I Was A War Child/Helene Gaillet
At 3 Rue des Saints Pères on the Left Bank, Maman became a renowned art dealer during and after the war. She was heartbroken when she had to sell the gallery in 1946 when we moved to Larchmont, New York.
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PARIS ART GALLERY
At the end of summer 1941, having left us in Brittany under the kind auspices of the Mother Superior and her flock of devoted nuns, my parents continued to live in occupied Paris in du Plessix’s grandiose apartment on the third floor of 6 Rue de Longchamps, facing the quiet sloping street in the front and the busy courtyard in the back.
Maids and cooks would dump their garbage in dark gray bins and take time out to chat, their voices echoing around the walls past the sixth floor up to the clouds. Rubbing their chafed hands on rough cotton aprons, they complained about everything, compared notes about their employers, commiserated about their own families far away in the country, and then went back to their jobs.
Free of children or housekeeping responsibilities since Arthur and Léontine took care of everything, my parents enjoyed a lot less pressure and even some measure of quality of life. While still complicated, provisioning requirements were minimal for just the four of them and so much easier in this quartier. Whatever came on the table satisfied them easily.
Often they rode their bikes over to see Bon Papa at Rue de la Trémoille, where Hortense surpassed herself in turning bland ingredients into delicious concoctions. Balancing leftovers on handlebars, my parents returned home quickly by the small streets before curfew.
Nonetheless, Maman was miserable knowing that to avoid a repeat performance of the terrible winter of 1940, her children had to stay put. Only thirty-seven years old, Maman began to think she should acquire some kind of occupation. Paris was at half-mast yet safe in so many ways that there must be some work she would find fulfilling. She had learned much running the show in Mimizan, surely there was someone, something, where she could apply her savoir faire to some benefit. With many empty days and nights she grew restless, especially as Papa was away on business much of the time. When he was there, she was as impassioned as she had been in the first days of their marriage; the strength of their love was so profound it couldn’t be plumbed or punctured.
On weekends when Paris was somnolent and Papa wasn’t working, they whipped around on bicycles in the deserted city that was practically free of motorized traffic. They loved ferreting through semidark antique shops and art galleries on the Left Bank. Wobbling on their bikes around the small cobbled streets of the old quartiers one Saturday, they stumbled on a sign A Vendre (For Sale) posted discreetly in the bottom corner of the window of a small gallery. They stopped and, hands cupped on the window to shield the glare, they saw misshapen piles of artworks strewn around a somewhat dilapidated shop. Stepping back, looking up through years of dirt, they saw a dark green sign with gold lettering: Galerie André, 3 Rue des Saints Pères. They looked at each other, entered the gloomy space, and unknowingly changed the course of their lives.
The weary proprietor showed signs of frustration as he described his situation. His story was no different than many others’. His mistress had been in charge, but she had died a few months back. He was leery of hiring anyone new. He still went to a boring day job as a bank clerk on weekdays, so could open only on Saturdays.
Maman started to daydream.
This man confided to my parents that he would gladly sell the gallery and retire if he could only find a buyer. He talked about the stock he had accumulated for the past thirty years. More than three thousand drawings, etchings, prints, and lithographs were asleep in cardboard portfolios, with prices that seemed ridiculously low. There were piles of these resting against the walls, on tables, on the desk, in the back room, haphazardly placed in such a way as to make it impossible to even sell one if he wanted to. In other words, the place was a shambles and needed an entire makeover.
Maman’s excitement grew as they began to look through some of the pictures. There was artwork of every kind, from the worst to the best.
“Who would be interested in this kind of business at a time like this?” he complained.
His question hit her like a lightning bolt. It was her eureka moment, and from that day on she could talk about nothing else. She was convinced that this forlorn art gallery was the perfect remedy to pull her out of her loneliness, and she made it clear to Papa that she would use her own money to acquire it.
The following Saturday morning, on their bikes from Rue de Longchamps to Rue des Saints Pères, through the Trocadéro, along the right bank of the Seine, flying over the Pont des Arts, my parents covered the two miles in record time, fueled by resolution. Breathless and flushed, they sat down with the owner to get more details and to inquire about his terms.
