Good Morning
Good Morning

'The Cost of Courage' excerpt

Andre Boulloche in the summer of 1945, after

Andre Boulloche in the summer of 1945, after his return to Paris from three concentration camps. Boulloche and his siblings are the subject of a new book, "The Cost of Courage," by Charles Kaiser (Other Press, June 2015). Credit: Odile Boulloche

Paris -- January 12, 1944

It is a few minutes before four on a gray Paris afternoon when the black Citroen Traction Avant pulls up in front of a drab apartment building in the rue de la Sante on the Left Bank. The lowslung, front-wheel-drive Citroen is famous as the getaway car for French gangsters, but now it has acquired a more menacing pedigree: It is the official automobile of the German secret police.

Two Gestapo agents in black leather raincoats jump out onto the sidewalk. They pull a single prisoner, a short twenty-year-old Frenchman named Jacques, out of the car after them. The youth's nearly limp body broadcasts defeat, but he shows no obvious marks of a beating.

Two and a half miles away, a swastika sways in the wind atop the Eiffel Tower. It is the one thousand three hundred and eighth day of the Nazi Occupation of Paris. Dozens of other swastikas defile the French capital. Below them, street signs written in German punctuate the avenues with unfamiliar accents, humiliating Parisians at every carrefour.

The city's best restaurants, like Maxim's and La Tour d'Argent, are still flourishing, but now their customers are mostly German officers and their young French companions.

Starvation rations for the French have transformed apartment terraces into rabbit farms, as the urban dawn is oddly heralded by roosters. More fortunate Parisians rely upon the generosity of country cousins, who have much more access to food.

Daytime Paris echoes to the sound of shoes with wooden soles clip-clopping down its narrow side streets and grand avenues. "If an old pair of shoes needs a new sole, you can't do anything about it, because there is no leather," said Pierre Mendes-France. "It's really very difficult to describe what life is like in a country where everyone spends all their time looking for things."

The nightly blackout means the only authorized light outdoors is the eternal flame under the Arc de Triomphe. Electricity and gas are both erratic. Heated apartments are a dimly remembered luxury from 1940. Only seven thousand cars circulate on the streets of the City of Light -- many of them converted to run on wood. They are called gazogenes. Two million bicycles are the best way to get around aboveground. But a good bicycle can cost 10,000 francs -- almost as much as a car did before the war. The only taxis are pedicabs pedaled by bicycle riders, or "taxis hippomobiles," pulled by a single horse. The fastest pedicab is propelled by veterans of the Tour de France.

Bicycle power also keeps the movie theaters open: four men pedaling a generator at thirteen miles an hour for six hours can produce enough reliable electricity for two full shows.

Jews and Communists are the first victims of the Occupation, but the dangers of resisting the Nazis are escalating for everyone at the beginning of 1944. Huge yellow posters plastered on the walls of the Metro proclaim that members of the Resistance are no longer the only ones facing German firing squads. A new edict ordains that their fathers, cousins, and in-laws will be executed as well.

And yet, in January, there is a new uncertainty bubbling underneath the humid winter air. All across Nazi Europe, the occupied are buoyed, and the occupiers menaced, by the event that everyone knows is coming, but no one knows exactly when or where: the Allied invasion of the Nazi-ruled continent.

Across the English Channel, massive numbers of British, American, Canadian, and French troops are gathering on the southern coast of England, where General Dwight Eisenhower is making the plans for a spectacular invasion of France. Thanks to a huge disinformation campaign, its location remains a secret six months before the assault begins. After four years of war, a cautiously optimistic Churchill believes that the biggest danger now facing the Allies is stalemate rather than defeat.

Yesterday, the young prisoner accompanying his German captors was a proud member of the French Resistance. Today, he is leading the German agents to the secret address he had sworn to conceal, so that they can arrest his boss, Andre Boulloche -- a man he worships. If Andre is really there, the Germans have promised Jacques that he will be rewarded with his freedom.

But can he believe them?

Jacques is young looking, even for his age; especially today, he looks practically like a little boy. Deeply religious, he has joined the Resistance just three months earlier, after being recruited by his Sorbonne classmate, Andre's sister Christiane Boulloche. Christiane has no trouble persuading him to join their cause. When she asks him if he wants to work for her brother, the boy signs up immediately, without hesitation or reflection.

Jacques is the same age as Christiane, who turned twenty at the end of 1943. Christiane is smart, strong, and attractive. She also has a prominent nose that she thinks is unattractive. She worries, perhaps, that it makes her less glamorous looking than her older sister, Jacqueline, who has joined the Resistance with her. Christiane's clandestine duties require her to ride her bicycle all over Paris, sometimes as much as sixty miles in a day. She picks up telegrams from secret drop-off points and decodes them, transports forbidden radio equipment, and sometimes smuggles guns through the capital, usually in a basket underneath eggs or vegetables.

All Boulloches share an innate sense of duty. When Christiane returns from the countryside after the armistice to find German soldiers goose-stepping through Paris, she is consumed by a single thought: "This is wrong." Before the war started, she had been certain: "We wouldn't just resist them, we would beat them. That's why the Occupation was a thunderclap."

Coupled with youthful fearlessness, and hero worship of her brother, that simple notion -- "This is wrong" -- propels her into the underground fight against the Germans. She is hypnotized and horrified by the Occupation. It swallows all of her attention.

The Boulloche sisters' very first act of resistance occurs when they are stopped by two German soldiers on avenue du President Wilson. When the young Germans ask for directions to Place de la Concorde, the girls cheerfully dispatch them in the opposite direction.

There is no heat at her lycee, and Christiane wears gloves to turn the pages of the classroom dictionary. She is upset when one of her Jewish teachers loses her job, but she does not consider the plight of the Jews to be the most important thing. More than anything else, it is instinctive patriotism that pushes her into battle.

When the Germans are finally driven out of France, everyone's nightmare will be over.

Or so she believes.

As 1944 begins, her brother Andre Francois Roger Jacques Boulloche has been back in France for only four months. He is an engineer, a lawyer, and something of an adventurer. He and his sisters come from many generations of Catholic judges and prominent civil servants.

Iconoclasm is a leitmotiv in their family: Two Boulloche ancestors were members of the Cour de Cassation, the highest court in France, at the turn of the century. Both of them, remarkably, had been pro-Dreyfus: a belief that had made them strangers to their class -- because they were partisans of the truth.

Excerpted from "The Cost of Courage" by Charles Kaiser, published by Other Press on June 16, 2015. Copyright Charles Kaiser. Reprinted by permission of Other Press.

More Entertainment