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Aunt Jean's Story of the Fall of France, 1937-1941

This is the story of Jean (McGuinness) Seward as told in a letter sent to her niece, Patricia Anne (McGuinness) DuLong, postmarked 9 April 1999.

I, Jean Seward , 21 years old, left for Paris, France from Detroit, MI the later part of September 1937. There being no air or plane travel in those days, I traveled to New York by train. There, at Grand Central Station, I was met by the sister of one of my mother's friends and were taxied to one of many docks and ports of N.Y. along the Atlantic.

The boat I was booked on to travel to France was the "Isle de France", a luxury liner of the Concord Line and the pride of France. My reservation was in Tourist class. At that time there were 3 classes of travel: First, Tourist, and steerage.

The crossing took almost one week and we landed in a port on the North of France in the English Channel. A special channel train met the boat and took us all into a Northern Train station in the city of Paris (as you no doubt know there are four major train stations in Paris: Fares du Nord, Est, Ouest, Sud).  It had been prearranged by a French teacher my family knew in Detroit that her sister, A Parisian citizen, would meet my train and take me by taxi to an elderly widow from W.W.I who had a room to rent, Madame Le General, was her title.

I stayed with Mme. about 3 months, at which time I had learned about the Cité Universitaire a huge campus of dormitories, as large as any of our U.S. State Universities. Each was built like a hotel and mainly was for students from money deficient countries to rent rooms for sleeping. There was as many dormitories as there are countries in Europe and Asia - even Morocco and Algiers and Egypt.

At the American house, I met only American students who were studying at the Sarbonne or at the University of Paris or the Conservatoire de Music or l' école de Beaux Arts.

It was an ideal and socially active life back in February 1938. I left to go to Florence, Italy to continue my voice lessons.

Florence Italy is the most beautiful city I have ever seen ( and will ever see, I am sure) In 1939, deep depression time in Europe and in the U.S., there were very few foreigners. I lived in a small, private house of an elderly Signora who kept a few "paid guest". My three meals a day were beautiful and the only other paid - guests were two Swiss young women whose parents would send them for a few years to different countries as a sophisticated cultural education.

Florence was built in a valley around 8 or 9 hundred A.D. It's location is magnificent with mountains surrounding the city. Its climate is just right. There are four true seasons. The summer is quite hot but the Italians use fans in every room ( perhaps air conditioning now).

The Italian people are as the world knows, warm and friendly. However, here in the states, I had not been told that they have an aristocratic society and that society is proud, and very hard to know. They are slightly a "closed " group. Their old mansions in the city and pillars surrounding Florence are immense, like palaces. Beautiful!

This was the time of Mussolini. Every country was affected by the economic depression, but those Italian Florentine Aristocrats lived like kings.

The American money exchange was highly favorable for Americans. I could live on one dollar a day: room, meals, taxi fare ( there were no buses, or street cars - only taxies) concerts and movies plus a cappuccino a day at some little outdoor café).   What a Life ! ! !

At this time I had been awarded a music scholarship in Paris but would have to return to Paris. And so I did.

I returned to live in the American House at the Cité Universitaire. Not many months later War was declared between England and France against Nazi Germany.

My voice professor, a Swiss woman, advised me to go to Switzerland and study with a woman who had been her teacher. And so I did.

I would like to add here that upon returning to the American House I met a young medical student from Prague, Czechoslovakia who was stopping in Paris on his way to Harvard University where he had been accepted to study for his M.D. We saw each other daily until the declaration of war with the Nazis. I recall saying good bye to him in front of the Paris Opera House. I was on my way to Switzerland and he had enlisted in the French Army. You couldn't believe how much the Czechs hated the Germans.

I stayed in Worges, Switzerland until Xmas of 39 when I went to Florence, Italy which was the only way I could get back to France.

The American Counsel in Geneva would only five me a visa to return to America by way of Genoa, Italy. All countries with a coast on the Atlantic suspended any and all ships on the Atlantic.There was no travel to the States. But the American Counsel in Florence would give me a visa to return to France, which is why I had to go to Florence. ( I only got that visa because my former voice teacher in Florence knew the Am. Consul socially. It is she who got that for me.)

