on 22 August 2008
History books do not normally make for a riveting read, but this has to be an exception! If you have read and enjoyed Suite Francaise read this - it has the same thought-provoking immediacy and will stay with you for a long time. The author has tracked down the unknown and unsung stories of ordinary people living in the eastern Pyrenees during WW II and the hardships and sacrifices they endured can at times be unbearably sad.
Painstakingly researched, Rosemary Bailey has sensitively teased out, and preserved for posterity, the personal testimonies of survivors (now elderly and often reluctant to talk) whose stories could have been lost forever. A chronological account of the course of the war in France is seamlessly interwoven with the stories of local families. Neglected by other chroniclers, the author exposes the misery suffered by refugees from Franco's Spain in French camps. Early (female) Resistance workers are celebrated and the accounts of those helping endangered intellectuals flee the Nazis are reminiscent of the film, Casablanca.
Whereas many ex-pats are content merely to sit drinking wine in the sunshine of their adopted country (and who can blame them?) Rosemary Bailey, who clearly loves the region she now lives in and has such an affinity with, has tirelessly produced a hugely-principled tribute and enduring memorial to the people of the area that has welcomed her - I hope her dedication is appreciated and that this wonderful book reaches the wide audience it so richly deserves.
on 12 August 2008
As a frequent visitor to the Pyrénées-Orientales and a keen hiker in its mountains I only had a vague idea of the area's history. I had occasionally passed an old sentry post above the remote village of Mantet and had known that its occupants were once German troops. I had read some accounts of Pyrenean escape routes. Rosemary Bailey's book is a potent antidote to this lack of knowledge since it thoroughly covers this history in the turbulent period of 1939-1944.
The title "Love and War in the Pyrenees" gives a clue to one of the book's core themes of opposites. In the Spanish Civil War the Republicans fight the Nationalists causing refugees to pour over the Pyrenees, the natural border between Spain and France. Rosemary Bailey's abbey Corbiac is the abode where a young couple, Pierre and Amélie, live before they are parted in the general WW2 mobilisation and the "Phoney War". Both continue to communicate by letter from contrasting locations. When full war breaks out Pétain's collaborating Vichy government is countered by de Gaulle's London-based Free French. The German-backed French Milice (militia) battles the Resistance. Above all, the French Revolution's freedom for Jewish people is overturned by their incarceration in southern camps of appalling hardship. The book covers these opposing sides and the often shady and confusing spectrum between each ideological pole.
Love and War includes the following chapters; Return to the Land, The Spanish Retirada, The Camps of Scorn, A Quaker Refuge, The Phoney War, The Fall of France, Defeat, Surrender on Demand, Escape Networks, Rivesaltes, Occupation, Resistance, Liberation and Reprisal. In addition to this clear chronological account the author covers some history of the area and explains how things are today in order to bookend the story both in the past and in the present. Firsthand descriptions from surviving (and now quite elderly) participants in the events are supplemented by a comprehensive batch of written accounts from those that have passed away.
The writing is learned, the subjects varied and the different threads skilfully brought together. Love and War is a book for those seeking to learn more about the area or for the holidaymakers landing at Perpignan's Rivesaltes airport, heading to either the ski slopes or the beach. It's a reminder of what once happened there, not so far away. Throughout the story, the timeless Pyrenees stands watch over the passing confrontations below until she shows her power in a massive, almost biblical, deluge.
on 11 February 2009
At the end of "Love and War in the Pyrenees," Rosemary Bailey muses that she wishes she could have written a novel about her topic. Yet it occurs to me--as an inveterate reader of novels and not an aficionado of war stories (I was drawn to this one because it deals with Southern France, which is my home)--that with the vividness of its detail, the complexity of its characters, and the suspensefulness of its story this book creates the engagement of the best novels, while at the same time giving evidence of scrupulous and extensive factual research throughout.
