Capucine Benoit works alongside her father to produce fans of rare feathers, beads, and intricate pleating for the haute couture fashion houses. But after the Germans invade Paris in June 1940, Capucine and her father must focus on mere survival—until they are betrayed to the secret police and arrested for his political beliefs. When Capucine saves herself from deportation to Auschwitz by highlighting her connections to Parisian design houses, she is sent to a little-known prison camp located in the heart of Paris, within the Lévitan department store.
There, hundreds of prisoners work to sort through, repair, and put on display the massive quantities of art, furniture, and household goods looted from Jewish homes and businesses. Forced to wait on German officials and their wives and mistresses, Capucine struggles to hold her tongue in order to survive, remembering happier days spent in the art salons, ateliers, and jazz clubs of Montmartre in the 1920s.
Capucine’s estranged daughter, Mathilde, remains in the care of her conservative paternal grandparents, who are prospering under the Nazi occupation. But after her mother is arrested and then a childhood friend goes missing, the usually obedient Mathilde finds herself drawn into the shadowy world of Paris’s Résistance fighters. As her mind opens to new ways of looking at the world, Mathilde also begins to see her unconventional mother in a different light.
When an old acquaintance arrives to go “shopping” at the Lévitan department store on the arm of a Nazi officer and secretly offers to help Capucine get in touch with Mathilde, this seeming act of kindness could have dangerous consequences.
|Penguin Publishing Group
|5.40(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)
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Rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin,
Tenth Arrondissement, Paris
In my grandmother's generation, twirling a fan in one's left hand meant: We are watched.
As far as I knew, our captors did not understand the arcane language of fans. Still, when Isedore, the young woman who slept on the cot next to mine, picked up a fan and toyed with it, I glanced over at the guards just in case. The two men seemed absorbed in their game of cards, which they played upon a marble-topped and gilded Louis XIV side table, so I returned my attention to my project, keeping my movements small.
I doubted I would be noticed, shielded as I was by a blanket hung for privacy and by a well-placed trunk. The guards seldom paid us much mind. Most of the captives were Jews married to Aryans, or the wives of prisoners of war, though a handful were "antisocials," like me. By and large, we did as we were told. The alternative was deportation.
There were far worse places to be held prisoner by the Nazis.
I pressed another pleat into the sheet of heavy drawing paper that I had slipped into my work smock yesterday as I sorted through a shipment of goods from an artist's ransacked atelier. The artist signed his pieces "Michel Gainsbourg"; apparently his name was Jewish enough to prompt his arrest but not sufficiently well-known that the Nazi elite vied to possess his artwork. Some of Gainsbourg's dreamy watercolors and elegant sketches might be displayed on the showroom floor below, while the rest would be loaded onto trains bound for Germany. There, they might grace the residences of the loyal Herrenvolk who had lost their homes in the Allied bombings, or adorn the walls of those who simply wanted something new and pretty to spruce things up. It was an enduring mystery to me how the Nazis could so revile the Jews yet covet their art, their furniture, their clothing. Even their ordinary kitchen utensils.
But then, not much that happened in the LŽvitan department store made sense.
Truckload after never-ending truckload, the looted household goods arrived nestled in straw-filled wooden crates, as though packed by loving hands. We prisoners sorted and cleaned and repaired the items, some of which would be displayed in the downstairs showrooms, as though there was nothing at all unusual about where they had come from. As though the store's rightful owner, Monsieur LŽvitan, had not been forced to flee to the south of France, just steps ahead of the secret police.
Once we had arranged the stolen items in tasteful displays on the department store counters, Nazi officials and their wives-or, more often, their French mistresses-would wander the aisles like plump, greedy children let loose in a candy store. Their avaricious eyes gleamed as they snatched up family heirlooms as well as everyday items: valuable cloisonnŽ vases and old desk lamps, centuries-old grandfather clocks and ancient pianos, fine bone china and well-used cast-iron skillets.
The Nazis called their project Mšbel Aktion, or Operation Furniture. It was a special branch of the Organisation Todt, an organization of forced-labor camps that supported the war efforts of the Third Reich. The goal of Operation Furniture was simple: to strip the Jews' homes and businesses of all they possessed so that the Nazis and their followers might live more comfortably.
And so that the Jews would have nothing to return to-if they returned at all.
