe, but she feels just as real and interesting as the real-life characters, in fact, maybe even more so. Lee Miller is a difficult subject. She was brave and daring but also heartless and damaged. But good Nora? She suffers and she endures an unbearable loss. In the end – with the surprising help from her old friend Lee Miller, whose horrible secret Nora never reveals, Nora prevails.

And who wouldn’t want to read about a woman like that?


The Beautiful American Literary Tour of Montparnasse:

rue Boissonade, the short little street where Nora and Jamie lived in Montparnasse, just two blocks away from Lee Miller and May Ray.

Rue Boissonade, the short little street where Nora and Jamie lived in Montparnasse, just two blocks away from Lee Miller and May Ray.



A look down Rue Boissonade and possibly, the convent that Nora and Jamie live near in The Beautiful American.



Hotel Istria, 29 rue Campagne Premiere, a famous haunt of the Surrealists. Man Ray’s studio was next door, but he was known to rent a room in the hotel so he could have more privacy with his mistress Kiki of Montparnasse. Kiki would leave Man Ray and Lee Miller took up with him a year later.


The plaque at Hotel Istria, noting such visitors as DuChamp, Man Ray and Kiki of Montparnasse.

The plaque at Hotel Istria, noting such visitors as Marcel DuChamp, Man Ray,  Kiki of Montparnasse and Rainer Maria Rilke.


30 rue Campagne Premier, Man Ray's home and studio. He first moved here in 1926. He lived here with Lee Miller for three years. The architecture of the building is still beautiful after all these years.

31 bis rue Campagne Premier, Man Ray’s home and studio. He first moved here in 1926. He lived here with Lee Miller for three years. The architecture of this distinctive looking building is still beautiful after all these years. It was designed by André Arfvidson in 1911 and featured ceramic tiles by Alexandre Bigot.


The view of 31 bis rue Campagne Premiere from the Raspail Metro stop.

The view of 31 bis rue Campagne Premiere from the Raspail Metro stop.




The Passage d'Enfer (Hell's Passage), just around the corner and behind Rue Campagne Premiere. Here you can see the back side of Man Ray's home and studio.

The Passage d’Enfer (Hell’s Passage), just around the corner and behind Rue Campagne Premiere. From here you can see the back side of Man Ray’s home and studio.


Man Ray's gravesite in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Maps are available at the entrance of the cemetery to help you find it. I might never have found it if I hadn't seen a photo online so I knew what to look for. It's right in the middle of Section 7.

Man Ray’s gravesite in the Montparnasse Cemetery. Maps are available at the entrance of the cemetery to help you find it. I might never have found it if I hadn’t seen a photo online so I knew what to look for. It’s right in the middle of Section 7.

"Unconcerned but not indifferent."

“Unconcerned but not indifferent.”


The Beautiful American by Jeane Mackin: Highly recommended


For Further Reading:

You should really go to the Lee Miller Archives, a site maintained by her son Antony Penrose. That’s where you can see many of Lee Miller’s original photographs, which are all subject to strict copyright. That’s where you can find the photo of Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub, photos of Pablo Picasso, as well as her wartime photographs.

Also recommended: The Golden Moments of Paris by John Baxter, which contains an excellent Montparnasse Walk and Map at the end of the book.



Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

A Wartime Art Story in Paris and Roussillion 

Susan Vreeland‘s historical fiction will always appeal to me, ever since an artist friend first handed me a dog-eared copy of Girl In Hyacinth Blue way back in 1999. Since then Vreeland has written quite a few art history novels, including Luncheon of the Boating Party (read about my literary day trip here), Clara and Mr. Tiffany, The Forest Lover, Life Studies and The Passion of Artemesia. I’m such a Vreeland fan, the only one I haven’t read is Life Studies. Better get on that. . . .

lisett'es listAnyway, Vreeland’s latest is called Lisette’s List (available August 26, 2014 in the US) and is everything what we have come to expect from her. It is yet another lovely art history novel, this time set in Paris and Roussillion, a quaint hilltop village in the Luberon area of France.

