Chapter 9: Paris Occupied
Maria heard the doorbell ring. Katie and Ella were in a slight panic. Katie explained with a trembling voice that she had tried to call all of her friends, but no one answered, so fearing that everyone had left the city, she had instructed Ella to call the American Embassy.
Ella said that the American Embassy was surprised that I was still in the city because the entire government had evacuated and called for everyone else to do the same yesterday. The reason? The German Army would be in Paris in a matter of hours!
We had been so wrapped up in our lives, uninterested in what was happening on the far side of Europe that we hadn’t heard the news or talked to anyone who had heard the news that the Germans were planning to attack France.
“Are you certain?” I asked.
“Of course we are certain! The city has been evacuated and we are still here. We must go in a hurry,” snapped Ella.
I instructed Maria to pack the clothes while I retrieved our papers from the wine cellar. Within an hour Maria and I were in our car following Katie and Ella in their car. I asked myself: how could we have been so oblivious to current events to allow this to happen?
The highway was crowded with autos, bicycles, and people on foot; thousands of refugees jammed the road ahead of us for two hundred miles. We crept along the road, hardly any faster than the pedestrians; in fact, some pedestrians would pass us, and then we would pass them again over and over, for miles.
The sun had disappeared from the sky for an hour or so when the cars ahead of us began to blow their horns and most quickly swerved off the road into ditches and trees; some overturned. Directly ahead of us, Katie jerked her car off to the side of the road, so I followed in turn. Within seconds I saw the reason for the erratic behavior. A huge plane was bearing down on the cars, flames tracing the path of the deadly rounds from the plane to the trapped cars below. The road was all but emptied, except for a few cars that contained motionless figures.
Soon we heard the onward rush of many motors. The first to reach us were the German motorcycle troops. One politely instructed us to go back to Paris. Katie replied that we wanted to continue on to Nice, but the trooper repeated himself, this time very convincingly. Katie remarked later that he had spoken with excellent French.
We turned the cars around and drove back to Paris. Along the way, Katie and Ella wanted to stop at a roadside inn. The ladies waited in the car while I went inside, only to learn that there was no room. Upon hearing this, Katie went inside to ask the innkeeper for a glass of tea. I felt as though we were close enough to Paris and far enough from the Germans that Katie and Ella could make it safely home from here without an escort, so Maria and I drove away slowly, leaving them behind.
Upon our return to Paris, I was disgusted to see the Nazi flag flying from atop the Eifel Tower. Once we were safely in our apartment, I crawled into bed and was soon fast asleep.
The next morning I slipped on my robe, sleepily made my way to the kitchen and poured myself a cup of coffee. It was a Friday, so I assumed that Maria was likely downstairs tending to her store. After a half a cup of coffee, I began to remember the circumstances and realized that it was highly unlikely that Maria would have opened the store for business today. I figured that she must be across the hall visiting our neighbors, so I knocked on their door. No answer. I was beginning to become concerned. No one knew for certain what to expect from the German invaders or, for that matter, unconstrained civilians.
Back in our apartment, I was relieved to see Maria sitting on the sofa in our living room, coffee cup in hand. Maybe she had been in the bathroom and I hadn’t noticed. My concern subsided. I sat in the chair next to her, but she asked me if I would change places with her because she wanted the sun from the window to be to her back while she read the newspaper. That was an odd request, because she never read the newspaper. I became suspicious. I played along, curious as to what she was up to. She took the newspaper in hand, looking at it as if she were truly interested in reading. I don’t recall exactly what she said next. It was apparent to me that she wanted to have a conversation with me, but was struggling as to what to talk about. I wasn’t in the mood for conversation, and I knew that she was trying to distract me from something so I simply nodded my head or answered with a yes or no.
Suddenly something drew my attention to glance over my left shoulder and there were the ladies. Katie’s arm was extended as if she was reaching for the handle of the front door, but she quickly pulled her hand back, rotated her body, and stood more erect. Ella’s posture changed somewhat as well.