"Love and War in the Pyrenees" is an extraordinary journalistic accomplishment for the extent and quality of materials that it brings together--Bailey has woven together countless tiny threads to achieve a tapestry depicting how the war years actually were to those living through them. The elements she combines range from the sensuously concrete to the broadly philosophical: the ingredients and the aroma of a country soup for a schoolboy who'd barely eaten in days, Sartre's pronouncements on the existential freedom of choosing between loyalty to the Resistance and escape from torture, what fleeing refugees felt on their skin and "in their bones" in a Pyreneean mountain pass on an icy winter night after hours of walking in the dark, what Cocteau's lover wore (turquoise trousers and an ocelot vest) as he hid among gypsies. Bailey goes to ground for primary sources of all kinds, walking the remote trails to freedom in Spain, interviewing veterans on every side of the conflict, reading between the lines of local newspapers which were forbidden to criticize the occupying government but whose police column reported that one person went to jail for stealing a cauliflower and another for making a disrespectful gesture when Petain's name was mentioned. Part of the suspensefulness and engagement she creates is via taking the reader with her on her own process of discovery. She relates how, on listening to a highly emotional survivor describe experiences in the Rivesaltes concentration camp, she "found [her] English self squirming at her histrionic manner," but then Bailey's own empathy deepened as she realized what the story meant to those who had lived it. Thus her book is very much a story of the present as well as of the past. I found it by turns beautiful, horrifying, painful and exalting--anything but a dry history that has "nothing to do with now."
on 21 December 2008
Of all the many books I've read that deal with the Resistance in France during World WarII,this is the absolute best. Somehow, Rosemary Bailey got the few survivors of those bad old days, along with some of their children, grown now, to relive and recount those times, and with astonishing candor. This book is like the mortar between the stones of all the acts of cruelty, terror and heroism the inhabitants of the region lived through. Bailey has taken testimonies from the brave ones and the ones who caved in to the Nazis and their cats' paw "collabos" and constructed one of the finest histories of those times ever written. This book must be included in the ordinary amazing stories of those fraught times. The writing is first-rate and carries the reader along through it all: the guides who risked everything to help people cross into Spain--fleeing the Nazis--and those who brought refugees from Spain into France. Don't forget to breathe. BY KENNETH WEAVER
on 25 May 2012
This is one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time.
I knew nothing about these events before coming to stay in the 66 department of France. Then I saw a commerative march by descendants of Spanish refugees and started to ask a few questions. A couple of people I trust talked about this book with great enthusiasm.
The author is dealing with some big themes. First, there is the great tide of refugees trying to leave Spain at the end of the Civil War. Then there is life under Vichy in the unoccupied zone. Then the Germans move in and there is the inevitable massacre. Concentration camps, deportation, betrayal, denunciation, even a major natural catastrophe. There is a lot to cover.
Most of the participants have spoken very little of these events.. So it is not just a question of copying from prior histories. The author had to get out and meet the participants, encouraging them to tell stories they had kept hidden for over fifty years. The author becomes a true historian, trying to connect sometimes contradictory versions of events.
At times, it is possible to get a bit lost in all the details, all the events, particularly if you have not read the book for a couple of days. But the author performs admirably in bringing together the different threads.
Very interesting. Profoundly moving.
on 12 June 2012
I have newly discovered this author and was compelled to send her my first fan letter in many years. She does her research well, writes intensely and with passion about her adopted region - the portion of the French Roussillon, adjacent to the Spanish borders. Rosemary Bailey is an experienced travel writer and uses her personal knowledge of this fascinating region with its borders of mountain and sea, to explore the legal and psychological frontiers between Franco's Spain and Vichy France - wave upon wave of refugees fled to French Catalonia from 1936, escaping the mess of the Spanish Civil War, soon followed in the other direction by streams of Jewish and other dispossessed escaping the realities of life and death under Fascist occupation. Ms Bailey interviewed many survivors of both exoduses, and their descendants, traced their routes over wintry passes, and seeks also to debunk some of the myths that grew up around the role of the Resistance in the area. Her conclusions over the complicity of many in the treatment of the Jews, and the guilty scapegoating over fraternising women in the postwar period make for uncomfortable reading for francophiles. If Alan Turing and his team had not succeeded in intercepting U-boat messages and allowed wartime food supplies to reach Britain in the nick of time, would we too have had our sovereignty breached? How would our own grandparents have behaved under pressure? Who would have got the blame?
