Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 7, 2009

Resistance, Memoirs of Occupied France, by Agnes Humbert, translated by Barbara Mellor #BookReview

resistanceThis one came recommended by DoveGreyReader, and when it turned up at the Endeavour Hills library, I was almost two-thirds through Shroud by John Banville. I was only going to take a quick look at Resistance and then put it aside, but I found myself unable to do that.

The author is so naïve and reckless, it’s a miracle she lived through the war! She and a group of her friends at the Musee de L’Homme set up one of the first resistance cells in Paris, but (although I admire her courage) it has to be said that their imprudent tactics and insouciant cockiness put themselves and others at risk. She wasn’t young and foolish either – she was in her forties.

In addition to facilitating the transfer of key personnel to safe territory, they also published a newspaper called Resistance and distributed it fairly recklessly throughout Paris. Humbert herself thought it clever to stamp banknotes with a call to arms to support De Gaulle and by her own account seemed to trust almost anyone with information on the assumption that if they were Parisienne and still in Paris they would be anti-Nazi. The fact that she kept this journal filled with incriminating information was incredibly risky, and she and her colleagues were very lucky it wasn’t found because it wasn’t very well hidden.

Before long her group was arrested, betrayed to the Gestapo by someone unknown. Seven of them were sentenced to execution and the women deported to Germany as slave labour.   Humbert and her colleagues had a dreadful time in a silk-making factory where viscose burns their skin and blinds their eyes. They are ill-housed and ill-fed;  medical help is withheld or rudimentary;  they are denied contact with their families; and they are subjected to beatings and cruelty both petty and extreme.

What makes this account so remarkable is Humbert’s humanity and forgiveness. The early parts were written contemporaneously with events, a journal which records the activities of the resistance until they are captured. Thereafter, the year-long trial and Humbert’s subsequent deportation is written from memory, in retrospect, but only shortly after liberation because the book was published in 1946.  So, not much time had elapsed for reflection and yet Humbert is remarkably compassionate towards the Germans after liberation. According to her account, she felt like that even at the time.   She feels compassion for the death and destruction wrought by the Allies even though she recognises that it is necessary:

One half of my heart aches for all this misery, weeps for all this destruction.  But then I tell myself for the hundredth, perhaps the thousandth time, that this is the only way that we can destroy the monster.  Who started all this butchery, who kindled these infernos throughout the world, who torched London, Rotterdam, Dunkirk?  The monster was all-powerful, all-powerful though cowardly even then.  But now his enemies are strong, and they must kill, kill, kill to survive. In the struggle between barbarism and civilization killing is a necessary and unavoidable evil.  Civilization has to use the weapons of barbarism in order to survive. That is the tragedy. (p194).

That she regrets the killing is remarkable considering what she went through at the hands of the Germans, but she makes a clear distinction between ‘ordinary’ Germans and the Nazis, (perhaps to the point of naiveté, in my opinion.)

I was intrigued to see that, deprived of the most basic necessities, she craves the company of books and wonders which ones she will read first when she has her freedom:

Krefeld, August 1943

I often distract myself by thinking of things I have left behind me at home. Shall I ever see them again, or will Paris be destroyed before I get back?  I might think that I feel quite detached about the inanimate objects waiting for me there, but no, I am more attached to them than ever.  I think about my books, especially: which one shall I open first when I get back?  I can see my bookshelves, and the rows of my beloved books.  By the time I get back I shall have quite forgotten how to read, and I’ll have to start all over again by looking at picture books like a child. (p201)

After liberation by the Americans, she works with them as a translator to help identify the Nazis among the Germans. One of her first acts is to safeguard the milk supply for the German children ‘who are not responsible for Hitler’ (p230).   She excuses some of what was done because she believes that the German education system encouraged ‘spineless’ obedience and a lack of initiative – which meant they wouldn’t even help each other except on her orders (p262). (This seems a bit unlikely to me, and probably more a matter of looking out for themselves than any other hesitations).   But her idealism has survived and she believes that while the victors should pursue the guilty, they should also educate the young to build a new and better world (p265). One can only hope that this enthusiasm did not translate into gullibility and the escape of genuine Nazis….

The Afterword, written by Julien Blanc, raises some interesting issues. To what extent did Humbert edit – or self-censor – her account?   All the events after her capture were written post-war, but they are written in the present tense to give them immediacy and authenticity.   The tone is almost invariably upbeat and optimistic, there are no tales of discord or dishonesty amongst the prisoners and some of the captors try to be humane.   She has very little to say about the treatment of Jews, and almost nothing about the death camps – and yet the discovery of these camps by the Allied soldiers scarred some of them for life.   I find it strange that such a passionate woman with such a profound sense of justice and humanity had nothing to say about it.

It is hard to believe some of what she does say. It beggars belief that the Gestapo let them shout slogans and sing patriotic songs when in gaol, and that their apparently routine rule-breaking and transgressions were not brutally repressed. I also find it surprising that Humbert’s acts of sabotage in the factory went undetected and unpunished.

Nevertheless, this account is given great credence by those closer to events than me, and Humbert was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Like so many acts of great courage on the one hand, and perfidy on the other, much of what occurred in this war seems unbelievable, and yet it is true. What an amazing woman she was!

Author: Agnes Humbert
Title: Resistance, Memoirs of Occupied France
Translator: Barbara Mellors
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2009, first published 1946
ISBN: 0747596743, 9780747596745
Source:  Kingston Library
ISBN:


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