Documentary to uncover life in Nazi occupied France

Jacky Hodgson and Dr Wendy Michallat with Madeleine's papers

The life of an academic who lived in Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War is to be made into a documentary film, following the discovery of her unpublished diary amongst papers donated to the University of Sheffield after her death.

Madeleine Blaess was born in France but raised in Yorkshire and graduated from the University of Leeds in 1939. She traveled to France to begin a doctorate in the same year, but found herself trapped by the German advance in 1940.

Blaess began her diary in October 1940, continuing to write it with barely a missed entry until October 1944. She went on to become a lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the Department of French from 1948 until her retirement in 1983.

Thanks to funding from the University's Arts Enterprise fund, the manuscript of the diary will now inspire a documentary film about Madeleine's life in Paris under the Occupation. The project is led by Dr Wendy Michallat from the University’s Department of French and involves respected documentary filmmaker Jo Cammack and theatre professional and academic Professor Terry O'Connor. The public can get a taste of Madeleine’s story via daily tweets of extracts from the same date in her diary in 1942.

Dr Michallat explained the significance of the manuscript: “The diary contains unprecedented detail about everyday life in wartime Paris and its crushing isolation, desperate shortages, horrific repression and persecution. It also details Madeleine's resistance activities and her friendship with fellow student Hélène Berr, deported and murdered by the Nazis and whose own diary was published posthumously in 2008. This and the fact that Madeleine enjoyed a rich cultural life by way of her friendship with Sylvia Beach and her literary circle make this a unique manuscript with exciting narrative possibilities.”

Madeleine BlaessIn December 1940, three months into the diary, Blaess records the arrest and internment of her flatmate, friend and fellow student, Ruth. It is an event that shocks her into being more circumspect about explicitly detailing her views on the war for fear that the diary would be found. She imposes a shorthand of hints and abbreviations and a preponderance of proper names which, although devoid of explicatory context, have through research proved to have been contacts in the French Resistance.

Blaess's diary operates on several levels. She begins it as a letter to her parents to replace the letters she is no longer able to send them and throughout the diary evokes their presence through imagined dialogue as an antidote to the pain of her estrangement from them. That she writes the diary in French is logical given that her parents are French but, of course, Blaess's French nationality which, although no more than a technicality, is her only protection from arrest and internment. In the event of her arrest, the diary would serve as a self-protective affirmation of her French nationality.

The diary is a desperate record of Blaess's struggle to survive isolation and depression as well as chronic food shortages, bombing raids and the ever-present spectre of the Nazi threat. The arrest of British, American and Canadian and, later, French Jewish friends make her fear for her own fate but her most pressing fight is to stave off the malnutrition that is causing the illness and, tragically, the death of many of her young friends.

After the war Blaess eventually managed to return to her parents in Yorkshire and in 1948 she realised her ambition of an academic career, obtaining a post lecturing in the University of Sheffield’s Department of French. In 1983 she retired and, in 2003, she died, bequeathing her books and papers to the University. Her Occupation diary was found hidden under her bed.

The project to make a documentary film about the manuscript will enlist the collaborative efforts of students in French and technical and creative professionals across the University.

The scripting, staging, performance and technical aspects of the film will all be informed by Professor Terry O'Connor from the School of English, the Creative Media Department and the filmmaker Jo Cammack. The University of the 3rd Age will feature prominently in the footage - many of its current Sheffield members knew Madeleine Blaess in her later years.

Filming will start in June 2013 and is set to be completed by December 2013. The film is set to be completed by July 2014.

Additional information

Further information on different aspects of Madeleine Blaess’s life in Vichy France and her return to Yorkshire, compiled by Dr Wendy Michallat, can be obtained from Amy Stone on the contact details below.

More information on the project can be found at: The Blaess Project

The University of Sheffield’s Department of French
Dr Wendy Michallat lectures in the French Department at the University of Sheffield.

The first Chair of French was created in 1901 in University College Sheffield, which became the University in 1905. Since then the Department of French at Sheffield has been home to prominent scholars in the field of French culture, literature and language, as well as inspiring a love of all things French and francophone in generations of students. The Department is committed to maintaining and developing research and teaching strengths and has a long and proud tradition of world-class research in French Studies. In recent years, staff in the department have published dozens of books and articles in scholarly journals, produced major web-based research resources and organised exhibitions of medieval and contemporary French culture.

Special Collections

Jacky Hodgson , Head of Special Collections, catalogued the Blaess papers. She found the diary under Madeleine Blaess's bed after her death.

The Special Collections Unit is housed in the University of Sheffield's library. In addition to the Madeleine Blaess papers, it is home to approximately 25,000 rare books and over 150 special collections consisting of archives, manuscripts, photographs, books, pamphlets and scores. It is a unique resource which supports research and teaching, and it welcomes both the academic community and the wider public.

The University of Sheffield

With nearly 25,000 of the brightest students from 117 countries coming to learn alongside 1,209 of the world’s best academics, it is clear why the University of Sheffield is one of the UK’s leading universities. Staff and students at Sheffield are committed to helping discover and understand the causes of things - and propose solutions that have the power to transform the world we live in.

A member of the Russell Group, the University of Sheffield has a reputation for world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. The University of Sheffield has been named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2011 for its exceptional performance in research, teaching, access and business performance. In addition, the University has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes (1998, 2000, 2002, 2007), recognising the outstanding contribution by universities and colleges to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

One of the markers of a leading university is the quality of its alumni and Sheffield boasts five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students. Its alumni have gone on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

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The University has well-established partnerships with a number of universities and major corporations, both in the UK and abroad. The White Rose University Consortium (White Rose) is a strategic partnership between 3 of the UK's leading research universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York. Since its creation in 1997 White Rose has secured more than £100M into the Universities.


For further information please contact:
Amy Stone
Media Relations Officer
The University of Sheffield
0114 222 1046