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I Was Looking Forward to a Quiet Old Age

They say that revolutions are for the young. That’s probably a truism when you look at the French Revolution and even to contemporary ones like Egypt’s “Arab Spring.” It may also apply to resistance movements during periods of conflict. When one studies the French Resistance during the German Occupation, it becomes clear very quickly that most resistance members are young (thirty-five or younger).

Etta Shiber. Photo by anonymus (c. 1943). From the book Paris-Underground.
Etta Shiber. Photo by anonymus (c. 1943). From the book Paris-Underground.

That is until you meet Etta Shiber, a 62-year old widow and former Manhattan housewife, who lived in Paris with her best friend before and during the Occupation—with the exception of the time she spent in a Gestapo prison.


Did You Know?

After nearly 600 years in England, a medieval ring belonging to Joan of Arc was returned to France. On the eve of her execution in May 1413, she gave the ring to an English cardinal. Throughout the centuries it was bought and sold multiple times. On 4 March 2016, it came back to France after an organization successfully bid $425,000 at auction. Reportedly, there is sufficient documentation to authenticate the ring as belonging to Joan.


Kitty

Etta and her husband traveled to Paris every year for a three-month stay. While there in 1925, she met Kitty who was to become her best friend. Kitty Beaurepos, the daughter of a London banker, was an English society woman who married young. Moving to Italy, she and her husband had a son but shortly after, her first husband passed away and Kitty moved to Paris. She married a Frenchman but then amicably separated. Kitty eventually opened a small dress shop on Rue Rodier where she catered to Americans and this is where the two women met.

Every year on her annual trip to Paris, Etta would call on Kitty. In 1933, Etta traveled to Paris without her husband but did take her ill brother. Irving became so ill that Kitty had to bring in the best medical help that Paris had to offer. Alas, it wasn’t enough and Irving died (he was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery). William Shiber died three years later leaving Etta a widow. Kitty invited her to move to Paris and live with her at 2, rue Balny d’Avricourt in one of Paris’s more exclusive neighborhoods (near the Arc de Triomphe).

Exterior of apartment building where Etta and Kitty lived. Photo by Google Maps (date unknown).
Exterior of apartment building where Etta and Kitty lived. Photo by Google Maps (date unknown).

The Germans

For three years, Kitty and Etta’s lifestyle was calm, happy, and without any acrimony. That is, until 1 September 1939 when the Nazis began dropping their bombs on Poland and invaded the country. England and France almost immediately declared war against Germany. Kitty tried to talk Etta into returning to America but she refused. The next day, the two women joined the Foyer du Soldat—the French equivalent of our U.S.O.

For eight months after the invasion of Poland nothing happened. France would sit back as if nothing was amiss—they were in the middle of the drôle de guerre or “phony war.” The French government was confident that any German attack would be repelled by their army and by the Maginot Line. That is until mid-spring 1940 when the German Wehrmacht (army) and Luftwaffe (air force) began to quickly sweep into the neighboring Low-Countries, including France. It took only six weeks for the Nazis to conquer France (almost two million French soldiers were taken prisoner).

Flight From Paris

As the Germans approached the city, almost everyone in Paris fled south or west. They went by car, bike, or foot pulling their belongings behind them. The narrow roads became so congested that going only a few feet would take hours. Within days, the Luftwaffe sent in fighters to strafe the refugees fleeing their city.

Kitty and Etta followed everyone else. They hopped into Kitty’s car and began their slow journey south. Giving up on the main road after several days, Kitty turned the car onto an alternate route. However, by the next day the women decided it best to get back to the south-bound road. They reached it just in time to be attacked from the sky by Luftwaffe planes. Strafing the road, the German pilots killed scores of men, women, and children.

