Tuesday, January 19, 2010


I finished reading Agnes Humbert's amazing book last night, Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France, first published in French in 1946. She was an art historian in Paris and one of the founding members of one of the first Resistance cells. She survived French prison and German labour camps and continued her work against fascism after the war until her death in 1963.

Here are some passages that I find particularly interesting - this from William Boyd’s Preface: Agnes Humbert was 43 years old in 1939 when the war began, a respected art historian, left-wing ‘intello’, and the divorced mother of two grown-up sons. She wasn’t a ‘firebrand’, or young; she was comfortably off and had a reputation, a good job in a museum, yet she simply could not stand by and do nothing. She became one of the first members of one of the first resistance cells in France, and the journal she kept at the time charts her slow evolution from angry, unfocussed patriot to active Resistance member: disseminating black propaganda, publishing an underground newspaper, passing on military information and sheltering Allied airmen.

From Agnes Humbert’s Chapter 1, The Fall of the Third Republic, Palais de Chaillot, Paris, 7 June, 1940 – The entire population is leaving Paris; we are living in an atmosphere of panic; people seem to have lost all capacity for reasoned thought…

Vicq-sur-Brueil, 20 June 1940 – My heart, meanwhile, is filled with the scenes of savagery I have witnessed over the last nine days, on a journey that defies belief. [This reminds me of Irene Nemirovsky’s harrowing account of the Nazi occupation of Paris in her unforgettable book Suite Francaise.]

From Chapter 2, Paris Under the Swastika, Paris, 6 August, 1940 – The only remedy is for us to act together, to form a group of ten like-minded comrades, no more…I don’t harbor many illusions about the practical effects of our actions, but simply keeping our sanity will be success of a kind…

Paris, 7 August 1940 – Stefan Zweig’s latest book, Spinoza

Paris, 15 August 1940 – Will the people who produced 33 Conseils a l’occupe (33 Hints to the Occupied) ever know what they have done for us, and probably for thousands of others? A glimmer of light in the darkness…now we know for certain that we are not alone. There are other people who think like us, who are suffering and organizing the struggle: soon a network will cover the whole of France, and our little group will be just one link in a mighty chain.

Paris, late December 1940 – We can’t let it happen. And to stop it happening we have to kill. Kill like wild beasts, kill to survive. Kill by stealth, kill by treachery, kill with premeditation, kill the innocent. It has to be done, and I will do it. ..What a filthy business!

Paris, January 1941 – Many of us will be shot, and all of us will go to prison.

Paris, 20 January, 1941 – He thinks propaganda is more important in the free zone than in the occupied zone, Vilde agrees with him: they argue that in the occupied zone the Germans do our job for us, whereas in the free zone the plague is less noticeable to ill-informed eyes, ears, nostrils and – most important of all – minds.

Paris, 8 April 1941 – He said that he hated Nazism for three reasons: because he is French, Jewish and a socialist.

Paris, Easter, 13 April 1941 – Together we are the tiny, insignificant characters in these illustrations to a ‘footnote to history’. My memoir will be one among many: its one virtue will be its absolute faithfulness to the truth. My comrades who were there will know the palette I have used to paint these pictures is deliberately muted, les lurid than the reality. That is my choice. These are images like old prints, clumsily engraved so that here and there the colours leak and run.
Images without art; images of truth.

From Chapter 3, In the Prison du Cherche-Midi, 17 April 1941 – Now and then a small shadow passes overhead and is outlines against the wall. It takes me a long time to work out where these come from: they are the shadows of birds as they flit over the yard. The shadow of a bird is a thing of beauty, especially against a somber prison wall.

Prison de Fresnes, 17 February 1942 – The judge is pale; I’ve never seen a man so pale: he has said that his duty as a German is harsh. Today it is clear that his words were genuine. Passing these sentences is painful to him. He respects and admires the men whom he is about to condemn to death.

