This is an English translation, by Hannah Thompson, of Zina Weygand's plenary talk at the Blind Creations Conference. The French original can be found here.
Zina Weygand, Docteur en Histoire de l’université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne. Habilitée à diriger des recherches (EHESS).
Jacques Lusseyran and some other blind heroes of the French Resistance'
Plenary Address. Blind Creations Conference, Royal Holloway, University of London. Egham, 28-30 juin 2015
Good Morning Ladies and Gentleman and thank you for being here so early this morning to hear me talk about Jacques Lusseyran and several other blind heroes of the French Resistance during the Second World War. I would like to thank Hannah for enabling me to speak to you in French and providing this translation so that you can follow what I am saying.
It is an honour for me to have been invited to take part in this magnificent colloquium whose theme, the relationship between blindness and creativity, has brought together blind and non-blind researchers, creators, accessibility practitioners as well as artists, writers, musicians and sculptors from around the world. I am delighted that, thanks to the huge amount of work undertaken by Hannah and Vanessa, the network which was created by the 2013 Paris colloquium has not only been maintained but also developed and extended to other countries - Finland, Slovenia, Australia, India, South Korea, Brazil, Argentina - which were not represented in 2013.
Dear Hannah, in my role as ‘doyenne des etudes sur la cécité’ [‘queen of blindness studies’] as you once referred to me, I thank you with all my heart for having convinced me to come and arranged things so that I could.
One from the nineteenth century:
Julie de Quérangal (1802-1844), the wife of French Romanticist historian Augustin Thierry, who was hugely successful in his lifetime before he was eclipsed for posterity by the glory of Michelet;
And two from the twentieth century:
Suzanne Taha Hussein (1895-1989), French wife of the great blind Egyptian intellectual, writer, scholar and statesman Taha Hussein, whom Bruno Ronfard spoke about yesterday.
And Yvonne Belamri, born in 1927, widow of the Franco-Algerian French language story teller, poet and novelist Rabah Belamri, whose work was tragically cut short by his sudden death at the age of 49, 20 years ago next September 28.
These three women, who were all extremely intelligent and knowledgeable, played an essential part in the success of their husbands, far beyond the traditional role of reader and secretary usually taken on by partners of blind intellectuals, and it was this that I was hoping to illuminate.
But events in the French publishing world, as well as ceremonies commemorating the work of the French Resistance and the French Deportations during the Second World War have reminded me of my fascination with Jacques Lusseyran (1924-1971), whose astonishing work and life I discovered in the 1990s.
The publishing event was the publication in Gallimard’s prestigious « Collection blanche » of a wonderful book by Jérôme Garcin on Jacques Lusseyran: Le Voyant, which came out on 1st January 2015.
Jérôme Garcin is a very well-known French journalist, literary critic and writer who is especially recognised for his work on a famous arts radio programme, Le masque et la plume, which he has been hosting on Sunday evenings on France-Inter for 26 years. He has received numerous prizes for his writing, notably, in 2013, the Grand prix Henri-Gal awarded by the Institut de France.
Garcin discovered the life and works of Jacques Lusseyran in 2005, when publishing house Le Félin, who had just reprinted Lusseyran’s best-known work: Et la lumière fut, [And there was Light] sent him a copy to review in the weekly magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, of which he is culture editor.
Garcin’s experience of reading Lusseyran, which he described as « un choc fondateur » [a fundamental shock], encouraged him to devote himself to finding out more about this exceptionally intelligent blind man who was also a young hero forgotten by his country, an illuminating writer and a talented teacher who only achieved recognition once he moved to the States. Garcin met his daughter Claire, who gave him access to a forgotten part of her father’s works, books that had gone out of print, as well as a pile of unpublished works, including novels and short stories…. And so, after becoming ‘inhabited’ by this brotherly figure for years, Garcin finally wrote a passionate biography which he described as an « exercice d’admiration.» [an exercise in admiration].
All this to say that this generous and emotional tribute has touched a wide audience who appreciates its hopeful message – as demonstrated by reader testimonies:
« enfin vous nous faites connaître quelqu’un qu’on va lire tout de suite, dont on a besoin aujourd’hui », [finally you have introduced us to someone whose books we are going to read straightaway, whom we need right now]
And the work became an exceptional publishing success: 14 print runs of 65 000 copies since 1st January, leading to increased interest in the works of this blind man who was sighted until the age of 7 and a half, and who dared to say and write that becoming blind was « [son] plus grand bonheur» [his greatest happiness].
