Un­rav­el­ing a mys­tery of French Nazi re­sis­tance

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - book­world@wash­post.com Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of the Jewish Jour­nal and the au­thor, most re­cently, of “The Short, Strange Life of Her­schel Gryn­sz­pan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplo­mat and a Mur­der in Paris.” RE­VIEW BY JONATHAN KIRSCH

For a whole gen­er­a­tion of French men and women, one be­set­ting ques­tion has been: What did you do dur­ing the war? Some of them claimed an ex­ag­ger­ated or wholly imag­i­nary role for them­selves in the strug­gle against the Nazi oc­cu­piers dur­ing World War II, and yet “the ones who had been so mag­nif­i­cent in the Re­sis­tance never dis­cussed their brav­ery with their own chil­dren,” as we learn from Charles Kaiser in “The Cost of Courage.”

Kaiser, a for­mer re­porter for the Wall Street Jour­nal and the New York Times, and the au­thor of a bench­mark history of gay life in Amer­ica (“The Gay Me­trop­o­lis”), first en­coun­tered that strange si­lence when he met the French fam­ily that had shel­tered his un­cle, a GI named Henry Kaiser, in Paris dur­ing the last year of the war. From Un­cle Henry, he heard sto­ries of their hero­ism: “The most dra­matic movie about the war,” the nephew writes, “was the one I learned by heart but had seen only in my head.” Yet when he fi­nally met the sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the Boul­loche fam­ily, they were ut­terly silent about their war ex­pe­ri­ences: “It would take me five decades, in­clud­ing two and a half years liv­ing in France, to un­ravel the rea­sons for the he­roes’ si­lence,” he ex­plains.

Sud­denly, we find our­selves back in Paris un­der Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion, a place of hard­ship and hu­mil­i­a­tion. “Star­va­tion ra­tions for the French have trans­formed apart­ment ter­races into rab­bit farms,” Kaiser writes in one of many pas­sages that we might ex­pect to find in a su­pe­rior thriller, “as the ur­ban dawn is oddly her­alded by roost­ers.” A young man is ar­rested by the Gestapo and promised his free­dom if he re­veals the where­abouts of a much-wanted leader of the Re­sis­tance called An­dré Boul­loche, who has been parachuted into France with 500,000 francs to fund the fight against the Ger­mans and a cyanide pill to use in case of his cap­ture. With a Ger­man pis­tol at his back, the young man is forced to ap­proach the hid­ing place and use the coded knock that will prompt Buol­loche to open the door.

So be­gins the story that the Buol­loche fam­ily was so re­luc­tant to tell. Three of the Buol­loche sib­lings— An­dré, Chris­tiane and Jac­que­line— were quick to join the Re­sis­tance at the out­break of the war, but their par­ents and eldest brother never did, although the Ger­mans did not make such dis­tinc­tions: “Those big posters in the Métro are con­stant re­minders that ev­ery rel­a­tive of a Ré­sis­tant is now sub­ject to ar­rest.” Here is the tick­ing time bomb that can be de­tected through­out Kaiser’s grip­ping tale and ac­counts for its ex­plo­sive and heart­break­ing de­noue­ment and the long shadow that it casts.

To his credit, Kaiser re­veals the moral am­bi­gu­ity of re­sis­tance when one’s en­emy is as ruth­less as Nazi Ger­many. The re­sister, of course, chooses to take the risk of ar­rest, im­pris­on­ment, tor­ture, in­jury and death. But what is his or her obli­ga­tion to­ward those who will be vic­tim­ized as hostages, tar­gets of reprisal or in­no­cent by­standers? Wholly in­no­cent men and women, as we learn in “The Cost of Courage,” were some­times pun­ished by the Ger­mans only be­cause of their as­so­ci­a­tion with some­one they knew or to whom they were re­lated. As Kaiser sig­nals in the ti­tle he has cho­sen for his book, some­times the price of courage is paid by some­one other than the hero.

Kaiser makes the most of the in­her­ent dra­main the story he tells, but his touch­stone is his re­lent­less search for truth amid the fog of war. To find out ex­actly what hap­pened to An­dré Boul­loche while in Gestapo cus­tody, for ex­am­ple, the au­thor was com­pelled to seek the de­clas­si­fi­ca­tion of Bri­tish war records. As one ex­am­ple of his truth-telling, he re­ports that the sur­vivors re­ferred eu­phemisti­cally to the “lov­ing at­ten­tion” that they re­ceived from the Gestapo, but Kaiser calls it by its right­ful name: tor­ture. Among the var­i­ous forms of tor­ture fa­vored by the Nazis, by the way, was wa­ter­board­ing, a point that Kaiser makes more than once.

Although he of­fers an in­ti­mate and of­ten trou­bling ac­count of one fam­ily’s or­deal, Kaiser al­ways re­minds us that “there are a re­mark­able num­ber of se­cret he­roes.” Per­haps the most im­pres­sive ev­i­dence of the breadth of the Re­sis­tance is his de­scrip­tion of the 1,700 French pris­on­ers who were crammed into 17 cat­tle cars and sent to Auschwitz, “one of only three trains of non-Jews to be sent there from France dur­ing the en­tire war.” Kaiser’s scru­tiny of the metic­u­lous records main­tained by the Ger­man author­i­ties al­lows him to iden­tify with chill­ing par­tic­u­lar­ity the men and women who ended upon those trains; some 64 dif­fer­ent re­sis­tance groups were rep­re­sented among the vic­tims, who in­cluded 39 rail­road work­ers, 20 priests and two po­ets. “Most of them are younger than thirty-five,” he writes. “The youngest pris­oner is fif­teen, the old­est, seventy.” Among them was An­dré Buol­loche, but we soon dis­cover that he was not the only — nor the most likely — mem­ber of his fam­ily to end up in a Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camp.

What we dis­cover, to our sor­row if not our sur­prise, is that oc­cu­pied France was a treach­er­ous place where be­trayal might come from un­sus­pected sources and might be wholly un­in­tended. When An­dré Buol­loche dis­ap­peared into the maw of the Gestapo, for ex­am­ple, his sis­ters ar­ranged for the evac­u­a­tion of the safe houses and hid­ing places that their brother might re­veal un­der tor­ture. But they could do noth­ing about the fact that the lo­ca­tion of the fam­ily home was am­at­ter of public record. The fam­ily’s only hope was that the Gestapo had not dis­cov­ered An­dré’s real name. Once they did, his par­ents and his brother, too, would be at risk. In­deed, when Gestapo of­fi­cers fi­nally ar­rived at the Buol­loche home to ar­rest An­dré’s sis­ter Chris­tiane, she had gone un­der­ground, but they read­ily found her mother, fa­ther and her other brother, Robert, none of whom were mem­bers of the Re­sis­tance.

“The Cost of Courage” reaches a crescendo in the telling of the fi­nal days of the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion, which brought grave con­se­quences to the en­tire Buol­loche fam­ily. To pre­serve the sus­pense Kaiser has suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing, I can­not dis­close the ul­ti­mate fates of the var­i­ous mem­bers of the fam­ily ex­cept to say that a nov­el­ist, no mat­ter how gifted, could not have con­trived a deeper or darker irony than the one that suf­fuses Kaiser’s bril­liant book.


A Ger­man-con­trolled French mag­a­zine blamed this de­struc­tion in Paris in­May 1944 on an Al­lied air at­tack.


Ger­man troops en­ter­ing Paris in 1940. Those who re­sisted the oc­cu­pa­tion put their friends and fam­ily at risk.

By Charles Kaiser Other Press. 278 pp. $26.95 THE COST OF COURAGE

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