Reviewed by Jack Goodstein
Résistance: A Frenchwoman’s Journal of the War
by Agnѐs Humbert
Hardcover: 208 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1596915596, September 2, 2008
After having been somewhat disappointed in Simone de Beauvoir’s Wartime Diary, I picked up Agnѐs Humbert’s Résistance, touted on the jacket as “A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France,” with mixed expectations. While de Beauvoir was more occupied with herself and her immediate circle than she was with occupied France, at least she was an iconic figure and her self- occupation had that much going for it. Humbert, on the other hand, was something of an unknown quantity. Although her book had been published in French in 1946, it had never been translated into English, and she hadn’t exactly become a household name outside of France. As World War II chroniclers go, she wasn’t quite on my radar.
This is unfortunate, because her book while raising some questions about her writing process, is a riveting account of her first hand experiences during the war. Using the form of the journal she describes her early evacuation from Paris at the threat of the German invasion, her return to the occupied city, her short lived involvement in a resistance movement, her arrest, imprisonment and the eventual trial where she is sentenced to five years of forced labor in Germany. She details her experiences in the labor camps emphasizing the inhuman treatment suffered by the inmates and the friendships that helped her cope with her situation. She ends with an account of the German defeat and the arrival of the American liberators.
Her journal begins with an entry for June 7, 1940. Paris is abuzz with rumors, “all flatly contradictory, but it seems clear that the Germans are advancing on all fronts.”(p.1) An art historian and museum worker, she busies herself trying to save some of the precious books knowing full well that her work is very likely to be in vain. She leaves Paris with friends, but is traumatized by the death of a young French girl, run into by a retreating French army truck. She debates about what to do, and by August 6th she is back in Paris now occupied by the Germans. Together with some of friends she decides to form a small resistance cell to share information and publish anti-Nazi propaganda. They eventually publish a broadsheet called “Resistance” which she is responsible for typing and helping to distribute. Later they become involved in what seems like more incendiary kinds of work trying to get information to the free French and the allies. Eventually in April she is arrested.
This diary account raises the first question that needs to be addressed. Is there not something irresponsible about keeping a journal with the names of those involved in such dangerous activities and a description of those activities when the occupiers or their sympathizers might well descend upon you at any minute? Certainly there is something to be said for the first hand documentation of historic events, of the need to testify to the transgressions of oppressors. Still discretion and the protection of those involved in the fight against oppression need be paramount. This is something Humbert never really considers. Of course, at this late date the point may be moot, it nonetheless argues for a certain recklessness in Humbert’s character, a recklessness that may well have gotten her involved in such dangerous activities in the first place. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that some of the information may have been added later at the time that the manuscript was prepared for publication. It is difficult to tell from the information in the present edition whether an actual copy of the diary exists and if it does, whether anyone has seen it. In the light of the continuation of the journal/diary format in circumstances when it would have been impossible for her to have kept a journal these kinds of suspicions while perhaps erroneous are clearly worth consideration.
She is imprisoned in France awaiting trial. Here she describes her isolation and the terrible condition in which she is held: “People here are reduced to the absolute basics. I can tell already, subordinated to the physical necessities of life: eating, washing, defecating, staunching blood. ‘They’ have it in their power to prevent us from doing any of these things, as we are locked up in broom cupboards, entirely at their mercy.” (p.58) She writes about the various hurdles prisoners manage to jump to gain some contact with each other, as well as her captor’s attempts to get information from her. She takes particular pride in her and her fellow prisoner’s acts of insubordination, as when they learn that de Gaulle has called for an hour of silence as a protest, she, who has for some reason been allowed to keep her watch, keeps the time for the rest of the prisoners. Then, at the hour’s expiration, they all break into a rousing chorus of the French national anthem (a Hollywood moment awaiting a script writer).