As for the commemorative events which inspired me to give up on my initial subject: there were 2 commemorative plaques unveiled recently to celebrate blind resistance workers: the first, on 25 November 2014. at the Institut national des jeunes aveugles in Paris, and the second, on 15 April 2015. at the Fédération des Aveugles et handicapés visuels de France – which holds the archives of the Union des aveugles de la Résistance, created on the 22 December 1945 by Charles Davin, a First World War veteran who was involved in the Resistance in the Second World War.
These 2 plaques contain the names of 132 blind resistance workers, 9 women and 123 men, 2 of whom were shot and 4 of whom, including Lusseyran, were deported. This latter is therefore not THE blind resistance worker, as the dust jacket of Garcin’s book erroneously puts it, but ONE OF the blind resistance workers, as the subtitle of the English translation of Et la lumière fut reveals: « And there was light: the extraordinary memoir of a blind hero of the French resistance in World War II », republished in March 2014 in the US by New World Library.
Therefore, before speaking to you about Jacques Lusseyran, I will evoke in the first part of this paper, some of those other blind resistance workers to whom Charles Davin, founder and first president of the Union des aveugles de la Résistance – of which Lusseyran was vice-president – devoted a little book which came out in 1953, called la « Bataille des Ombres », [The Battle of the Shadows] which describes « la lutte clandestine entreprise, pendant l’occupation du pays par l’Allemagne hitlérienne, par des aveugles […] qui ont participé, eux aussi, dans la Résistance, à la libération de la France ». [The secret struggle undertaken during the Nazi occupation of the country, by blind people who also participated, via their work for the Resistance, in the liberation of France].
But perhaps you are wondering what this talk on a resoundingly political subject, that is, the participation of blind men and women in the secret resistance networks and operations working in France during the Second World War to end the occupation by the enemy and their collaborators from the armistice of 22 June 1940 to the Liberation of France (6 June 1944 - 8 May1945), is doing in a conference on the relationship between blindness and creativity.
Well, the reason is, that I believe that resistance workers needed not only courage, dignity, calmness, and skill but also a resoundingly creative mind in order to participate in a very diverse range of clandestine actions which included gathering and disseminating information, transporting documents, weapons and radios, intercepting phone calls, producing false ID papers, creating and distributing secret leaflets and newspapers, helping escaped prisoners or wanted suspects etc., all of which involved continually risking one’s life. The historian Jacqueline Martin-Bagnaudez, author of a 2006 article in the journal Histoire et archives: « Aveugles et résistants » speaks relatedly of an « imagination inventive » [inventive imagination].
Two of these blind resistance workers paid for their commitment with their life. A Breton, François Guillou, who was shot on the 17 January 1944 in Plomelin, (Finistère) at the age of 26, for having sabotaged telegraph wires used by the occupying forces, and Louis Adam, shot on the 16 June 1944, aged 41, along with 29 other resistance workers held, like him, at Montluc Prison in Lyon – (including the great French historian Marc Bloch) - at Saint-Didier-de-Formans, a hamlet situated to the north of Lyon (Ain), in a place known as « Les Roussilles ». In 1946 a monument in memory of this massacre was built, and Louis Adam’s name has pride of place there. He was a humble brush maker from Normandy who had set himself up in the Lyon suburb of Villeurbanne, and who, as a member of the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans Français, along with his wife Marguerite, hosted meetings of the local military wing of the F.T.P.F. at his home, where weapons and leaflets were seized.
On 11 July 1944, less than a month after the Les Roussilles massacre, Louis Adam’s wife, Marguerite Pérussel, born in 1892 at Saint-Etienne, was deported to Neue Bremm, a Gestapo hard labour camp, and thence to Ravensbrück. According to the Livre Mémorial des Déportés de France, she died on 4 June 1945 in Hamburg, a litle over a month after the liberation of Ravensbrück. In La bataille des ombres, Charles Davin emphasises the courage of the partners of blind resistance workers who willingly risked as much as their husbands and who sometimes followed them to the grave.
