Agnes Humbert's Résistance

resistanceIt felt... indulgent? Or maybe just plain wrong? to be sitting on the comfy lounger my deck in the sunshine with a beer reading Agnes Humbert's Résistance: A Woman's Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France. It felt equally indulgent to read it during my lunch break, during which I had stood in front of my very full fridge and thought to myself that there was really nothing in there I wanted to eat for lunch. And if felt wrong to finish the last pages of the book as I curled up in my cozy bed, with the cat curled up next to me in comparably excess comfort.

Chances are you've never heard of Agnes Humbert. She was a member of one of the first French resistance movements during WWII. She was a museum worker. She was a mother of two fully grown sons, one a French officer. The daughter of a French senator. She was a patriot. Seeing her country, seeing Paris, occupied by another country's army... it was not something she was going to tolerate quietly. She and her like-minded colleagues and friends banded together to form one of the first organized resistance movements in Occupied France and published one of the first underground newspapers, aptly titled, Résistance. They would publish only five editions before being caught.

The thing that strikes you as you read that section of her memoir just how brazen she was as she went about doing her business. She was not one to really be quiet. The section about Résistance is taken from a diary that she kept at the time (which no one knows the location of now, or even where she hid it before she was arrested). It was... I don't want to say it was a lark. They knew the seriousness of what they were doing. She and another member of her organization comment after their imprisonment that they were old enough to have no illusions about what they were doing or the potential consequences. But it was clear they had great fun and obtained great joy in from their activities, no matter the eventual cost.

From the point she is arrested her memoir works from memory and some notes jotted in the margins of a book she was (eventually) allowed to read in prison. She spends close to a year in French prisons before their trial is finished. The conditions seem appalling. She's kept pretty much in isolation and not allowed entertainment for most of it. She and her fellow prisoners work out ways to communicate with each other. They send out warning signals when they hear guards coming. They form a community. They have slug races.

Most of the men in her organization are executed. A few people get off. She is sentenced to five years hard labour in Germany. They don't kid about the hard part. The conditions in which she worked make her prison cell in France seem positively palatial. The rayon factory is the worst. I don't know that I'll ever look at that fabric quite the same way again.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Agnes is how they came so close to breaking her body, but they did not break her spirit. Beaten, starving, reduced to close to 100 pounds, her hands reduced to shreds due to the acid used to make the rayon and at times suffering from temporary blindness... she still found ways to resist. She still found ways to form friendships with her fellow inmates. She still found things to care about. They could beat her, but they couldn't break her.

Originally published in French in 1946 it was one of the first resistance memoirs to come out but it lay in obscurity for a long time. This Bloomsbury translation by Barbara Mellor is really quite excellently done. When you finish you will find yourself asking would you, could you, have done what she did?