Agnes Humbert’s Resistance — A Woman’s Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France is simply a wonderful book. Humbert was an art historian in her forties when the Germans occupied Paris in 1940. She immediately located fellow patriots and recklessly threw herself into acts of resistance. Although her activities were largely confined to spreading dissident literature, Humbert and the other members of her group were soon betrayed and savagely punished. Many of the men were executed, while Humbert ended up with a five year prison sentence, most of which was spent under appalling conditions in a miserable assortment of German prisons and labor camps.
Humbert kept a diary as long as she was able. When that became impossible, she held on to her memories. Once the war ended, she filled in the enormous gaps of her miserable incarcerations in diary-like fashion. This approach makes her book extremely compelling because the tortures and privations she suffers are set forth in real time. Humbert was imprisoned with women from all over Europe and who had been imprisoned for all sorts of reasons, ranging from prostitution and murder to black market violations, political dissent and simply being the wrong nationality or political party at the wrong time. She was starved and beaten and phenomenally lucky to survive .
The manner in which Humbert survived is the genius of this book. She was blessed with courage, maturity and no fatal illnesses, and that was all extremely important. But her real strength lay in remaining optimistic and seeking friendship wherever she went. She always managed to find at least one friend with a similar perspective who could always manage to find the humor in something. The companionship of her fellow prisoners gave Humbert strength throughout her ordeal. Humbert was far less reckless in prison than she had been in the Resistance, but she nonetheless seized opportunities to sabotage the goods she was forced to make for the German war machine. She was really annoyed when she was placed in a factory where she couldn’t figure out how to sabotage the goods.
Once she was freed from prison by the advance of the Allies, Humbert lost no time in teaming up with like-minded colleagues and organizing the ensuing chaos. She grasped political realities and helped restore order and human services, even as she helped compile the record of war crimes she provided to the Americans.
This is an heroic story, but it is not told in a conceited fashion. So much of this book is written about how “we,” as opposed to “I,” suffered and about the courage and kindnesses of other prisoners and even a few of the guards. Humbert comes across as a rather unremarkable individual who drew on her personality and her convictions to become a hero. This is a unique and valuable first person account of a savage time and some very brave people. I strongly recommend this book!