The owner was taken by surprise. He never expected to see that eager young couple again. He never even asked why my parents were interested, or what background in art had led them to want his gallery. Making a fast deal was foremost on his mind. He presented an irresistible bargain with very reasonable terms. He was anxious to retire. He needed only a little capital to help cushion his bachelor life-style, unencumbered by family or children. He wanted 100,000 francs for the business, including the lease transfer, and 50,000 for his stock.
Ever the wary executive, Papa had reservations about the value of the stock, which looked like a mess, even though the asking price was ridiculously low. He rummaged through some of it again and agreed to buy the whole lot at 40 percent off the list price. To his surprise, this turned out to be quite a bit more than the original asking price but, without haggling, he paid the required sum.
Maman was ecstatic. Right in the middle of the war she became the proud owner of an art gallery a few steps from the Seine, on the Left Bank of Paris, which cost her all of 400,000 francs ($4,000 at the time), an inconceivable deal.
Maman couldn’t believe her luck. Her mind veered quickly from somber news of the war and worries about the children, which were always tormenting her, and turned her focus to her gallery. She quickly hired a couple of day workers from the neighborhood and, with an innate sense of creativity, gave the place a modern, clean, and stylish look. Having never signed a check in her life, and with not the slightest notion of accounting, she went headlong into the ownership of a business and, somehow, succeeded brilliantly.
Her first working tool was an eraser. She carefully removed prices marked on works of art and increased them appreciably. Without revealing her new calling, she found out what their current values might be by visiting other galleries. She said that often she didn’t even erase a number but would just add a zero at the end, or even two. She had a genius for switching from etchings and lithographs to paintings and aquarelles, discovering young painters and changing her exhibitions often so she could expect a bigger turnover.
At 10 Avenue de Messine, in the prestigious eighth arrondissement, was a renowned dealer, Louis Carré, who had founded a first-class gallery in 1938. Known for representing and exhibiting modern masters — Gris, Klee, Matisse, Calder, Léger, Delaunay, Kupka, and Picasso — Carré also showed the works of Jean Bazaine, Maurice Estève, Charles Lapicque, and Jacques Villon, lesser known artists at the time. He was considered one of the great Parisian art dealers. Papa knew him well from handling difficult requests for deliveries of special papers.
Just a few months earlier, Carré wanted to print a limited edition of lithographs by Raoul Dufy on rare and hard-to-get art paper that Papa had been able to procure. As a way of thanking him, Carré offered to put Maman in touch with promising painters who did not yet deserve their consecration with an exhibit in his own gallery. She launched a few, while making her own discoveries: Dubuffet, who was to become very famous, Jean Dufy, the brother of Raoul, whose following was growing steadily, and several others. These artists became the beacon that brought fame to the Galerie André before long.
In those days, some Parisians had quite a bit of disposable money but had trouble finding safe ways to spend it. In a time of war, spending on luxuries was highly distasteful and suspect. Artworks and jewelry were considered safe private investments. If you had the means to find food first, often on the black market that was thriving behind the back of the Germans, then you could luxuriate in an oil painting or a diamond bracelet and keep them hidden easily. Maman was an expert at keeping secrets and, being a dealer, had every right to strap a painting to her bicycle to drop it off “somewhere,” no questions asked. Her books showed sales to names like Smith, Brown, and Jones.
In the back of the gallery, beyond the ground floor space open to the public, was a little office leading to a toilet and, beyond, a closed door. A tiny stairwell behind this door led six steps up to a small loft and bath, with only one window on the courtyard, therefore very dark. Maman fixed it up very simply with a desk, a chair, an armchair, a swing-arm lamp for both, a single bed, and, to break up the monotony, a colorful Moroccan rug. Except for the rug, it was just like a monastery room. Her intention was to be able to sleep there should she work too late to ride her bike home after curfew and to save time commuting back and forth when Papa was away.
But this room wasn’t to be her cocoon of safety. One day soon after she opened her doors, a tall, stooped, skinny man walked in with some paintings under his arm. He was dejected, tattered, and looked gaunt and desperate.
“Madame,” he said, “help me. Please…”
Moving him away from the front door toward the back of the gallery, she let him line up his paintings against the wall, while he said, “I will give you these…” His voice quavered and his eyes were alarmed and weary like a frightened animal. Maman was at once repelled and touched by his condition while very attracted to his art.
“And your name is?”