After her trial and conviction, she is transported to a variety of forced labor camps where she is joined with political prisoners from all over Europe as well as common criminals ranging from traders on the black market to prostitutes. Her accounts of the cruel dehumanizing treatment while not so much different from other prisoner histories is notable for its vivid immediacy and focus on the telling detail. A mother comes to visit her daughter and time runs out before she gets a chance to say all she would like. Forced outside, she lies down face in the dirt and slides her arm under the gate waving a handkerchief to say goodbye. “I had no idea that an arm pushed under a locked gate could be such a tragic sight,” (146) Humbert concludes. It is easy to become jaded to the descriptions of the suffering of prisoners in the Nazi camps, the petty cruelties, the sadistic savagery; it is important that we be reminded every once in awhile and reminded in such a way that it overcomes that jaded lack of concern. The horrors of the blood and broken bones of the Nazi camps are the obvious atrocities, but Humbert understands that basic humanity requires that we see that an arm pushed under a locked gate can be a tragic sight.
Still her account of her time in the labor camps raises this second question. Although all of this period (in fact most of the period from her arrest to her eventual release at the American arrival) is presented in the form of a journal, it was all written from memory after the fact. While she was in the camps she had no access to writing materials, nor any place to keep a journal. If anything this is more a memoir than a journal. Julien Blanc in an Introduction written for the 1946 edition and included as an edited Afterword in the present translation raises a number of the questions that need to be asked about this part of the journal and the earlier diary sections as well. How much of what is presented has been modified or rewritten with an eye to publication? In this age of “Fryed” memoirs, it is hard to blame readers for being suspicious. If one questions the completeness of the diary—as indeed, the dearth of most personal information might lead the reader to do—how much more should one question those sections after the diary ended? I do not mean to suggest that the details have been invented, I only mean to suggest that they may well have been sculpted for emotional effect.
That the material has been presented for effect is undeniable. It is written in the same form as the diary although without specific dates. Entries are introduced by place, month and year. Events are recorded as if they had just happened. The explicit suggestion is that these entries are recorded contemporaneously with the events or at least nearly so. It certainly doesn’t suggest that they were written at any distance. Why was the story not presented as a remembrance of things past, if not for the effect of immediacy a diary or a journal predicates? It is not necessary to suggest that there is anything dishonest in this, it is to suggest that there may well be something manipulative.
The book ends with Humbert’s experience with the American forces as she uses her knowledge of German and English to help them deal with the local population and separate the Nazi criminals and their sympathizers from the more “innocent “ bystanders. It is interesting to note that despite her ill treatment, she doesn’t seem to harbor much desire for revenge against the ordinary German citizens. It is only the Nazis that she detests and wants punished. Often she tries to help those, such as the mayor of one village who only joined the Nazi party because he had to to keep his job, who she feels were merely trying to get along under very difficult circumstances. She doesn’t seem to be concerned with the moral question of guilt by silence.
All in all, despite any questions about her methodology, Humbert ‘s account of her wartime experience is a remarkable book, a testament to at least one woman’s ability to maintain her humanity when inhumanity is all around her. On June 11, 1945 she returns to Paris. She falls asleep in the back of the truck that is repatriating them. “I wake up often and think back to all that has happened, to the adventure that for me is reaching its end tonight. I think of my friends. . . . I think of the words of the prophet Isaiah over three thousand years ago: ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares. . . .’”
About the Reviewer: Jack Goodstein is a professor emeritus at California University of Pennsylvania, where he has taught English for more than thirty years. His work has appeared in scholarly journals such as Critique, Theatre Journal and College English and in literary magazines such as The Maine Review, The Small Pond Magazine of Literature and The Jewish Digest. In 1990 at age 51, he tried his hand at acting, and while he has always loved the theatre from the audience, discovered an unexpected addiction to the stage as a performer. Since then he has appeared in more than sixty plays throughout Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania. He has also done film and commercial work. This ultimately led to his attempts at writing for the stage. His one act, Pinochle was given a staged reading at the ATHE conference in Toronto in July of 1999 and was published by the University of Charleston Press. In April 2000, his one act, Poker, was produced by the Pulse Ensemble Theatre in Manhattan as part of their OPAL series. Bride of the Father(2000) and Creative Daydreaming (2001) were produced by the Gallery Players of Park Slope in Brooklyn.