Much of the book takes place during and after World War II, when Lisette’s husband decides to hide his family’s valuable paintings rather than let them fall into the hands of the occupying Germans forces. The catch is, Lisette’s husband doesn’t tell her where he hid them, worried that she would be coerced into giving them up while he is off at war.

Lisette Roux’s story begins at a Catholic convent in Paris, La Maison des Filles de la Charité de Saint-Vincent-de-Paul on rue de Bac, where Sister Marie Pierre teaches Lisette enough to instill a lifetime passion for art. Lisette dreams of the day when she could work in an art gallery in Paris, the center of the art world. In the meantime, Lisette works in Maison Gérard Mulot, a rue de Seine patisserie near the convent (it’s still there – you should go there if you can!)

Lisette meets her future husband André, a talented young frame maker, on the corner of rue de Seine and boulevard Saint-Germain. They enjoy a sophisticated 1930s Montparnasse lifestyle in all of the famous cafés, including The Rotunde, La Couple, the Dingo and Closerie des Lilas.





In 1937, Lisette and André must give up their Paris dreams to go help with Andre’s elderly grandfather who lives in a small village in southern France. Lisette misses Paris, but learns to appreciate the small quiet pleasures of provincial life. She bonds with her grandfather-in-law Pascal as he shares the story of his life, from his work in the ochre mines near Roussillon to his job as a pigment salesman and frame maker for such artists as Pissaro and Cézanne.

The not-yet-famous painters sometimes paid Pascal with a painting in lieu of money. As a result, Pascal happens to own a few incredible paintings. In some of the best passages of the book, Pascal explains how he came to own each painting and what they meant to him. Vreeland explains in her author’s note that she invented two of the paintings in the book, but the rest are real, including one of Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Saint-Victoire:

Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valey (1882-85), Metropolitan Museum of New York

Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire and the Viaduct of the Arc River Valley (1882-85), Metropolitan Museum of New York. In the book, Lisette said this was her husband’s favorite painting because it captured the region of Provence so well: “cultivated fields dotted with ochre farmhouses, a string of distant buff-colored arches of a Roman bridge, a narrow country road, tall pine trees on the left, their trunks bare, with foliage only at their tops, and the grand Montagne Saint-Victoire in the distance, a pale lavender moonlit, triangular and imposing.”

Pissaro’s Red Roofs of Pontoise:

Pissaro, Red Roofs,Corner of a Village, Winter, Le Verger, Cotes St-Denis a Pontoise, oil on canvas (1877) Musé d'Orsay, Paris

Camille Pissaro, Red Roofs, Corner of a Village, Winter, Le Verger, Côtes St-Denis à Pontoise, oil on canvas (1877) Musée d’Orsay, Paris.  In the book, the elderly character Pascal uses this painting to teach Lisette the history and significance of the ochre mines near Roussillon. He says: “And the history of Roussillon is in . . .  the tile roofs of l’Hermitage in Pontoise. Those roofs are stained red-orange from Roussillon pigments. And the red ground and the row of bushes aflame–that’s Roussillon red-ochre. That may not mean anything to you now, but if you had lived here all your life and had seen those miners come home filthy and exhausted, it would.”

As well as Pissaro’s Factory Near Pontoise:

Camille Pissaro, Pissarro, Facotry near Pontoise, oil on canvas (1873), Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA

Camille Pissaro, Factory near Pontoise, oil on canvas (1873), Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA.  In the book, Pascal tells the story about how Pissaro give him this painting. Pascal visited Pissaro at his home in Pointoise, just north of Paris, delivering a frame Pascal had just carved. Pissaro said, “I haven’t a sou, but you can choose a painting from this row for yourself.” Pascal pulled a canvas from the back of the stack and saw a small painting of a factory. Pascal recognized it as the same Arneuil paint factory in Pointoise where he had sold ochre pigments from Roussillon. As Pascal told Lisette, “Inside that building, at long lines of tables, dozens of workers turned raw pigments into paint and filled the tubes Tanguy sold to Pissaro, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin, and others – the hues we made in the furnaces of the Usine Mathieu, our factory right here in Roussillon, . . . ” Lisette then realized why Pascal had chosen that painting: “Despite its ordinariness, it spoke to him of his purpose, his participation in the world of art, the link in the chain from mine to majesty, . . .” (I love that phrase, don’t you? — “From mine to majesty?)

