In June 1940, the unthinkable happened: German troops invaded Paris. No one was truly prepared for the panic and the evacuation that followed. French soldiers watched, helpless, as families streamed from the City of Light to the countryside, carrying children and a few possessions in their arms, under fire from aircraft. Total defeat seemed inevitable: the French government, which should have led and protected its people, had fled to Bordeaux, and there was no other leadership in the midst of pain, chaos, numbness, and despair.
And then one voice, from the radio: Charles de Gaulle, speaking from London. All is not lost, he said. We are gathering to fight back. You can help.
Résistance is the stunning memoir of Agnès Humbert, an independent, politically engaged art historian in her 40s with a job at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. When the German invasion came, she was ready to give up, “literally to go mad” with despair. But hearing de Gaulle at the right time, she became determined to resist the new power, “do something,” and she became one of the very first members of one of the first Resistance cells in Paris.
The first part of the book is about her actual work for the Resistance, which lasted about ten months. This portion is absolutely breathtaking, coming straight from the pages of Humbert’s diary. She had many friends in literary circles, and it feels like just that — a circle of friends — that gathers together to create the first broadsheet of anti-German propaganda on a roneo machine belonging to the Musée de l’Homme. Reading about the ridiculous risks these people ran was heart-pounding. They were amateurs; they had no idea about safe concealment or real espionage or sabotage. They knew in an academic sense what they might be risking, but few suspected the truth.
In 1941, Humbert, along with her comrades, was caught and tried. The second portion of the book tells about her time in French prisons, awaiting court dates and going through the motions of a trial whose outcome had already been determined. In the end, the men in the case were executed by firing squad at Mont Valérien, and the women were deported to Germany for forced labor. Despite the fact that the pace of the first part of the book doesn’t give us time to get to know these men and women well, it’s heart-rending to know their fates and see their courage.
The final and longest part of the book is devoted to Humbert’s experiences in Germany. She was sent to a women’s prison, together with German criminals, and forced to work in a rayon mill. Her treatment there was unspeakable, from inadequate food and nonexistent medical care, to the torture of not being allowed to drink as the rayon particles parched her throat, to infected burns on her hands, arms, and eyes from the acid in the machines. After six months, Humbert weighed less than a hundred pounds. Women died, and were replaced by others; prisoners’ lives were cheap under the Third Reich. They froze in winter and boiled and stank in summer; they were beaten for asking for feminine hygiene supplies or to take their shoes off.
And yet through all of this, Humbert retained not only her courage, not only a sense of friendship with the other political prisoners, not only love for her country, but a sense of humor. There’s scarcely a page that doesn’t contain some wicked observation, some self-deprecating laughter at her own situation. She worked industriously at finding new methods of sabotage, causing the rayon to knot and break, loosening the gears of the machines, shearing off shafts of nails. She was called “Madame la Poubelle” (“Mrs. Trash Can”) by her fellow inmates, because she constantly looked for discarded treasures. She never gave up.
And when liberation finally came, she didn’t hesitate. Not for Agnès Humbert the question of who she was once she lost her identity as a prisoner. Immediately, she plunged into the work of denazification, identifying those who would gladly have slipped through loopholes. She helped the Americans, setting up soup kitchens and clinics for refugees. And, at last, she returned to her beloved France, and the family, friends, and work that were waiting for her there.
I am very familiar with stories of resistance. My dissertation was about World War II literature, and from Jean Guéhenno to Albert Camus, I have read the journals and novels and plays of a lot of people who worked against the Germans in one form or another. It always boggles my mind in two ways: first, how can there be so many people who could be so cruel and wicked? and second, how can there be so many people who could be so brave and strong? This memoir, written so vividly, immediately after the war (many Resistance fighters waited years or even decades to write their stories), speaks to both sides of human nature. Agnès Humbert must have been made of steel to survive her treatment, and must have had absolutely pure integrity not to want to take revenge afterward.
I won this book in a drawing over at Random Jottings, and I was partly interested because Elaine spoke so highly of it herself. If you don’t take my word for it, take hers. This book is wonderful. It’s powerful, strong, funny, poignant, and true. Seek it out and read it as soon as you can.