Once back in Paris I was not able to stay at the American House of the Cité because it had negotiated with the French government to be a hostel, or headquarters in Paris for French troops so I stayed in a small hostel, or Hotel, run by an American woman who had stayed in Paris since World War I. She worked, (at that time) for the Red Cross and after World War I she stayed on to run a small hostel for students in the Latin Quarter of Paris

It was there that the news of the fall of the port or city of Dunkirk came to all of Paris and all of Paris (all who could) fled from the city. It was bedlam! The streets were full of people people people. Those who had cars left the city for the South of France immediately. All buses, subways stopped functioning (to save electricity and petrol) all of Paris was in Panic. The Nazis now had easy, clear and direct route to Paris. The Army had not surrendered, yet, but was in disarray. Soldiers were deserting the army and wondering to Southern France by the hundreds (perhaps thousands). Life throughout France was like a hell. Restaurants closed. All stores closed. Villages and towns totally deserted. All food stores had to close due to no produce coming in to the cities - - - . There was no government for a few days throughout Northern France. France was in Chaos !

I, too, put a few clothes in a small bag and with another young woman from the hostel where I had been living walked out of Paris headed for the Park of Bordeaux in the S. of France where I heard there were some ships leaving for N. and S. America.

The highways were filled with French citizens headed South. Never have I seen such a horde of humans and I and the young Czech woman were among the hordes.

The first night on the highway we slept in the bedroom of an abandoned farm house. Doors left unlocked. Cupboards full of food. Clothes hanging in the closets and furniture in place ! ! ! The following morning we were out on the highway once more, only this day brought a fleet of Nazi planes overhead. All thousands of us Belgians, Dutch and French humans, peoples abandoned the roads for the country fields. We lay on our stomachs with our arms wrapped around our heads (the most dangerous of all hits from machine guns would be in the neck/ head area). The we one after we one of Nazi planes with machine guns flew low low over the country fields. Each plane was equipped with 3 machine guns placed in 3 different directions. We would have to stay on our stomachs for hours. At dark we made for the highway to continue our flight and walked all night only to pass the daylight hours hiding in corn hay stacks and rendering on our way at night. By the second day the Nazis had learned to fly low over the country fields by day knowing that all the people (citizens) were hiding in the fields. By the third day we passed the daylight hours hiding in the woods but the Nazis learned that safety escape also and flew their planes with machine guns by night over the trees and succeeded in killing many, many people.

We continued on toward the South but by this time the Germans had machine gunned so many civilians ( I later heard that the count of refugees from Holland, Belgium and France amounted to over 3 million). That we were walking over wounded and dying and dead bodies scattered all over the highway. This continued for the following two days at which time the French surrendered to the Nazis. The killing ended. And the German tanks, trucks, and vehicles with the loud horns ordered all people to return to their cities and villages and houses. They forbade any further traffic South. We were by this time in what is called the Chateau Country - a most scenic, beautiful and wealthy area of France. All tourists go to see the Chateau Country. We rested for a day on the shore of the Loire River. Took our shoes off to relieve our swollen, aching feet and simply lay down to rest.

Suddenly a jeep drove off the highway and two German soldiers got out of the jeep and walked over to us. They had seen us wading in the river next to the shore. One of the Germans started unbuttoning his pants and commanding in German told us to lie on the ground. There was a young French soldier who had deserted his unit after the Armistice with Germany, through away his uniform and found some old clothes in an abandoned farm house. He joined us along the side of the main highway the day before this incident. Roger was his name. Roger called out to the e Nazis in French (he knew no German just as they knew no French). One of the Nazis took out his gun and pointing it toward the young Frenchman told him to lie on the ground with his face down. Being unarmed, Roger had to obey. The German Soldier fired his revolver at him and coming at his head killed him . Then turning to me in German "lie down"! I prayed aloud to God, in English. At once it occurred to me to tell this soldier that I was American. "American ! American !" I shouted at him. He shouted book to me "Bok ! Bok !" Then coming toward me he shouted, "Passport ! Passport !" In English I answered "Yes." "Yes". Taking it from inside the waist of my shirt ( a sweater) I showed it to him. He took it. Looked through it. The other Nazi came over to him and looked through it also. Yeah. Yeah! He nodded his head to his companion. He threw my passport on the ground and instantly the two Nazis got in their jeep and drove up to the highway and disappeared.

I sank to the ground in disbelief and exhaustion. For awhile neither the Czech woman nor I could speak. We each started to cry. The tears relieved some of our terror, fear, and exhaustion.

We assured each other we must get out of our isolated spot and go back to the main highway and head back to Paris. We dared not speak to each other about Roger.

At once we were up on the side of the highway headed back to Paris. The road was truck to truck, jeep to jeep and tank to tank with the Nazis going South to totally occupy France.

One car, a beautiful Cadillac made in my home city of Detroit !, stopped in front of us. Out stepped an older distinguished middle - aged German Officer in splendid uniform. In French he asked us where we were headed. When we replied "Paris", he opened the rear door of the car and said "get in." The driver of the Cadillac was a young officer. He never spoke to us.

