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Brave women, but...
on 21 January 2012
It is interesting that the courageous women who were part of the French Resistance have always had a stronger hold on the public imagination than the men. (All the most successful films about the Resistance are centred on female heroines, not a male hero.) The emphatically female theme of Caroline Moorehead's book isn't a new departure. However her study does add a new aspect to the picture, as we learn how the Nazis send a group of women Resisters out of France, to a more terrible setting.
The book falls into two parts. During the first half (the first 150 pages) we are introduced to a large number of brave women who were active in the Resistance, and we also encounter their family members, plus numerous other characters. I found this first section of the book hard going, the individuality of the women is only lightly sketched in, and the many French names were difficult to hold in mind. I got confused by the various networks of activity and relationship (even though the book is illustrated with snapshots of some of the most prominent women).
At the mid-point of the book the story becomes more focused and gripping, and in fact the book's second half could easily stand by itself. The group of women who are central to the narrative have been captured by the Nazis, separated from their families, and gathered in a prison in Paris. Shortly afterwards they are deported by train, their unknown destination being Auschwitz in Poland. We now get to know this small group rather more closely. We follow their initial shock, and their bravery, and the way they supported each other as they undergo the most unspeakable cruelty and suffering in the death-camp. Many of them do not survive.
The principal theme in the book is the author's interpretation that these women, by mutual sisterly support, gave each other the courage to bear the unendurable. The author embues their relationship with a golden, despairing radiance, and despite the horrifying brutality of the setting, she takes a tenderly romantic view of their friendship. There is no doubting the author's sincerity in this view, but sometimes you do wonder how realistic this romantic interpretation might be. One wonders if this romanticized approach to naked horror can be fair to those who had to endure it ? The brave and lucky women who managed to keep going, who survived and outlived the destruction of the camp regime at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Ravensbruck eventually returned to France.
I found the most moving parts of this story to be the descriptions at the end of the book of how the survivors felt after their return home, and here the women often speak in their own words. The thought of their return home to France was a hope that had sustained them. But as it turned out, their return was never just 'a return to normal': it was an often traumatic re-adjustment, because their experiences continued to haunt them. What they had seen, and what had been done to them, had left painful wounds which almost never healed. They must have longed to 'talk things out', but sometimes relatives and friends just did not want to know what these courageous survivors had been through, a shocking realisation.
The latter half of this book is by far the most memorable, and much of it is sensitively and imaginatively written. There is also a strong sense of the author's empathy with these women as women, and this empathy colours the book. As a man, I did occasionally feel a bit like an intruder into a feminist world. This is a book written by a woman, about women, with female readers in mind (the dust-jacket refers to the author as 'Caroline').
In this book 'men' in general get short shrift ! For example, within the first few pages the author puts her cards on the table. She makes a very startling, categorical, and judgmental statement about the enemy Occupation: "most collaborators were men". This is a surprisingly unconsidered opinion.
In 1942, by the nature of French life 'most collaborators were men', because France was run by men. Women didn't even have the vote. But "collaboration" with the Occupier as the author must know, was rarely so categorical a matter. For ALL French citizens it was an ambiguous, difficult, daily problem from which no one, whether man or woman, could entirely escape.
Whenever the loaded term "collaborator" is used some kind of careful definition is always required. Primo Levi called collaboration "a grey zone", a significant simile, and the author herself quotes Levi's expression. To single out "men" for all the blame suggests an almost hostile bias, and it is very misleading about the nature of a situation that was generally impossible for nearly everyone...and the author fails to mention the veritable industry of female prostitution which (evidence suggests), served the invaders with some enthusiasm...
This well-researched book has a fresh and sometimes very moving perspective on events which must never be forgotten.
For a closer explanation of how individuals (of both sexes) coped with the struggle to survive, I find first-hand accounts to be actually more revealing. In particular, the astonishing "The Nazi Officer's Wife"; Paul Steinberg's stunning "Speak You Also"; and the incomparable "Diaries of Victor Klemperer".