Stiff with cold, my fingers moved slowly. Muscle memory soon found the right place to force the fold so that the fan would snap open properly, and as my hands settled into the familiar rhythm, my mind was free to wander. Madame Schreyer's fever had spiked last night, and the other prisoners in her pod were attempting to hide her illness from the guards, lest she be deported to wherever it was they sent us when we were no longer useful: back to Drancy, on the outskirts of Paris, or more likely to camps in Germany and, beyond, in Poland. Madame Schreyer was pale and wan, her coffee brown eyes appeared sunken, and her hands trembled. For now, at least, only her fellow prisoners knew just how weak she had become. After all, none of us was looking our best.
Folding a fan is akin to the Japanese art of orikami, creating something magical, even miraculous, from an ordinary sheet of paper. The delicate watercolor sketch of a shepherdess with her flock meant the finished fan would be not only useful but also lovely, just as a proper fan should be. Back in our shop-in my father's shop, La Maison Beno”t-we created works of art from silk and peacock feathers, with carved ivory stays gilded in gold. Before the war, our fans had been in demand by the finest fashion houses. Before the war, I spent my nights in the jazz clubs of Montmartre, reveling in the knowledge that we were the lucky ones. We had survived the War of 1914 and freed ourselves from the suffocating weight of tradition, and were creating a new society filled with art and music and openness. Before the war, Charles and I had exulted in wine and song and each other, secure in the belief that the worst days were behind us and that beauty and joy lay ahead.
Charles. I felt the familiar pang deep in my belly but continued with the methodical pleating of the paper, doing my best to ignore the ache.
"Are you all right, Capu?" Isedore was fine boned and olive skinned, with huge near-black eyes that seemed unable to keep from betraying every emotion that passed through her heart. "‚a va?"
"Oui, a va." I was fine, I said, though we both knew it was a lie. None of us was fine, could possibly be fine, given our circumstances.
Isedore was not much younger than my daughter, Mathilde, who was just turning twenty-one. Two years older than I had been when I gave birth to her.
Just before my arrest, I had made Mathilde a special birthday gift: a fan with carved ivory monture, inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl chinoiserie ornament, silk painted with the scene of a ballerina dancing on a seashore, and topped with a line of brilliantly hued ostrich and peacock feathers. It was an outrageous work of art, the likes of which were rarely seen anymore and for which, I was sure, my daughter had absolutely no use.
But it was all I could do.
I had poured my maternal love, inadequate though it was, into that fan, and had tucked it into one of La Maison Beno”t's signature leather-covered boxes along with a key to the "language of fans." As a small child, Mathilde had excelled at the subtle unspoken language, flitting around the shop and gesturing with the grace of a five-year-old coquette in the making.
My father and I used to laugh so hard we cried.
Did she remember? Or did Mathilde now simply say what was on her mind, giving voice to the thoughts so many of us found distressing to utter? It was hard to imagine; my daughter had been a secretive child, quiet, polite, and obedient-so unlike me. Such traits had helped Mathilde to fit in with her father's conservative parents, and over the years they had blossomed under her mami and papi's stewardship.
Our estrangement had saved her. Her grandparents were good, stolid French Catholics who would keep her safe. If the price of that safety was Mathilde's disdain for me, I was more than happy to pay it.
I was startled from my thoughts by the sound of a shout, as the younger guard crowed over a winning hand while the other guard complained loudly and riffled through the cards, implying something shady had occurred. I took advantage of their distraction to get to my feet and edge over toward one of the huge arched attic windows.
We had been ordered to stay away from the windows, and the guards had piled crates in front of them to block our access. But by subtly angling the crates a bit this way and that a little at a time, we prisoners had created an inconspicuous path through the obstacles so that occasionally one of us dared to peek outside, hoping to spy an Aryan wife or mother, in-laws or perhaps a brave neighbor or two loitering on the sidewalk below. The other day a young man named JŽr™me had managed to drop a note to his girlfriend without being spotted, but most often the prize was a mere glimpse of a loved one, a furtive wave of a hand. The locking of eyes. The crucial, precious recognition that one had not been forgotten.
I peered through the smudged glass to the street below, though I knew it was fruitless. Mathilde would not come looking for me. She had no reason to seek out the mother who had abandoned her.
But . . . if she had been there and had tilted her face to gaze up at the department store's attic windows, and if she remembered the language of fans that we had once shared, I knew what I would have done.
I would have drawn the fan across my eyes: I am sorry.
The three young women made a pretty picture on the busy terrace of the Cafß de la Paix. Bridgette was blond and blue-eyed, Simone was sleek and dark featured, and in the gentle sun, Mathilde's hair shone a honey-tinted strawberry. They wore their thick coats against the chill of late winter: Mathilde's red wool, Simone's royal blue, and Bridgette's patchwork of cleverly repurposed gray serge.
