Paris’s Secret Garden

Knowing when to answer a door, when to ring a bell, whether or not to take an elevator was essential during an oppressive occupation.

June 16, 2015 6:35 p.m. ET

A French friend, who was a very young girl during the German occupation of Paris, once told me that those dark years were like a “secret garden.” She knew it existed, but she never knew how to enter it or what exactly it contained. What had happened? How did the Parisians thwart the harshness of the German occupation? Should they have done more to oppose it? And, inevitably, what would she herself have done as an adult under the same circumstances? No one, not even her parents, would easily speak about this period to her. Was it sadness, shame or just therapeutic forgetting?

Charles Kaiser’s “The Cost of Courage” combines a thorough and quite accessible history of Europe’s six-year murderous paroxysm with a deftly told story from this secret garden. The Boulloches — father Jacques, his wife Hélène and their four children — were a comfortable bourgeois, Catholic Parisian family: “They blend[ed] a soft anticlericalism with a sharp republican spirit.” As with many such families under the occupation, this one was divided about how to react to its indignities.

Jacques, the director of France’s highway system, had fought heroically in World War I and readily helped Jewish friends go into hiding in 1940. But he thought it essential to serve France and not to “weaken the nation, to which he and his ancestors ha[d] devoted decades of service.” He and Robert, the eldest son, continued to work — as technocrats, not ideologues — for the Vichy regime. Robert, who had served in the French army during the short war of May-June 1940, returned to his job in the finance ministry but was soon recruited by a Resistance group. He declined because of his age (27) and his feelings of responsibility to his defeated nation. Instead, he suggested to the recruiters that his younger brother, André, would be ideal for such work. Soon the three younger Boulloches — André (25), Jacqueline (22) and Christiane (17) — began diligently and dangerously serving an at first chaotic, then increasingly sophisticated Resistance.

Historians generally agree that the Germans were successful in keeping the French Resistance at a low burn, almost until the liberation of France in the summer of 1944. Its usefulness in the preparation for the D-Day invasion and afterward would be lauded by Eisenhower, but, for the most part, its members were pests more than dangerous opponents of the occupying forces. That fact does not gainsay the imaginative courage of the thousands who did actively resist.

The Boulloche siblings distributed anti-German tracts, hid and transported radios, coded and decoded signals, helped hide downed Allied pilots, and were couriers between Resistance groups. André, though he was captured and eventually sent to the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria, was a key figure in the management of the Paris-area Resistance organizations. The three young résistants survived the war, through luck and astuteness, but, as an indifferent fate would have it, their older brother and parents did not. Searching for Christiane, the Gestapo arrested Jacques, Hélène and Robert. They were delivered into Germany’s concentration-camp system, where they would die.

In his stimulating book, Mr. Kaiser, a newspaper reporter turned popular historian, suggests that the “cost of courage,” the emotional price paid for having resisted the Germans and their Vichy collaborators and for the years of being constantly on one’s guard, served to repress memories of that time. Through a combination of luck — his uncle had been billeted for a year after the liberation in the Boulloche apartment in Paris — and a journalist’s knack for following a good story, he has produced a moving and exciting narrative.

It was not an easy task: “For a very long time,” Mr. Kaiser writes, “I did not realize that World War II was a taboo subject in Christiane’s family. The ones who had been so magnificent in the Resistance never discussed their bravery with their own children. They . . . avoided anything that might remind them of those piercing years.”

Mr. Kaiser is especially good on how the topography of Paris — its streets and public spaces, its Métro system — played a role in the Resistance. A military occupation succeeds by controlling space, but the résistants knew their city better than the enemy. The three energetic Boulloche siblings were continuously in quest of secret rooms and lodgings, where they often stayed only briefly. Knowing when to answer a door, when to ring a bell, whether or not to take an elevator, which exit to use, when to avoid a concierge: These were all mundane activities that became redolent of danger during an oppressive occupation.

The theme of adolescent ardor is casually but persistently reiterated in this narrative. Throughout Europe, the anti-Nazi movements were more often than not born of the initiative of youth. This makes sense in obvious ways — no spouse or children to worry about, no career to protect, and the psychological need to make one’s mark in the world, often against parental admonitions. The three elder Boulloches, though they loved their younger members deeply and supported their underground activities, sought to maintain a certain social order after the defeat of France. The younger children chose a much more rebellious route. Such familial situations were common throughout occupied Europe.

“The Cost of Courage” documents, through the life of an extraordinary family, one of the 20th century’s most fascinating events — the German occupation of the City of Light. But it is also a subtle history of the complexity of the French Resistance and its legacies. Mr. Kaiser closes his study with a quotation from the British politician Anthony Eden: “If one has not been through — as our people mercifully did not go through — the horror of an occupation by a foreign power, you have no right to pronounce upon what a country does which has been through all that.”

Mr. Rosbottom, Winifred L. Arms Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Amherst College, is the author of “When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944.”

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