Pascal delights in telling Lisette the story of his visit to Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence,  another lovely town about 25 miles from Roussillon. As Pascal describes Cézanne’s home: “It was a grim, cluttered old house. The studio had high ceilings and tall windows. I seem to remember a potbellied stove. Along a shelf there were white compotiers like my mother’s, straw-wrapped wine bottles, a candlestick, gray jugs, pitchers, and the green glazed toupin [olive jar] that’s in my painting.”

You can still visit Cézanne’s house and studio today. It is known as Atelier Cézanne and is located on a hill at 9 rue de Cézanne. There is also a Paul Cézanne Tour sponsored by the Aix-en-Provence Tourist Office, where you get to see the Bibémus quarries that are an important part of the story in Lisette’s List. You can even download this “Cézanne’s Footsteps Map” for your own self-guided tour through Aix.

The doorway to Cézanne's studio in Aix en Provence. The studio and gardens are open for public tours.

The doorway to Cézanne’s studio in Aix en Provence. The studio and gardens are open for public tours.


The foyer at Atelier Cézanne

The foyer at Atelier Cézanne


The interior of Cézanne's studio

The interior of Cézanne’s studio


A nice touch - Cézanne's coats and art smock hang in the corner of his studio.

A nice touch – Cézanne’s coats, hats and smudge-up art smock still hang in the corner of his studio.


The courtyard garden outside Cézanne's studio

The courtyard garden outside Cézanne’s studio


Lisette has her own brush with a famous artist as well, based on the true story of Marc Chagall’s escape to the French countryside and finally to New York during the early years of the German occupation. Chagall was Jewish, and was saved by a secret American rescue operation that smuggled artists and intellectuals out of Marseille with forged visas.

Vreeland imagines that the Chagalls might have hidden out in the hills of Provence. Lisette’s bus driver friend (who happens to work for the French Resistance) introduces her to the Chagalls, who are hiding out in an abandoned school for girls on the outskirts of Gordes, another hilltop village in the Luberon region. Vreeland imagined that Lisette would have had friendly chats with Bella and Marc about Chagall’s new style of painting. When Lisette returns for another neighborly visit, she learns that the Chagals had escaped to America but had left a painting behind for Lisette as a gift for her friendship.

Marc Chagall, Bella with Rooster in the Window, Private Collection. In the story, Lisette imagines that the woman in the window might be her, along with her own little pet goat named St. Genevieve.

Marc Chagall, Bella with Rooster in the Window, Private Collection. In the story, Lisette wonders whether the woman in the window is her, along with her own little pet goat named St. Genevieve. Lisette ponders: “Was the woman Bella or me? Was the man Marc or André? A crescent moon, or maybe it was a slim fish, hung in the rosy sky. I was tantalized by the ambiguity. The image blurred as I recognized Marc and Bella’s love for me.”

In Lisette’s List, Vreeland delivers a fascinating dose of art history and art appreciation, just like we have come to expect from her. I loved the way she traced the pigments all the way from the Roussillon ochre mines to the paintbrushes of Pissaro and Cézanne. I also enjoyed watching Lisette’s character transition from a Parisienne to a Provençale, adapting beautifully to the southern, rural way of life without losing her love for Paris. As Lisette herself said, “J’ai deux amours.”

