Stéphane Hes­sel–re­sis­tance fighter, ambassador, author, shin­ing light

Oc­to­ber 20, 1917–Fe­bru­ary 27, 2013

The Compass - - THE COMPASS -

We stood in an icy driz­zle in the court­yard of the black­ened brick build­ing, its tall smoke­stack soar­ing up to touch the gray-brown un­der­side of the dark, scud­ding clouds. The mood of the seven­ty­five wet, cold peo­ple as­sem­bled in this dread­ful place was som­bre.

Only part of the mois­ture we wiped away from our down­turned faces with hand­ker­chiefs came from the sky. We were in a place of pro­found sad­ness and ut­ter hor­ror: the court­yard of the cre­ma­to­rium at Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camp. It was Oct. 15, 2010. We were there to hon­our 31 mem­bers of the French Re­sis­tance who had been tor­tured and mur­dered in the fi­nal months of the Sec­ond World War. The first 16 of them met their end in the base­ment of the build­ing we faced. Af­ter a bru­tal beat­ing they were hung, semi-con­scious from nooses of butcher wire wound around meat hooks imbed­ded in the con­crete wall of the ‘Le­ichenkeller’. The corpse cel­lar.

The idea was to en­sure that the men suf­fo­cated slowly as the thin me­tal cut into their throats. An in­mate as­signed to clean up af­ter the mas­sacre re­ported that the last man sur­vived for a full 20 min­utes.

Their blood­stained bod­ies, still warm, were then lifted by a pur­pose-built freight el­e­va­tor to the floor above, where their re­mains were in­cin­er­ated in spe­cial­ly­de­signed ovens. The night of Sept. 10, 1944, the smoke of those 16 re­sis­tants bil­lowed out of the chim­ney. It was the same chim­ney that still stood in 2010, tow­er­ing above our group stand­ing in the sod­den grass be­low re­flect­ing on the wretched end of th­ese brave men.

Among the 16 was Frank Pick­ers­gill, my un­cle, who died 360 days be­fore I was born. Though his story in­hab­ited my ear­li­est mem­o­ries, the in­ter­ven­ing years had not pre­pared me for Buchen­wald’s bot­tom­less well of evil. It threat­ened to drown my 65- year-old spirit in its own tears.

There are mo­ments in a hu­man life when a cor­ner is turned, and a new vista is re­vealed. Such a vista was re­vealed to me Oct. 15, 2010, by an ex­tra­or­di­nary man who spoke to the 75 of us shiv­er­ing in the cre­ma­to­rium court­yard. His name was Stéphane Hes­sel.

Never be­fore in my life have I felt my­self to be in the pres­ence of a higher be­ing, a be­ing who glows with a light from within. It is the light of Good­ness. The light of Love.

A cap­tured re­sis­tance fighter in France, Stéphane Hes­sel was de­liv­ered by train to Buchen­wald chained to­gether in the same batch of pris­on­ers as my un­cle. All of the re­sis­tants were held in Prison Hut 17.

When the first 16, in­clud­ing Frank, were marched off to the cre­ma­to­rium and did not re­turn, Hes­sel re­al­ized that he and the rest had only days to live. With two oth­ers, he made a dar­ing es­cape. The three as­sumed the iden­ti­ties of three other pris­on­ers on the point of dy­ing from ty­phoid ex­per­i­ments the nazis were car­ry­ing out on in­mates.

Stéphane Hes­sel, ac­cord­ing to Buchen­wald camp records, died on Oct. 20, 1944. He then be­came Michel Boi­tel. It was Hes­sel’s 27th birth­day. He had died and been born again.

He es­caped Buchen­wald but was re­cap­tured and es­caped twice more be­fore walk­ing to­ward the Al­lied lines and freedom, days be­fore the war ended.

His life ut­terly changed. He made his way home to Paris, joined the diplo­matic corps, and was posted to the newly formed United Na­tions in New York, where he par­tic­i­pated in writ­ing the Univer­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights. Ambassador Hes­sel has de­voted his life to pro­mot­ing the guide­lines to hu­man de­cency clearly laid out in that all-im­por­tant doc­u­ment.

I re­turned from Buchen­wald in­spired by his firm hand­shake and clar­ity of thought. Only then did I learn of his book. “Indignez-Vous” is a 30 page book aimed at young peo­ple. In it, Stéphane Hes­sel ex­plains that when he was young and the Nazis in­vaded France, it was easy for him to know who the en­emy was. Young peo­ple to­day face a much more dif­fi­cult task iden­ti­fy­ing who is steal­ing their freedom from them. Hes­sel points to the un­fet­tered cap­i­tal­ism that since the col­lapse of com­mu­nism has be­come an unchecked force.

That force, held as an al­most re­li­gious be­lief by too many in the world of com­merce, re­gards hu­man rights as an im­ped­i­ment to cor­po­rate prof­its. That way of think­ing, Hes­sel ex­plains in his book, is ev­ery bit as men­ac­ing to in­di­vid­ual freedom as the Nazis who tor­tured him in his youth.