“Good morning. We thought we would drop by to see how you are doing this morning,” Ella said.
It was obvious that they were trying to sneak out, but once caught, tried to act as though they had just walked in to visit. I knew that the door had not opened just now, which could mean only one thing. They had been in my apartment the entire time. The one place that I hadn’t looked for them was in the wine cellar. It occurred to me that Maria had been working as their accomplice, serving as a decoy to distract me while they sneaked out of my apartment. I thought that I would play along for a bit, let them think that they had fooled me.
“Good morning ladies. You surprised me. I didn’t hear you come in,” I said and offered coffee.
“No thank you,” Ella answered. “Actually, we need to tend to some things. We just stopped by to say good morning and to thank you for taking such good care of us yesterday and last night.”
“I don’t recall doing anything worthy of a thank-you, but you’re welcome nonetheless. But why run off? You just walked in through the door, didn’t you?” This was a test to see how far they would take this charade.
“Yes, but we can’t stay,” Katie replied nervously. “We were just checking on the two of you.” Then she opened the door and told Maria and I goodbye as she scuttled out the door and across the hall to her apartment.
Ella followed close behind, waving goodbye to us. “Come to our place for lunch,” she said.
The ladies were acting like two nervous high-school girls, not at all as ladies in their early sixties would be expected to behave. There was something going on that they weren’t sharing with me.
Maria offered me a poached egg on toast.
“Yes, that would be nice.”
I picked up the newspaper that Maria had pretended to be interested in and couldn’t help but laugh out loud—the newspaper was over a week old. Maria wanted to know what had made me laugh, so I went into the kitchen where she was preparing breakfast, newspaper in one hand, my empty coffee cup in the other, and told her that I saw something in the newspaper that made me laugh. I placed the folded newspaper on the kitchen counter, with the issue date facing up. She put down the spatula and pressed her body against mine sensuously and told me to go back to the living room and relax while she served me breakfast. Then she gave me a kiss and used her hands to turn me around and gently push me out of the kitchen—but not before I noticed that she was poaching five eggs, not the usual three, for the two of us.
“Hungry?” I asked as I allowed her to push me out of the kitchen. She ignored my question and returned to her task. Then I turned back to her and said, “I would like to have a mimosa with my breakfast. I will get a bottle of champagne from the wine cellar.”
“No!” she snapped with a raised voice and then, softening her tone, said, “I will get it. You have a seat and relax. I want to serve you.”
“What did I do to deserve such royal treatment?” I asked and then picked up the week-old newspaper.
“Darling, I just feel especially appreciative to have you in my life, with all of the happenings going on around us.”
“OK, sweetheart. I will have a seat in the living room and read today’s newspaper.”
I listened to her footsteps and waited until I knew she had made it to the bottom of the staircase to our secret wine cellar before rushing through the pantry and down the stairs to see what she was hiding. What I saw stunned me.
There, standing before me in my wine cellar, was a tall, fair-haired young man, wearing my clothes. Before I could speak he extended his hand and introduced himself as Lt. William Green, pilot in the Royal Air Force. Maria started to explain. “He is a stranded soldier that Katie and Ella picked up last night while on the way home.”
“I could not make it to the ship before we evacuated Dunkirk. Your wife and friends were kind enough to rescue me and give me sanctuary in your home. I truly appreciate it. You may have saved my life. If there is anything that I can ever do to repay you,” he said. Green had been at the roadside inn where Katie and Ella stopped the night before. They had allowed him to hide in the luggage compartment of Katie’s car.
Maria looked at me with pleading eyes. I didn’t know what to say or do. “Maria, you better tend to breakfast before the toast burns.” Her eyes lit up, remembering the toast and eggs, and rushed upstairs.
“What is the plan?” I asked the young lieutenant.
“I must find a way to the unoccupied zone, but have no specific plan,” the young man replied.
