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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Avenue of Spies--A Tale of Horror and Courage

This not a long or heavy book, only 228 pages, but the story contained within it is both long and heavy. Five years long or as the author puts it as the Nazis are packing up and leaving Paris, "more than 1500 days,". The heaviness comes from the almost suffocating sorrow while reading of the horrific conditions in a Paris filled with Gestapo, SS and other German troops overwhelming the streets, cafes, historic sites where they are seen and occupying the mansions of Avenue Foch, where much of what they were doing was unseen From the opening map of Wartime Europe 1944-1945, the might of the Third Reich is indelibly imprinted on one's mind. I studied that map for what seemed a half hour, not believing how much of Europe had actually come under the control of Hitler and his commanders. How, I wondered, could he have managed to overwhelm so much of a continent? How had a country so completely defeated in World War ! risen to such strength and power is such a short time? No wonder they considered themselves Supermen, I thought, with a bit of admiration but with sadness, too, that the kind of intelligence and ability this showed should have been channeled into such an undertaking--the extermination of an entire group of fellow human beings and a drive for world domination! The next page offered another picture to examine closely--the map of Nazi Paris, with an inset of the Avenue Foch, from which the author took his title. This, too, I studied with interest. Several years ago I had the pleasure of spending almost two weeks exploring Paris. I tried to remember the places I'd seen and see them again with an eye to their relative locations. Had I walked along the Avenue? I'd been to both the Bois and the Etoile, of course, but had I taken the Metro to them on different days? I could not remember. I wished I could go now after reading this book and try to see the places the book would describe as well as many other places I'd so loved on my first trip. And then I began reading. The opening chapters describe the departure of many Parisians knowing that the Nazis were drawing ever closer to their city. Their trepidation was palpable, especially among the Jewish population and those who sided with de Gaulle rather than the Vichy government that was already in place. There was ambivalence, too. Should one stay and attempt to resist or flee. For Dr Sumner Jackson there was the added sense of responsibility to his patients at the American Hospital. An American, Jackson could leave Europe altogether, taking his Swiss born wife, Toquette, and his son, Philip, their only child to the safety of his home in Maine. Not only did they make the decision to remain but Toquette also agreed to a request of a neighbor on Avenue Foch, Francis de Noyelle, to allow her home to serve as a drop for intelligence gathered by the resistance that could then be forwarded to the Allies. Sumner, whom she called Jack, had already been sneaking Allied servicemen and others out of France, so this was an extension of an already treacherously dangerous undertaking. Though behavior surely to result in torture and death if discovered anywhere in France it was particularly daring considering that the Jackson's resided on Avenue Foch, whose mansions had been completely taken over by the high command of the Nazi occupation! The Nazi occupation--it is described here from the first Panzer tanks to cross into France almost without any resistance. It seemed impossible to believe the march into a country was so easy. How could such a thing happen? But the answer was two-fold---Europe was not prepared for war and, once France realized they would be invaded they set up a line of defense but Hitler did not attack there--rather he marched in through Belgium, which no one saw coming. The take over of Paris was as easy as riding a motorbike into Place Vendome followed by the artillery guns that would be placed in Place d'Etoile and then the taking over of all the historical sites in the heart of the City. The most elegant hotels were taken over as headquarters and living spaces for the high command and as the day came to a close, June 14, the French Tricolor had been replaced by the garish red and black of the Third Reich. By halfway into the book I no longer wanted to return to Paris to see the locations of the horror. Again, I read with disbelief the events taking place behind the doors of the mansions by which the affluent Parisians who chose to collaborate passed as they carried on as though nothing had changed. People wearing Chanel and other designer clothes as their fellow Parisians froze in threadbare clothing during some of the harshest winters Europe had known, many without fuel to even be warm indoors. These same people dining at elegant restaurants or private dinner parties that included fine wine as others starved when food either became scarce or too expensive to buy. I'd just finished reading Les Parisiennes about how the women of Paris survived during the occupation but this book described conditions so much more clearly that even the modicum of understanding I'd had for some of those that collaborated totally fled. Once the Jackson's were arrested and the conditions under which they suffered was further described I had nothing but distain for any who chose to collaborate. By the end of the book, though as relieved and joyous at the liberation of France and its beautiful capital city, I was drained. There was gratitude that the destruction that Hitler ordered to take place did not occur, though the disregard for his orders may have been more motivated by ego than aesthetic appreciation for beauty and history. In the end, there was some injustice as some of the more brutal and sadistic and pathological were allowed to live and even have years of freedom and life once they had served prison time. Even these continued to have friends in high places, sickening as that was. I hated that they had any extension of life and normality after so many had been granted no life at all--children and young adults who hadn't even begun to grow. In addition to those reactions, an abiding admiration and respect for the Jacksons as well as the others who were imprisoned with them, resistance fighters, British intelligence ( Violette Szabo and her bravery are mentioned in both this and Les Parisennes), will remain. I only wish I knew more about Toquette's life in Paris--how did she spend her days? And Phillip--who were his friends? How did this young teenager manage to be a child before his incarceration? A comparatively short book but a strong, thought provoking book. It is highly notated--35 pages!--and has an extensive bibliography. Were others curious to read both Les Parisiennes and Avenue of Spies I suggest they read the later before the former. I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

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