“Non, I don’t have a name anymore. I have no family.” He trailed off.
“Are you hungry?” Maman asked maternally. The haggard young man paused for a moment, then quickly nodded, his head down, looking at the floor.
“Please, sit down,” Maman said softly, pointing to the back office. The young man hesitated, his eyes darting back and forth in fear and suspicion.
He finally lifted his head up and looked at Maman.
“It’s OK. You’re safe here. You can trust me,” she said. The young artist finally followed her back to the office. He winced when Maman turned on the light. She turned it off with a sigh.
“Perhaps it’s best to keep the light off. Eyes are everywhere these days,” Maman said and nodded to the desk chair. He slowly sat down, heaving a sigh of relief as if he’d been standing for years.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, walking to the front of the gallery, drawing the nightshades, and locking the doors. She hesitated, it was still early, someone might question her closing at this time, but then she firmly flipped the sign to read FERMÉ on the street side and glided back to her unexpected guest. She quickly sliced some bread and a small wedge of cheese, adding half a tomato. She walked the small plate back to him.
“It’s not much, but…” she began to say when the young man quickly grabbed it and began to devour the food ravenously, licking it from his soot-crusted fingers.
“Merci, ah, merci Madame,” he repeated, muffled by mouthfuls of bread and cheese. The sight of him so helpless strengthened Maman’s resolve to help him.
She learned he was a Polish Jew on the run from the army and from the Gestapo, a target for raids by German soldiers and French police. She asked again but he wouldn’t give her his name, said it was too dangerous, had lost track of his family. She feared the repercussions that could befall our family if she helped him; she could be shot on the spot if discovered. She knew she should just give him some money for the paintings and let him out in the street. She had relatives who were prisoners of war at that very moment and thought of them. He looked so forlorn and lonely, her mind whirling with apprehensions, but eventually her decision was made though it went against the tide of safety.
All his answers to her questions were no. No food, no room, no money, no relatives, no one. He was truly a fugitive with nothing. She gave him some money for the paintings, which she deemed were quite good, and in an act of folly and faith, she also offered him the studio as a hidden shelter. He moved in with not much more than what he was wearing on his back and slept for hours that first day. She told me much later how his presence elated and scared her to the same degree, like having an illicit affair. But once embarked on saving him, she could never change her mind.
Little by little, her life took on an unusual rhythm of exhilaration and anxiety. Strict rules were set for his safety. She showed him an emergency exit through the courtyard and instructed him, “You must never go out in the street. If you smoke, blow it out the window but keep the shade down so people around the courtyard can’t see you from their windows. Don’t smoke when there are servants in the courtyard, they would notice right away and set off an alarm thinking it might be a fire. If you need something, you must write a note and slip it out under the door. You must never come out unless I knock on the door.” They established a knock-knock code. He spoke good French and that was helpful. He readily agreed to all her conditions; with her he felt safe for the first time in months.
Maman’s exhilaration at saving a life was tremendous, but her anxiety intensified. She was hiding a Jew from both the Germans and her husband, who she knew would harshly reprove her. She snitched some cigarettes from Papa as they were found only on the black market and sold only to men. She brought food to the artist that he would consume cold and return the plate immaculate, as if he had licked off every last crumb. She scoured the occasional church jumble sale for a sweater, a shirt, underwear, a pair of pants, to make him more comfortable.
Thus she fell into an unusual pattern of running the gallery up front, dealing with her artists, new friends, visitors, making sales, going to openings, becoming a successful Parisian art dealer, and, on the darker side, making sure her fugitive was alive, comfortable, entertained with newspapers and magazines, while patiently waiting for deliverance.
This fragile relationship held steady for almost a year, from the fall of 1941 to July 1942, without any mishaps. This was a miracle considering his close quarters, her multitude of activities, and raids for Jews in every corner of the city. No one ever denounced him because no one ever knew of his existence.
While Papa worked hard at the office, he was relieved that Maman thrived at Galerie André, until the day he found her filching cigarettes and she confessed about the perilous arrangement with the painter. He was infuriated about her dangerous position. How she ever got the nerve to hide a Polish Jewish painter escaping from the claws of the Nazis he’d never know. The thought of how she wavered for months before telling him enraged him. Years later, Papa admitted that part of him always knew that Maman had more courage and heart than he would ever know. But then, faced with a fait accompli, he had to accept the poor man’s presence while his concerns about the situation kept him from ever broaching the subject.
