Paris to reflect on liberation from Germany

Elaine Ganley
Associated Press

Paris – — Her code name was Rainer and she had a gun she called Oscar. Not yet 20, she aimed her weapon at a Nazi officer and shot him to death on a Paris bridge on a Sunday afternoon.

That deed on July 23, 1944, was Madeleine Riffaud’s summons to Parisians to rise up.

“Everyone saw that a young girl on a bicycle can do this,” she recalled in an interview with The Associated Press.

Riffaud’s solitary act provided an opening salvo for a popular uprising in Paris, which was spurred by the Allied landings in Normandy following four years of Nazi occupation. When American and French troops liberated the City of Light on Aug. 25, 1944, it came against a backdrop of jubilation and chaos.

Today, Paris will mark the 70th anniversary of its freedom from Hitler’s Third Reich with a day of tributes, including an outdoor ball, a speech at City Hall by President Francois Hollande, and a sound and light show re-enacting the day of liberation.

The commemoration underscores how much has changed in a Europe, and wider world, that is confronting new dangers with echoes of the past.

“I think there is a certain degree of forgetting precisely what the right wing across Europe in the 1930s actually meant,” said University of Nottingham historian Karen Adler, who draws a parallel between that dark time and the rise of far-right parties across much of Europe today.

During the occupation, Jacqueline Courret, now 85, lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on the Rue de Rivoli. She recalled how the Nazis’ regular roundups of Jews meant that her school eventually closed because so many pupils had disappeared, including a friend. Some 77,320 Jews were deported from France during the war.

From 1940 to 1944, a European capital that had epitomized culture, bounty and the sweet life fell to its knees as humiliation, hunger, cold and distrust became the measures of daily life. Long food lines, black markets and coveted ration tickets marked the memories of those years.

Understanding how ordinary life goes on in an occupied country can be hard for outsiders to grasp.

“Ordinary things go on as well as the terrible things and the spectacular things,” Adler said. “People are still getting married. … They’re still having arguments with their spouse.”

Worries about whom to trust tainted relations and snuffed out the legendary ambiance of the city. Fears that neighbors could be collaborating with the Germans restrained conversations. Identifying the collaborators was no easy task.

“Collaboration works at so many levels. It was every state agency, if you like, every ministry, every government agency,” Adler said.

Paris police carried out the Nazis’ dastardly tasks until they rebelled on Aug. 19 as the uprising spread six days before the liberation.

Small-scale sabotage was part of life for some, from giving incorrect directions to a German soldier to drawing on a wall the Cross of Lorraine, the sign of Free French Forces leader Gen. Charles de Gaulle, then based in London.

Riffaud, who turned 90 on Saturday, carried out more daring feats. As a member of a Paris resistance group of medical students, she put pamphlets in mailboxes and passed secret messages using the numbers on Metro tickets as a code.

When Riffaud shot the German officer, she said, she waited until he turned — so that he wouldn’t be shot in the back. She was arrested, tortured and eventually freed in a prisoner exchange.

The D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, fueled the fervor of Parisians and opened the way for American troops of the 4th American Infantry Division to march on Paris alongside the 2nd French Armored Division.

Riffaud saw one of her comrades fall dead from a gunshot wound at the Place de la Republique.

“Everyone was hugging and kissing,” she said. “People were happy. All the while, we were picking up dead bodies.”