Rather than move on, most of the people (including Kitty and Etta) stayed where they were. Reports of the German troop movements made it clear they were trapped. Eventually, the German parade of soldiers caught up to them. A soldier on motorcycle drove up to the car and told them to return to Paris. So, Kitty and Etta turned around and began to drive back to Paris. Along the way they passed captured French soldiers standing alongside the roads guarded by the Germans. In some cases, these prisoners included English or R.A.F pilots—undoubtedly the ones who couldn’t get off Dunkirk beach.

William Gray

Paris had capitulated without a fight. The French government deserted the city for Bordeaux and declared Paris to be an “open” city. The Germans marched in without a shot being fired during the early morning of 14 June 1940. By the evening, the occupation forces had settled in. Kitty and Etta knew all about the recent events when they decided to stop at an inn to eat on their way back to Paris.

The innkeeper was very nervous. He told them he was hiding an English pilot and they all knew the Germans were hunting down these pilots. His name was William Gray and he had been stranded at Dunkirk. Kitty and Etta decided to take him back to Paris with them since he fit perfectly in the trunk of the car. They took the risk because Etta thought he looked like her deceased brother.

Along the way, they were stopped several times but the German sentries never bothered to open the trunk. They stashed Gray in their apartment. A week after they returned, a Gestapo agent and two French civilians knocked at their door. They were conducting a house-by-house search for downed English pilots. Etta passed Gray off as her sick brother using Irving’s identification papers. Their visitors left but noted that “Irving” now lived in the apartment.

Paris was still relatively empty but their friend, Chancel, was at his apartment when they contacted him for help in smuggling Gray out of the city and into the hands of the Resistance. They were quickly to find out that Chancel ran a refuge for people in hiding. They devised a plan to smuggle Gray to the border and freedom. The plan worked.

Missing Persons Ad

The women decided to go into the human smuggling business full time. They took out ads in the “Missing Persons” section of the German run newspaper Paris-Soir which read “William Gray, formerly of Dunkirk, is seeking his friends and relatives.” The ad attracted attention of Father Christian Ravier who, over time, supplied Etta and Kitty with soldiers hiding in the woods. By the fall of 1940, the women had successfully transported more than 150 men to safety and freedom.

Betrayed

Five months after bringing William Gray to their apartment, Kitty and Etta were betrayed. On the morning of 26 November 1940, a Gestapo agent knocked on their door. Only Etta was home and she was immediately arrested (Kitty would often leave for extended periods of time to make transfer arrangements with the Resistance). Brought to the Hôtel Matignon (one of the sites you’ll visit in my new book Where Did They Put the Gestapo Headquarters?), Etta met Captain Pietsch and Dr. Hager, two Gestapo officers who played the “good guy, bad guy” interrogation game with her. Two hours after Etta’s arrest, Father Christian, and Chancel were picked up by the Gestapo. Kitty managed to elude the hunters but only for the time being.

Prison and Certain Death

Etta was taken to the military prison, Cherche-Midi, where political prisoners were interred (the 120-year old prison located on Rue du Cherche-Midi was demolished in 1966). She was no longer Mrs. Etta Shiber but Prisoner Number 1876. After about two weeks, Etta was released but constantly followed by the Gestapo hoping she would lead them to Kitty. By mid-December 1940, the Gestapo found Kitty (without Etta’s help) and they arrested Mrs. Shiber once more. The Nazis now had the four “ring leaders” in custody.

All four were brought before the Nazi court in March 1941 at the Hôtel de Brienne (14, rue Saint-Dominique). Etta was charged with “aiding the escape into the free zone of military fugitives.” The United States had yet to enter the war against the Germans so Etta got off with a sentence of three years at hard labor. Chancel received five years. The other two were not as lucky. Kitty and Father Christian each received the death penalty.

Etta was transferred to the notorious Fresnes prison where she was expected to serve her sentence. As the weather turned colder, the Germans transferred her to a prison located in Troyes, France. The date was 7 December 1941. Etta was now an enemy of the Nazis.