Scratching my head as if it would help me think, I walked to the corner of the wine cellar where I kept my safe. I kept glancing over my shoulder to make sure that the lad couldn’t observe the combination and that he wouldn’t hit me over the head and take the entire contents. I looked at my handgun collection, selected my least favorite, and counted out a sum of cash that should be ample for him to pay for food, transportation, and an occasional bribe. “Here. Take this and move on. Your presence here is endangering my wife.”
Maria, Katie, and Ella entered the wine cellar in time to hear my instructions. They all objected to his leaving. Katie told Mr. Green that he could stay with her until they figured things out, if he wasn’t welcome in the Friddi home; each of them gave me a disapproving look. Maria began to cry. My days in the Mafia, watching men being murdered in the most gruesome manner, did not affect me like seeing Maria cry. Realizing that I was outnumbered and recalling the chances that I’d taken in the past, I agreed to allow the soldier to remain in my cellar until a plan could be developed.
The ladies gave me a big hug, and Maria added a loving kiss. Mr. Green verbalized his appreciation, and then we shared breakfast.
With Green hiding in my cellar, I felt it necessary to revitalize my old criminal networking skills. I reached out to other Italians in Paris with the goal of adding a layer of protection between the Gestapo and me, under the pretext of profiting from the scarcity of goods via the black market that was sure to develop.
Within a short time, I realized that there were no organized mobsters in Paris, at least none with connections to the Italian or American Mafia. I was likely the wealthiest and most sophisticated Italian in Paris at that time and with my experience as a mobster, I considered that I may have an opportunity to create my own Mafia family. I explained to my recruits that secrecy was always paramount to any criminal organization, and the most successful Mafia families kept their very existence secret. Back in New York, and even in New Orleans, most rank-and-file soldiers never met the Godfather, or the underboss, and it was a crime to approach either of them without being instructed. In some cases, in New York, associates of the Mob didn’t even know who they worked for or didn’t know the head of the family’s name. Their only contact was with their immediate boss.
Trying to organize a Sicilian-style, or New York-style, Mafia family in France proved impossible, but I did manage to make some valuable contacts and developed a network of thieves and thugs who were willing to do my bidding for money. These associates were fascinated that I knew so much about the Mafia, and its rituals—some of which I invented—but they were soft. I explained that, “The mystique of the Mafia, the perception that we are more powerful than we are, is where our power is derived.”
Not all of them were soft. One of my new associates was a brute that I renamed Rocko, because it seemed to fit him better than his real name, Angelo. Rocko liked his new moniker and liked being thought of as a tough guy. He admitted that he had never killed anyone but would be willing to do so, especially if that someone were German. I had my doubts, but he was my best option to serve as my muscle. I agreed to pay Rocko a handsome sum every week, plus a percentage of the “family’s” profit. To entice him even farther, he was giving the title of underboss. The title made Rocko very proud, even though it didn’t mean very much. As underboss, Rocko was instructed to take orders unquestioningly and exclusively from me and to keep my identity secret from everyone, including his most trusted family or friends. Since he was to be my muscle, I provided him with a handgun, which impressed him for guns were difficult to obtain in German-occupied France.
Rocko loved his new role and followed instructions well, but he wasn’t very smart and he wasn’t nearly as tough as he looked; both worried me. How well would he keep a secret if the Germans were to catch him committing a crime? I had my doubts, so I was careful to keep our criminal activity to smuggling scarce commodities, which actually benefited our German occupiers.
Another Italian by the name of Drago became my consigliere. His talent was bribing Germans and other officials, making it easier for Rocko’s crew to operate with impunity. He was an accountant before the invasion and knew quite a few people in important social, business, and government circles. He looked at joining the Friddi Mafia family as a thrilling adventure.
I must admit I enjoyed being the Godfather, as brief as it was. Of course, this was a pale imitation of a real crime family. However, this setup became very beneficial because the Germans soon rationed everything and even resorted to issuing food tickets. I had enough cash to buy whatever I wanted on the black market, but the prices were inflated ten- to twentyfold. Why not profit from such a markup if one can? Besides, it was free entertainment.
