Children during the War in Paris, France
A few notes on children and adolescents’ daily life during the German Occupation of Paris
In June 1940, as the German advanced through France, many children found themselves on the road as part of the great exodus – l’Exode – as they fled toward a safety that was often elusive. Some were separated from their families, many saw death up close.
The younger children have vivid memories of the Exode, all centered on their personal experiences, whereas adolescents viewed things on a broader scale. Some 90,000 children were separated from their families. After their return home they expected things to be normal. Life was anything but. Children were haunted by those early traumatic experiences for many years to come.
School resumed in October of that year. October 1 for elementary schools, October 15 for those in lycée (high school) and university. There were no classes on Thursdays at the elementary level and only half a day for the lycées, but there were classes on Saturdays, and again only half a day for lycées. School was only compulsory up to age fourteen. Many adolescents tried to get a job to help with the family income but still depended on their family for their essential needs. There was also an increase in the number of delinquents, some as young as eleven years of age. The majority stole food and were usually treated lightly by the courts. Violence was not on the rise among adolescents. Many of them joined resistance groups as they began to form.
Most of the school textbooks were replaced by approved versions by the Vichy Ministry of Education and underpinned the Nazi ideology.
The scout movement was accepted by the occupiers as long as it was under the direction of a church. The scouts were neither racists nor collaborationists. In the spring of 1941, the scouts Israélites de France were ended by a Vichy’s decree.
It didn’t take long for young children to see the link between the lack of food and the presence of the Germans. Too young to question Germany’s policy, they only saw that the soldiers could buy food in the store whereas their families could not. The soldiers had good clothes and shoes whereas their families were making do with old clothes and no shoes. They began to dislike, even hate, the Germans.
Despite rationing, which did not work since there was so little food available in the stores, children suffered from lack of essential nutrients both in quality and quantity. Malnutrition took its toll on growing children. Children were too thin and did not grow to their potential height. Some of the more privileged classes had family in the country and could occasionally get food. It was still insufficient. The black market was inaccessible to many families on low income.
The German propaganda exploited the long food queues by depicting them as a pleasant social activity. Workers were invited to take part in physical education – dubbed corrective gymnastics – during the lunch hour. Children and adolescents, especially those in the Chantiers de Jeunesse (compulsory Vichy youth camps) in the non-occupied zone were shown as enjoying their condition.
While it is true that many children and young people in Paris were spared the horrors that befell others in areas purged by the Nazis, they experienced genuine hardship that in many cases scarred them for life. It would be nice to think that was all a thing of the past, but even a cursory glance at today’s news shows that children are still being subjected to man’s inhumanity to its kind.