by Jean-Paul Sartre
Translated by Paul Ben-Itzak
First published in the August 31, 1944 edition of Combat, the heretofore underground newspaper edited by Albert Camus.
PARIS — Today I’ll tell you about the battles as I myself observed them, on the Quai des Grands-Augustins, rounding out my reports with the eye-witness accounts of reliable friends. Perhaps the battle had other, broader aspects. But in this constrained strip of terrain, delimited at the east by the place Saint-Michel and at the west by the rue Dauphine, it unfolded with precision and clarity.
The initial skirmishes began Saturday at about 3 a.m.. Since the previous day, we’d seen a steady stream of cars, trucks, and tanks. Beginning at 3 a.m., in small groups, men in shirt-sleeves nonchalantly crossed the road and installed themselves on the river-bank. Few guns, scattered rifles, one or two grenades, revolvers, no ammunition. The orders were clear: Kill a German, take his gun, use the gun to capture a rifle, with the rifle commandeer a car, with the car take a machine-gun and a tank. Among the incredulous resistants, more than one person thought this plan was hilarious. And yet, there before my very eyes, it worked. One of my friends fought with a musket requisitioned from an antique shop. Though he didn’t hang on to it for long; in less than half an hour, a member of the F.F.I. (Interior French Forces), unarmed himself, tore it from his hands: “Give it to me, I shoot better than you.”
A museum artifact
Another man, a simple museum conservateur, wanted to fight. He went out in the street without a gun and fighters from the F.F.I. told him, “Hide yourself, and when we take down a truck, rush in and take a rifle.” He waited three hours, but no trucks arrived. Fed up with waiting, he returned to his museum, broke into a display case, and stole — the first theft of his life — a superb Mauser which reigned between a billy-club and a boomerang. Returning proudly to the scene, he announced, “Here’s the gun, now give me some bullets.” The F.F.I. soldiers cracked, “We don’t have any bullets. But because you brought something to the party, here’s a gun. You’ll have to get by with that.” And yet the ammunition was there, chez the Germans, it just needed to be taken.
And the ammunition, they took. They hid out on the river-bank and in the stairway off the place Saint-Michel which leads to the Beltway. In the windows of the buildings lining the quay, hundreds of spectators waited in silence. Then the first German truck drove by, headed towards the East. Tall blonde men, handsome enough, stood in the rear, suspecting nothing. The Parisians, leaning on their balconies, knew that all they had to do was make a slight movement, utter a single call to save these men from certain death. But this call, they DID NOT, they COULD NOT launch. They let the truck roll up towards its destiny, with the vague feeling of observing a tragic, mortal fete — a corrida. Because in the corridas as well, one awaits, leaning out over the arena, the fatal death of a beast in the sun, the “death in the after-noon.” Suddenly they heard several explosions, the horrible squealing of brakes, and then the truck drove by again at an insane speed, the driver had turned around, but behind him, the tall blonde Prussians were spread out pell-mell — he was bringing the dead to another gate of Paris.
The blow had missed; the ammunition escaped. But soon the look-outs signaled more cars. The lookouts were everywhere: on the roof, in the windows or on bicycles in the street. From far away were heard their strong voices which resonated bizarrely in the empty street: “Okay, boys, here comes a Boche.”
A moment of silence, then the far-off sound of a motor; everyone held his breath and then the truck appeared, like the bull emerging from his pen. This time, the resistants aimed at the tires. The truck was hit, it stopped dead in its tracks.
The Germans started firing; the F.F.I. combatants approached, with no protection, and also fired. A German tossed a grenade which failed to explode; an F.F.I. combatant ran under the fire, seized the grenade at the risk of exploding with it and tossed it into the Seine. Machine-gun fire. The spectators returned sagely to their rooms; already the bullets were whizzing by their ears. After five minutes, silence. The heads re-emerged at the windows, followed by an immense uproar; the Germans were all dead.
From every doorway, from the corner of the rue Dauphine to the rue des Grands-Augustins, hordes of women and children fell upon the immobilized vehicle. But the members of the F.F.I. headed them off, forbidding looting. All they themselves took was ammunition. But the blow was fruitful, with a bounty of grenades, rifles, and machine-guns. Then one of them took the wheel, the others pushed the car towards the river-bank; in a few instants, every trace of the battle had disappeared, the resistants were hidden at their posts, the trap ready to work.
At present, the combatants, better armed, are equal to the occupiers. They’re there on the roof of the Palais de Justice, on the river-banks, on the street-corners. Others politely present themselves to a building’s concierge and request permission to install themselves in a vacant apartment. But there are no empty apartments. “Go over to no. 53,” the concierge tells them. “The ground-floor office is unoccupied.”
