Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Résistance: A Frenchwoman's Journal of the War by Agnès Humbert - 370 pgs

Book CoverRésistance is the harrowing journal and memoir of Agnès Humbert, a middle-aged art historian in Paris, and her experiences in Nazi occupied France during WWII. When Humbert first hears the rumors of an occupation, she is distraught and numb, but soon finds a strong will of opposition inside her. She begins to contact others who are like-minded and is soon embroiled in producing Résistance, a newspaper filled with propaganda, which she and her colleagues distribute anywhere and everywhere they can. Agnès meets several important contacts and knows that danger is only a heartbeat away, for if the Germans find out about her anti-Nazi sentiments and activities, she will be imprisoned. Though she knows the dangers, she continues with her work, only to be brought in for questioning regarding her activities. Following her eventual trial, Agnès is convicted and sent to prison. What ensues is the heart-breaking story of what she was subjected to after being becoming a political prisoner in France, and later Germany.

The first section of this book was given over to the specifics and details of who and what her group of friends did in opposition to the German invasion. Many were implicated, yet as her journal was never found, Agnès was not the cause of any imprisonments or executions. Unfortunately, many of the people responsible for Résistance were tried and convicted anyway. I found this section to be a little dry and methodical. It almost seemed that this part of the book acted as a type of ledger of information, rather than a chronicle. Many of the people were only briefly mentioned, and I had some trouble in understanding who was who and what part they played in the opposition. While I believe that it was important to know the events that led up to her imprisonment, this section seemed a little too matter-of-fact.

The majority of this book was devoted to the time that Agnès spent as a prisoner and laborer. During this time she suffered many abuses at the hands of the Germans. The tortures that she and her fellow prisoners faced in the prison were terrible, from starvation and beatings to severe confinement. Despite their atrocious treatment, the women were able to form friendships and take joy in the company of others, sharing news and small victories with each other. Many would not recant their political ideology even after being subjected to daily bouts of cruel treatment. I found it hard to believe that things could get any worse for them, but when they were moved to a German work camp, what had come before paled by comparison. In the labor camps, it was obvious that life was expendable and cheap. The overseers' attitudes went beyond the malicious and into the area of savagery. They were worked like dogs, with no care given to injuries or illness, and the living conditions and rations were pitiful. While Agnès and her fellow laborers struggled, inhaling caustic chemicals that gave them temporary blindness and suppurating ulcers, they still found ways to share political information and news among themselves. Sometimes these friendships were cut short, as their overseers didn't like their fraternization, and women would be moved to other areas of the workhouse. Agnès, nevertheless, found ingenious ways to sabotage her work, as it was the only way she could oppose the occupation from inside its confinement. She never let them break her spirit, no matter what was forced upon her. When help finally arrived in the form of American troops in April of 1945, Agnès had been imprisoned for 5 years. Despite her experiences, she immediately took charge and helped the American forces seek out fleeing Nazis and created a temporary hospital for the refugees and Germans alike. She took command of many aspects of this new civilian life, and was greatly esteemed by the Allied forces, fellow prisoners and the community.

One of the most amazing thing about this book was Agnès' remarkable wit and sense of humor. No matter what horrors the day brought her, she had an amazingly beautiful spirit that enabled her to continue laughing. She never showed despair and defeat; rather a cynical cleverness in which she documented the sufferings of herself and those around her. Despite all that happened to her and her compatriots, she never let go of her beliefs and fought in the only way she knew how. Agnès never let herself sink into depression, despite her many injuries or disappointments. I very much admired her courage and strength.

This story was both haunting and inspiring. Among the atrocities committed in WWII, this remains a story that is not often heard but that truly needs to be told. It may enlighten others to the fact that Jews were not the only victims of this terrible war. I found myself feeling maudlin and upset while reading this book, but I am glad that I read it. It is a terrible tale, but behind that tale lurks the spirit of of a woman who would not give up, turning a story that could only be ugly into a thing of beauty.


Aarti said...

I'm reading this one now, though it's going quite slowly for me. Maybe because I'm in the beginning part? She is in her first month of prison currently, I think. Good to know it gets better!

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