Rocko and Drago agreed to meet me weekly for activity reports, to settle up monetarily, and to receive new instructions from me. At one of our first high-level weekly conferences, Drago informed me that the Gestapo was methodically going house to house, block by block, street by street, searching for hidden soldiers. I knew better than to tell Drago or Rocko about the secret in my wine cellar. Information such as that would give my underlings power over me. Without giving an explanation, I instructed Rocko to hire three trusted and reliable men to watch over my house at all times. “This is the most important function of the Mafia, to protect the Godfather.”
My instructions were for one man to remain close to the building’s main entrance and another outside, but within a few hundred meters, and a third man was to have a getaway car ready at all times. The first soldier was instructed to stall anyone who approached the entrance to our building. He would ascertain their purpose, and if they were a danger he would discretely signal to his accomplice to create a distraction sufficient to allow the getaway driver to enter through the secret rear entrance to warn Maria and me of impeding danger. No one but Maria and I knew that if this were to happen, I would have the driver take Mr. Green away, and we would remain in our home to meet the authorities. With the hidden soldier gone, there would be no reason for Maria and me to run. Rocko and Drago assumed that I was a big fish and that if the authorities approached my building, it must be because they knew that I was a criminal kingpin.
Another week went by and we were still harboring Lt. Green. Even with the added level of security, I became more and more uneasy about putting Maria in danger. The Gestapo issued an announcement that the penalty for harboring soldiers was death. I called a meeting with the ladies and Mr. Green. We gathered around Katie’s dinner table, and I made it clear to the ladies that they had to find a solution. “We cannot keep him locked away in my cellar forever.”
Katie responded with good news. While she was on the subway earlier that day, she had encountered an old friend, Frederic, whom she knew from working together at the Foyer du Soldat, the French equivalent of the USO. She told us that she thought Frederic could help us, and she emphasized that she trusted him completely. She had arranged to meet with him the following afternoon.
After supper, we moved to Katie and Ella’s apartment—all of us, including Green. Also present was Maggie, the maid who worked for Maria and me when she wasn’t working for Katie and Ella. We sat there enjoying the last of our coffee, when suddenly the doorbell rang. Maggie had a frightened look on her face when she slipped into the room and said, “The Germans are here.”
I asked if they were wearing uniforms.
“No. They are civilians,” Maggie answered.
“The Gestapo,” said Katie. She then instructed Ella to take Green to the bedroom. “And take his coffee cup also. Try to hide him!”
I looked at Maria, angry with myself for having allowed her to be in this situation and puzzled as to why my security plan had failed. Within a few minutes, Katie instructed Maggie to allow the “gentlemen” to enter. Three plain-clothes agents entered the room and gave each one of us piercing looks and asked for our identification. Behind them was Mme Bagler, our concierge. The lead agent said that he wanted to look in the bedrooms.
Katie called out, “Ella dear, we have visitors from the police department who wish to inspect your room.”
The agents walked into the room where Ella and Lt. Green were. I expected to see them return with Green under arrest, but Ella saw a picture of her brother on her dresser and remembering how Green resembled her brother came up with an idea. She instructed Green to remove his uniform, get in bed, and pretend to be sick. She quickly placed a towel on his head, just as the door was opened by the Nazi. Afterward, Ella explained that when she told the Nazis that her brother had intestinal flu, they each stepped back as if afraid of contagion. For added drama, Green moaned. When asked for his papers, Ella went to her dresser and produced her brother’s old passport and driver’s license. She was thankful that she had kept them all of this time. The Nazi looked at Green and then again at the photo. Green’s beard made him look several years older and it was enough for him to pass as Tony, Ella’s brother.
Back in the living room, the officer asked Mme Bagler for the list of tenants. He looked through it and said that he didn’t see the name of the madame’s brother. Katie explained that he wasn’t a regular tenant and therefore he wouldn’t show up on the list.
