Parents often passionately and truthfully declare that they would give their lives for their children. We’d sacrifice our lives and exchange them gladly to make sure that our children survive. In “While Paris Slept” by Ruth Druart, during the French occupation of Paris, a woman on her way to a concentration camp gives her newborn infant to a stranger, hoping against hope that the act will save the life of her son. Sometimes such decisions lead to unintended consequences.
This important event, the relinquishment of a baby literally into the arms of a stranger, doesn’t occur until almost halfway into the book. First we get to know the main characters, especially Jean-Luc and Charlotte, the two young people who left everything in their lives behind in their effort to save Samuel, the tiny infant entrusted into Jean-Luc’s care. We learn about Charlotte’s pampered upbringing, and that even though her family was wealthy, they still struggled to find food because her mother would not shop at the black market. Charlotte worked at the local hospital, mopping floors and helping the patients. Jean-Luc lived with his mother. His father had been sent to Germany as forced labor for the Germans two years before. When Jean-Luc is sent to work at an unused railroad yard, he knows that while it’s not used for passenger trains anymore, the rumor is that it’s used for transporting Jews from the Paris transit camp, Drancy, somewhere. Somewhere east of Paris.
Everyone tells Jean-Luc to keep his head down and follow orders — ask no questions. Jean-Luc has an additional reason to stay unnoticed and unremarkable by the Germans. He was born with a deformed left hand, which hasn’t hampered him in his work but which might cause the Nazis to send him to a “work camp.” Nazis don’t like people with deformities. But Jean-Luc sees what is happening, this forced removal of Jewish families, and in his heart, he knows it’s wrong. But when he tries to do something to thwart the Nazis, it doesn’t go as planned, and he ends up in a hospital, where he meets Charlotte.
Although they come from very different backgrounds, the two of them seem to be caring people in a sea of ostriches — the rest of the population of Paris all seem to have their heads in the sand, blind, oblivious, asleep, uncaring. And when, early one morning, there is an unexpected event that means the Jews on their way to a concentration camp must be unloaded from the cattle car they had been packed into, Jean-Luc runs into a woman, a desperate woman, who thrusts her baby into his shirt and begs him to save her son, Samuel.
The story is told in alternating time periods. In 1944 we travel with Jean-Luc, Charlotte, and infant Samuel as they try to save Samuel’s life by escaping from the Nazis. It’s not an easy task, and they literally risk their lives crossing the Pyrenees Mountains to save this precious baby. We also meet Jean-Luc, Charlotte and Sam in 1953, nine years later, in Santa Cruz, California, where they live. The small family has embraced the American culture, and Sam knows nothing about France or the fact that his Jewish parents gave him up to save his life. So when Jean-Luc and Charlotte learn that Sam’s parents, Sarah and David Lafitte, are alive and have been searching for Samuel since the end of the war, they are shocked.
Druart causes us to carefully consider what it is to be family. She also explores the subject of sacrifice, and in this story there are many sacrifices for us to consider, beginning with Sarah’s sacrifice of Samuel to Jean-Luc in a desperate attempt to save her baby’s life. Jean-Luc and Charlotte sacrifice their lives in France, as French citizens, with their families, to save the child’s life.
Druart also examines community and those communal relationships: neighbors, friends, and acquaintances.The title, “While Paris Slept,” has many meanings. The Nazis rounded up the Jews late at night, in secret, while Parisians slept, so no one saw their friends being taken away. But also, Paris “slept” through the occupation metaphorically with its complicity in allowing the Jewish Parisians to be targeted and deported to their deaths. Most Parisians did nothing. In Paris, where people live in apartments with many neighbors, no one knew who could or could not be trusted. In fact, we don’t really know if Charlotte’s mother kept secrets from her husband, Charlotte’s father. The neighbor who helped them in an emergency might just report them to the authorities the next day. They could trust no one. This same indifference or callousness extended to others who, when their Jewish friends were rounded up at night and taken away, just turned their heads, drank their ersatz coffee, and pretended nothing untoward was happening. If you don’t acknowledge something, maybe it doesn’t really exist. So, too, did Charlotte’s neighbors in Santa Cruz, nine years later, shun her when they thought something strange was happening to Jean-Luc and Charlotte, their friends and neighbors.
But Druart juxtaposes those cruelties — small and large — along with the random acts of kindness that we also read about. A guard in the concentration camp who inexplicably gives Sarah a canteen of water when she is desperate for hydration, a mountain guide who carries the baby Samuel when Charlotte cannot, and most importantly, the kindness of a railroad worker who risks his life to save an infant, and a mother who sacrifices everything for her child. And the baby? We come to realize that the infant Samuel ended up saving the lives of both sets of parents as surely as they saved his life.
The ending is extremely touching, and even the most cynical reader will surely shed a tear. It certainly brings the story full circle in a very satisfying manner. I can imagine that book clubs would really enjoy discussing the intricacies and questions about love and family and what we would sacrifice in the name of love and family that this story raises.
This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.