Madeleine Blaess (1918-2003) was a specialist of French medieval literature who taught in the French Department at the University of Sheffield in the UK from 1948 until her retirement in 1983.
Madeleine was born in Alsace-Lorraine, France. When she was an infant, her parents moved to York in England and Madeleine was schooled at the city’s Bar Convent and at the University of Leeds from where she graduated with a first class degree in French in July 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939 but Madeleine was determined that her plans to study for a doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris would not be disrupted and she sailed from Folkestone on the 31st October 1939. In the Spring of 1940, the German army invaded Belgium and France and Madeleine’s escape route to the channel ports was cut off. She fled to the south of the country together with the thousands of Parisians and finally returned to the capital in July 1940. In October 1040 she registered at the Sorbonne to continue the second year of her doctoral programme and it was then she began to write her diary which, initially, she writes as a letter to her parents to replace the letters she could no longer send to them.
“I am writing this for you because I can no longer send you letters. What I am writing here is a replacement. The first of October, the date classes begin again, is a suitable date to start but I have been wanting to do this for a long time because it is a way to feel closer to you”.
The Madeleine Blaess diary is unique because it is written by a British student who, because she had French papers, lived freely in occupied France unlike other British, Commonwealth and American citizens who were for the most part rounded up and interned. Although always fearful that she might be arrested, Madeleine was left alone by the authorities. It helped that she had extended family in the Paris region and that she spoke and wrote very good French. She was able to assume an identity more ‘French’ than it was in reality.
The diary is the only testimony of everyday life in occupied France written by a British student. It also stands out because the diary is an almost complete set of daily entries written from October 1st 1940 to September 17 1944. Unusually for a published Occupation diary, the entries do not foreground the military and political situation but undertake to describe the trivia and banalities of everyday life. Madeleine focuses her diary writing on describing people and events. The intellectual reflection and self-reflection which characterised other student diaries of the inter-war period were not things she was overly concerned with, saying that writing down what she felt seemed like a pointless duplication. Her focus on description was a deliberate choice. Possibly influenced by the Mass Observation Project which solicited descriptive diaries from the public in the inter-war, possibly by Pepys whom she occasionally cites or quite simply just because she wanted to have a record of life to catch up on with her parents at the war’s end, she noted down the tiniest details. So, the diary is a realistic account of what daily life was like for many Parisians. Life was a brutal, ongoing struggle to survive crippling food shortages, bitter cold and illness and, for many French people, their everyday life was so onerous that taking an ideological or active stance in opposition to the Nazi and Vichy regime was simply not something they had the will or energy for.
The diary is long. Its 123,000 words trace four years of a young woman who moves from youthful dependence on her family towards a future which she contemplates excitedly and anxiously for what it might hold by way of career and personal happiness. We are given a rare personal insight into the challenges facing young women like Madeleine who wanted a professional career when it was still expected that they should prioritise marriage and family. We see how young women handled opposition to their scholarly ambitions through the intellectual forums and resources created by women to support one another during the inter-war period and during the Occupation. We also see how women pursued their ambitions during wartime when there was greater pressure to abandon their plans and return home to support their families.
The Phoney War
The threat of war meant that many of the women who registered at the Sorbonne in 1938 and 1939 did not stay. Blaess went out to Paris regardless, sharing the confidence of relatives and university staff that German aggression could be competently and swiftly repelled. She stayed at the lodging house, Les Marronniers, 78 rue d’Assas. The lodging house is still open to long-term and short-term tenants and visitors to Paris just as it was in the inter-war and the 1940s. See its web site Les Marronniers and for a feature about it and its owner, Marie, see Marie et sa pension de famille.
Sand owner of the bookshop and lending library Shakespeare & Co which, at that time was located on the rue de l’Odéon in Paris. Through the bookshop, where she worked part-time for a short period in 1940, Madeleine met Françoise Bernheim who worked there permanently alongside her doctoral studies at the Sorbonne. Both Madeleine and Françoise were close friends with Hélène Berr whose own diary Journal was published in 2008. Both Françoise and Hélène Berr were arrested, deported and murdered in Nazi death camps. There are a number of references to Hélène and Françoise in Madeleine’s diary even though she is very careful not to divulge too much about them and their whereabouts. referring to them obliquely or to Hélène by initials only in the months before her arrest. What we do see is a frequency of contact by letter and pneu and occasional surreptitious meetings in cafés and restaurants and shock and grief when Françoise is arrested. It is unclear whether Madeleine knows, even by the end of the war in 1945, that Hélène had been arrested.
It has been a pleasure to contribute in some small measure to the preservation of the memory of both Hélène and Françoise through their living relatives and the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris. The Mémorial has produced a fabulous on line exhibition about Hélène Berr which is available here.