post archive

French Resistance


In Central Park last week, on a bird walk in the North Woods led by an Audubon Society naturalist, we saw a Cooper’s Hawk perched regally in a tree, an immature Great Blue Heron fishing in the Loch, four Northern Flickers, and a half dozen species of warblers that were passing through on their way south, in addition to the abundant Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, European Starlings, and American Robins that call the park home. The fall wildflowers—Canada Goldenrod, Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, White Snakeroot, Spotted Jewelweed, and several varieties of Aster—were in bloom. When the cruel and venal doings of human animals are cause for despair, I take solace in the natural world.


I was considering delaying this post until after the Kavanagh “situation” had resolved itself one way or the other, assuming that we will be flattened by despair when the Republicans steamroller the Democrats and the rest of us. It has been almost eviscerating to watch the hearings and then follow the sham FBI probe, and the change in tack by the Republicans to undermine and insult the women who came forward with accusations. I have been “triggered” by Kavanagh’s words, his gestures, his petulance, and his arrogance. I wasn’t alone—tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of women were angry, distraught, and horrified by the spectacle of ruling class white male privilege and power that played out in the Senate hearings and in the political maneuvering that followed.


Each day there is a new assault on our values and the most vulnerable among us—migrant children warehoused in a tent camp in Texas, gay diplomats’ partners denied visas, the planned weakening of mercury regulations, and revisions to the Department of Justice web site reflecting a harsher stance on kids who are accused of crimes, to name just a few.


But we can’t let them beat us down into apathy and hopelessness. We have to remember the great Soviet Jewish writer Vasily Grossman’s admonition: “In the cruel and terrible time in which our generation has been condemned to live on this earth, we must never make peace with evil. We must never become indifferent to others or undemanding of ourselves.” Grossman lived through World War II, he was a journalist traveling with Russian troops as they liberated Treblinka, his mother was murdered during the massacre at Berdichev, and he survived Stalin’s purges, although his masterwork, the incredible World War II novel Life and Fate, was “arrested” by the Soviets and was not published until after his death.


As Grossman put it: “Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.” I am not so sanguine as to think that individual acts of kindness are enough in the face of the systemic violence and the cruel policies that we are confronting, many of which are just harsher and unapologetic versions of policies that were put in place during previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic. But while we do all that we can through making irate phone calls to elected officials, joining in strategic electoral organizing, supporting grassroots campaigns run by unions and groups on the front lines, and volunteering with local organizations advocating for the most vulnerable people, creatures, landscapes, and institutions, we can also try to make the world a little less dismal by being kind.


Charles Aznavour, French-Armenian singer, songwriter, actor, and philanthropist, died this week, and I leave you with an old blog post about his family’s small role in the French Resistance and a video of a classic performance of his song “La Bohème.”









Paris: City of Shadows


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