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WORLD WAR II

Preserved in time: WWII bunker hidden under Paris train station

It lies hidden deep beneath Paris's bustling Gare de l'Est railway station, its sprawling subterranean rooms and sparse furniture pristinely preserved if a little dusty.

Preserved in time: WWII bunker hidden under Paris train station
The entrance to the bunker at Gare de L'Est train station. AFP

Originally built a few years before World War II for luggage storage, the underground bunker was repurposed after war broke out.

French railway historian Clive Lamming said its 1939 overhaul was to provide “a place to retreat in case of an air attack” so staff could keep the trains running east towards Germany.

Leading this AFP reporter through a concrete air lock and heavy door to the shelter, he said: “The concern was gas.”

“We remembered World War I — a perfectly airtight place was needed,” he added.

With its three-metre (10-foot) thick concrete ceiling, it was designed for about 70 people to be able to take refuge in the small rooms of the  120-square-metre (1,300-square-foot) shelter.

But, in the end, the bunker never really saw any action — Paris was largely spared from air attacks during WWII, and there was little danger of poison gas.

After France's defeat in 1940 and Nazi occupation, the bunker was requisitioned by the Germans and traces of their presence remain, including a sign that reads “Notausgang” (emergency exit).

“In my opinion, it hasn't been finished,” said Lamming, as a high-speed TGV train loudly rumbled overhead.





'Sleeping Beauty'

Today, few of the thousands of travellers passing through the busy central Paris station will likely have any inkling of the time capsule under their
feet.

Just a discreet trapdoor on the platform opens up to reveal a staircase leading down to the bunker, which is not publicly accessible except on certain
occasions.

“For 80 years, it has been 'Sleeping Beauty',” Lamming said. “Everything is in mint condition from 1939.”

Entering the machine room is like stepping back into the 1930s, with the old contraptions, dials, copper piping and Bakelite handles only in need of a
good polish.

The room also has two bicycles. If the power went out, ventilation would have been provided by batteries — if they failed, anyone sheltering in the
bunker was to hop on the bikes and pedal to circulate fresh air.

Other rooms also feel frozen in time, like the telephone exchange with its tangle of wires, but most are more spartan, furnished with a few period tables and chairs where staff could have directed the train traffic above.

The shelter was designed to host 72 workstations, and some yellowing documents remain. There is even a bed.

Post-war, with its purpose now passed, it gradually took on an almost mythic status among employees of SNCF, France's national train operator.

“The aim is to preserve it,” especially as the shelters built in other stations at the time have all disappeared, said the SNCF branch in charge of stations.

Chances to visit are rare as the bunker was not built for large crowds but it does open up for annual Heritage Days events.

HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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