Paris – June 13, 1940
By the beginning of June, the panic started by the departure of the wealthy and well-connected bourgeoisie had spread to the working class of Parisians, intensifying with each new shattering German victory. As hundreds of thousands of refugees surged towards Paris from the north, bringing tales of German planes bombing and strafing the long columns of helpless civilians, nearly two million Parisians deserted their beloved city for the presumed safety of the south.
For the past week, Walter had altered his daily morning run to take him through Montparnasse just to watch the astounding spectacle of a populace overwhelmed by terror. The streets leading to the Porte d’Orléans were jammed with people, mostly women, children, and the elderly, pushing or hauling every imaginable kind of conveyance—wheelbarrows, prams, rough carts cobbled together with planks—straining against the crushing weight of boxes, suitcases, and crying children. And mattresses. What was it about refugees, Walter wondered, that compelled refugees to encumber their flight with heavy bedding? Some sense of clinging to the familiar security of the home they had abandoned? Their mattresses certainly wouldn’t stop tracer bullets.
He could smell the sour, pungent mixture of fear and despair. It was a scene worthy of Dante’s Inferno: hordes of wretched people shuffling vacantly, hopelessly away from a destruction they could not comprehend towards a future they could not imagine.
The Germans had paused outside Paris in response to a last-minute plea for a cease-fire from American Ambassador William Bullitt. With the departure of the French government on June 10, Bullitt was now the defacto mayor of Paris. He arranged with German commander General von Kücher to declare Paris an open city and spare it the devastation that had fallen on Warsaw and Rotterdam. The Germans would formally take charge of the city the next morning.
The city the German army would enter on June 14 had become a ghost town. It was as if the plague had returned and instantly killed all the people of Paris, leaving only mute, shuttered buildings and silent, empty streets. That evening, Walter retrieved his car, a small Peugeot Légère, from its garage on Rue Gay-Lussac and set out to explore the now deathly quiet city. His car, its headlights already dimmed by the required blue filters into thin slits of light, was the only vehicle on the road. The streetlights had been turned off and the buildings were dark. He had been caught once walking back from Rue Raffet during an air raid blackout. He remembered the flicker of light through the windows of the service stairways in apartments around him, like fireflies, as residents descended by flashlight to the basement. There were no lights now.
The all-night cafés were closed, the prostitutes were gone from Rue St. Denis and Pigalle, and the usual haunts of late night party goers, like the cafés in the Les Halles markets and Montmartre, were shuttered. If there were a few pedestrians scurrying around on errands, they must have slipped into the shadows as they heard the approach of his car. There were no police in sight. The only living things he spotted were animals: cows, probably from a farm in Auteuil, were roaming around the Place de L’Alma. A small flock of sheep wandered down the Rue Royale past Maxim’s. A trio of stray dogs were running around the sandbags protecting the Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde.
But in spite of the blackout, the city still shone in the bright moonlight. As he drove back to his hotel near the Luxembourg gardens across the Pont Neuf, the Seine gleamed like a ribbon of reflected gold. German bombers won’t have any trouble finding their way here, he thought.