Death in Paris: A Sobering Thought

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.



Filed under King David, Non Fiction

13 responses to “Death in Paris: A Sobering Thought

  1. I have always been a huge fan of Walter Benjamin. His childhood memoirs are wonderful. I never understood why he killed him self this close to the Spanish border. I think the exhaustion must have been overwhelming. So sad. He was one of the biggest Europen thinkers.
    Hannah Arendt wrote an interesting book “Men in Dark Times” (Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Jaspers, Tania Blixen, Hermann Broch, Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht, Nathalie Sarraute, Tania Blixen). One chapter as you see is dedicated to him.

  2. Benjamin planned to travel to America via Portugal, but he had to travel through Spain. He reached the Spanish/French border, but was not allowed to pass, and he was going to be returned to France by Franco’s government. The Nazis already had an arrest warrant for him, so a return to France would have been an automatic sentence to a concentration camp. Rather than return, he killed himself.

    • I didn’t know that “detail”…
      His childhood memoirs would be a great read for November. They are really wonderful. Not sure if they exist in English but would think so.

  3. There are interesting passages in Journal à quatre mains by Flora and Benoite Groult. They were teenagers in Paris when the Germans arrived.

    What happened in Alsace-Moselle was awful too. My grand-father fleed to France not to go into the Wehrmart. They shipped his father to camp to retaliate.

  4. leroyhunter

    That’s a terrible story Emma. I am going to guess he did not survive.

    Guy, this isn’t out in paperback until next year but it’s on the wishlist. Thanks again for the pointer.

  5. While I knew generally of the exodus, this description puts a very real, and horrifying spin, on the situation. Sometimes a book has something in it that deserves a post on its own – this one clearly did and was worth sharing. Thanks for doing so (I think!).

  6. All: This passage helped me understand the chaos and the desperation of the times. I was shocked to read the sheer number of people (estimated 6-10 million) trying to escape. There’s another passage in the book from Saint éxpury describing what this looked like from a plane.

  7. Guy: The post may be tangential to the book itself, but is well worthwhile. While I was reading it, I was making comparisons with Half Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s novel which is on both the 2011 Booker and Giller shortlists — in that novel a jazz combo featuring a couple of black Americans is actually headed into the Paris that everyone else is fleeing. Given the frame of mind you are in about the City of Lights, you might find it interesting to have a look at Edugyan. I was not overly impressed on my first read of it but some comments on my blog have convinced me that I should take a second look.

  8. Unfortunately my father was a tiny baby when my grandparents fled from Paris to Brittany where they spent the war years. Not much he can tell about all of this.

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