If I have any reservations about the novel, it is probably that Lisette’s search for the hidden paintings seemed unduly prolonged and the plot device of “Lisette’s List” seemed a bit underwhelming. I would have enjoyed more heightened danger in the plot, and wished that the German threat had been put to use in a more sinister way. But in the end, Lisette’s story wrapped up well in post-war Paris and I was left satisfied overall.

The real treat of the novel is to read about the setting of Roussillon. I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon there, walking down its narrow red streets and shopping in its art galleries. I even had the time to take a hike down a dusty red path to see its beautiful red ochre cliffs up close. It is now a spectacular little artsy town, just as the villagers had hoped in the novel. By all means, if you’re heading to Provence, add this town to your itinerary and leave a little time to hike on the paths out to the red ochre cliffs. It’s sublime.

You might want to poke your head into Francoise Valenti’s art gallery and say hello for me. You can assure her that her round painting of the view of Paris from the breakfast table  is now quite happy at my home in Chicago.

The town of Roussillon

The town of Roussillon


The red ochre cliffs of Roussillon

The red ochre cliffs of Roussillon


The view of the Luberon from Roussillon

The view of the Luberon from Roussillon


An artist I admired in a gallery in Roussillon: Francoise Valenti.

A lovely oil painting of Rousillon by Francoise Valenti, an artist I admired in a gallery in Roussillon.



Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland: Highly Recommended

Be sure to visit Susan Vreeland’s website where you can find more photos and information about the inspiration for the book.


Back to Sarah’s Key

The original US cover of Sarah's Key. (In which the Eiffel Tower strangely appears on the wrong side of Luxembourg Palace?)

The original US cover of Sarah’s Key. (In which the Eiffel Tower strangely appears on the wrong side of Luxembourg Palace. Anyone else notice that or is it just me?)

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay was one of the first books I wanted to map out during my year in Paris. I read this book with my Chicago-based book club and never forgot it. I was determined to find the sites from the book and take some photos for my blog. My original post, with photos of the commemorative plaques and statues near the Eiffel Tower can be found right here.

I’ve been meaning to update that post for awhile now. Back in 2012, I made some new discoveries and went back to take some more photographs. How it happened is kind of cool.

I noticed that one of my favorite Paris bloggers (Richard Nahem of Eye Prefer Paris) had posted photos of the courtyard of the fictional apartment from Sarah’s Key. But wait! His photos were of 26, rue Saintonge in the Marais, and mine were from 32, rue Saintonge. Whoops!

I tweeted out to Richard (I’m @parisartclub, he’s @eyepreferparis) wondering about the mix-up, when who should tweet us back? Tatiana de Rosnay herself (what a treat!), explaining the reason for our confusion. Apparently, in the book Sarah’s address is 26, rue de Saintonge and in the movie it’s 32.

So then of course I had to go see the address from the book for myself. I good friend and fellow reader from Chicago was visiting and was game for a literary trek. We headed into the Marais (she had a recent travel article in hand about the hopping Haut-Marais) and we found ourselves near rue de Saintonge. “This way to Sarah’s house!” I pointed. Obviously, book lovers like me have a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction.

I found the bright blue doors at #26, just like Eye Prefer Paris had earlier. My friend and I also got the chance to peek in the courtyard, and we had a little “book club moment.” We looked up at the open windows, picturing Sarah’s old neighbor the music teacher, playing the violin as he sat in his window. Seriously, I think I wiped away a tear or two.

Here is the passage from Sarah’s Key that we recalled:

     Outside, the girl saw a neighbor wearing pajamas leaning out his window. He was a nice man, a music teacher. He liked playing the violin, and she liked listening to him. He often played for her and her brother from across the courtyard. Old French songs like “Sur le pont d’Avignon” and `A la claire fontaine,” and also songs from her parents’ country, songs that always got her mother and father dancing gaily, her mother’s slippers sliding across the floorboards, her father twirling her round and round, round and round until they all felt dizzy.

“What are you doing? Where are you taking them?” he called out.

His voice ran across the courtyard, covering the baby’s yells. The man in the raincoat did not answer him.