The officer looked at Mme Bagler accusingly. She explained that he wasn’t on the list, because he had never asked her for a certificate of domicile.
I vouched for him also. “I’m the landlord of this building, and I live across the hall. I can verify that this is true.”
The officer asked me for my papers, but told me to stay put after I said that my papers were in my apartment. He looked over the list and said, “Mr. Friddi? It says here that you are from New York. Are you an American or Italian?”
“I am both, sir. I was born in Sicily, but I became a citizen of the United States as a boy.”
“Do you support Mussolini?”
“Of course! I am proud that he is returning glory to the old Roman Empire,” I said, keeping a straight face.
The officer gave me a smirk, letting me know that he saw through my sarcasm, and then he sat down at the table, pulled out a writing pad and began to write something. My first thought was that he was about to write an arrest warrant, but I was relieved to see that he added Ella’s brother’s name to the list. We had dodged a bullet, but it was too close for my comfort.
The excuse given by the man guarding my building’s entrance was that he had gone to the men’s room to take a leak. He never saw the Gestapo coming. It became clear that these men would never be real professionals. This was a job to them, no more than an elevator operator. Green had to go.
The following evening, Katie told of her meeting with Frederic.
Upon hearing of Green, Frederic explained that he was part of an underground group that helped transport those who wished to join the French resistance to unoccupied France. He had explained that his organization operated a safe house where soldiers could wait until travel passes could be obtained for them. Travel pass in hand, they would take the train to “other friends who owned an estate on the frontier. From there, they travel to unoccupied France.” Katie had made the point that Green didn’t speak French. Frederic confirmed that could be a problem; traveling by train might not be safe for someone who didn’t speak French.
Katie had offered to drive him by car to the estate. Frederic’s initial reaction to that idea had been negative. He had reminded her that gasoline could not be purchased. Then he had remembered that the Foyer du Soldat was still operating under the Germans. He suggested that she rejoin that organization, and then she would be provided with gasoline. As an added benefit, she would receive a Red Cross emblem for her car, enabling her to move about freely.
Katie joined the organization, obtained counterfeit travel papers for Green, courtesy of Frederic, and after stopping to deliver packages at a couple of hospitals and prisons along the way, she and Green made their way to a small town on the demarcation line where Frederic’s friends awaited. She returned to tell us that her mission had been accomplished without any trouble. What a relief.
A week after Green had been crammed into Katie’s luggage compartment for the final time, Maria told me that Katie received a post card from him letting her know, in code, that he was on his way to England. We were all elated, and Katie was particularly proud that she had saved her countryman. We toasted with champagne, thanks to my having a well-supplied, hidden wine cellar. “To the courageous ladies of the French Underground: May you never be so foolish again!” I said just before clinking our glasses together.
Hardly a month later, Drago and I were seated on my balcony that overlooked the rue Saint Lazare below. It was a comfortably warm summer day. From this vantage point, the German occupation wasn’t so bad. Life was good once again. Drago had called the meeting and had specifically requested that Rocko not be present. He had an idea for generating revenue for the Friddi family that he wanted to share.
We hadn’t finished our ceremonial small talk before business discussions when Maria called out for me with the sound of panic. It was natural for Drago to follow me to see what the emergency was; Maria had been unaware of his presence. She told Drago that she needed to see me in private right away. Drago complied by returning to his seat on the balcony. Maria led me across the hall to Katie’s apartment. My reaction to what I saw inside was stated clearly: “Oh, shit!”
There on the floor was an English soldier. His pants’ legs were soaked in blood and he was in obvious pain, and there was another Englishman in a RAF uniform kneeling beside the wounded soldier. Katie looked at me with a mix of guilt and worry. Ella said to me: “We need a doctor, but don’t know who to call.”
Forgetting my anger and disappointment for the moment, I answered, “I know a man who may be able to help us, and he happens to be in my apartment at this moment. One of Drago’s clients in his accounting practice is a doctor that he trusts to be discreet in such matters.” Soon the doctor arrived and began to treat the wounded man’s leg.