Below us, a volunteer, all alone, stands at the window with a rifle. The cars drive by. These are the typical battles, with machine guns, with grenades. Across from us, on the quay de la Mégisserie, one of our friends sees all the large windows of his salon burst into little pieces. He’s lucky, considering. The following day, he receives a telephone call: a lady who’s in a clinic where she’s just been operated on asks him to check on her husband, a retired captain who lives in the house next-door and has no telephone. My friend goes down, taking advantage of a moment of calm, and knocks on the door of the captain. No response. He alerts the concierge, who informs him that she’s not seen her lodger for 36 hours. They break down the door. The captain is there, below the window, killed with a bullet in the forehead.
Meanwhile, the battle continues. On the rue de la Huchette, the military record-books of the Germans pile up on the sidewalks. Women rifle through them, without hate. ON THIS DAY the crowd is without hate; we’ll see tomorrow that this is not always the case. One of them says: “We should send them to their families.” Between the pages of the booklets, post-cards are inserted; they’re in color: flowers, beautiful girls blowing kisses, moonlight. A bit of blood occasionally stains them.
A car is announced. At once, with an admirable rapidity, men sporting the armbands of the Resistance block the access to the quays to passersby, shuttle the women under the gates. New battle. The occupants of the car, two Germans, fight them off for an hour with a courage which inspires respect, and I can’t prevent myself from thinking about how they must feel, thus abandoned in this ardent heat, in this city yesterday so routine to them and today so unrecognizable, bloody and hate-filled, with its innumerable traps. These two escape; while they’re fighting, their driver repairs the car; it suddenly makes an about-face and takes off; they’ll be killed elsewhere, without doubt, at the gates or at the corner of the Odeon, or at the Place de la Republique.
But already, another car stops on the Pont-Neuf bridge. Shots are fired. Suddenly, on a supporting arc under the Pont-Neuf, we spot a small black spot glued to the white stone. It’s an F.F.I fighter climbing slowly up with a bag of grenades; now he’s running on the exterior ledge of the bridge, barely bending himself. Now he stops, one hand hanging on to the balustrade; with the other, he tosses the grenade. A brief explosion. The firing stops. The resistant clings to the balustrade with his legs, others dash towards the bridge, guns in hand. Suddenly a rapid shadow passes between two arcs, it’s a German who’s plunged into the water. We see his head, round and black in the center of enormous circles, then a police boat detaches itself from the bank and comes to fish him out. He’ll join his comrades in the makeshift jail.
Calm. Men pass by on bicycles. “Well, boys? Need ammunition? Hang on, it’s coming.” F.F.I. cars race out from the Palais de Justice, careening on two wheels, to come to the rescue of comrades on the place de l’Observatoire or Gobelins. One of my friends profits from the pause to take a little stroll in the neighborhood. He runs into a hardy, peaceful bloke leaning up against a door, a bottle of gas in one hand, a grenade and a rifle in the other; he’s a tank-taker.
“And with just what do you take them?” my friend asks, surprised.
“With THIS. We toss the bottle at the tank and the gas spreads. We toss the grenade and the gas is set afire. The tank burns, the occupants flee, and we take the rifle to mow them down.”
They’d taken, on Sunday, a “tiger” with these improvised methods. One thinks of pre-historic hunts, or of the natives taking a Wooly Mammoth with sharpened stones.
A car on fire
This night, they burn a truck on the quay, across from Notre-Dame. The flames rise higher than the apartment houses, the entire cathedral turns red, more luminous than during the big peacetime ceremonies. The next morning, I watch them burn a car. It appears suddenly, black and powerful, like an Andalusian bull, near the Gilbert bookstore. It spins by at high-speed, forbidding and all-powerful, sure of its destiny, rising up on its right, on its left, splashes of detonations, as if it were rolling through puddles of water on a rainy day. It escapes all the salvos, it approaches us and then, bruskly, at no. 51, it makes a huge lurch and smashes against the iron curtain of a bookstore. Almost immediately, enormous flames spurt out from the broken windows. An atrocious voice starts screaming: “Kamerad! Grâce! Grâce!” Ten F.F.I. combatants approach, carefully, like the bull-ring madrilla surrounding the bull in the throes of death and watching to decide if it’s time to give him the coup de grâce. The voice howls lamentably: “Kamerad!” Some resistants scream: “No comrades! Let him roast like a pig.” Others insist that he be finished off. He keeps screaming. Suddenly, a tall young man, skinny and dark, in shirt-sleeves, sinks to his knees behind the car and aims at something through the flames. In this instant, there’s something horrible and noble. The young man aims without rushing, he resembles, by the slow precaution of his gestures, a torero waiting for the most propitious moment for the final thrust. The shot parts, the screams stop, but the car continues burning for a long time afterwards.
— Jean-Paul Sartre
(To be continued….)