“But you can’t do this,” said the neighbor. “They’re honest good people! You can’t do this!”

At the sound of his voice, shutters began to open, faces peered out from behind curtains.

But the girl noticed that nobody moved, nobody said anything. They simply watched.



The bright blue doorway to 26 rue de Saintonge

The bright blue doorway to 26 rue de Saintonge


The fictional courtyard from the book Sarah's Key at 36 rue de Saintonge, Paris

The fictional courtyard from the book Sarah’s Key at 26 rue de Saintonge, Paris. Can’t you just picture the nice man and his violin leaning out the window?


photo 3



photo 2-3


The plaque on a nearby school. It says: "From 1942 to 1944, more than 11,000 children were deported from France by the Nazis with the active participation of the Vichy government of France and assassinated in death camps because they were Jews. MOre than 500 of these children lived in the 3rd arrondissement. A number of them went to the elementary schools in this quarter. Let's Never Forget Them.

The plaque on a nearby school on rue des Quatre-Fils in the 3rd.  It says: “From 1942 to 1944, more than 11,000 children were deported from France by the Nazis with the active participation of the Vichy government of France and assassinated in death camps because they were born Jewish. More than 500 of these children lived in the 3rd arrondissement. A number of them went to the Ecoles Elementaires Filles et Garcons des Quatre-Fils.  Never Forget Them.














This is all probably a good reminder as we prepare to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris on August 25, 2014. Ne les oublions jamais.


D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944

The recent anniversary of D-Day has put me on a reading streak of WWII related books. My favorite is All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. (You can read my earlier review and see my photographs of its setting in St-Malo here.) One of the most powerful insights from the book was the realization of how much damage the Allies caused as they forced the Germans out of St-Malo.

An Alliance Francaise teacher recently shared with me a line she recalled from her parents: “Nous aimons les Américains. Mais nous aimerions qu’ils encore plus si ils ont bombardé un peu moins.” (We like the Americans. But we would like them even more if they bombed a little less.)

d-day through french eyesSpurred on by these insights, I was drawn with great curiosity to this book: D-Day Through French Eyes: Normandy 1944 by Mary Lousie Roberts (University of Chicago Press 2014). The book is based on first-person testimony by French people who lived in Normandy in June of 1944. It’s absolutely fascinating to hear their stories.

Paratroopers fell into family gardens and farmers’ fields and were welcomed into French farmhouses, regardless of the danger. Norman families gathered up the silk parachutes and later used them to make shirts, blouses and even wedding dresses.  As Roberts put it: “In the next few years, hundreds of Norman brides would be married in dresses made from that material.”

But the truth is much more complicated. Liberation came at great cost. Nineteen thousand civilians were killed during the Norman invasion. The towns of LeHavre, Caen and Saint-Lo became “martyred towns, almost completely wiped off the map.” These towns were key transportation routes for advancing German troops and the Allies were determined to  destroy their bridges and roads. The Allies dropped leaflets to warn the occupants of these targeted towns, but they often had nowhere else to go. Bomb shelters were rare in France, unlike England. The Normans hid under tables or mattresses and prayed the rosary while “friendly” bombs fell and their homes were destroyed. By the time Caen was liberated, just one-quarter of the town was still standing.

In a chapter called “First Glimpse,” the French share their first impressions of the American soldiers. They were all amazed at their height and size – they called the Americans “giants,” “beanpoles,” “strapping fellows.” They noticed the Americans’ silent rubber boots, so different from the loud sound of German boots they’d become accustomed to.

Norman children fondly recalled American soldiers who gave them their first Hershey bars and their chewing gum. They thought the “brownish-beige chocolate . . .  tasted funny,” and didn’t really know what chewing gum was. “Do you just keep on chewing?” Many Norman children were fatherless during the war, so they bonded quickly with the American soldiers who befriended them, playing soccer and basketball. The adults marveled at “thin” Lucky and Camel cigarettes wrapped so neatly in cellophane. The French noticed that German soldiers smelled like leather, soap and tea, but American soldiers smelled like peppermint, doughnut and American tobacco.