The Exchange

The fourteen months in captivity since the trial were hard on Etta. She suffered from an irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and she had her first heart attack in February 1942. Her second attack came two months later. She dropped almost forty pounds but her smoking habit had been broken. Etta was released a second time and returned to Paris. In May 1942, she learned the reason why the Gestapo had let her out.

Etta was required to check in daily at the Kommandantur du Gross-Paris in the Place de l’Opéra (again, one of the stops in the next book). On 17 May at her daily visit, a German officer informed her that she was to leave that day to return to America. After waiting in the train at Hendaye (France) on the border with Spain for what seemed an eternity (it was actually a couple of days), Etta saw another train pull into the station after crossing the international bridge. A German military band had arrived to greet it along with the black Mercedes cars carrying Nazi dignitaries. Shortly after, a woman walked off the train and headed directly to the lead Mercedes.

Photos of Nazi spies captured by the FBI. Johanna Hoffmann is second from the left. Photos by anonymous (c. 1939). Federal Bureau of Investigation. PD-U.S. Government.
Photos of Nazi spies captured by the FBI. Johanna Hoffmann is second from the left. Photos by anonymous (c. 1939). Federal Bureau of Investigation. PD-U.S. Government.

Mrs. Etta Shriber had been exchanged by the United States government for one of the Nazis’ most notorious spies, Johanna Hoffmann. The famous spy was part of a Nazi espionage ring operating in America. She was caught and convicted of spying and given a four-year sentence in 1939.

Post-War

Etta returned to New York where she lived out her remaining years. She wrote about her experiences in Paris-Underground. Since the book was published in the middle of the war (1943), certain names were changed to protect her friends. Kitty was really Catherine (Kate) Bonnefous (nee Robins). Father Christian was an alias and his real name was never divulged. William Gray’s real name was used in the book because he was safely back in England and the Nazis couldn’t touch him.

Etta died three years after the war ended (no doubt from prison ailments) without ever knowing if her friend Kitty had survived—which she did but with permanent scars on her body to show for her time with the Gestapo. Father Christian was one hour away from being executed when two Gestapo agents showed up to transfer him. Believe it or not, they weren’t with the Gestapo. They were British MI6 agents dressed like and flashing Gestapo identity cards. They had come to rescue Father Christian. He was offered transportation to England but refused. He wanted to return to his village and continue his resistance work. No one ever heard from him again.

When Etta returned to America, she was hailed as a hero. All she said was “I was looking forward to a quiet old age.”

Original cover of “Paris-Underground” by Etta Shiber. Photo by anonymous (c. 1943).Original cover of “Paris-Underground” by Etta Shiber. Photo by anonymous (c. 1943).
Original cover of “Paris-Underground” by Etta Shiber. Photo by anonymous (c. 1943).Original cover of “Paris-Underground” by Etta Shiber. Photo by anonymous (c. 1943).
Studio poster for the movie “Paris-Underground.” Photo by anonymous (c. 1945).
Studio poster for the movie “Paris-Underground.” Photo by anonymous (c. 1945).

Recommended Reading and Viewing

Shiber, Etta. Paris−Underground. New York: Press Alliance, Inc., 1943.

Bennett, Constance (producer). Paris-Underground. Starring Constance Bennett and Gracie Fields. United Artists. Based on the novel by Etta Shiber. 1945.

Notice the date Etta’s book was published? Yep, she wrote it shortly after returning to America and right in the middle of the war. Many of the names have been changed to protect the identities of people who remained in German occupied territories. The book is dedicated to “Kitty.”

What’s New With Sandy and Stew?

Most of the soldiers that Etta and Kitty saved were English. These men tried to get out of France during the Dunkirk evacuation but were never able to get on any of the ships. There were thousands of them looking for a way to return to England.

We have a special blog next week from our friend Denis Caron. The blog is about the last soldier to return home from Dunkirk. You’ll learn about Bill Lacey and his adventures eluding the Germans after being stranded on Dunkirk beach. Denis is the author of Dash for Dunkirk.

