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French Resistance


Paris: City of Shadows

deportes

To the memory of the 112 inhabitants of this building, among them 40 small children, who were deported and who died in German camps in 1942

 

I visited Paris for the first time when I was a twenty-year-old college student. I can close my eyes and remember what the unfamiliar city looked like to me during this initial encounter—the orderliness of the public gardens with their gravel walkways, wooden benches and round-seated metal chairs; the relative smallness of the automobiles; and the historic monuments gleaming under floodlights at night.

Coming from the United States—the New World— the enormous weight of history Paris carried was a visceral shock, especially the buildings: Medieval cloisters, Gothic cathedrals, seventeenth century catacombs, Revolutionary and Napoleonic monuments, and elegant 19th-century apartment blocks. But I was fascinated even more by the traces left behind by the Second World War. Rather than buildings and monuments, the trauma of the war and the Nazi Occupation remains present in mundane, unexpected, and easy-to-overlook markers scattered throughout the city.

There were seats on the metro reserved for the war wounded. The first time I saw these signs, the French term mutilés de guerre, which had originated to refer to wounded veterans from the First World War, stunned me in its graphicness. I was always expecting to see men with empty sleeves or wooden legs sitting in the designated seats. All around the city, I noticed marble plaques on walls commemorating groups and individuals who had struggled and suffered during the Occupation, ranging from Jewish children who had been deported to blind people who had participated in the Resistance, and young men who had died fighting on the streets liberating Paris in August 1944.

During the ten years I spent researching and writing my novel ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS, I realized that the manner in which Paris memorialized Les Années Noires (The Dark Years) was in many ways akin to how it had experienced the war. The city was spared the horrific bombing that devastated London and Berlin. But loss and fear were interwoven into every corner of the city; I realized that my biggest task as a writer was to convey the immediate if mostly commonplace presence of that constant looming terror, even as daily life went on.

Several salient factors about how most Parisians had lived the war came through in everything I learned. It was a dark time both literally and figuratively. There were black outs and black out curtains limiting sight and vision. Political repression backed up by deportation and systemic violence, censorship, self-censorship, and denunciations by neighbors all resulted in a feeling of moral darkness and isolation. In addition to this pervasive gloom, people were hungry. The Germans used France as their breadbasket during the war, taking vast quantities of French agricultural products such as wheat, butter, cheese, and wine, leaving the French to subsist on root vegetables that had formerly been cattle fodder. Parisian grimly joked about the German doryphores (potato bugs) who had made off with all their potatoes. A third factor that came up in all the accounts was how cold people were during the bitter winters of the Occupation. With the German war machine siphoning off oil, gas and coal, there was not much left for heating Parisian apartments and schools.

When I was writing the novel, it was as though every day I left my home in Manhattan and spent a few hours with my characters in their Belleville apartment. I heard the sounds of the concierge’s bucket and mop on the landing. I smelled the dreaded rutabagas cooking in the kitchen. And I shivered with Maral, my narrator and main character, as she bundled into several sweaters before crawling into her glacial bed.

This was the Paris that I traveled to on a daily basis for almost ten years—not the romantic city of my student days, nor the place where on family holiday I took my children to play on the brightly colored climbing structures in the Jardin des Tuileries. It was a somber city, a city of shadows and privation, but also a place where people of conscience worked hard to keep a small light of dignity burning in an inhumane time. Now that I have finished the book, I understand that the Paris of 70 years ago has yet to truly vanish: its ghost-like presence gently marks the city landscape. And now, on my next visit to Paris, I have Maral, her friends, and her family, to walk with me as guides to that almost-hidden past.

Nancy Kricorian
April 2013
New York City

 

This piece originally appeared on the American Library of Paris blog in advance of a book presentation scheduled there on May 15, 2013


A Devotion to Human Dignity

Stéphane Hessel in New York City, October 2012

Stéphane Hessel in New York City, October 2012

 

“Death is a great project, of all experiences it is perhaps the most interesting of all. We shall see what remains and what will be. Life has been beautiful, with awful moments and admirable ones. Death shall perhaps be even more beautiful, who knows!” ~ Stéphane Hessel

Stéphane Hessel (1917-2013) died in his sleep last week at the age of 95.  He was a member of the French Resistance, a Buchenwald survivor, a co-author of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a diplomat, and the author of TIME FOR OUTRAGE (Indignez-Vous!), a pamphlet that sold over 4.5 million copies worldwide and was credited as the inspiration for the Ingidnados Movement, which was a precursor of Occupy. Hessel’s motto, “To resist is to create, and to create is to resist,” became a rallying cry for young people the world over.

It was in his capacity as a juror and the honorary president of the Russell Tribunal on Palestine that I met Stéphane Hessel in London in November 2010. The first time I saw him, I didn’t know anything about him beyond the brief biography in the program, but he spoke the most elegant French I had ever heard, and his charm, grace, and intelligence suffused the auditorium with warmth and humanity as he talked.

When I came back to New York, I sought out his books and learned more about his extraordinary life. His parents were the models for the characters in Truffaut’s film Jules et Jim. He was a hero of the French Resistance, and survived execution at Buchenwald only because a doctor in the camp switched his identity with that of another French prisoner who had died. Hessel entertained himself and others in the camp by reciting the hundreds of poems that he had memorized in French, German and English. (Hessel edited a collection of these poems entitled O ma mémoire: la poésie, ma nécessité that was published in 2006.) He spent a lifetime devoted to causes that embodied his respect for international law and the dignity of each individual. Towards the end of his life, his vocal support for Palestinian human rights resulted in some ugly attacks against his character, but he was not swayed.

I saw Hessel again when he was in New York in October 2012 for the New York session of the Russell Tribunal. He was as inspiring as ever, although a little more frail, having difficulty at times navigating the steps up to the dais where the jurors sat. I noticed as he spoke that most of the people in the room were completely smitten by him. It occurred to me that he had the charisma one expects in movie stars and politicians. What an amazing thing that he had devoted his magnetic personality not to accruing wealth or power, but to the great humanitarian causes of our age.

 

 

Nancy Kricorian