on 10 September 2009
Rosemary Bailey has revealed to me what really happened in southern France in the World War II. Originally from south-east England, I now live in the Pyrenees-Orientales and through her book I now see the war in a different perspective. It also helps explain the attitude of local people to various aspects of life; when I'm in the mountains, I see their looming presence with new eyes and try to imagine the human struggles that went on among the forests of this great natural barrier between France and Spain. I recommend this book to any English person seeking to truly integrate into life in southern France.
on 15 June 2013
This is just wonderful: a mixture of travel writing and history from an author who knows her subject intimately (she has lived for years in the place she writes about, and done the legwork tracking people down to get their stories from them first hand). She writes about an area of France which is less familiar than most to a British public at least, and which experienced a war quite different from that of other areas. In the 1930s, waves of Spanish refugees came in over the Pyrenees, fleeing Franco; and in the 1940s, waves of refugees went the other way, fleeing Hitler. Not surprisingly, this yields a harvest of superb stories which Bailey writes up with the correct degree of human respect and an author's distance.
Edward Stourton has recently put out a hasty book about roughly the same subject: don't bother. Get this one instead, it's the original.
on 12 October 2011
Creating a good title for this review was hard, because the book operates at many levels, and is hard to categorise.
However, it is excellent and highly recommended. Starting from the love letters written by former owners of the author's new French house. The book begins to explore life in a specific part of the Eastern Pyranees in the build up to the WWII (during the Spanish civil war), and during the war.
Using the letters as a starting point provides a powerful personal insight into the experience of the war, and this feeling of living through a war from an individual standpoint is maintained. As the book progresses, we leave the story of this couple behind and explore the war in this region from a wide variety of authentic local voices, many speaking on record for the first time. All the time informed by the author's own reflections. As we travel with her, her voyage of discovery is also our own.
I have read many books and wars, and about this war. I don't think I have ever read anything that managed to
convey the extraordinary complexity of war at an individual level so well; particularly for the ordinary people. Particularly how no-one can remain uninvolved, however much they want to do so. The book covers the multiple effects war inflicts on all - aggressors, victims, and "opposition" (to avoid saying resistance). The author movingly describes the effect of the war on the daily existence of those who would prefer a peaceful life. Looking back at this today we see how very few can feel totally free of guilt, and how the impact has continued across generations.
The book's search for authentic personal truthS (plural) reflects the complexity of history, like a napkin folded to the shape of the mountain Canigou, which overshadows both the region and the book. It reveals much which needed to be told, but is also
indicative of the other stories that are yet untold, and the people who never wanted to tell them. A hint of why that is so. As I finished the book, I felt I could really appreciate why many feel that way.
This book is a rare treat: a moving and well-written history book/travelogue, from a writer with a considerable personal knowledge of the area she writes about and an intimate acquaintance with the people who live there. Although my knowledge of these events was scanty to say the least, I was immediately interested in the book and soon found myself engrossed in this record of the social and military crises that hit this corner of France.
Rosemary Bailey has lived in the for several years and has been able to lace her book with many personal accounts of visits to elderly survivors of the war years and their relatives. This gives the book a unique perspective on the effects of a World War on a remote, underpopulated area of Europe which found itself on a vital escape route which saw hundreds of thousands of people pass through as they fled from a tyranny coming from the south and later the north.
