Madeleine Blaess (1918-2003) was born in France and moved to York in England with her parents when she was an infant. She was raised in York and educated at the Bar Convent in the town before going to the University of Leeds to study French. She graduated with a first class honours degree in French in July 1939 and was awarded a grant to go to the Sorbonne University in Paris to begin doctoral studies in the field of medieval French. However, in September 1939 after Germany had invaded Poland Britain and France declared war on Germany. Madeleine hesitated before taking up the offer of her university place but after having received reassurance about her safety, set off for Paris from Folkestone at the end of October 1939.  

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Until May 1940, Madeleine was able to live a relatively normal life, studying for her doctorate and socialising with fellow students she had met at her lodgings and at the Sorbonne. However, when the German army overran Belgium in May 1940, her life in Paris began to change. Many of her friends, fearful of impending conflict, left for the ports and from there to Britain as the streets of Paris were flooded with Belgian refugees fleeing the fighting. Madeleine decided that she too should leave to return to Britain, if only for the summer to see her parents, and began to make preparations to do so. She bought a train and boat ticket and organised the necessary visas. Unfortunately for Madeleine, the German advance was so rapid that it cut off her route to the port and she was stranded in Paris. She joined thousands of other civilians fleeing south and finally returned to Paris in July 1940.

Madeleine retuned to a capital city under German occupation. The French army had offered no resistance and the city was occupied on June 14th. On 22 June 1940, France surrendered and signed an armistice, the terms of which set out the terms of an occupation which would require the support of a newly formed French government. The first formal collaboration in Europe between a government of an occupied state and the Nazis had begun.