Recommended Reading: The Last Time I Saw Paris

Elliot Paul The Last Time I Saw Paris

The last time I was in Paris, I serendiptously picked up a booked called The Last Time I Saw Paris, confusing it immediately with the 1954 movie of the same name. No connection. Elliot Paul’s glorious account of life in Paris between World Wars I and II is a superb journalistic account of life in the City of Lights during this brief period of peace. Watching as the events leading to the Holocaust and the destruction of Poland unfold, Paul is able to capture the essence of one Paris neighborhood and its residents in a profound way. All the more astounding is the fact that the book was published in 1942, just after the United States entered the war.

Poland was, of course, Hitler’s major killing ground for the extermination of Poland’s Jewish population, the largest in Europe, and the extermination of Poland as a nation, a culture, and a people. Six million Poles died in the Second World War, half of them Jewish. The secret Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, signed by Russia and Germany in 1939 left Poland defenseless against these two giants led by madmen whose own diabolical plans for Europe led to unprecedented destruction and death. The complicated between-war mistakes of England and France are legion, and Paul’s ability to connect and understand them is astonishing. An excerpt from The Last Time I Saw Paris, in 1938, as it dawns on the French what is coming:

“Why Poland?” asked Maurice, the goldfish man. “The old umbrella didn’t care about the Chinese, the Africans, the Spaniards or the Czechs. Now he wants to gurarantee Poland. Is that feasible? What can the British navy do so far away?”
“The Poles are the bitterest enemies of Russia, that’s why,” said Milka. Ironically, about the time she had convinced all her neighbors that Russia would stand by, Milka herself had learned through her various channels of information that England would have none of it. In the first place, instead of sending an important or competent ambassador to Moscow, Chamberlain had dispatched a group of third-rate army and naval officers. Bonnet had followed suit, with a cynicism only he could achieve.”

In his memoir, Elliot Paul has captured the conversations and concerns of ordinary French people as they weighed their own values and fears. It was a time when politicians pushed people to the far right or the far left, when governments invoked nationalism to the exclusion of unalienable human rights.

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