When German soldiers arrived in Paris in the summer of 1940, there were so few of them that they had to win hearts and minds. Caroline Moorehead discovers the untold story of one young couple

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2013

THERE IS LITTLE in the world that Josh Gibson, a young American research assistant, loves more than flea markets, junk shops and house clearances, particularly those selling old papers, scrapbooks and magazines. So when, in the spring of 2007, living in Paris with his wife Sarah, he heard that a flea market was to be held on the Boulevard Arago, just next door to his apartment, he decided to go in search of hidden treasure. Riffling through piles of papers, stacked at random at the back of one stall, he pulled out a large plastic sleeve. It appeared to be full of tantalising scraps—a shopping bag from a long closed store, ancient book jackets, bits and pieces of memorabilia from an earlier time. Rather than haggling over individual items, he settled on €10 and took the lot.

Later that night, he took a quick look at his haul. It was only then that he noticed, buried under other items, a small bundle of hand-written letters, neat and perfectly legible, though the paper itself was frayed and yellowing. With them was a photograph album, full of snaps of a man and a woman and the sights of Paris, and a number of typed police reports and witness statements. By the time he finally went to bed, he realised that he had stumbled on a remarkable find, a love story between a German soldier and a French secretary, during the four years of the occupation of France and Vichy rule. Here, in these pages of faded paper, was a tale of passion, intrigue, collaboration and rough justice. Though how these letters had got there, and why, and who had sold them, no one knows.

One day an e-mail arrived in my inbox. Knowing of my interest in wartime France (I had recently published "A Train in Winter", about 230 women sent on the same train to Auschwitz in January 1943), he wrote to ask whether I would like to pursue the story. Both the German soldier and the French secretary were dead, but a nephew of the soldier had seen the blog that Josh had written about his discovery, and was willing to provide more information. A cousin of the secretary was also happy to contribute. I went to Paris and met them both—agreeing, to protect their families, that I should write about everyone under false names. The letters Josh discovered had provided the bones of the story; what they told me added some flesh.

For all the immense amount of research done since the 1970s on wartime France, curiously little has ever been written about relationships between occupiers and occupied, beyond what can be imagined from the bald statistics about shaven-headed women and illegitimate children. About real and lasting love affairs between the two, the archives are silent.

IT WAS AT the World Exposition in Paris in 1937 that Johann and Lisette later claimed to have met, though the references to this first encounter are frustratingly vague. Johann, who was 28, had come from Saarbrücken, the industrial town in the Saar where his grandfather had settled in the 1880s to work in a steel factory. Unlike his young brother, Rolf, who was studious and conscientious, Johann was gregarious, an adventurous, light-hearted young man with thick, glossy hair swept back, and an easy smile. He was talented, and thought of becoming an architect, but he was a man who seldom saw things through. Though married and the father of a small girl, Johann had a roving eye. Lisette lived with her parents near the Hôtel de Ville, where they were the concierges of one of Paris’s solid 19th-century apartment blocks, with inner courtyards and marble and parquet floors. She too was attractive, with wavy brown hair piled high; she was elegant, and loved hats. They made a handsome pair.

In the summer of 1940, Johann was among the second wave of German soldiers to reach Paris. The May invasion of France had brought fighting troops, tall, fit, healthy-looking men, goose-stepping victoriously down the Champs-Elysées in their magnificent leather boots and grey-green uniforms. The year of the phoney war, and the sense of foreboding and possible shortages, had made the city and its inhabitants somewhat shabby and muted. And though in their wake had come the shadowy and sinister forces of the Gestapo, soon to be ferreting out resisters, communists and Jews, General von Stülpnagel, military governor of Paris and a soldier of the old school, had made it clear to his men that they must behave in a civilised manner, not least because the Germans planned to rule France with a remarkably small army of occupation, and so needed order, calm and the co-operation of the French. The civility was much appreciated. When they had got over the shock of their rapid and humiliating military defeat, the Parisians noted that their occupiers were not, as they had feared, brutal, rude or monstrous; on the contrary, they gave up their seats to elderly women, opened doors and handed out sweets. They were, the occupied told each other, perfectly "correct". As François Mauriac, just beginning work on his barely veiled criticism of collaboration, "La Pharisienne", observed, the French women found them "as exciting as the Tour de France". When it was hot, the young men took off their shirts and preened in the sun. 

Above Stylish and vivacious, Johann and Lisette made a striking couple. But Johann had a roving eye