Stéphane Hessel–resistance fighter, ambassador, author, shining light
October 20, 1917–February 27, 2013
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: email@example.com