These are just a few of the many well-told first-person stories in D-Day Through French Eyes. They offer a refreshing and sobering point of view for Americans who are more accustomed to looking at the world through their own eyes. We should probably try it more often, n’est-ce pas?

A Remarkable Story of French Resistance: The Silence of the Sea

This summer has been a busy one for 20th century historians. First we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of France in 1944, and soon we will recognize the beginning of World War I in 1914. It’s been a great time to dive into the sea of new books about both wars.

silence of the sea

I’d like to recommend an old book, forgotten by many, that was secretly published in France in 1942: Le Silence de la Mer (The Silence of the Sea) by Jean Bruller, alias “Vercors.”

It is the story of an older man who lives with his niece in a small town in France that is occupied by the Germans in 1940. A polite and aristocratic German officer is quartered in their home.

The German greets them in good French and offers an apology: “I am extremely sorry. . . . It had to be done, of course. I would have avoided it if I could.”

The Frenchman and his niece do not respond. You can feel the silence fill the room: “The silence was unbroken, it grew closer and closer like the morning mist.” The officer begins to grasp what is happening. The Frenchman and his niece are refusing to speak to him. They are creating their own form of resistance. Silent and stoic, polite but proud. The officer is taken aback, but then smiles and says, “I feel a very deep respect for people who love their country.”

The rest of the book is the story of the German’s stay, filled with gesture and nuance, but the only person who speaks until the very end is the German. We learn a great deal about the German officer through his monologues at night in front of the fire. The uncle, who narrates the story, explains:

I can’t remember today everything that was said during the course of more than a hundred winter evenings, but the theme hardly ever varied; it was the long rhapsody of his discovery of France: how he had loved her from afar before he came to know her, and how his love had grown every day since he had the luck to live there. And believe me, I admired him for it. Yes, because nothing seemed to discourage him, and because he never tried to shake off our inexorable silence by any violent expression.

The Frenchman and his niece grow to admire the German, despite their circumstances. The niece’s gestures betray a developing fondness. The German is hopeful and somewhat deluded that the occupation can turn out well, both for him and the niece, and for both countries as well.

The niece speaks but one word to the German, and only at his final parting. It’s a very powerful story, beautifully done. The simplicity is all on the surface, much like its title, The Silence of the Sea. Beneath the veneer of politeness is a hidden intensity, dignity and power.

In the literary introduction to my edition of the book (Berg 1993 paperback) it explains that Bruller based the cultured German character on a real German officer who stayed in Bruller’s mother’s home, to whom Bruller never spoke.

I would recommend this short but powerful story to anyone who enjoyed Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky. You may have already recognized this book’s similarity to the second novella in Suite Francaise in which French villagers adjust to the presence of German soldiers during the occupation. However, there is good news about the author of Silence of the Sea, unlike Nemirovsky’s tragic story. Jean Bruller (who was Catholic) took great precautions in the face of enormous risks in getting his story published. He never even told  his own wife and mother about the book or his nom de plume as “Vercors.” Not only did Bruller survive the war, he was still alive in 1988 when he helped prepare his story for republication.

The edition I ordered  is especially good for those of us working on our French. It is a bilingual edition with historical and literary introductions, explanatory notes and even a glossary of French terms. The story itself is less than 20 pages long. For those with further and deeper interest in the subject, the bibliography offers a thorough list of books and articles about the French Resistance and Vercors in particular.


For further reading:

Some V-E Day Reading Recommdations on this blog: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/some-v-e-day-reading-recommendations/






Visit Saint-Malo with Anthony Doerr

I just finished Anthony Doerr’s most recent book, All The Light We Cannot See (Scribner 2014). I’ve loved Doerr ever since The Shell Collector, About Grace and Four Seasons in Romebut this latest novel is nothing short of breathtaking. And best of all, at least for me, the novel is set in Saint-Malo, a small fortified town on the coast of Brittany which I’ve had the pleasure to visit. Doerr captures its briny smells and moody seas just perfectly.