I took Maria to our apartment and told her that this must stop immediately, or I would have no choice but to evict Katie and Ella. To my surprise, Maria responded defiantly: “Then you will evict me too!”
“Maria! You would leave your husband over such matters?”
She softened her voice and turned on her charm, which was substantial, and told me that although she loved me, she would rather die than turn her back on these desperate soldiers who were trapped behind enemy lines. I had never seen her so brave or so committed to anything—other than being a good wife to me. What could I say? No matter how much I pleaded, Maria was determined to help Katie and Ella to save as many young men as they could.
“Well, I suppose if I can’t beat ’em, I may as well join ’em.”
Soon after that, we had as many as six English soldiers at a time hiding out in our cellar. I decided to utilize my “criminal empire” to help the ladies smuggle these men to the unoccupied zone. It took all of the money that I made from our black-market enterprises and even depleted the cash that I had stashed in my safe.
My greatest fears were realized one day, beginning with the ringing sound of my doorbell—the Gestapo came calling.
The Gestapo agents took Maria and me in separate cars to Gestapo headquarters for questioning. I was ashamed of myself for not having prepared Maria for this eventuality. There was no plan in place as to what to say or what not to say, which was an amateurish mistake. Would Maria confess? There was no way for me to guess.
The German agent sitting across from me was surprisingly polite. He asked if I cared for anything to drink before we got started, and I declined. He then asked me if I was aware of criminal activity taking place in my building, and I denied any such knowledge. “We have learned that there is an underground criminal organization that is operating from within your building, and you have no idea of this?” he asked again, and once again I affirmed my previous denial.
The way he phrased this question the second time caused me to wonder which criminal organization he was referring to. Was it the small-time, petty crimes committed by the “Friddi family” or the serious crime of smuggling enemy combatants out of the country? Then it became clear that he was referring to Katie and Ella’s activities but was unaware of my or Maria’s involvement. He explained that he wanted Maria and me to help the Gestapo set up a sting operation to catch the ladies in the act of smuggling soldiers. I acted as if I were appalled that anyone would commit such a crime and angry that it was happening in my building. “Of course I will cooperate!” I could only hope that Maria was giving the same answer. If so, we may have dodged another bullet, because I am sure that Katie and Ella would fall on a sword to protect us.
Another plain-clothes German agent entered the room. He looked familiar. I studied his face, wondering where I had seen him before. Then I recognized the scar that began under his left eye and stretched across his nose. It was Scarface from the airport in Rome! I stared for too long. He saw that I recognized him and began to study me. I had changed my appearance a bit more since Rome. When he last saw me, I was wearing a beard and glasses and sporting a shaved head. I still had my beard but no longer wore the glasses, and the hair on my head had grown back. Maybe he didn’t recognize me—after all, our last encounter was nearly a year ago. Wait a minute! I began to wonder how he had recognized me in Rome. After all, he should have been looking for someone who looked like Lucky, and I had disguised my looks quite well.
Scarface reached over and grabbed my chin and turned my face so that he could see my L-shaped-scar reminder of my days as a member of the Masseria-Luciano family. He then whispered something into the polite agent’s ear, who suddenly rose from his chair and left the interrogation room. He returned with two members of the dreaded SS. Scarface spoke: “This man, Charles Lucky Luciano, is an important man in whom the führer himself has an interest.”
“Wait! There is a mistake. I am not Luciano. I’ve been mistaken for him before, but Luciano is in jail in America,” I exclaimed.
“Nice try. We know that is American propaganda. You escaped with a great deal of money that belonged to the Third Reich.”
Oh, shit. How the hell did that happen? I wondered. How could the money that I stole from Ben belong to the German government? The Germans would not do business with Jews, so how could Ben Siegel, a Jew, gain possession of money that belonged to Nazi Germany?
Scarface instructed the polite agent to arrest me. “He will be traveling to Berlin with me.”