From Chapter 6, In the Communal Cell, Prison de la Sante, 19 February – 16 March 1942 – Rachel was the heroine of the dorm. She was recovering with difficulty from her frostbitten feet, which were black to the ankles. It was thanks to the incessant demand as of the nurse, “Sister” Lia, that Rachel had been transferred to the heated fourth section from the freezing cold first section. When she arrived at La Santé, Rachel was hemorrhaging badly. Naturally, according to the custom here, she was not given so much as a scarp of cotton wool to mop up the blood, and for five days and five nights she had nothing to either eat or drink. None of which prevented them from dragging her off every day for interrogations. She was forced to watch as her elderly father and her brother were beaten up by French policemen. Rachel never gave in, never talked. Her brother Fernand Zalkinoff was a group leader and a remarkable character. He was eighteen and there were seven in his group, all the same age. They derailed trains carrying German Soldiers going home on leave and set fire to the fodder for German Horses, before they were caught, tortured and shot. I was there when the captain came into our cell to inform Rachel officially of the death of her beloved brother. It was he, the German, who was forced to lower his gaze, deeply moved by this admirable little Jewish communist, just twenty-three years old. The German would have preferred tears, screams, insults – anything rather than this contemptuous silence. When the cell door closed behind him, Rachel said simply: ‘I can’t believe that Fernand isn’t thinking any more.’ She didn’t say another word.

From Chapter 7, Forced Labor, Krefeld, Whit Monday, 1942
– Oh, what a great and wonderful feeling! It’s a magnificent day. Just before we leave for work, I go back up to the dormitory. In the quietness I hear the drone of an aeroplane, and instinctively I look up at the sky, so blue and not a cloud to be seen. And yet – what is that white shape there that the aeroplane has just traced? A hammer and sickle! Will he ever know, that unknown airman, how many hearts welled with joy on this spring day because of him? Will he ever know how much this emblem of work – of work freely consented to – means to a humiliated prisoner exhausted by slave labour?

Krefeld, May 1942 – Alone at last, I doze off to the sound of the intensive bombing of Cologne, musing mournfully on how many people’s lives will be extinguished tonight. Yet this massacre has to be…..

Krefeld, July 1942 – Another firm belief to which most of subscribe is that it is categorically out of the question that bombs dropped by friendly aeroplanes could possibly ham us.

From Chapter 8, At the Phrix Rayon Factory, Krefeld, 5 October 1942
– Yesterday the British and American bombers missed the works yet again. Yet you’d think it’s big enough for them to spot, and it’s right by the Adolf-Hitler Bridge, which also seems to have escaped the attentions of our allies. Although they missed the works buildings, they completely destroyed one of our shelters. Everyone inside was killed, German and foreign civilian workers alike.

Krefeld, 21 June 1943 – Watching all this, I feel my heart and mind split in two. One half of my heart aches for all this misery, weeps for all this destruction. But then I tell myself for the hundredth, perhaps thousandth time, that this is the only way we can destroy the monster. Who started all this butchery, who kindled these infernos throughout the world, who torched London, Rotterdam, Dunkirk? The monster was all-powerful, all-powerful though cowardly even then. But now his enemies are strong, and they must kill, kill, kill to live. In the struggle between barbarism and civilization killing is a necessary and unavoidable evil. Civilization has to use the weapons of barbarism in order to prevail. That is the great tragedy.
Krefeld, 20 August 1943 – Some of the women claim that Phrix shares are to be found in too many British portfolios, and this is the reason why this lousy dump has been spared.

From Chapter 10, Hunting the Nazis, Wanfried, 15 April, 1945 – Last night I was told that a couple of SS men in uniform were seen strolling through the streets of Wanfried. ‘Yup, we have SS swanning around here too,’ he [U.S. soldier] replies with a laugh. He finds this highly amusing, but it’s a type of joke that neither we nor the German anti-Nazis can see. For most Americans, war is an abstract, theoretical activity. They are waging this war and doing so extremely well – they are winning it after all – but in their hearts and souls they haven’t suffered its pain. They haven’t seen their young girls carried off by the tens of thousands, their hostages shot, their wives imprisoned, their houses destroyed, their possessions looted. They’ve heard about it all, but it’s happened to other people, not to them.

Wanfried, 8 May 1945 – A globe catches my eye, and I pick it up and start to play ball with it. It’s up to us now to handle the world as we see fit, and we toss the whole world from one to another, joking all the while. Afterwards, I explain to our friends where we are and to whom this mansion belongs. It is the residence of Arthur Kalden, who until 1929 was known by his real name of Israel. But Herr Arthur Israel was inspired to become a Nazi, disowning his origins in order to retain his immense wealth, his castle, his factory, his hunting domains, his servants and his parkland. He became a Nazi, sporting a fine uniform decked with eight stars. Today Arthur Kalden, formerly Israel, is living in his gardener’s cottage, while the Americans disport themselves in his castle and entertain French women political deportees. Tomorrow (I have been solemnly promised) Herr Arthur Kalden will be in prison. And tonight we are going to dance in his drawing room!
We resolve to shatter the globe in a thousand pieces, and build a new world in which Nazis like Kalden will have no voice.