His book, en­ti­tled “Time for Out­rage” in the English ver­sion, came out from a tiny pub­lish­ing house Indi­gene edi­tions in Mont­pel­lier, France with an ini­tial print run of 800 copies. It was a col­lec­tion of ideas that Hes­sel needed to get off his chest, a way of ex­plain­ing to to­day’s so­ci­ety what had in­spired the re­sis­tants dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

Now, to­day, the need for in­dig­na­tion is just as press­ing. The book sold for three eu­ros, about $4 Cana­dian. At last count some­where be­tween four and five mil­lion copies have been sold in more than a dozen lan­guages, the author’s roy­al­ties do­nated to char­ity.

“Indignez-Vous” is cred­ited for in­spir­ing the demon­stra­tions of pas­sive re­sis­tance that sparked the Arab Spring. “Les Idig­na­dos” was the name adopted by un­em­ployed Span­ish youth for their move­ment. Fol­low­ing from that, came the Oc­cupy move­ment which spread glob­ally.

If this ex­tra­or­di­nary man, at the age of 93, was still work­ing tire­lessly for hu­man rights, I wanted to do some­thing. I de­cided that since I had been a car­toon­ist and il­lus­tra- tor all my life, I would try to cre­ate im­ages to ac­com­pany the 30 Ar­ti­cles of the Univer­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights.

When I wrote to him, ask­ing what he thought of the idea, he was very en­cour­ag­ing. His let­ter is one of my most prized pos­ses­sions.

Once they were fin­ished, I wanted to show him my draw­ings. By tele­phone we ar­ranged to meet at his apart­ment in Paris the first of May last year, so I could in­ter­view him. Two weeks be­fore get­ting on the plane, I was emailed by a friend in France. She told me that Hes­sel was very ill and had been air­lifted back to Paris from Si­cily where he was on a speak­ing tour. His mag­netism is such that I got on the plane any­way, hop­ing for the best.

Once in France, I tele­phoned ex­pect­ing to hear bad news from his wife, but it was his voice I heard. He ex­plained that though he had can­celled all his meet­ings he was feel­ing a lit­tle bet­ter and, typ­i­cal of the man, he urged me to come as planned, since I had trav­elled so far to see him.

Win­ter was slow to come to an end in France last year, but I was lucky. I spent three hours walk­ing in the streets, squares and parks of Paris. Mon­day, April 30, was the first ap­pear­ance that spring had made in that mar­velous city. It was beau­ti­ful.

It was the day be­fore my meet­ing with Stéphane Hes­sel. I had brought a mi­cro­phone and was for­mu­lat­ing my ques­tions. All of them were thrown out when I met him the fol­low­ing day at 10 a.m. He greeted me in his liv­ing room in a six-storey apart­ment house on a nar­row street in Mont­par­nasse, where he has lived for many years. His liv­ing room is com­fort­able and rum­pled. It ra­di­ates the same warmth as the man him­self, all the walls lined with books and paint­ings, three win­dows open­ing into the sun­lit street.

Nor­mally a dap­per dresser, he wore pa­ja­mas, slip­pers and a dress­ing gown. He rose to take my hand when I en­tered the room, of­fer­ing the same firm grip I re­mem­bered, though he urged me to sit down so he could too. His wife had asked me to please keep it short.

He ex­plained that his heart had stopped dur­ing a con­fer­ence in Si­cily and he was air­lifted di­rectly to a Paris hos­pi­tal where doc­tors claimed there was no harm done, but he needed rest.

There was no sign of weak­ness in the spirit, how­ever.

The in­ter­view was an hour and a quar­ter long, yet con­sisted of no more than a dozen ques­tions from me, some of them no more than two or three words. His mind had an agility and fo­cus that is as­ton­ish­ing. The equal of any­one I have met, never mind the age. He ze­roed in, as al­ways, on the pos­i­tive, al­ways de­vis­ing strate­gies to make things bet­ter.

When his wife ap­peared for the sec­ond time in the door­way of the liv­ing room, I took the hint that it was time for me to go.

I had just turned off the mi­cro­phone and was gath­er­ing my equip­ment when he did some­thing un­ex­pected. Though I have seen him speak a num­ber of times about ter­ri­ble things that were done to him and to his re­sis­tance com­rades at the hands of the Nazis, at no time, ei­ther on tele­vi­sion or in per­son, have I seen him lose his com­po­sure. A very strong man.

He thanked me for com­ing and as I shook his hand he held on to it. He wanted me to know that my visit had brought back to his mind vivid mem­o­ries of Frank Pick­ers­gill. How Frank, in the short weeks they shared in the ap­palling con­di­tions of Hut 17 at Buchen­wald, had never stopped telling jokes, play­ing games and en­gag­ing oth­ers in con­ver­sa­tion, al­ways try­ing to keep up the morale of his fel­low pris­on­ers.

It was then that his voice broke and tears welled up in his eyes. Within an in­stant the mo­ment had passed. I re­luc­tantly re­leased his hand and walked across the room, turn­ing back at the door to say good­bye be­fore de­scend­ing the three flights of wooden stairs and step­ping out into the sun­lit street. Stephane Hes­sel died Feb. 27, 2013. Godspeed dear man. The world is a bet­ter place be­cause of you.

— Peter Pick­ers­gill is a writer and artist liv­ing in Sal­vage. He can be reached by email at the fol­low­ing: pick­ers­

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