I came across Agnés Humbert’s Résistance completely by accident while browsing the “New in Hardcover” section in Barnes & Noble one day, but rarely have I been more grateful for following my instincts on an unfamiliar book and author. From the moment I picked it up this book has haunted me. Too compelling to put down, but too harrowing to read straight through without breaks to recover emotionally, reading this book became a delicious struggle between my need to continue and my desire to stop and reflect.
Résistance begins with Agnés Humbert’s actual journal entries from the summer of 1940 and the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Paris. She describes the conception and birth of the French Resistance from a completely new point of view, almost as if it was a game she and her friends invented to annoy the Nazis. But it is the very casual way in which she describes certain horrors that brings home to the reader the atrocities of the Nazi occupiers. Her descriptions of the bravery, strength and loyalty of her compatriots brought tears to my eyes.
The later portion of the book, after Humbert’s arrest, are also written in journal form, but these entries were written just after her release when the war ended. She writes “my memories are so clear that I am able to commit them to paper as they happened and in strict sequence. I remember everything as clearly as though it were written in notebooks”. This portion of the book is truly an intimate look into the life of a prisoner of war, and you get the impression that as gut-wrenching as Agnés’ experiences are, she actually got off somewhat easily compared to the treatment of so many other prisoners in Nazi camps.
Now that I’ve told you how clear she is in expressing the horrors of war, I need to tell you how very hopeful Humbert’s book is. Although the tears flowed freely while reading many passages, the bleakness never took over, and often my tears were tears of admiration for a woman who was oppressed in so many ways, both physical and spiritual, and yet was still able to resist in any small way she could what she knew to be evil. You could not ask for a better narrator, a better guide through the unbelievable cruelties and unexpected kindnesses of the Nazi prison camps.
Humbert’s journal/book covers the time period from just before the Nazi occupation of Paris to the end of the war and the American liberation of the prison camps in Germany. It is not a comprehensive view of the entirety of WWII, but it’s not meant to be. It is one woman’s harrowing and hopeful experience of losing her certainty in her country’s leaders, but keeping her confidence in the spirit of her nation.