Late in his life, I asked my uncle René about his exploits in wartime France. What I knew was that my family left Paris in 1940, around the time a great-uncle was shot dead in the street by a German army officer. They headed south to the Mediterranean, where my two uncles organised a network of safe homes for fugitives to lie low in until they could be smuggled out. When I asked for details, René clammed up. ‘Those were terrible times,’ he muttered, ‘not worth remembering.’
The Guardian writer Hadley Freeman was more successful in tracing her uncles’ activities in France, set off on her trail by a shoebox of letters found in a Florida closet. Her grandmother, Sala Glass, had been married off before the war to a smalltown American, a man named Bill who provided security without style, material comfort shorn of Parisian élan. Freeman hints that Sala never forgave her husband for that deprivation, or her family for excluding her from their existential excitements in France.
The Glasses had settled in Paris in the 1920s, drawn from eastern Europe by endemic anti-Semitism and a surge of collective ambition. Paris between the wars was a melting-pot, without immigration controls but with a bureaucratic block on naturalisation for newcomers. The family occupied itself in business and fashion, older members clinging to religious practices, their children becoming culturally French. One young man even served in the Foreign Legion.
When the Germans marched in, each of Freeman’s great-uncles followed his natural instincts. One survived throughout the Occupation by moving home and changing his surname to Class. Another, more submissive, returned to a detention camp after being given a weekend’s leave and was sent to his death in Auschwitz.
The third great-uncle, Alex, a fashion designer, mingled with both collaborationists and resistants in the south of France until his luck ran out and he was put on a train to the east.