Book Review: Paris Underground

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Paris Underground, by Etta Shiber, was originally published in 1943. It is the story of two women, Etta (the author, a 50-year-old, widowed American) and her friend Kitty Beaurepos (a 40-year-old Englishwoman, French by marriage), who were living together in Paris when the Nazis invaded.

Hours before the Nazis invaded, Kitty and Etta joined the traffic-jammed highway in an effort to escape, but the German invaders caught up with everyone and ordered them back to Paris. On their way home, they met a young British soldier, hiding from the Germans. Etta could not stand the thought of the soldier, who resembled her deceased brother, being captured and shot by the Germans. She and Kitty stowed him away in their car’s luggage compartment and brought him to their 5-room apartment in Paris. Kitty got in touch with an old friend, M. Chancel, who had an organization for smuggling young men safely across the line of demarcation; and the soldier was soon safely back in England. Shortly thereafter, Kitty and Etta helped two prisoners escape from a prison hospital, and brought them to their Paris apartment. Chancel’s organization was uncovered by the Gestapo, and Chancel was forced to flee the country until he could grow a beard and create a new identity. So Kitty and Etta had a dilemma: how could they get the 2 soldiers out of the country? One of the soldiers had a leg wound, and as soon as he entered the apartment, he fainted, bleeding badly. The other soldier, who was healthy, and the servant girl tried to tend to him as he lay on the floor. Then the door bell rang. Etta’s heart stopped. She answered the door…and much to her relief, it was not the Gestapo! It was Henri Beaurepos, Kitty’s husband, who traveled much of the time and lived elsewhere. Immediately, Henri took charge of the situation and called a doctor from his own underground connections. He explained that he had crossed the line of demarcation himself 7 times already--crossing it was a breeze, and he had connections who could get the soldiers out for them. Soon, the sick soldier recovered from the brink of death, and both soldiers safely left the country.

Kitty and Etta met Father Christian, a young priest who had befriended many of the British soldiers that had been left behind at Dunkirk and were hiding in the woods. At that moment, he had four of these soldiers living with him in his part of the rectory--under the same roof as the Germans who had taken the greater part of the rectory to serve as their town headquarters. One of the soldiers had rigged up a microphone system to listen to the Nazis, and thus, they were able to warn their friends in the woods of upcoming German searches. Kitty and Etta took one of Father Christian’s boys back to their apartment. Then they learned that the death penalty had been decreed for anyone aiding British soldiers, but Kitty’s conscience wouldn’t let her stop saving lives. She told Etta, “I believe it was God who showed us that way. It would be sinful and criminal not to use our knowledge to save as many men as we can…How unimportant it would be to sacrifice one’s own life if by doing so one could save a hundred or perhaps a thousand others.” Etta could not dissuade Kitty, and she loved Kitty too much to leave; so they continued their work. Father Christian brought 3 or 4 soldiers to their apartment twice a week, and Kitty and Etta handed them over to escorts of Chancel’s men (Chancel had returned under the assumed name of Corbier and was smuggling young Frenchmen out of the country to join De Gaulle). These traveled, one with each British soldier, to Henri’s farmer friend, Tissier, who let them cross the border using his land. There were brilliant escapes and tricks played adroitly on the Gestapo. Then one evening, Etta noticed a 10,000 franc reward for reporting anyone aiding British soldiers. Kitty was gone on a long trip into free France to secure funds to continue their project. Etta walked through the apartment, searching for anything and everything incriminating and burning the evidence. The next day, there was a knock on the door.

Etta was taken to Gestapo headquarters and questioned. An hour later, Father Christian was also brought in. After questioning and a period of imprisonment, Etta was temporarily released. She was surprised and dismayed the next day when the French police called her to the police department for a traffic violation supposedly committed during the time she was in prison. It turned out that the French police were friends of Henri Beaurepos, and the real reason they had summoned her was because Henri wanted to speak with her; and the police department was the only place where he could do so out of the sight of the Nazis. Henri was worried about Kitty. He didn’t know where she was and had not been able to warn her that the Gestapo was looking for her. Etta gave him all the information she knew, and then Henri, Etta, and the police plotted to get Etta out of the country, away from her shadowing Gestapo agent. Then Henri left, embarking on a race with the Gestapo: who would find Kitty first? Just days later, the evening Etta was scheduled to escape, she walked past a subway station with her Gestapo shadow only to see *gasp* Chancel! She had unwittingly led the Gestapo right to him! He was arrested, and she was re-arrested. The Gestapo also found M. Tissier, and then they found Kitty before Henri could warn her. On their way to the trial, Kitty told Etta that she had given England back 150 lives and would only lose her own--a 150 to 1 victory. She was not terrified at the thought of death and could “look a bullet in the face and not be afraid. I have done my task. I have earned my rest.” At the trial, Father Christian told the Nazi judge, “I do not expect to find…any justice, in this court. But I know that in the end, divine justice will prevail; and the verdict will be pronounced, not against us, but against you, who presume to judge us.”

After a long winter in miserable prisons, Etta was exchanged since she was an American. Kitty, who was sentenced to death, was last heard of in a prison camp in Germany. Father Christian was taken out of prison by a couple officers on the day he was to be shot. An hour latter, the real officers arrived to take him…imagine the commotion at the prison!! The first officers were not at all Nazis, as was supposed, but workers of the British Intelligence Agency who intended to take Father Christian with them to Britain. Father Christian requested to stay behind, wanting his “extra life” to be spent rescuing more soldiers. When Etta left, he was working with an immense underground. Tissier and Chancel were each serving a few years of hard labor. The story of these brave men and women reminds me of the words of Jesus, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” God can give you that strength, and He will give it, when you need it. Etta says, “When God desires that we should act, He shows us the way, and tells us what to do--lest they die.”

If you are looking for excitement, suspense, tears, mystery, inspiration, and a true story of the misery, trials, bravery, wisdom, and joy of the unconquered hearts of a conquered nation, Paris Underground is the book for you.

“You will know the Truth, and the truth will set you free”
--John 8:32