We are like helpless animals

Erling Mandelmann / photo©ErlingMandelmann.ch / CC BY-SA 3.0

Born in Paris in 1920, Benoîte Groult was nineteen when her beloved city fell under Nazi occupation and the repressive rule of the Vichy regime. Throughout the war, she and her younger sister Flora kept a diary, chronicling the increasing constraints and daily indignities imposed on Parisians. The following entry from September 1940 encapsulates this grim reality, where even basic freedoms and necessities were diminishing. An astute observer of her changing world, Benoîte worked as a journalist until the 1960s before becoming a bestselling author, sometimes co-writing novels with Flora. Their wartime diaries, published in a single volume in 1962, would be their first book

The Diary Entry

September 21, 1940

Every morning either the occupying power or Vichy—it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other—gives us another turn of the screw. Each morning, we read in the newspapers one or two new articles added to the rules of the prison in which we are to live. For how long? We are like helpless animals, caught by the leg, watching the walls being built around us. Freedom is being restricted, the shops are shutting, food, physical and intellectual, is becoming scarcer. And any hope of emerging from it this year is growing dim. This morning, we learned that from now on divorce is forbidden. Why do I object, Marshal? We were already prisoners of the occupying power, now we’ll also be our spouses’!

Also suppressed are the Écoles Normales as well as petits suisses, coeurs, double-crème, and generally all cheeses containing more than 44 per cent of fat. ‘Fancy’ bread is naturally suppressed. And it is forbidden to sell pure coffee. The monthly ration will consist of a third of real coffee and two-thirds substitute.

Vichy has the knack of making it appear that the restrictions are a punishment rather than dictated by circumstances. We shall no longer be sold fresh bread, and coffee grains will be mixed with acorns! For we enjoyed ourselves too much under the Third Republic, Pétain has said so; and pleasure degrades. The moralizing, reactionary, and petty bourgeois background of Pétain’s doctrine stinks. It makes us even more disgusted with defeat. Can’t we return to the land and to handicrafts without singing: ‘Prends Ton Fusil, Grégoire’? [a French folk song: ‘Take Your Rifle, Grégoire’]

Further Reading

Originally published in French as Journal a Quatre Mains (‘Journal with Four Hands‘), the sisters’ dual diary was translated into English by Humphrey Hare in 1965 and published by Appleton-Century as Diary in Duo. Copies are now tricky to track down, but one does exist at the Internet Archive.


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