Chapter One

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Paris, June 1940

The showroom of the Parfumerie Félicie was on rue de la Paix, in the fashionable heart of Paris, but the offices, the laboratory, and the bottling operation, were in gritty Asnieres, a northwestern suburb.

Rudolf Bamberger, 31, a German perfume chemist short and thin with a face that hinted at his Ashkenazi forbearers, and often etched in worry, was leaving behind for the last time the gray three-story stone house with its sprawling attic and mansard roof in which he had labored for the last four years.

He wondered, as he shifted the Citroen's gears, whether the concern would survive the war and, if it did, whether his co-workers would manage to keep their jobs, the invading horde that was the German army marching on Paris and only weeks away. There was Regis, the older brilliant, but excitable little perfumier from Grasse—the "nose" at the fragrance house; Suzanne, the quiet Sorbonne chemistry student who, after her morning classes, worked in the afternoons transcribing the latest formulas and procuring the different essences Regis demanded: rose, hyacinth, cyclamen, jasmine, lilac, lily of the valley, lime, vanilla, cedar, sand, musk, and the many others. And also under the attic roof, Madame Félicie herself, the namesake proprietor who inhabited a large room with a porthole window that overlooked the meandering, somber-looking Seine and, in the distance, the stark Eiffel Tower rising high above the city.

There were others on the floors below, some busy in the basement operating the antique bottling machinery, while on the floors above women kept records of moneys spent and gained, devised alluring, often evocative names for the latest essence before choosing a delicate glass or crystal flacon to be placed inside of the parfumerie's distinctive little rose-colored cardboard boxes detailed with feminine ornamentations, the packaging displaying the name: Parfumerie Félicie—Paris.

But it was in the attic where the magic was made. And here Madame Félicie wanted at all times to be close at hand on those occasions when Regis might announce he had formulated a new elixir with exciting possibilities. Rushing past a startled Giselle, her secretary, he would barge into Madame's office, demand her wrist and proceed to squeeze the rubber cap on the glass eyedropper filled with an amber liquid and deposit a few drops. "Voila, Madame," he would say, with a sounding triumphant flourish.

Rubbing her wrists together, Madame would wave her arms about in a dramatic fashion back and forth to vaporize the aroma and, after a few agonizing moments during which she sniffed and inhaled, a critical expression on her face would render her opinion that was always final.

Rudolf had made arrangements to take a leave of absence—perhaps for the duration of the war. He was the only Jew in the firm and Madame had understood at once. He had been loyal and talented though, she admitted, because the business was young, underpaid. "Don't stay," she beseeched him. "Go, you must go. Leave Paris. With the Germans almost here it will be too dangerous if you don't."

And he learned his position was secure if he chose to return. As a gesture of goodwill Madame wanted him to have a flacon of the house's most expensive perfume for his wife, Aleece. "I added a small bonus to your final paycheck," she said, trying to elevate his spirits for now he was choked with emotion. "It's not much—" She flung her arms out, drew him to her and embraced him, her hands patting him on his shoulder blades before whispering. "Take care of yourselves."

That afternoon, he thought about an unsettling future at war as he drove up the short block that fronted the house, the Citroen rumbling over the uneven cobblestones before stopping at the familiar intersection. He glanced a final time at the storefront of the local wine shop he had never stepped inside but had always planned to, and now probably never would, before turning the wheel over to join the syrupy traffic moving into Paris.

Alongside the Seine that he glimpsed now and again behind the granite quays that lined the embankment, he spotted men casting their lines, while others further along loomed over their easels, their paintbrushes in hand. He drove south across town, his left arm propped up on the windowsill, a Gitane between his fingers, reflecting upon how the late afternoon thunderstorm sky, with its low scuttling putty colored clouds, seemed to reflect the menacing mood settling over the city.

The threat of the impending German occupation seemed more real than ever, but for many, including Rudolf and his French wife, who were Jews, it was a foregone conclusion, leaving them with little time to contemplate about how to save themselves. Uppermost in his mind as he drove home was the worrisome rumor that when Paris was occupied the police would be ordered by the Nazis—as had already occurred in Holland and Belgium—to betray all Jews. Those in France, it was expected, would suffer a similar fate, or so screamed the headlines, the opinion pages, and the fast-talking and excitable newsreaders on the radio. Even without the press there was no denying the outright frenzy gripping the capital.

What had once been a normal and smooth going home flow of traffic had become an everyday traffic jam, and that afternoon it was no different. Roads out of Paris were congested day and night with the hordes of the privileged determined to flee, those with country houses to the outlying provinces, or to the south of France, while the others—the ones who could afford to leave everything behind—made for the Atlantic ports in hopes of reaching neutral Lisbon or the United States. In town it was being reported numerous shops were already bare as everyone was hoarding supplies. And at Rudolf's neighborhood boulangerie croissants and madeleines—his favorites—were being rationed in order to conserve flour.


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