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Agn�s Humbert's Wartime Diary 'R�sistance' - September 24, 2008 - The New York Sun

Agn�s Humbert's Wartime Diary 'R�sistance'


By SIMON KITSON | September 24, 2008

Mystery continues to surround Agn�s Humbert's diary. The subject


matter is clear enough: It describes the struggle of a French
Resistance heroine against Nazi oppression. But many questions
remain unanswered. Why one of the founders of a Resistance movement
felt it judicious to commit to paper detailed daily accounts of her
activity is baffling. Where did she store her journal to prevent its
secrets falling into the hands of the Gestapo when she was arrested?
The exact circumstances of the diary's writing will probably never
be discovered, but we do know that all the entries after April 1941
were written from memory after the war. Did writing after the event
make it less valuable as a historical document? The myriad
historians who have regularly cited it since its original French
publication as "Notre Guerre" in 1946 would suggest otherwise.
Now, for the first time, the text is available in English expertly
translated by Barbara Mellor as "R�sistance: A Woman's Journal of
Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France" (Bloomsbury, 384 pages,
$27). In fact, the English title is slightly misleading. Whilst the
author's spirit of resistance is present throughout, almost
two-thirds of the book is set in Nazi Germany. The text can be
divided into four sections: The first is an account of her role as a
founding member of one of the earliest organizations to resist the
Nazis following France's defeat of June 1940. Part two paints a
harrowing picture of a year in French prisons following her arrest.
The third section sees Humbert laboring as a slave worker in camps
and factories around Germany. Finally, following their arrival in
that country, the Allies recruited her to help hunt down former
Nazis.

Humbert started out as an artist, a disciple of the symbolist


painter Maurice Denis, before training as an art historian. Her job
in a Paris museum brought her into contact with other members of
what would become the Groupe du mus�e de l'Homme, a resistance
organization established within the first three months of Nazi
occupation. It is in covering this angle that the diary is
particularly remarkable, charting as it does the beginnings of
resistance from the perspective of those involved. Humbert was aware
that the early work of the movement was of limited practical use and
that her pro-Allied propaganda would most likely preach only to the
already converted or "like-minded souls." But when she saw the Nazis
censoring books and mistreating French POWs, she realized that she
must do something. This something ranged from scribbling "long live
de Gaulle" on banknotes (in reference to the Free French leader) to
helping publish and distribute a clandestine newspaper, R�sistance.
By December 1940, she was exploring more military avenues of
activity � gathering intelligence about German airfields. What
stands out most is the camaraderie between Resisters and their
shared ability to see hope where others would find only despair.
But a Resistance put together by amateurs was inevitably riddled
with amateur errors. They were slow to adopt pseudonyms, slow to
develop elementary security procedures. Predictably, the Germans
began to infiltrate their organization. Friends disappeared. The
structure collapsed as arrest followed arrest. In April 1941,
Humbert herself was caught, leaving behind a dependent, elderly
mother in poor health.

The next 11 months were spent awaiting trial in the German wings of
various Parisian prisons. Lying in her prison cell, Humbert imagined
her life ending. Unsurprisingly, prison was a depressing place: The
walls were stained with blood where previous prisoners had been
beaten, and boredom was a perpetual problem.

What pulled Humbert through was, again, the comradeship of fellow


Resisters who, imprisoned along with her, found ways of
communicating despite their isolation in locked prison cells. All
but one of the prisoners in Humbert's wing were women, a reminder of
the important, and often underestimated, role women played in the
Resistance. The exception was "Jean-Pierre," who turned out to be
none other than Honor� d'Estienne d'Orves, one of the earliest
Resistance martyrs. As with her descriptions of subsequently famous
members of her own movement, her portrayal of d'Estienne d'Orves
bestows on him a more down-to-earth image than the postwar
mythologized version. Rather than the somewhat cold figure of
popular memory, we see his charismatic side here, encouraging his
fellow inmates to sing the "Marseillaise" and to trust him with
their confidences. Humbert did not share the fate of d'Estienne
d'Orves, sentenced to death and subsequently executed. (Generally,
women did not face the death penalty in the early days of
occupation.) Her punishment was to be deported to Germany for five
years' hard labor.

Humbert's representations of both Germany and the Germans are


noteworthy. Not all Germans are simplistically tarred with the same
brush, since not all succumbed to the contamination of Nazism. That
Humbert praised the fairness of the judge who sentenced her should
not be attributed to her usually sarcastic sense of humor. Indeed,
in 1945 she was one of 26 former Resisters who campaigned to have
Judge Roskothen released from the prison cell where the liberated
French had interned him. She even sent him a signed copy of "Notre
Guerre."

But more often than not, Nazism brought out the very worst in people
� particularly in prison staff. Some guards found entertainment in
the prisoners' suffering. Petty punishments were commonplace.
Thirsty prisoners were deprived of water and being able to wash
regularly was no longer an automatic right. Neither was going to the
toilet. The daily diet consisted of little more than bread and
watery soup. By June 1943, Humbert had lost 35 pounds of body
weight. Inmates were always at the mercy of the elements with
accommodation offering little protection from the extremes of
excessive heat and cold. In any event, slave work in a Nazi factory
was no sinecure. For Humbert, the worst experience was making rayon
(artificial silk) at the Phrix factory in Krefeld. The work was
dangerous as the acid used in rayon production burnt holes in the
skin and caused temporary blindness. No protective clothing was
available and medical care was rudimentary and dispensed only when
jailers felt disposed to offer it. The best way to soothe acid burns
was to urinate on one's wounds. There was no special status for
political prisoners, who were mixed in with common criminals,
murderers, and prostitutes, and they were forced to share drinking
vessels with the syphilitic.

Despite temporarily succumbing to depression, Humbert managed to


survive her ordeal through a combination of a natural optimism, the
solidarity of some of her fellow inmates, and a determination to
sabotage the work she was given. "R�sistance" is the story of a
remarkable woman, of courage, and of an ability to deal with the
harshest conditions. It is both paradoxical and inexplicable that
this respected and important manuscript was out of print for nearly
60 years.

Mr. Kitson is director of research at the University of London


Institute in Paris (ULIP) and author of "The Hunt for Nazi Spies:
Fighting Espionage in Vichy France."

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