The story starts with the Spanish Civil War, when in 1939 huge numbers of Republican Spanish saw that their only hope of survival (after the victory of the army of General Franco) was to cross the mountains into France. Rosemary Bailey describes the impact on this area as the initially hospitable French peasants did their best to cater for the vast crowds arriving on their doorstep, but rapidly found their civil leaders adopting repressive methods of containing the tide. By February 1939, the arrival of 500,000 refugees had doubled the population of the Pyrenees Orientale region. It was impossible for this largely rural population to cope with such a tidal wave of starving, distressed people and the response of the authorities was to set up barbed-wire bounded camps on the beaches.
Conditions at Argeles and its neighbouring towns were initially dreadful. Families had to camp on the sand, digging channels and burrows to shelter from the wind and rain. There were no sanitation facilities and food was thrown over the fences for them to fight over. By the following summer, more camps had been built and tents and wooden huts at last protected the people from the elements. But it is estimated that 15,000 people perished in the appalling conditions of the first few months of the camps.
Interestingly, the great cellist Pablo Casals escaped to the region and remained there after the war, saying, "Prades felt like my own country. It was still Catalonia". The author turns up several personal anecdotes about Cassals which any admirer of the musician will want to read.
There is renewed local interest in these events and it is gratifying to read of the annual commemorative walk which takes place each winter retracing the route across the mountains from Spain. The author writes movingly of her journey in warm anorak and boots while remembering "the desperate families carrying children, dragging animals and carts, struggling to hang on to precious bags and suitcases".
The author moves on to describe the impact of the fall of France in 1940, when the whole nation fell to the German forces within a period of six weeks. The Pyrenees region was largely allowed to continue as it always had, and in some ways, the traditionalist policies of the Vichy government (family values, return to the land and love of nation) matched the values of the people rather well. However, refugees soon began travelling from the north in an attempt to escape Nazi rule via Spain or Portugal and were helped by the French Resistance in the region who put them in touch with guides who would escort them across through the bewildering complexities of the mountain tracks.
We read much about life under the Vichy government and also about the Free French goverment in London who broadcast every night from Radio Londres. I was pleased to read of one adolescent boy who copied out messages broadcast from the radio and sent them through the post to a variety of people including the director of the postal services. This exactly mirrors the actions of Otto Quangel in Alone In Berlin by Hans Fallada which I reviewed on A Common Reader only last week.
Rosemary Bailey and her husband lived until recently in an old Abbey which they purchased some 20 years ago when it was largely ruined. They soon became aware of the history of their new home, and were lent a collection of letters sent between a husband and wife during the war years. Pierre was a doctor and was conscripted into the army, while his wife Amalie remained at home to care for her baby and to tend the family's small-holding. These letters from a fascinating section of the book where we read of the hardships of a loan woman tending a plot of land in this mountainous region while Pierre is close to the action in Northern France and returns home, walking the final section through the forests and pastures of the Pyrenees.
It is interesting to read about the major contribution of British Quakers to the task of caring for refugees. At a time when the British Quaker movement has gone into steep decline due to an ageing membership, and it is good to be reminded of the brave stance taken by so many Quakers who suffered imprisonment for their conscientious objection and then carried out tasks which could have resulted in their imprisonment or death at the hands of the Nazis.
The book moves on through the liberation and the inevitable reprisals that followed. In a helpful epilogue the author brings things together explaining the importance of what happened in the Pyrenees region and recording the contributions of those who resisted the Nazis, whether the Resistance, the Spanish partisans, the Quakers, the priests who defied the Church hierarchy and the countless citizens and officials who carried out small acts of defiance to interfere with German progress in the region.
This is a rewarding and humane read for anyone who is interested in how the War affected Britain's nearest neighbour, and is a stark reminder that the peaceful south-west region of France knew a time of immense turmoil a mere 70 years ago.
Ed Stourton's book Cruel Crossing: Escaping Hitler Across the Pyrenees may also be of interest to those who wish to read more about wartime journeys across the Pyrenees from north to south.