Wit­ness to the Per­se­cu­tion

Léon Werth’s newly-pub­lished 1940s mem­oir pro­vides a tough but re­veal­ing view of life as an as­sim­i­lated Jew in Vichy France.

Forward Magazine - - REVIEWS - By Ju­lia M. Klein

The French Jewish nov­el­ist and es­say­ist Léon Werth spent World War II, buf­feted by his­tory but shielded from its worst con­se­quences, chron­i­cling the pas­siv­ity, in­er­tia and grad­ual

po­lit­i­cal awak­en­ing of his coun­try­men and women.

As he de­scribed in his mem­oir “33 Days,” Werth (1878-1955) fled with other refugees to Vichy France — the so-called Free Zone — when the Nazis marched into Paris. He was for­tu­nate enough to have a va­ca­tion home in the vil­lage of Saint-Amour, in the Jura Moun­tains re­gion of South­east France. From there, as well as the nearby town of Bourg-en-Bresse, and oc­ca­sion­ally Lyon, he fol­lowed the war’s progress and the shift­ing pub­lic at­ti­tudes to­ward the Vichy regime, the Ger­mans and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of re­sis­tance.

Werth’s di­ary of the pe­riod, “De­po­si­tion 1940–1944,” is a pointil­list record

of a mostly soli­tary ex­is­tence, com­posed in short emo­tional bursts. It’s a mo­saic of im­pres­sions rather than a con­ven­tional nar­ra­tive, a tough but re­veal­ing read.

An as­sim­i­lated, nonob­ser­vant Jew, Werth is a keen ob­server, and an acer­bic one. His voice is al­ter­nately an­gry, bit­ter, ironic and hope­ful. He mocks what he sees as the cow­ardice of the French pop­u­lace and its blink­ered al­le­giance to the World War I hero Philippe Pé­tain, who, as Vichy’s premier, headed the col­lab­o­ra­tionist govern­ment.

In Septem­ber 1940, Werth writes: “Fear has been re­solved. Into ac­cep­tance, even at­trac­tion. The Ger­man has be­come a ma­gi­cian, who pos­sesses the se­cret of or­der.” For him, though, “France is like a fac­tory de­stroyed by fire. Ev­ery­thing has col­lapsed.”

As the years pass, Werth takes note of the new anti-Semitic laws, the roundups and de­por­ta­tions, Nazi atroc­i­ties and Nazi de­feats. He notes the hand­i­work of the grow­ing French Re­sis­tance, from anti-Ger­man graf­fiti to or­ga­nized sabotage. Left­ist in his sym­pa­thies, he is nev­er­the­less a proud Gaullist — in the words of one of his French edi­tors, JeanPierre Azéma, “a com­mit­ted spec­ta­tor.”

This first English edi­tion of “De­po­si­tion” has been trans­lated and an­no­tated metic­u­lously by David Ball, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of French and com­par­a­tive lit­er­a­ture at Smith Col­lege. Ball’s in­tro­duc­tion and ex­ten­sive foot­notes sup­ple­ment those from two pre­vi­ous French edi­tions, clar­i­fy­ing ref­er­ences ob­scured by the pas­sage of time. Ball has wisely abridged the di­ary, which ran to more than 730 pages in the original.

Ball is the trans­la­tor of Jean Guéhenno’s “Di­ary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944: Col­lab­o­ra­tion, Re­sis­tance, and Daily Life in Oc­cu­pied Paris.” But in its so­phis­ti­ca­tion, sen­si­tiv­ity to the de­for­ma­tion of lan­guage by po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­ganda, and its ob­ses­sion with pub­lic at­ti­tudes, “De­po­si­tion” also is rem­i­nis­cent of Vic­tor Klem­perer’s grip­ping di­aries of daily life in Nazi Dres­den.

An avid con­sumer of ra­dio and news­pa­pers, as well as vil­lage gos­sip, Werth writes about “false news” and “the crim­i­nal use politi­cians make of words.” (Later, Klem­perer’s con­tem­po­rary anal­y­sis of the lan­guage of the Third Re­ich be­came a book.) Werth de­cides that it is “coarse to stick to the news like a leech,” and con­cludes, much as Klem­perer did, that this is what his aim should be: “To master time, to master one­self, not to lose one’s in­ner free­dom.”

