Everyday Life

Everyday Life for Madeleine

Madeleine’s experience of the Occupation was, in the first years, largely unrelated to military matters. Finding enough food to eat despite the severe rationing and poor distribution of what little there was preoccupied her as it did most Parisians.  The Occupation did make it harder for Madeleine and her friends to continue to study.

Most of her postgraduate friends from Britain, the Commonwealth and America had left the country and abandoned their studies. Of those remaining, largely French nationals, some had to go out to work or return to their homes to support their families in the absence of POW fathers and brothers. However, many women, including Madeleine persevered with their degrees although all had to earn money where they could alongside.

The diary gives a fulsome account of how Madeleine lived her day-to-day. There were unrelenting periods of hardship and psychological frailty and physical illness but also brighter periods of relative abundance, social activities, intellectual diversions, romance. Only on occasion did the war irrupt into her daily life in the earlier years of Occupation. She recorded round-ups, arrests, Resistance attacks and makes reference to her own contribution to the resistance effort. Of her most direct and traumatic connection with Nazi persecution – the hounding and arrest of her Jewish student friends – she gives little explicit detail but routinely references contact with them. There is certainly enough in the diary to attest to Madeleine’s concern and support for them. Only in the summer of 1943 did Madeleine begin to write more about the war and then only when it was clear that the war looked to be edging towards an Allied victory.  Again, although there is little detail, she does write about military campaigns, Allied victories and Axis setbacks and begins to imagine a future at home.

After the D Day landings in June 1944, the diary becomes increasingly focussed on the possibility of a conflict she may have to survive as well as the possibility of liberation. The final month of the diary is an in intense and richly described account of the military liberation of Paris and the manner in whch civilians experienced and survived it. She makes a final entry in September 1944 although she would not return to Britain until the following year in February 1945.

Everyday Life in Occupied France

Everyday life in occupied France varied in nature depending on where one lived, the income one had, the status one had a citizen under anti-Semitic and racist legislation, one’s gender, whether one was handicapped or able-bodied etc. In brief, one’s experience of life was coloured by the extent to which one was shielded or not from the worst consequences of the Nazi invasion, military and ideological repression and material deprivation. In very general terms, the more money one had, the more one could palliate the worse of the rationing of food and fuel and clothes by obtaining goods on the black market or travelling out of the cities to the countryside where food tended to be more abundant.

Those who lived in the countryside may not have suffered the worst of the shortages even though a significant amount of their produce and livestock was plundered by the German army. Those who lived in towns in northern France saw little of the war until the spring of 1944 when it passed directly through their territory sowing death and destruction. Those who lived in the suburbs of large urban areas may well have been vulnerable to bombing which targeted factories working for the German war effort and which tended to be sited in the suburbs.

There is an abundant record of day-to-day life in Paris under the Occupation in the form of diaries and letters and film footage. It was still an intellectual and university centre and the testimonies of cultural and political figures have made it to the public domain.  From these testimonies and from letters one can piece together a picture of hardship for most Parisians.

Malnutrition was rife because of the harsh rationing which was in place within months and which became even harsher as the war went on. Malnutrition led to illness and disease. Death from relatively minor ailments was common. Medicines were in short supply and routine surgery was at certain times impossible. Getting around the city without a car was difficult. Many cars had been commandeered by the Germans and petrol was scarce in any case. There was hardly enough to run the buses and underground trains ona  much reduced service. So, even getting to work and getting out to buy food could be very challenging and tiring. No fuel, meant difficulty cooking and baking and keeping warm.

The winters of 1940 and 1941 (?) were particularly hard to bear for Parisians with no fuel in sub-zero temperatures. The early sense of optimism that the war would be over quickly and that the French Vichy government has a plan for the overthrow of the German occupier faded. It was replaced with anxiety and fatigue.