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An American Library in Paris Filled With Heroes

In “The Paris Library,” Janet Skeslien Charles gives us Odile Souchet, a young French woman who in the winter of 1939 follows her love of literature straight into a position at the American Library in Paris.

Throughout the rest of the novel, we meet the rest of the library staff, the eccentric patrons, and the dangers that they, and Parisians in general, faced during the Nazi occupation. Part of the story is also set in the 1980s in Froid, Montana, where Odile lives after becoming a war bride.

If we read “The Paris Library” from beginning to end, with no peeking at the final pages, we may be shocked when we discover in the “Author’s Note” that what we assumed was fiction in regard to the American Library actually happened.

The Library’s heroic American director, Dorothy Reeder, really did face down intimidating visits from Nazi officials, negotiated an agreement to keep the library operating during the occupation, and remained at her post until 1941.

Her successor, Clara Longworth de Chambrun of Cincinnati, a French countess by marriage, continued the fight, allowing subscribers into the library even when it was ordered closed, and arranging for the surreptitious hand-delivery of books to patrons, including banned Jewish readers.

As reconstructed by Charles, below the surface of today’s thriving American Library in Paris is a harrowing tale of heroism, nobility of spirit, and the vital importance of literature to liberty and culture.

Let’s take a deeper dive.

What to Do With All the Books?

“Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux”: “After the darkness of war, the light of books.” From its founding, that has served as the motto of the American Library.

Epoch Times Photo
The old location of the American Library in Paris at 10 rue de l’Élysée. (Plemasson / CC BY-SA 4.0)

After America entered World War I, libraries across the country sent reading material overseas for those in uniform—more than a million and a half books by the war’s end. The idea of the American Library in Paris was born from the large collection of these books remaining in Europe after the armistice.

In 1920, Congress and the American Library Association joined to issue a charter whose purpose was to bring together under one roof works for English-speakers in France, the best that could be found in American literature, the arts, science, and history.

For more than a century, through political upheavals and financial difficulties, the American Library in Paris has endeavored to meet that goal of housing great and worthy books. It has also served as a gathering place for expatriates and refugees, with many writers and lovers of literature visiting the premises or subscribing to the Library’s services.

Edith Wharton was one of its first trustees. Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein contributed to the Library’s newsletter, “Ex Libris.” Writers from Thornton Wilder and Stephen Vincent Benét to Mary McCarthy, James Jones, and Irwin Shaw became members. Actress Olivia de Havilland, a long-time resident of Paris, was a library trustee, and, until her death in 2020, remained a devoted supporter.

Circumstances forced the library to relocate several times, but since 1964 it has stood on rue du Général Camou, a short walk away from the Eiffel Tower. In the past decade, the building has undergone extensive renovations, which included creating more study spaces, expanding the children’s department, and adding a new façade and a members’ lounge.

That membership consists of almost 5,000 subscribers, with annual fees per subscriber around $150. In 2019, the Library hosted over 290 events for children, and teens. With over 19,000 items in its collection, the library remains Continental Europe’s largest English-language lending library.

A Candle in a Dark Time

The American Library has done much good for the English-speaking community in Paris and for French-American relations, but it was surely in the days of the Nazi occupation of Paris that its light shone brightest.

Epoch Times Photo
One of the first trustees of the American Library in Paris, Edith Wharton as a young woman, circa 1889. (Public Domain)

The Library’s motto “After the darkness of war, the light of books” reflected the hopes of Europeans and Americans that the World War I truly would be “the war to end all wars.” When only 20 years later an even greater and more catastrophic war broke out, the Library’s motto might well have read “In the darkness of war, the light of books.”

We can read online some barebone accounts of the heroic measures taken by the staff to keep the library functioning and in use as war and oppression gripped the City of Lights. Dorothy Reeder, for example, founded the Soldiers’ Service, which from the outbreak of war in September 1939 until the fall of France in May 1940 shipped over 100,000 books to soldiers of different nationalities fighting the Germans. In a sentence or two, our online resources recount the battles fought by Reeder, the countess, and others of the library staff to maintain the Library’s services and to prevent its destruction.

To learn more about these people and events, however, and to experience vicariously the hardships and dangers they endured, we must turn to an object they risked their lives defending: a book.

Courage Undaunted

In 2010, as Charles relates in her “Author’s Note” to “The Paris Library,” she worked as the programs manager for the American Library. There, she first heard the stories about the heroism of the Library’s staff during the war.

Charles began researching those wartime staff members who would appear in her story: Miss Dorothy Reeder, who later worked for the Library of Congress; the bookkeeper Miss Wedd, who was sent to an internment camp but eventually returned to the library; the Russian émigré Boris Netchaeff, who was shot and wounded by the Gestapo; Clara Longworth de Chambrun, the countess, who was a Shakespeare scholar and novelist.

Even Hermann Fuchs, the German “Library Protector,” is real rather than imagined, and truly did help protect the library against the looting and theft the Nazis had employed elsewhere.

Epoch Times Photo
A reading room at the American Library in Paris circa 1927. (Plemasson / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Charles’s broader take on life in Paris during the war brings home the other challenges faced by these people. Parisians often went hungry. German soldiers patrolled the streets, erected barricades to check papers and identity, and made arbitrary arrests. French radio stations were rife with German propaganda.

Some French officials, including police officers, violated their conscience, arresting Jews and others, driving people from their homes and apartments, and obeying Nazi dictates, all the while proclaiming: “I’m only doing my job.”

Other Parisians were what the novel’s protagonist Odile Souchet calls “crows,” the men and women who informed on their neighbors to the police for such crimes as listening to BBC radio or reading certain books.

All of these details only deepen our appreciation for the bravery shown by these librarians.

Takeaway Impressions

History may not repeat itself, but the dead can whisper warnings from the grave to the living.

Though “The Paris Library” was drafted just before the COVID-19 crisis, some who read this story will find parallels, however weak, between the fear Parisians felt living under Nazi rule, the suppression of truth and the treacheries, and the lockdowns, propaganda, and bullying experienced by some Americans during the pandemic.

In the same vein, the novel gives us real people, ordinary people for the most part, who recognized the connections between books, liberty, and truth, and did their best to see that those links remained unsevered.

Like those men and women, in the last three years we have seen some Americans, many of whom were censored or fired from their jobs, step forward with suppressed information they regarded as true and with a bearing on our liberties. Like those librarians of Paris, they refused to give way to threats and intimidation.

Charles ends her “Author’s Note” with these words:

 “A friend said she believes that reading stories set in World War II, people like to ask themselves what they would have done. I think a better question to ask is what can we do now to ensure that libraries and learning are accessible to all and that we treat people with dignity and compassion.”

Let us hope that we never lose the courage to match those aspirations.

Epoch Times Photo
“The Paris Library”
follows Odile Soucher into a position at the American Library in Paris. (Atria Books)

‘The Paris Library: A Novel’
By Janet Skeslien Charles
Atria Books, Feb. 9, 2021
Hardcover; 368 pages

Jeff Minick

Jeff Minick lives and writes in Front Royal, Virginia. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.”

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