As their aproned waiter set three demitasses of "coffee"-in reality, a roasted-barley-and-chicory concoction-on the tiny wrought iron café table, Simone regarded a tall, strapping soldier from under her soot-darkened lashes. When he returned her stare, she looked away but graced him with a flirtatious smile.
"Arrte, Simone," Bridgette hissed in a fierce whisper. "Stop that."
Simone shot Bridgette a withering look and sat back in the metal chair with an exasperated flounce. "I don't mean to be harsh, Bridg, but you haven't been any fun since this stupid war began. Don't I deserve a little pleasure after spending a month in the muddy countryside with my grandpre and grandmre, Monsieur et Madame Ennuyeux?"
"Simone, you mustn't refer to your grandparents that way," said Mathilde. "It's disrespectful."
"I'm just being honest, Mathilde," Simone said with a shrug. "They are so boring. I cannot imagine how you put up with your grandparents, day in, day out. Mine think they're living in the last century."
"There's nothing wrong with being traditional," said Mathilde.
"Maybe for you," Simone said. "Me, I prefer to live a little while I am young. We'll marry and have babies and become fat and boring housewives soon enough."
"You might," Bridgette said, and sipped her ersatz coffee. "But not I."
"Bof! We shall see. Do you know, there is not a single healthy young man in the entire French countryside? Those that haven't been sent to work with the Service du Travail Obligatoire are all ugly, or toothless, or missing an arm or a leg. Not like these fellows . . ."
Simone smiled at another uniformed officer, but, vexingly, his pale eyes were fixed on Bridgette.
The Germans always go for the blondes, Mathilde imagined her friend saying. Simone often cursed her dark mane, claiming that if she had access to hair dye, she would fix that soon enough. The last time Mathilde had been at her childhood friend's house, Simone confessed she would give anything to be like the beautiful Annabella, the platinum blond French movie star whom they had worshipped before Annabella abandoned France for Hollywood.
"They're Germans, Simone," said Bridgette, keeping her voice low. "German soldiers. I know you never paid attention in history class, but remember the last war?"
"This is different," said Simone.
"In what way?"
Simone waved her hand dismissively. "That one was about an archduke or something, right? I mean, it was just ridiculous. This time we're not fighting. We're . . . finding a way to live together. And besides," she added as another officer brushed past their table. "They're so handsome."
"You are not the only one with family in the countryside, Simone," said Bridgette, her lips tight with anger. "I visit my family in Claye-Souilly often, and the men there are very handsome."
"Not these days, they're not. Even those who still have all their teeth and limbs are so grim, so gray," said Simone with a sigh. "And not many have enough francs to pay for this coffee, much less buy me a nice meal."
"Because of the Germans, which was my original point," said Bridgette.
"Please, let's not ruin my birthday coffee with such talk," said Mathilde, adding a bit of saccharin to her cup since there was no sugar or cream to be had. "It's been so long since the three of us have been together. Can't we just enjoy one another?"
Mathilde loved seeing her old school friends, but lately their get-togethers tended to devolve into spats like this one. It wasn't a dispute over politics exactly since none of them truly understood what was happening in their country or in the world, much less what their future might hold. The Pariser Zeitung was the only newspaper still permitted to publish, and it extolled the virtues of collaboration, its articles devoted to praising how well the German and French cultures complemented each other. Editorials paid tribute to Parisian restaurants, museums, and nightlife.
Still, Mathilde was dismayed to see familiar Jewish businesses defaced with slurs, ransacked, and abandoned-a fine jewelry store in the Marais, her favorite chocolatier near the Place des Vosges-and lately there were whispers of mass arrests and the deportation of French citizens as well as immigrants, though no one seemed to know where they were sent or why. Not far from her house in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a group of young Jewish children was being cared for by nuns after their parents had been hauled away to an unknown fate. How could that be justified?
Her paternal grandparents-Mami Yvette and Papi Auguste-counseled Mathilde to cooperate with the Vichy authorities. Even Father Guillaume, their parish priest, lectured his parishioners to accommodate the occupiers. "'Rendez ˆ CŽsar ce qui appartient ˆ CŽsar, et ˆ Dieu ce qui appartient ˆ Dieu,'" he had read from the pulpit during the Sunday Mass two days after the German troops swept into Paris. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's.
Under Papi Auguste's direction, the Renault automobile factory where he was a vice president had retooled to produce engine parts for the fearsome Luftwaffe. Just last night, Papi had announced with satisfaction, over a dinner of black-market grouse prepared in a delicate cream sauce, that business had never been so good.