Doerr has a rare gift. He understands what makes science and nature tick, but he also has the words to elevate them them into art. He can make seashells, snails, rare diamonds and radio waves all seem miraculous.

This time Doerr sets his sights on France during World War II, blending history, technology and legend to tell the story of a blind French girl and a young German soldier whose destinies are entwined through the miracle of sound. All the light we cannot see.

The story is artfully woven. It moves back in forth in time and place, spiraling faster and faster toward its incredibly suspenseful center. It begins in Paris where a young blind girl named Marie-Laure lives with her devoted father, who is the master locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. She grows up in a magical world of science and cherishes her braille edition of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

In the meantime, Werner Pfenning begins his own story in a German orphanage where he lives with his sister Jutta. They come upon an abandoned radio out in the trash and Werner plays with it until they hear music — and as Doerr himself would say, “the magic of a stranger’s voice.” Werner dabbles with radios until his aptitude for math and technology (not to mention his snow-white hair and Aryan eyes) earns him a spot in an elite Hitler Youth Academy. Werner becomes an expert at radio transmissions and is drafted into the German army.

When the Germans occupy Paris in 1940, Marie-Laure and her father escape to the west and are welcomed in by a reclusive great-uncle who lives in an old house on the sea in Saint-Malo, Brittany.

The Germans quickly take over Saint-Malo as well, and it becomes a natural German stronghold with all of its medieval ramparts and old stone fortifications. The Germans rule the little town with an iron fist. Little do they know that Marie-Laure’s great-uncle has a secret radio transmitter in his attic.

In this video, Doerr tells us about the inspiration for his novel and his decision to choose Saint-Malo for the setting. Apparently he was traveling through France on a book tour and found himself in the lovely town of Saint-Malo. Like me, he had no idea that the town had nearly been destroyed by American bombs during the liberation of France in 1944.

If you get the chance to take a 2-3 day side trip from Paris, you should go to Saint-Malo. It is easily reachable by train from Gare Monparnasse. Or perhaps take the train to Rennes, rent a car, drive to Mont Saint-Michel, and then drive 25 or so miles to Saint-Malo. I enjoyed my stay at Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes, which is right on the beach and a short walk from the old town walls. You can take a tour of Fort National, the place where Marie-Laure’s great-uncle is imprisoned at the end of the German Occupation, or Memorial 39/45 Blockhaus, which is what remains of a German anti-aircraft defense blockhouse. A guided tour of the blockhouse is followed by a film “The Battle of Saint-Malo.”

But most of all, take an afternoon to stroll through the same Saint-Malo streets as the brave young Marie-Laure. Walk along the windswept ramparts, enjoy the fabulous seafood, and then maybe stop in a boulangerie and order a baguette. And just in case, check inside the baguette in case there’s a secret slip of paper from the French resistance. . . .


Porte Saint-Thomas, Saint Malo, France.



Saint-Malo sea ramparts with Fort National in the background. Marie-Laure’s uncle Etienne is arrested and imprisoned in Fort National at the end of the German occupation. A stray American shell hit the Fort on August 9th, killing 18. Etienne is there.


The houses of Saint-Malo reflect their golden light onto the wet beaches as the tide recedes. I didn’t know at the time that much of Saint-Malo had to be rebuilt after the war.



Saint-Malo sunset in more peaceful times.


A view of Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes from the beach


The view from Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes

The view from Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes


A view of the Saint-Malo harbor from Dinard


If you have time, the drive west from Saint-Malo to Cap Fréhel is magnificent.


Cap Fréhel, France, which was also occupied by the Germans in World War II.


Cap Fréhel, France in more peaceful times


All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: Most highly recommended. I’m serious, it’s knock-your-socks-off good.