The older officer introduced himself to us. "- - - I am the Treasurer of the government of Germany and President of the banks of Germany."

In short time we were back in Paris. He let us out in the middle of the old section of Paris, and drove out of our sight. The Czech girl, with me, made her way back to the little room she had rented for years. There was one single bed. She slept in her bed and made a most comfortable one for me on the floor. There was running water, a bathroom and electricity. A great difference from the Paris we had left about one week before.

I stayed with this young woman for about three days. We spent all our time sleeping and walking the neighborhood to find a grocery where we might buy some food to cook.  There was meager choice of any food to buy.  The cash we had we tried to save as best we could, not knowing from day - to - day how the commerce and banking situations would be.  Sometimes we made a meal of one kind of nourishment only.   however little by little the food situation improved and we could have sufficient choice.

Shortly after a week or so I set about to find a room to rent for myself.   I must mention clothing: For about two weeks I was wearing the same clothes.   When I went back to the hostel where I had left all my belongings nothing of mine was left.  The owner knew nothing about any clothes of mine ( or so she said.)   I had left everything I owned - all ! all ! -in the closet and drawers of the room I occupied.  Now I had nothing except what what I was wearing.

Soap - Yes. Soap ! was the most sought after product in Paris indeed - all over France ! Somehow I happened to have a bar or two and I washed my underwear as well as my body with that.  Very very frugally you may be sure.

Money was highly prized also.  My parents sent a check for me to their representative in Congress who had it specially mailed and sent to the American Consul General in Paris.  I had to register and report to the Am. Embassy twice a week.  When their report from Washington came validating my parents check deposit with them they would give me the equivalent in French francs.  And so that is how I was able to buy food and other necessary products at the produce markets and pharmacy.

After I left the Czech girl's residence I found a room to rent with a lovely woman whose husband was a professional soldier in the French army. She had an apartment in the Latin quarter of Paris so I could walk to just about everywhere I wanted or needed to go. Of course I had to pay her rent.

About this time some rules and regulations between the U.S. Government and the French banks became fouled up and my parents could not get money over to me.  I was on my last few francs and frantic as to what to do or where to go.

Walking through a park next to the Seine River across from the American Embassy one afternoon I met an old friend - the music director at the American Church of Paris.  The American Church  was very beautiful and had been built by Rockefeller money after World War I.  It was Protestant Nondenominational.  This gentleman, Stewart Pemberton was the director of all music, organ, solo sing - chorus, etc. , etc.  for everything or occasion in or at the church.  He was about in his late forties in age.

Stewart Pemberton had come to Paris at about the age of 19 or twenty from Mass. He was orphaned at an early age by fairly well - to- do parents who had set up a trust for him of which he had control after the age of 18.  He engaged a lawyer and bank in Mass. to manage his trust ( this lawyer - banker was honest and wise and had become a trusted friend of Stew.)

Stewart became accepted into the Paris Ecole de Musique shortly after arriving in Paris.  That is a great honor because only French citizens were accepted.   It is the equivalent of a music university and rarely does a foreigner become accepted.  He was indeed brilliant musically: orchestra director, pianist, soloist, composer, organist, etc., etc.

We greeted each other and I sat down next to him and we visited.  He was eager to know how I was still in Paris despite the war, the German occupation, the armistice, the end of all mail between the U.S. and the Germans, etc. , etc.  I confessed to him that I was now down to my last few francs and did not know where to go or what to do.  Stew immediately told me to move - in to the American church House (Protestant Churches always have a large handsome Church House with kitchen, banquet room, small sitting room, fireplace, several bathrooms, and bedrooms.)  There were about 4 bedrooms on the third floor with electricity, vanity with running water for washing, single bed for sleeping, closet to hang clothes, and a toilet and mirror - everything one needed ! Actually I was not the only American being helped and given a warm, clean, cheerful and comfortable place ( home) in which to live by Stewart Pemberton.  There was a young Canadian violinist, Constance by name; An American teacher employed at the Embassy to teach the children of school age the same courses and studies that these children would get in an American public school, her name was Thyra Lund. And lastly, a young woman graduate of Mt Holyoke College in Mass. who was majoring in violin composition and piano, Thiery was her name.  Usually we would all eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in the huge kitchen of the Church house.  The stove was gas, the refrigerator ( that, my dear, was a luxury in France in that epoch) was electric and the kitchen table long, wide, and always clean.  There was real soap (worth its weight in gold) for which to wash dishes - and the cupboards were filled with dishes.

