I have been extraordinarily fortunate recently with the calibre of books that I have received with a seemingly endless stream of page turning, totally absorbing publications and feel that surely this run of luck must run out soon. Not yet I hope.
Last week I finished Resistance by Agnes Humbert. When the German army invaded Paris in 1940, Agnes Humbert a strong minded, politically aware art historian, immediately knew that she had to 'do something', the thought of accepting the invasion was anathema to her and she helped to form one of the first organised groups of the French Resistance. The speed with which this was set up and began to operate was staggering. She had excellent contacts and friends in literary and journalistic circles and an underground newspaper, combating the German propaganda machine, was printed and circulated around Paris. It was simply amazing that they managed to keep this going and out of the hands of the authorities for nearly a year before they were betrayed and she was arrested and thrown into prison. Seven of the men who founded the group died by firing squad and Agnes, while escaping the death penalty, was sentenced to five years in a German labour camp.
She had kept a diary up to her imprisonment and she completed it after liberation in 1945. Unable to keep a written record of her experiences she recreated them afterwards, relying on her memory alone. This gives this fascinating book a contrast in writing, the earlier diary memories dashed down quickly on a daily basis, breathless and eager to get everything on paper as it happened; the later reflections more considered even though she wrote at top speed in 1945 after the was liberated and before her memories faded. 'I remember everything as clearly as it it was written in notebooks' everything was recorded in memory and all she had to do was slowly turn the pages.
She worked in a factory spinning materials for uniforms for the German troops, often working a 12 hour shift, with little food and having to stand for hours, weak with fatigue
"My feet are absolute agony and we'll be standing here for hours. I have a brainwave. I ask permission to take off my awful shoes (my insteps are bleeding) and wrap my feet in the lengths of rayon that are scattered all round........the director on Anrath (the factory) is going to carry out an inspection and I was told I should stand to attention when he arrives....he stops in front of me asking me viciously why I have taken off my shoes. I explain. He replies: 'Very good you will be severely punished' and with that promise he leaves me'.
Despite all this Agnes makes sure that she causes the cotton to knot and break and does her best to carry out minor acts of sabotage which will cause maximum inconvenience. Later, when she is set to making boxes, once she has hammered in the nails, she makes sure she shears them off so that the crates will fall apart as soon as possible. Such actions continue throughout her five years and these small rebellions strengthen her will and help to keep her going even when her weight plummets and she is given the nickname 'Ghandi' as she is so bony and skeletal.
In this closed world, with teachers and professors working cheek by jowl with prostitutes and murderers, the solidarity and camaraderie among the prisoners assumes the importance of life saving proportions. Friendships of exceptional intensity are formed, generally between prisoners who hardly ever see each others faces and who have little time for intimate chat or gossip though at first Agnes had harsh words for the criminals with whom she was in such close proximity: 'Wretched faces, vicious and primitive, a collection of gallows birds, thieves, syphilitic prostitutes and murderers'.
Once liberation took place and the prisoners were all released by the incoming American army, Agnes embarked on important work with them. With her fluent German and English and her knowledge of the workings of the Nazi camp system, she made herself indispensable and In an amazingly short space of time her authority and energy restored, she was put in charge of administration of the town where they were billeted organising local prison camps, provision of shelter and food and first aid to refugees.
The rapidity with which she shed her identity as a political prisoner after four years of imprisonment is quite astounding and a tribute to her strength of personality and intelligence. After the war she became a founder and president of her local group of a left wing organisation Fighters for Freedom, and in 1949 was awarded the Croix de Guerre.
For many years this book Notre Guerre, was out of print and unobtainable though when it was first published in 1946 it caused quite a stir. It was one of the first books written about the Resistance and written while memories were fresh and, according to the Afterword, historians were immediately aware of this testimony and its value has continued to be recognised ever since.
I found Agnes' story to be profoundly moving, it took my breath away at times and also made me laugh, as she had a wicked sense of humour. Whenever I read a book such as this, and one that is a true story as well, I am staggered at the bravery displayed under fire. It makes me feel very humble and also makes me wonder just how I would behave and act if placed in such circumstances. I am thankful that I have never had to find out, but gosh a document such as this does make you think.
'We listened to the news from Paris ...the new from Paris! after that there was dance music and we danced and danced and I reminded St George (US Commander) of the ball on the even of the Battle of Waterloo. Yes, tomorrow would be Hitler's Waterloo! St George had a bottle of champagne tucked in his jacket....words cannot describe the extraordinary atmosphere, the exultation, the harrowing pain, the animal delight in satisfying our hunger, the embraces......C'est la guerre!'
A wonderful wonderful book and one that will stay in my memory for a longtime to come. I urge you to seek, buy and read.