Someone Is Commenting On Our Blogs

If there is a topic you’d like to see a blog written about, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I love hearing from you so keep those comments coming.

 It’s Here Now! 

Where Did They Burn The Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar? A Walking Tour of Medieval Paris. Volume Two.

Medieval Volume Two Cover

Learn more here.  Buy here.

 

Why Would You Want To Buy Our “Walks Through History” Books?

Simple.

You like to travel and experience history and historical events. You like to see original buildings that had a significant impact on the people and events of the history you’re engaged with. You want to know the stories behind the brick and mortar in front of you.

The walking tour books are meticulously researched so you can go directly to those sites and learn about the building’s history as well as an introduction to some of the more interesting people associated with it.

Thank You

Sandy and I appreciate you visiting with us. We have some exciting things on the horizon and we’ll keep you updated as we go along.

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The Auschwitz Tatooist

Entrance gate to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Administration building likely on the left. Photo by anonymous (c. 1955). German Federal Archives. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-32279-007/CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

At the age of 26, he stepped off the first transport train carrying Jews to KL Auschwitz II-Birkenau in April 1942. Lale Sokolov (1916−2006), then known as Ludwig “Lale” Eisenberg, was soon to exchange his name for a number. He would never be allowed to forget the number—32407—as it was tattooed on his arm. Before long, Lale would take over the duties from the prisoner who tattooed his arm and begin almost three years as the camp’s primary tetovierer (tattooist). Several months later, Lale would tattoo 34902 onto the arm of his future wife.


Did You Know?

The Dachau concentration camp opened in March 1933 and did not cease operations until April 1945. It was the first camp established under the Nazi regime and the only one to survive the entire twelve years of the Third Reich. It was built to hold political prisoners (as time went on, Polish prisoners would dominate the camp’s population). Dachau was never intended to become an industrialized extermination camp such as Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Dachau deaths were primarily from beatings, malnutrition, disease (e.g., typhus), and suicide. It is impossible to accurately assess the final number deaths attributed to Dachau.


KL Auschwitz 

The main camp known as Auschwitz I was built in May 1940 in the newly annexed area of Poland. It was originally constructed to house Polish political prisoners. By September 1941, exterminations had begun and the Nazis determined a second camp was needed. So, by March 1942, a sub-camp named Auschwitz II-Birkenau was completed with its first gas chamber.

Entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photo by Stanislaw Mucha (c. 1945). German Federal Archives. Bundesarchiv, B 285 Bild-04413/Stanislaw Mucha/CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.
Entrance to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photo by Stanislaw Mucha (c. 1945). German Federal Archives. Bundesarchiv, B 285 Bild-04413/Stanislaw Mucha/CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

Nazi plans for the Final Solution had been finalized in January 1942 and by early 1943, Himmler decided to expand Birkenau and increase its capacity as an extermination camp. It is estimated that 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz with 1.1 million murdered. More than 90 percent or 1.0 million of the people murdered here were Jews (in other words, one in six Jews who perished in the Holocaust were murdered at Auschwitz).

Transport rail car used to deliver victims to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photo by Bill Hunt (2011). PD-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic. Wikimedia Commons.
Transport rail car used to deliver victims to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photo by Bill Hunt (2011). PD-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic. Wikimedia Commons.
“Selection” process of Hungarian Jews on the ramp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The majority of the men, women, and children would be dead within hours. Notice the entrance building in the background (left). Photo by likely either Ernst Hoffmann or Bernhard Walter of the SS (c. May/June 1944). Yad Vashem – The Auschwitz Album. PD-Expired copyright and author is anonymous. Wikimedia Commons.
“Selection” process of Hungarian Jews on the ramp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The majority of the men, women, and children would be dead within hours. Notice the entrance building in the background (left). Photo by likely either Ernst Hoffmann or Bernhard Walter of the SS (c. May/June 1944). Yad Vashem – The Auschwitz Album. PD-Expired copyright and author is anonymous. Wikimedia Commons.

