Thursday, July 23, 2009
Resistance, A woman's journal of struggle and defiance in occupied France, by Agnes Humbert
Before I start this book review of Resistance, remind me if I ever write a book about WWII, I must remember not to title it Resistance. Have you ever tried to find a book on Amazon just using the title Resistance, almost impossible to come up with the right book quickly.
Having said that, and this being my second book review of a book entitled Resistance, the other one was fictional, this is an autobiography of Agnes Humbert's second world war years in France. In the French it was entitled, Notre Guerre.
She worked at the Musee de l' Homme. As the occupation started, Agnes and some fellow co-workers and others, started the fledgling Resistance movement. She kept a diary, which forms the beginning of the book. After being arrested by the Germans, it is her remembered account of what happened to her. Where she kept that diary hidden we do not know, but it would have been devastating if it had ever fallen into German hands.
Agnes Humbert's account is interesting, she was arrested early on and at that time the German's were not sending imprisoned resistance workers to the concentration camps, but rather to work in the factories in Germany, not that they weren't treated terribly, but at least there wasn't a gas chamber at the end.
The details of her imprisonment in France before her trial and ones she got to know there, although in a solitary cell, were interesting. Many of the ones she was in prison with were executed. At this time the SS had not perfected their interrogation skills. She writes while in the French prison>
"I think back to all the happy times in my life. Just the happy times. The rest you have to forget, especially in here you must forget, or else you get wrinkles. Wrinkles on your face are bad enough; in your heart they are even worse. ..."
Her detailed account of working in a Viscose factory in Germany, making synthetic silk fabric, which uses acid in the process. They had no protective clothing such as gloves, boots or aprons and inhaled the fumes all the time, their clothes already in tatters, became even worse with every spot of acid which spat on them.
Her strength of character and descriptions of fellow prisoners, which ran the gamut, from German woman, there for stealing, murder and prostitution, to the political prisoners. She formed several friendships, which were mutually sustaining in the terrible places she was at.
After being liberated she worked alongside the Americans and two close friends, in a small German town, documenting details of ones who were SS and involved in war crimes. One American she worked very closely with, but others she found to be too trusting of any German who could speak English.
There were many groups who were gradually coming back to the village after being liberated from the concentration camps, this is what she writes about one of them.
"I have been in contact with a sect that seems to be quite widespread in Germany, known as Bibelforscher, or Jehovah's Witnesses. Those whom I have met conduct themselves with outstanding dignity. Today our investigations led us to the home of Herr Mengel, recently freed from the concentration camp where he had been held since 1937. While the Bibelforscher are greatly to be respected, they have never been of the slightest practical help to us. Infinitely discreet, they refuse to denounce their persecutors, trusting in God to avenge them. I have tried in vain to suggest discreetly that perhaps we have been sent by God to help them, but they obstinately refuse to view us as archangels in disguise, and keep their lips firmly sealed."
Eventually she was repatriated to France and met up with her adult son.
She had finished the book by 1946. So unlike many first hand accounts of the war written quite a few years after it, her memories were fresh and recorded very soon after the war ended.
Her resolve comes through, she was in her forties when all this happened to her, so not in the throws of youth. The idealism with small achievements met with such dreadful sentences. She writes.
"How bizarre it all is! Here we are, most of us the wrong side of forty, careering along like students all fired up with passion and fervour, in the wake of a leader of whom we know absolutely nothing, of whom none of us has ever seen a photograph. In the whole course of human history, has there ever been anything like it? Thousand upon thousands of people, fired by blind faith, following an unknown figure. Perhaps this strange anonymity is even an asset: the mystery of the unknown."
You do get the feeling that she thought it was all a great adventure, almost in the way the boys of WWI went to war. Actually her mother was British, Mabel Annie Wells Rourke, (1869-1943), who was part of the large expatriate community in Dieppe. She was very close to her mum and it grieved her terribly that she was not with her mum at the end.
Agnes Humbert's account is an historically important one. It details the fledgling beginnings of the French Resistance, and their thoughts, feelings and idealism.
I enjoyed reading it.