Generous Orthodoxy  

Monday, January 28, 2008

Vichy France: human nature on trial

All school children in America today are taught about the Holocaust, but I wonder how much of what they learn really penetrates. It is very difficult to make the (by now) well-known facts seem anything other than abstractions. I have observed children and teenagers at the Holocaust Museum in Washington and have wondered how much they were really absorbing. It's a good bet that most of the older ones had read Anne Frank's diary, which is as well known as any book in the world, but it falls a long way short of conveying the depth of the horror; it ends before the journey to the camp and to death. For all too many, as Cynthia Ozick furiously argued in a celebrated New Yorker essay (10/6/97), Anne's diary (even the unexpurgated version) is not revelatory; it simply confirms the sentimental wish to believe that "people are really good at heart." Another example: the stark, Oscar-winning film about the Warsaw Ghetto, The Pianist (arguably the best-yet commercial film about the Holocaust) was meretriciously advertised as "the triumph of the human spirit" when in fact it was the opposite.

All Christians who are serious about the content of their faith will constantly be on the alert for examples of the fragility of the bonds that hold society together. The laboratory that was Vichy France exposes human nature in all its weakness and venality as well as its occasional flashes of altruism and self-sacrifice. Three books, two of them famous and one less well known, add up to an extraordinarily rich depiction of human nature over which always looms the urgent question: what would I have done?

1) Suite Française, the widely heralded novel about occupied France by Irène Némirovsky, published last year in English, is extraordinary for a number of reasons, not least of which (for Francophiles like myself) is its unerring, affectionate, sometimes comical, always incisive, ultimately scathing depiction of life and manners in provincial France. I haven't read any book which affords so much insight into the French character—for better and worse. More important and to the point, never in my reading experience have I so vividly felt what it was like to have an occupying force arrive in town, take up residence, and dictate daily behavior. Ms. Némirovsky causes her American reader to feel as if it is actually happening to him (her), to his own family, his own acquaintances. She is a novelist of the first order, and her luminous description of blooming springtime in the French countryside provides a deceptively soothing background for the canker of venality, cowardice, and betrayal gnawing away at the heart of the community. Like all superior literary artists, she is able to get inside her characters—both French and German—to reveal them in all their complex strengths and, more often, weaknesses.

There is disagreement about the Appendix at the back of Suite Française. Some have suggested reading it first. I strongly recommend reading it last, after finishing the novel. The Appendices consist of 1) selections from Ms. Némirovsky's pre-war and wartime letters to her publisher and others; 2) excerpts from the panicked letters written by her husband and others after she was arrested by the French gendarmerie in the service of the Nazis, and 3) a brief history of her success as a writer and other facts about her life. It is by now well known that Ms. Némirovsky died at Auschwitz. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that she and her husband, both raised in secular Jewish families, were sincere Roman Catholic converts. Suite Française is full of Catholicism; there is virtually nothing in the novel about Jews.

It is therefore a profound shock, after reading Ms. Némirovsky's extraordinarily sensitive and observant story of numerous French families and personages caught up in the intense pressures of the occupation, to learn that even as she was writing, her own deportation and death were being prepared. It is as if the writer of the story we are enthralled by—the writer of the very words we have just been reading—suddenly vanished from the page into an unthinkable inferno. Feeling this shock at its fullest is, I think, an important part of the reading experience (I hope I have not already given away too much). Her husband's frantic letters, in which he desperately seeks to impress upon his increasingly less responsive correspondents that his wife, though a Russian, despised the Bolsheviks and, though Jewish, held no brief for the Jews, are simply heartrending. He will say almost anything to save her, but she is already dead while he is still writing. Her two last letters, written in pencil and smuggled out, contain only a few words. The very last ones (remember, this is a Catholic convert) are, "You are in my heart, my loved ones. May God help us all." Three months later, her husband was gassed at Auschwitz.

(Ms. Nemirovsky, in her dislike for Jews of a lower class than herself, is vulnerable to accusations of being an anti-Semitic Jew. The complex matter is examined in an excellent biography of her by Jonathan Weiss.)

2) Divided Loyalties, a memoir of Vichy France, is less well-known, but it has been through several editions (easily available on Amazon) and makes a superb companion to Suite Française. Its author, Janet Teissier du Cros, was a Scotswoman, a daughter of the prominent scholar Sir Herbert Grierson, who married into a distinguished French Huguenot family and was perforce caught up in the war. Her book tells how, while her husband is a prisoner of the Germans, the young wife and mother must care for her small children, scrounge for food and medicine, cope with shortages and hardships of every kind, and above all deal with the suspicion and treachery that lurk around every corner and tempt even the most heroic person to yield to duplicity. This book also gives a vivid picture of the French people, mostly affectionate, from a Scot who loved her adopted country deeply.

Personal note: my mother read Divided Loyalties in the 1970s and was so impressed with it that she went to great lengths to communicate with, and finally to meet, Mme. Teissier. They became great friends, and my parents visited the Teissiers for ten days at their country house. When my mother died I found about fifty letters to her from Janet Teissier and they will eventually be deposited in a library for scholarly research.

3) Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, by Philip Hallie, the third book about Vichy France on my list, has long since become famous. Of greatest importance for Christians everywhere, this history tells the story of a Huguenot (Protestant) pastor, André Trocmé, whose passionate preaching and powerful example led an entire village to hide Jews throughout the war in spite of the extreme danger to the lives of their own families. The miracle of Le Chambon has never been fully understood or explained. The questions take two forms: 1) Why this village? and 2) Why not other villages? These are the questions that every thinking Christian should ponder, this is one of those books that every thinking Christian should read. It does not offer the satisfactions of high art, like Suite Française, and it hasn't the personal immediacy of Divided Loyalties, but unlike the other two it takes us directly into the heart of the horror—that little Jewish boys and girls either had to be hidden in homes or be murdered in ovens.