An American in Paris – Me

7th in the Series

Palais De Tokyo during WWII.

Having been one of the soldiers who had left the officer and truck on that first day, I was  worried about what my chances to avoid a court martial might be, especially since I was the only one who stayed away overnight. You might imagine the welcome I received from the officer in charge, but we were mercifully spared this harsh punishment. Instead, we spent the next week carrying five-gallon Jerry cans (gasoline cans) up from the basement. Very light punishment indeed for not obeying our officer and for staying away the night before. 

When that week was finally behind us, we set to work in earnest. The building on Rue Fresnel in which we were to work for the next year and a half had been a garage and vehicle repair facility for the German army, hence the gasoline cans. However, we would use it as a storage warehouse for class 2 and 4 supplies. This classification denoted expendable items. such as enlisted men’s and women’s underwear, socks, silk stockings, sweaters, jackets, pants, shirts, paper products such as toilet paper and office supplies. In other locations within the scope of our organization were stored small arms, gasoline, and heating materials such as coal, oil, and wood. 

Some of us did grunt work, others were drivers, and a few got office assignments. 

While working at this warehouse, we would awaken each morning, shower in a public bathhouse a couple of blocks from our billet on Ave. d’lena and walk over to the Av. des Champs-Elysees, where we had passes to eat at any one of four of the famous cafes there-on. My favorite was the one closest to the Arc de Triomphe, but, since they were all similar, it often depended on which one was the least crowded. When friends and family came though Paris I would take them to these cafe’s, and they would always want to pay half. I had to convince them that it was on Uncle Sam’s tab.

After breakfast we walked past the Palais de Tokyo, pictured above, a museum of modern art, and descended a very long stairway alongside it to arrive at Rue Fresnel, a street that paralleled the Seine. 

It was just like having a regular civilian job, but without having to decide what to wear each day. What a life, and as is said in the army, “We found a home.”

At first, I was assigned to a general clerking job, which meant that I was used wherever needed at the depot on Rue Fresnel, but later I began working for a young lieutenant from Pennsylvania who was a Quaker and could only be used in the army for noncombatant duty. He had been chosen to create and maintain an inventory of the Class II and IV supplies (these included enlisted men’s clothing, WAC’s clothing, small arms, and mainly all of the expendable items used by the troops in the Seine (Paris) section. He and I spent much of the day together and worked in a very friendly atmosphere without any of the formalities of rank,  exchanging goodies in packages sent from home.

Then, after working in the depot on Rue Fresnel for a couple of months, we were moved to a very grand Art Deco building on Ave. Kleber. There we worked under a colonel who was in charge of the entire inventory operation for the Seine Section.

It was a large, beautifully appointed suite of offices which employed, along with me, another enlisted man, a WAC, and two or three young French girls who could speak and write English. This office was devoted to the entire inventory and control of all the expendable supplies used by the U.S. Armed Forces in the Paris area. It was our duty to send out inventory teams, receive reports, and after compiling the results, turn the information over to the head quartermaster office, which would then order what was needed to keep the headquarters running.

For our first days in Paris, we were billeted in a school dormitory, after which we were ensconced in a lovely townhouse which purportedly had belonged to the Rothschild family. It was a beautifully adorned residence just a short walk from the Arc de Triomphe. The tapestries, art, rugs, and furniture had all been removed when the Nazis occupied Paris and plundered many of the homes of Jews and others on their hate list. However with its fine moldings, marble bathroom and grand staircase, it was still a lovely place. 

We were told that the youngest member of the family was rescued by the concierge of the house when the Gestapo roundup came by, and I do vaguely recall having seen a young boy playing in the courtyard while we were there. 

Now, fast forward approximately fifty or so years when my late cousin Irv Corren and I revisited this building, now a bank. Irv and I had met there while overseas in the Army and we were reliving the experience. As we stood in the courtyard of what was then my billet, a couple of well-dressed men approached and asked us what business we had there. I told them my story about being billeted there during World War II and the story we had heard about the young boy. They responded by telling us this same young boy was now the chairman of the bank.

Of particular note was a meeting we soldiers had in 1944 while exploring the residence. We were in the master bathroom, trying to figure out a use for the strange appliance facing the stool. It was about the same height and width, so it could have been a urinal, a place to wash your feet, or have some other mysterious use. 

When we got out into the real world and asked questions, we were shocked to discover that Americans didn’t know or have everything. 

It was hard to realize how fortunate we were to be in this mystical city and began to feel the aura of the place which we had all read about, seen pictures of, but never thought we would actually ever experience. I walked the streets as if I were the main character in a storybook, observing everything and trying to understand how I fit into this stroke of good fortune. Most of the time I could almost forget that I was there as a soldier, and oftentimes thought myself to be the proverbial “American in Paris,” in the title of George Gershwin’s 1928 jazz orchestral composition. So, putting myself in character, I would sometimes feel like “soft-shoeing” down the boulevards, and at other times I quietly did. 

That is, until one day, just at the beginning of my stay, I came upon a horrible display of antisemitism in the Palais Berlitz. It was so offensive that looking at the brochure I picked up that day still makes me cringe. It was titled Le Juif et la France* and was removed almost immediately afterward. I never again heard of it until I read Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, some 68 years later in which she describes it exactly as I remember seeing it. 

Book cover of Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay.

I must say that as a result of this I was quite disillusioned until I observed how many brave Parisians risked their lives to hide and protect Jews and others who were persecuted by the Nazis and their collaborationists during those four dreadful years of occupation.

Google Le Juif et la France for the sordid details.

###

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

To continue reading Soundings for free just click the little blue ‘X’ in the upper right corner.
But before you do, please consider becoming a supporter by clicking the blue bar below. Soundings is free to enjoy but not free to produce.