Like Klem­perer — who was a Jewish con­vert to Protes­tantism mar­ried to an “Aryan” — Werth con­fesses to feel­ing hu­mil­i­ated by hav­ing to de­clare his Jewish­ness to the au­thor­i­ties. But the hu­mil­i­a­tion, he says, comes “not be­cause I’m Jewish but be­cause I am pre­sumed to be of in­fe­rior qual­ity be­cause I’m Jewish.” When the time comes, he writes, “I threw out the word ‘Jew’ as if I was about to sing the Mar­seil­laise.”

As with Klem­perer, Werth’s mar­riage is an im­por­tant part of his story. He con­stantly misses his wife and his son, Claude, both of whom travel back and forth, at great peril, be­tween Paris and Vichy. Why his wife keeps aban­don­ing him isn’t at first clear. Only late in the di­ary do we learn that she has “helped, hid­den, and saved peo­ple who were be­ing hunted down.”

Werth also re­ceives a visit from his close friend An­toine de Saint-Ex­upéry, who in 1943 would ded­i­cate his clas­sic chil­dren’s tale, “The Lit­tle Prince,” to Werth, be­cause “he is cold and hun­gry” and “needs con­so­la­tion.” Saint-Ex­upéry, a pi­lot, did not sur­vive the war. Werth did, even though his hid­ing was mostly in plain sight. “[N]o one de­nounced him, al­though ev­ery­body must have

‘The hu­mil­i­a­tion comes be­cause I’m pre­sumed to be of in­fe­rior qual­ity be­cause I’m Jewish.’

known he was Jewish,” Ball writes.

Consumed by the events he de­scribes, Werth tries, nev­er­the­less, to keep the con­flict at an emo­tional re­move. “Let it be over, so I can get back my own life,” he writes in Jan­uary 1941. Later, he de­clares, “I’m above the war like an old, tired god.”

Werth sees the strikes and protests in the fall of 1942 as “a bit of wind ris­ing in par­a­lyzed France.” But as of June 1943 he re­mains bit­terly skep­ti­cal: “De­prived of meat, de­prived of to­bacco, de­prived of thought. Thought de­pri­va­tion is the one peo­ple bear most sto­ically.” In De­cem­ber of that year, de­spite all he has heard of Ger­man atroc­i­ties, he writes, “I no longer feel any­thing but my own suf­fer­ing.”

In Novem­ber 1942, the Nazis oc­cupy Vichy, height­en­ing the dan­ger for Jews. In Jan­uary 1944, Werth de­cides to re­join his wife in their Paris apart­ment. Once there, he con­tin­ues to hide, leav­ing the apart­ment at first only at night and then not at all. He sup­ports his wife’s Re­sis­tance ac­tiv­i­ties, and to­gether, amid po­lit­i­cal chaos and street bat­tles, the Werths await the seem­ingly in­evitable, too-long-de­layed Ger­man sur­ren­der.

At his best, Werth is not just an ob­server but also a philoso­pher, keenly in­ter­ested in the moral im­pli­ca­tions of dic­ta­tor­ship and war and their af­ter­math. “For the mo­ment,” he writes, “I think that if a peo­ple does not suc­ceed in vom­it­ing out a govern­ment it de­tests, it’s be­cause it didn’t stick its fin­ger far enough down its throat.”

He won­ders how the Nazi tor­tur­ers and mur­der­ers — and their French ac­com­plices — should be pun­ished. As judg­men­tal as he can be, and as an­gry, he strug­gles to­ward com­pas­sion: “Who, con­sid­er­ing the Ger­mans’ acts of cru­elty, can­not hate Ger­mans?....You have to look that ha­tred straight in the face.” Yet, he adds: “Must one give into it com­pletely? Can you be­lieve that a new world, a less de­spi­ca­ble world, can be born from that ha­tred?”

More than seven decades later, those ques­tions still res­onate.


THE PER­ILS OF COL­LAB­O­RA­TION: Vichy head Mar­shal Pé­tain greets Hitler.


VI­SIONS OF VICHY: Above: A home­less man on the streets of Vichy France; Top: author Léon Werth, circa 1920.

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