A third sub-camp was established on the grounds of an IG Farben factory located in Monowitz. It was called Auschwitz III-Monowitz and was used primarily to supply forced labor to IG Farben. The company owned the patent to and participated in the profits of Zyklon B, the chemical used by the Nazis in the gas chambers.

Partition fence between the prison camp (right) and the administration area (left) in Auschwitz I. Photo by Davejblair (2008). PD-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Wikimedia Commons.
Partition fence between the prison camp (right) and the administration area (left) in Auschwitz I. Photo by Davejblair (2008). PD-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Wikimedia Commons.

One thing in common between the three camps was that any prisoner not chosen for immediate death would be assigned a number which was then tattooed on their arm. These were the only camps in the Nazi Konzentrationslager or KL system of camps that tattooed their inmates (men, women, and children). Many of the prisoners would subsequently be transferred to other camps leaving the mistaken impression with the Allied liberators that all camps practiced tattooing.

Auschwitz survivor Sam Rosenzweig displays his identification tattoo. Photo by Rudy Purificato (date unknown). PD-U.S. Government. Wikimedia Commons.
Auschwitz survivor Sam Rosenzweig displays his identification tattoo. Photo by Rudy Purificato (date unknown). PD-U.S. Government. Wikimedia Commons.
Jerzy Kamieniecki (b. 1920), prisoner of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Matthausen, and Gusen shows tattoo with camp number. Photo by Jacek Proszyk (2010). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Wikimedia Commons.
Jerzy Kamieniecki (b. 1920), prisoner of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Matthausen, and Gusen shows tattoo with camp number. Photo by Jacek Proszyk (2010). Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. Wikimedia Commons.

The Tetovierer

Lale contracted typhoid shortly after arriving at Birkenau but was nursed back to health by a fellow inmate, Pepan, who happened to be the camp’s chief tattooist. Lale became his assistant and after Pepan disappeared one day, Lale was chosen to replace him. The tattooing operation at Auschwitz was supervised by one of the camp’s notorious doctors: Josef Mengele. Many times, Lale would be required to stand next to Mengele as the evil and sinister “Angel of Death” chose his next victims for medical experiments. Often, Mengele would turn to Lale and say, “One day, tetovierer, one day I will take you.”

Three SS officers socialize on the grounds of the SS retreat outside of Auschwitz. From left to right they are: Richard Baer (Commandant of Auschwitz), Dr. Josef Mengele, and Rudolf Hoess (former commandant of Auschwitz). Photo by Karl-Friedrich Höcker (c. 1944). PD-Release by Polish Government. Wikimedia Commons.
Three SS officers socialize on the grounds of the SS retreat outside of Auschwitz. From left to right they are: Richard Baer (Commandant of Auschwitz), Dr. Josef Mengele, and Rudolf Hoess (former commandant of Auschwitz). Photo by Karl-Friedrich Höcker (c. 1944). PD-Release by Polish Government. Wikimedia Commons.

Lale struggled to look into the eyes of the person he was tattooing and with women and children it was especially hard. One day, he was tattooing a number on an 18-year old woman when he looked her in the eyes and immediately fell in love. She was named Gisela (Gita) Fuhrmannova. Read the BBC article on Lale here.

Political Wing of the SS

Lale was given papers identifying him as Politische Abteilung or “Political Department” of the SS. An SS officer was assigned to watch over him which provided an extra layer of protection. He received special privileges such as eating in the administration building, extra food rations, slept alone, and had free time when there were no prisoners to tattoo.

The SS officer acted as a liaison between Lale and Gita, delivering letters and allowing Lale a limited amount of time to meet with her on Sundays. While Lale had immediately fallen in love, it took Gita some time as she saw the hopelessness of their situation. Everything Lale did for Gita was with the intention to show her hope and that a future did exist for them.

