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BOOK REVIEW: Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France by Agnes Humbert

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

  

Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France 
by Agnès Humbert, Barbara Mellor (Translator), Julien Blanc (Afterword)



BLURB

A real-life Suite Française, this riveting diary by a key female member of the French Resistance in WWII is translated into English for the first time.

Agnès Humbert was an art historian in Paris during the German occupation in 1940. Though she might well have weathered the oppressive regime, Humbert was stirred to action by the atrocities she witnessed. In an act of astonishing bravery, she joined forces with several colleagues to form an organized resistance—very likely the first such group to fight back against the occupation. (In fact, their newsletter, Résistance, gave the French Resistance its name.)

In the throes of their struggle for freedom, the members of Humbert’s group were betrayed to the Gestapo; Humbert herself was imprisoned. In immediate, electrifying detail, Humbert describes her time in prison, her deportation to Germany, where for more than two years she endured a string of brutal labor camps, and the horror of discovering that seven of her friends were executed by a firing squad. But through the direst of conditions, and ill health in the labor camps, Humbert retains hope for herself, for her friends, and for humanity.

Originally published in France in 1946, the book was soon forgotten and is now translated into English for the first time.  Résistance is more than a firsthand account of wartime France: it is the work of a brave, witty, and forceful woman, a true believer who refused to go quietly


WHAT I THOUGHT
I’ve had this book on my shelves for a long time and finally picked it up to read over the summer holidays. Agnes Humbert was an ordinary woman in her late 40s when German troops invaded Paris in June 1940. She was an art historian, married with two sons, who loved to paint. After the Fall of Paris, Agnes began to scribble down her thoughts and feelings in a notebook. She would go mad, she wrote, if she did not do something to resist the Germans. 

She and a few friends began to meet, to make plans to defy the Germans, and to print a newsletter called Resistance. It was the first resistance group in France. Eventually they were betrayed, and Agnes was arrested and imprisoned in April 1941. After a mock trial, the men in the group were all shot and the women were sentenced to five years hard labour. 

The diary ends at this point, and moves to being a memoir of the following horrific years. Agnes and her fellow prisoners were used as slave labour in such appalling conditions she almost died several times. Starved, beaten, and injured by the work, she somehow managed to survive. After the work camp was liberated by the Americans in June 1945, Agnes set up soup kitchens for refugees and helped the Americans hunt down and prosecute war criminals. Her extraordinary strength, courage and humour shine though on every page, making it a very moving and heartwrenching tale to read. 


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