Paris museum reopens with stories of frantic wartime exodus

Visitors may find echoes of early 1940s Europe in present-day fears and uncertainties

Eighty years ago, on 13 June 1940, the last of the 2 million Parisians – nearly three-quarters of the city’s population – to flee the fast-advancing German army were scrambling frantically to leave the capital.

Amid chaos and confusion, by train, in cars piled high with belongings, by bike and on foot, pushing prams and pulling handcarts, clutching suitcases and small children, they joined a throng of 8 million displaced people heading south.

Next week, a new exhibition about the traumatic but largely untold events of late May and early June 1940 reopens – three months after falling victim to France’s Covid-19 lockdown and another less dramatic, but still very real, Paris exodus.

“This was truly a sea of people,” said Sylvie Zaidman, the co-curator of Parisians in the Exodus, forced to close its doors in mid-March, barely a week after opening. “A brief moment of intense upheaval, when the institutions and structures of society simply collapsed.”

But because the events of 80 years ago are “so tied up in the humiliation and trauma of France’s defeat”, said Zaidman, director of the Museum of the Liberation of Paris, “and because popular stories of resistance presented a glorified version of the occupation, it has been written out of the national narrative”.

French refugees from the Paris region on their way south in 1940. Photograph: Carl Mydans/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images

Inevitably, the exhibition has drawn comparison with the mass flight from the capital and its surrounding region at the start of France’s Covid-19 lockdown, when, over the course of barely 48 hours, an estimated 1.7 million people left to spend the confinement in second homes or with family in the countryside.

Philip Smith, a British boy caught up in the French exodus with his family. Photograph: Supplied

Young Philip Smith, aged 10, his older brother Derek and their British parents – the father worked for an insurance company – cycled all the way to St Jean de Luz near the Spanish border to get on a ship for England, a journey via Fontainebleau, Orléans, La Rochelle and Bayonne that took them 13 days.

Then suddenly, within days of the armistice being declared and throughout the summer of 1940, most of the Paris exiles returned – to a very different kind of daily life under the occupation. Some would collaborate; some would resist heroically; most, as is the nature of things, would struggle by as best they could.

Eighty years later, France’s coronavirus lockdown began lifting on 11 May. The Parisians who fled the capital in mid-March have now returned; cafe and restaurant terraces are once again bustling. And after a three-month closure, Parisians in the Exodus reopens on 16 June – and will remain open, this time, until 13 December.

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