I recently read Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Occupied Paris by David King. Since writing the post, I’ve been dwelling on a passage that I didn’t add to the review. It’s a sobering section of the book that gives a sense of the desperation of the times, and it’s important enough to merit a post of its own. In the chapter, German Night, David King describes the atmosphere in Paris when the Germans arrived:
For years before, many of Paris’s richest and most privileged residents began fleeing the capital. The Duke of Windsor; Prince George of Greece, Princess Winnie de Polignac and her niece, Daisy Fellowes, the heiress to the Singer sewing fortune, had all departed. The Aga Khan set out for Switzerland. Peggy Guggenheim stored her art collection in a friend’s barn and drove away in her Talbot, in the direction of the Haute Savioe ski resort of Megève.
Not far behind were a number of writers, painters, and artists who had turned the City of Light into what the New York Times art critic Harold Rosenberg called “the laboratory of the twentieth century.” James Joyce left for a village outside Vichy before continuing into Zurich. Alice B. Toklas departed for Culoz, near Annecy. Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Réne Magritte, and Wassily Kandinsky headed south. Vladimir Nabokov secured the last ocean liner to New York. Walter Benjamin hiked across a mountain passageway into Spain, but made it no further than Portbou, where he committed suicide at age forty-eight.
A mass exodus started in May 1940, and King tells us that “of France’s forty million people, an estimated six to ten million inhabitants clogged the roads” in a futile attempt to escape from the ever-advancing German army. On June 14, 1940 the German army was “goosestepping … down an otherwise silent Champs-Elysées.”
At least sixteen people in Paris took their own lives that day. The neurosurgeon and head of the American hospital, Comte Thierry de Martel, stuck his arm with a syringe filled with strychnine. Novelist Ernest Weiss, Franz Kafka’s best friend, swallowed a large dose of barbiturates, but when this overdose failed to have its intended effect, he slashed his wrists, dying twenty-four hours later. The sixty-four-year-old concierge at the Pasteur Institute, Joseph Meister, shot himself in the head rather than obey the German invaders–he had been the first person cured of rabies by Louis Pasteur.
King’s powerful, amazingly visual, chilling descriptions capture the desperation of those who understood the consequences of the German army’s arrival.