End of the War

As the Soviet army neared Auschwitz, the Nazis began to ship the prisoners to other concentration camps (Himmler’s orders were that no prisoner was to fall into the hands of the enemy). Two days before the camp was liberated on 27 January 1945, Gita was shipped out of Auschwitz. Lale had no idea where she went. Shortly after, he was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp.

A survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp displays his tattoo. He would have received his tattoo at Auschwitz and subsequently transferred to Buchenwald. Photo by anonymous (c. 1944). United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. PD-U.S. government. Wikimedia Commons.
A survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp displays his tattoo. He would have received his tattoo at Auschwitz and subsequently transferred to Buchenwald. Photo by anonymous (c. 1944). United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. PD-U.S. government. Wikimedia Commons.

Lale performed a daring escape from Mauthausen and swam across the Danube River to reach freedom. He walked to Bratislava, the city that was accepting survivors returning to Czechoslovakia. For weeks, he waited at the train station hoping to see Gita get off one of the trains. During this time, he found out that only a sister had survived. He could not confirm his parents’ exact fate.

Lale was about ready to give up the wait and join the Red Cross efforts when a woman walked up to him. He looked into her terrified eyes and immediately recognized her—it was Gita.

Marriage

Gita and Lale were married in October 1945. After finding it dangerous to live in a communist country, the couple immigrated to Australia where they started up a textile business. The former Auschwitz inmates never told their story to anyone, even their son. Gita passed away in 2003 at the age of 79.

After her passing, Lale felt the time was right to explain his story. Over a period of three years, Lale laid out his life story to Heather Morris. Her new book, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, is a tale of survival and love. Watch an interview with Ms. Morris as she describes her experience working with Lale.  Watch here.

Lale Sokolov died in 2006. He never knew that his parents had died at Auschwitz I the month before he arrived at Birkenau.

Most concentration camp survivors were reluctant or refused to tell others of their experiences and treatment at the hands of the Nazis. Each person had their own personal reason for making that decision. Lale’s fear was that he would be branded as a collaborator.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau: Entrance gate and main track. Photo by C. Puisney (2014). PD-GNU Free Documentation License. Wikimedia Commons.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau: Entrance gate and main track. Photo by C. Puisney (2014). PD-GNU Free Documentation License. Wikimedia Commons.
Gatehouse at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photo by JarrahTree (2009). PD-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Australia. Wikimedia Commons.
Gatehouse at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photo by JarrahTree (2009). PD-Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

Recommended Reading

Morris, Heather. The Tattooist of Auschwitz. London: Zaffre Publishing, 2018.

Wachsmann, Nikolaus. KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

What’s New With Sandy and Stew?

Next week we are scheduled to receive our first shipment of the second volume of Where Did They Burn the Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar? It is the companion to volume one. In the meantime, Sandy will be setting up the Amazon site for the new book.

The ePub version is being built by Doris and her team at Authorlink. Once built, we will add that option to the Amazon site.

Sandy and I hope you enjoy the new book.

Medieval Paris Vol One Front Cover

 

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Please tell your friends about our blog site and encourage them to visit and subscribe. Sandy and I are trying to increase our audience and we need your help through your friends and social media followers.

Why Would You Want To Buy Our “Walks Through History” Books?

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You like to travel and experience history and historical events. You like to see original buildings that had a significant impact on the people and events of the history you’re engaged with. You want to know the stories behind the brick and mortar in front of you.

The walking tour books are meticulously researched so you can go directly to those sites and learn about the building’s history as well as an introduction to some of the more interesting people associated with it.

Thank You

Sandy and I appreciate you visiting with us. We have some exciting things on the horizon and we’ll keep you updated as we go along.

Follow Stew:

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Walks Through History

 

 

Copyright © 2018 Stew Ross