I have had a fascination with WWII and the Nazi regime for a while now. It is such an interesting study to see what people will do to survive. How quickly we turn on each other when our lives and the lives of our children are at stake! How quickly we learn to treat beloved friends and neighbors not as people but as things. People quickly turn from being human to something less than an animal; treated cruelly and inexcusably.
In my study of the spread of Nazism, I read the book Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba. Her book skims the surface of the Nazi occupation in France, but while reading it, I came across Sebba’s short biography of Catherine Dior. (Even though it covers broad topics, Les Parisiennes is an excellent book about finding your identity in difficult situations.)
Catherine Dior was the sister of the great French fashion designer Christian Dior. He named his famous perfume, Miss Dior, after her. This seems like a normal thing for a brother to do to honor his sister. However, the reason for this runs deeper.
I am going to quote heavily from Sebba because she tells Catherine’s story better than I can.
From Les Pariesiennes:
[Speaking about the launch of Miss Dior perfume in February 1947] Quite possibly, however, no one at the show was aware of who she was nor of the dangerous resistance work she had been engaged in for three years from 1941 until her capture. Her story has only recently become known, making headline news following the arrest in 2011 of Dior’s then creative director, John Galliano, for alleged anti-Semitic remarks recorded in a phone video. At that point the company decided it was time to remind people of ‘the values of the House of Dior’ by talking of Catherine.
Catherine herself rarely talked of her involvement in the Massif Central unit of a resistance group who was gathering information about the Nazi and German armies. Sebba says of this group:
… ‘this elite organization of more than 2,000 agents—which suffered enormous losses’, the group ‘was later credited as one of the most dynamic intelligence movements in Europe. By the end of 1942 most of its leaders had been killed by the Gestapo.’
Catherine was perusaded to join at the age of 25 by her married boyfriend, who was also an agent of the group. Catherine also had a friend named Liliane Dietlin who was also heavily involved. Catherine would deliver information between sectors, as much as she possibly could and even memorizing some of it. She would stay with her brother in his apartment in Paris. In 1944 she was captured by the Gestapo and, “arrested, tortured and deported on the final train from Paris on 15 August to Ravensbruck, where she worked in German munitions factories in notoriously atrocious conditions.” (Seeba, 327).
Just a note here about Ravensbruck: It is the largest concentration camp you’ve never heard of. It was the only camp just for women, and was kept secret even from most Germans because the Nazis knew that Germans would be outraged by the camp’s existence. Originally built to house special and important prisoners (the niece of Charles DeGaulle, the sister of Fiorello LaGuardia and Elisabeth, Baroness de Rothschild were all prisoners here), it eventually deteriorated into one of the most brutal concentration camps with some of the worst conditions. If you are interested in more about this camp and the amazing, strong women who survived it, please read the book Ravensbruck by Sarah Helm. Most of these stories have not been shared until recently, because like Catherine Dior, most women didn’t talk about their experiences.
Christian immediately worked to get his sister freed, but his influence did not get her out of Ravensbruck. She wasn’t released until April 1945. Sebba says:
When Catherine returned to Paris a month later she was emaciated and ill after eleven months of starving rations and harsh treatment. But she was one of the lucky ones who recovered relatively swiftly.
She finished her life as an exotic flower dealer with her married boyfriend, Herve des Charbonneries.
In addition to having an iconic perfume named for her, she received a Criox de guerre, which is normally only given to those in the armed forces; the Croix du combattant volontaire de la Resistance; the Croix du combatant; and, from Britain, the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom.
Get out there and buy yourself a bottle of Miss Dior and feel as empowered as the woman it was named for.