Papa simply refused to talk about him, fearing the echo of his voice might carry to the nearest Nazi, who would arrest them. It was impossible to think of the consequences that would have befallen Maman, the family, their children, should she have been caught by a patrol canvassing the streets. Papa would describe the situation later with disdain draped in so much love and pride for Maman’s bravery. He said she had a beauty of spirit and a certain presence of character that he could not transcend while it always seemed to protect her.
Without warning, this precarious balance was shattered one day in July, when the artist was attracted by an advertisement in one of the old newspapers scattered on his floor. Men’s shoes were on sale at a very advantageous price only a few blocks away. The money from selling his paintings was burning in his pocket and cramps were hurting his feet. These shoes had to be his. Exactly in the way I had been drawn to that mushroom bollard, he couldn’t help himself. He stared and stared at those shoes in print and eventually succumbed to their appeal.
Maman had not arrived yet that morning. He broke the rules. He left through the emergency exit and, quickly crossing the courtyard, turned south down the street toward Boulevard St. Germain. His collar turned up, his hat down on his face, he tried to make himself invisible. But transparency is intangible; just like magic, it disappears.
His tall, lanky body was visible to anyone nearby. His luck turned when a French police patrol, always on the lookout for fugitives, stopped him.
“Are your papers in order?” they asked.
He could not show any papers and was arrested. He had gone out just when raids were more intense than usual that July as there was a quota to fill for arresting Jews. Nazis strictly supervised the French police in various districts of Paris, during which more than four thousand stateless and foreign Jews were arrested that month. Even more devastating was the fact that he was reading an old newspaper. Had he had a more current issue, he would have known about the intensified raids and certainly would have stayed in his hideout.
Somehow Maman got word he was being held in the internment camp of Drancy, in a northeastern suburb of Paris. Built by the government in the late 1930s, this camp of dreadful high-rise residential apartment buildings was poetically called “The Silent City.” The Germans had requisitioned it in 1940, thrown out all the residents, mostly poor blue-collar workers, and set it up as a detention center to hold “undesirables” until their deportation. Without Papa’s knowledge, again, Maman took the grave risk of going on her bicycle to bring the artist some care packages— not just once, but twice. Soon he was deported to Auschwitz and was never heard from again.
Maman was lucky and blessed to avoid any kind of retribution from the police. The artist never denounced her and, bit by bit, with gloom in her heart, she erased all traces of his existence, keeping only one of his paintings for herself. On the order of Papa, unimaginably upset at her for placing the safety of a stranger over the family, she followed the trend of all Paris and closed down the gallery to come to Saint-Servan for the month of August.
By September the whole thing had blown over. Keeping his memory in her heart, Maman carried on as if this interlude had never happened. The Galerie André was for her an excellent occupation, a full-time job, a fascinating learning curve, and the center of her life while we children were under safe care elsewhere. With a very low overhead, she brought in an excellent increase in revenue for the household. A year later, at the end of 1943, she was proud to prove to Papa, statements in hand, that her profits had that year surpassed his income.
They sold the gallery after the war for 3.5 million francs to a Madame Ducret, who knew nothing about art and shortly had to let it go to an expert, who soon restored its reputation under the name of Galerie Framont. That storefront has retained its clean-cut prewar appearance that, with an occasional coat of paint, looks exactly as it did when Maman owned it.
About the author:
Hélène Gaillet de Neergaard is a self-taught photographer and artist born in France and raised in Larchmont and New York City. Her passion for photography developed early when she used her babysitting money to purchase her first camera at the age of 14. After successful careers in advertising and public relations, she was able to go freelance and turned to professional photography in her mid-thirties. In a field where she quickly excelled, it didn’t take her long to leap over boundaries in her ability to explore beyond the limits of cameras and films.
Her photographic archives have been acquired by the HILLWOOD ART MUSEUM on the C. W. POST CAMPUS of LONG ISLAND UNIVERSITY which exhibited a retrospective of her work September to December 2008. She is also painting in watercolors and acrylics, creates conceptual art pieces and writes books on various subjects. She lives in New York City and Naples, Florida.
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