Wanfried, 15 May 1945 – As for anti-Nazis, Catholics, democrats, communists or others – the world is only now beginning to understand what they have suffered.
Everywhere I go I hear the same cry: ‘We hated Hitler!’ Often, too, this is a declaration of faith and completely sincere. But when I ask why didn’t get rid of this hated figure, the reply is always the same: ‘We couldn’t! Our hands were tied!’ To which I reply, ‘Were your hands tied more tightly than ours?’ I know that the circumstances were different but I can never resist the satisfaction of telling them that we preferred to risk our lives rather than continue to live under Hitler.

Kassel Displaced Persons Camp, 9 June 1945National frontiers exist only as lines on maps. These are just people: those who fight for civilization, and those who fight against it. Just those two camps, no more.

11 June 1945 – I think of the words of the prophet Isaiah over three thousand years ago, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” This is what we have been fighting for, for what we shall continue fighting for, so that one day there will be no more war.

As Julien Blanc says in his afterword, Humbert’s memoir is “an antidote to oblivion.”

And in the Appendix, On Agnes Humbert’s absence and her return from deportation, by her son Pierre Sabbagh (from Encore vous Sabbagh! 1984), [While searching for my mother as a war correspondent] I advanced into Germany. What I saw I tried to forget. What I experienced I prefer to deny. Back in Paris, dazed and worn out, disillusioned with man and his destiny, I went home; in other word’s, back to my mother’s apartment. I opened the door. There she was, surrounded by long-haired, transparent creatures, deportees like her. They had been delivered home by the Americans. She was alive. Sunlight filled the room. I was alive again.
Alas, the horrors that my mother had endured had ravaged her health, and we lost her tragically early.

The trees outside the closed museum, resisting, fighting fists, begging for the French flag to fly, rather than hang there defeated, tired and thin. Fly for Agnes!


Again, like all the bombs the U.S. has dropped on innocent civilians, resistant fighters, mothers, children, comrades, including Little Boy and Fat Man on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and again like the 2 African-American citizens shot to death in Fayetteville by neo-Nazi Fort Bragg soldiers, how do respond to this? How do we imagine-image it? How do we remember it, memorialize it, change it, stop it from happening again. Howard Zinn implores us to unearth our empathy and hope, our IMAGINATION of a better world in order for ir to be a possiblity. I feel up against a wall. Maybe this is because I went to the Center of Deporation and Resistance today and it was closed. It is an intensely historical museum full of artefacts and information about the damned Vichy goverment, the occupying Nazi forces, the collaborators, the Resistance, the victims and more. I was there 10 years ago and it has stayed with me, especially the enormous leading role the communists played. Like Humbert's hammer and sickle woven in the sky by a airman's allied plane, I was not alone.

But today, the doors did not open. Instead, I photograhed all the engraved markers mounted to the exterior of the building. I have an idea to rub them, as I rubbed surfaces in Hiroshima, but this time in black or gold wax on paper and then make etchings from selected parts. Just a thought. There is a permanence to these memorials here, a heavy dead weight, unlike the breathing, transfroming, alive memorial city of Hiroshima. Here are photographs of the few I have so far, scattered throughout this entry. I am about to go on reading France: The Dark Years, 1940-1944 by Julian Jackson - a heavy, badly designed weight.


  1. elin,
    i love your blog. everything is beautiful and very you. the etchings from rubbings sound so nice.

    best to you

  2. Thank you for a deeply moving piece and for your poignant photographs. One thing that strikes me particularly in Agnès's journal is the power to survive in extremis that can be derived from humanity, compassion and other virtues that we think of as as altruistic – not just for the receiver, but also for the giver. A fierce devotion to human values, and the recognition of that impulse in others, appears to have played a key part in the survival of Agnès and her equally extraordinary fellow résistantes (there's a beautiful illustration of this in Maia Wechsler's film 'Sisters in Resistance').
    Pardonnes, n'oublies jamais.
    Best wishes
    Barbara Mellor (translator of 'Résistance')