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Caroline Moorehead

A war of words

Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France, by Agn&egrave;s Humbert<br /> <br type="_moz" />

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Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France

Agnès Humbert

Bloomsbury, pp. 370, £

Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France, by Agnès Humbert

Paradoxically, wrote Jean Paul Sartre, never had French intellectuals been so free as they were under the German occupation, for having lost all normal rights to speak out, each was forced to question every thought and ask himself: ‘Rather than death...?’ In practice, most of the writers and academics who remained in France after 1940 simply kept their heads down and went on with their own work. Sartre himself had several of his plays staged. There was, however, a number of these men and women for whom collaboration of any kind was immediately intolerable. One of these was a 46-year-old art historian and ethnographer, divorced mother of two adult sons, called Agnès Humbert.

The Musée de l’Homme was one of Paris’s most prestigious museums. On its staff, and working closely with it, was a group of gifted curators, scientists, teachers and writers, politically to the Left, who, discovering a shared sense of fury against the invader, decided to set up one of the first resistance networks in occupied France. Apart from Humbert, there were Boris Vildé, a specialist in the polar regions, Anatole Lewitsky, a world expert on Siberian shamanism, and Jean Cassou, a celebrated cultural and political figure of prewar France. At a time when most Parisians were still stunned by the rapidity with which France had fallen, they began to meet to exchange news learnt from BBC radio broadcasts, write summaries, and produce and distribute pamphlets and flyers. Soon, anti-German and anti-Vichy material was to be seen pasted on walls, scattered throughout the metro, tucked into the windscreens of parked cars and plastered throughout universities and schools. In November, they started a newspaper, Résistance.

For a while, the very newness of what they were doing offered them some kind of protection. But not for long. Though extremely brave, they were amateurs at concealment and subterfuge, and they proved no match for the Germans, long experts in anti-Resistance operations. By April 1941, the group from the Musée de l’Homme had been tracked down and arrested. Humbert had started a diary shortly before the arrival of the Germans. She continued it, whenever she could, in the various prisons — Cherche-Midi, la Santé, Fresnes — in which she was held awaiting trial. The outcome for the group was never in doubt. By the winter of 1941,Resistance newspapers, tracts and propaganda attacking the occupiers were appearing all over the capital and the Germans had decided on exemplary punishments. The seven men were executed by firing squad in February 1942. Humbert and two other women were condemned to five years’ slave labour, to be served alongside common criminals in Germany. At this stage of the war, deportation did not yet mean concentration and extermination camps.

Résistance, Humbert’s account of her war years, is written throughout as a diary, but only the first and last sections were actually recorded at the time. What she described later, after liberation, was remembered, but her recall of the harshness and misery of slave labour was, she wrote, absolutely clear. And it was indeed appalling. Not least of the fascinating sections of this remarkable book is Humbert’s matter-of-fact, unsentimental picture of the savage treatment meted out by the Germans to their Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Belgian, French and German slave-labourers. The women were starved, beaten, bullied and denied all medical care or comfort.

Sent first to a factory producing rayon, Humbert discovered a world of highly dangerous working conditions, acute hunger and sickness. The acid used in the process burned the workers’ skin and caused several to go blind. Some escaped the pain by killing themselves. Later, after Allied bombers destroyed the factory, came spells working for a brutal private contractor, digging trenches and mixing cement, and then making crates for munitions. Everywhere conditions were inhuman and everywhere Humbert engaged in small acts of sabotage. The days were punctuated by rumours of imminent German defeat, but the end never seemed to come. Humbert craved books. How was it, she asked herself, that having lived her life in literature, she could summon up so little of it in her memory.

With liberation by the Americans came a last chapter in this singular book. Rather than leaving immediately for France, Humbert, who spoke good English and German, helped identify and hunt down Nazis, some of them hiding out in the surrounding forests. The anger and furious determination that helped her survive three years of captivity were now brought to bear on flushing out the men and women who had tortured and tormented their captives, though Humbert was careful to acknowledge acts of kindness and humanity. After her return to Paris, she became one of 26 Resistance fighters to petition for the release of Ernst Roskotchen, the judge who had sentenced the Musée de l’Homme group. He had demonstrated, she wrote, both fairness and courtesy.

When her son, Pierre, first caught sight of his mother, standing in a group of returned deportees, he spoke of seeing ‘long-haired, transparent creatures’. Humbert never really recovered her health, but she returned to her work and quickly set about recreating the diary begun in the summer of 1940. It was published as Notre Guerre in 1946, and was one of the first accounts of Paris under the occupation and of the torments suffered by slave-labourers. Only now has it been translated into English, skillfully and smoothly, by Barbara Mellor. With its precise and moral tone and its humane perceptiveness, it is an extraordinary story.

The French clandestine press, the ‘war of words’ with which the Resistance first took on their German occupiers, may not have changed the course of the war, and it certainly led to countless arrests, deportations and executions. After all, the seven men from the Musée de l’Homme and many printers and distributors, responsible for what was later estimated at some 1,024 Resistance newspapers, an entire run of books — Les Editions de Minuit — and many hundreds of thousands of tracts and pamphlets, went before the German firing squads. But in a city condemned to silence, they gave Parisians back their voices, and with them a belief that liberation would finally come. The small group of pioneers in the Musée de l’Homme, of which Humbert was a crucial founding member, led the way.