We women would buy food to cook as we went about our daily chores and work when ever we saw a line of people standing in front, on the sidewalk or street, of a store ( we always chose the shortest line to stand in !)

We would bring our treasured produce back to the church kitchen all of us usually worked together to cook the meal.  Sometimes Stew Pemberton joined us and many (mostly) times he would be invited to the homes of his longtime parishioners.   What a wonderful character he had !

How these other women got, or received their money on which to live I do not know.  None of us had but the least to live on; however Pem assured us he could always be counted on should we run - out of francs.

Every week I had to report to the U.S. Embassy, sign my name, the number on my passport and the address of where I lived so that they could get in touch with me regarding any way or means by which I could leave France for the U.S.

Before each Sunday Service we would rehearse the hymns and music with Pem that would be the basics of the religious service on Sunday.  Because Pem was not an ordained minister he mostly read from the bible had the six choir members sing well - known hymns and conclude with a marvelous organ recital.

The congregation was mostly elderly American women who were widowed from World War I French officers.  These women remained Am. citizens but chose to remain living in France.  At this point I should mention that Constance ( the young Canadian violinist) became a close and affectionate friend of Stew Pemberton.  One morning she didn't appear for breakfast so Thyra Lund, the teacher, older than Thiery and me went up to her room to see if she was sick - or something.

Constance wasn't there. We all hunted around the building calling her name - looking everywhere.  No sign of Constance.

Our worst suspicions were confirmed: The Nazi SS police had come in the night and taken her to a concentration camp for all British Passport citizens.

Pem went to the chief of Police (Nazi) and to the British Embassy and returned:  The S.S. Police had taken every English Passport citizen to a camp in the South of France. The Germans had several concentration camps and Pem, after days and weeks of research knew which one she was in  he also knew that she could be changed to another, and another and even taken out of France.

The autumn of 1940 came and went in its normal way with Priscilla (her given name) Thiery, Thyra Lund and me standing in produce store lines to buy food to cook back in the kitchen of the church house of the American Church and with Stewart Pemberton eating with us when he wasn't invited to the home of some long - time church member.

The French do not celebrate our Thanksgiving Day and although we tried we women could not find a turkey nor any poultry to buy so we sat around the kitchen table laughing and talking about our family thanksgiving days back in the U.S.  The conversation and laughter were fun and we didn't feel sorry for ourselves for one minute.

Christmas 1940 was passed in the same manner.  Stewart Pemberton had the chorus sing old hymns that everyone (American) knows and he read beautiful and moving passages from the bible.  After the church service everyone in the congregation was invited to the church living room for champagne and visiting.  All and everyone reminisced of their family and friends back in the States.

With the arrival of 1941 I began going to the U>S. Embassy twice a week.  At the end of January '41 I was told the U.S. Government and the Red Cross would have a train reserved from Paris to Lisbon, Portugal on a certain date in February.   The train was only for U.S. citizens with up to date U.S. Passports.  Thyra Lund and I would be on it.  Priscilla Thiery was not returning home. Where she was going and when, I did not know.  She came from a highly social and moneyed family in Boston and she was a highly intelligent and lovely woman; whatever she did or where she went I feel certain it was her wish and was the right thing for her.

Stewart Pemberton was all packed and ready"- - - to bicycle out of Paris to the South of Vichy - and take it and live from there as I feel and think best - - -."

And so it happened one night in February  '41 that Pem took me to the Gare (rail station) to the South for the U.S. French Train that was to take all U.S. citizens to Lisbon.  The train was scheduled to leave Paris at 11PM.  The train platform was packed with passengers waiting to get on but there was no worry as there was a seat for every person.  That had all been prearranged by the minister of transportation and the U.S. Embassy.  Pem gave me a big 'hug good bye"and I mounted the steps to enter the particular train car to take my reserved seat.

That was the last I ever saw of Stewart Pemberton, the person who really saved my life.

About three years ago in the New York Times newspaper  to which we subscribe there was an article, a memoraire about Stewart Pemberton's death.

And so, Goodbye and the best of the best to you and your family

                                  Aunt Jean McGuinness Seward

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This page, and all contents, are Copyright © 1999 by Patricia A. [né McGuinness] DuLong, Berkley, MI.   Created 16 April 1999.   Last modified 16 April 1999.  This web site is best viewed with your display set to 800 by 600 pixels, at least 256 colors, and using Netscape 4.x or better.  Some of the graphics on this page are copyright © 1998, 1999 by Amanda Fisher and are used here in compliance with her terms.