Apart from François Guillou and Louis Adam, who died for France, 3 blind men and one partially blind woman paid dearly for their commitment to the French Resistance : Arthur Poitevin, born in 1917 in Port-en-Bessin, (Basse-Normandie), was a music teacher and organist at Saint Patrice in Bayeux and a member of Jeunesses Maritimes Chrétiennes and a resistance network in Bessin which made and distributed false identity papers. He was deported Nacht und Nebel [Night and Fog ie without a trace] on 11 November 1943, with three other members of his network, first to the Natzweiler-Struthof Camp in Alsace, and then to Dachau on the 4 September 1944; André Mahoux, born in 1909 in Cherbourg (Basse-Normandie) was deported to Buchenwald on the 17 janvier 1944 ; Jacques Lusseyran, born on the 19 September 1924, was also deported to Buchenwald in the next convoy, on the 22 January and Irène Ottelard, (née Bloncourt), born on the 5 February 1922 in Lille, who worked at Drancy Town Hall, was deported to Ravensbrück on the 18 April 1944 for having distributed false ID cards. All of them returned to France: Arthur Poitevin, arrived back in Paris on 16 May 1945 and was home in Bayeux the following day, where his young wife was waiting for him ; Jacques Lusseyran, arrived home at his parents’ house in Paris on the 23 April 1945; Irène Ottelard, came back to Paris in the same transport as Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier- who stayed in Ravensbrück after its liberation on the 30 April 1945 by the Red Army, until all the French patients had been evacuated – as for André Mahoux, it seems that after some kind of intervention, he was liberated by the German authorities on the 19 March 1944, after 3 months at Buchenwald.
Sadly, after having 4 children, Marc in 1946, Odile in 1947, then twin boys, Jacques and Jean, in 1950, Arthur Poitevin died in 1951, aged 34, from a heart disease probably caused by the ‘treatment’ administered by the Nazi doctors at Dachau, to typhus patients. He did have time to dictate to his wife Raymonde, in 1946, a heart-wrenching testimony of his years of deportation which was given to me, as well as to Mme Noëlle Roy, curator of the musée Valentin Haüy, by M. Philippe Lumbroso, a long-time friend of Arthur Poitevin’s grand-son, Grégoire, and a volunteer at the Groupement des Intellectuels Aveugles et Amblyopes. One day I would like to publish a critical edition of this text together with a historian of the Resistance and Deportation.
Given the focus of this colloquium on blindness and artistic creation, I would like to emphasize here that when he was held at Struthof, in block 10 where – uniquely in this camp - the block leader, Roger Kauthen, a great Luxembourgeois musician and leader of the camp orchestra, would distribute musical instruments, Arthur Poitevin would play accordion or violin and would sing for his friends on Saturdays during the musical evenings which only took place in this block – clearly without the knowledge of the SS – as François Guérin and Marcel Leclerc, two compatriots of Arthur’s held in the same block, testify. It is under these circumstances that he composed, on 17 January 1944 a song of hope, La Voix du Rêve, which became a kind of camp ‘hymn’ and which is still sung each year at the memorial ceremonies which take place at the Struthof deportation monument.
It is nonetheless important to remember that Struthof Camp, which was run by the SS Josef Kramer, and where prisoners were greeted with the macabre sentence: 'Here, you come in through the door and leave through the chimney’ was just as awful as the other camps. It was a Category III camp, which meant that it was one of the strictest: 22,000 out of its 52,000 prisoners died there. There was a gallows, a gas chamber and a crematorium as well as Nazi medical professors from the University of the Reich in Strasbourg who would carry out medical ‘experiments’ on the detainees.
But Arthur Poitevin and his friends from block 10 were lucky that their kapo was a musician, and more humane than the majority of block leaders ; they were also lucky that he protected Arthur because he was blind and because he was a musician, notably by letting him off hard labour.
As for Irène Ottelard, she only avoided death thanks to the beauty of her voice. Unlike most of her fellow prisoners of the smalll Uckermark-Jugendlager camp, she survived. The camp, which was situated a few thousand metres from Ravensbrück was where old, ill and infirm women, those women who could no longer work, were collected, from 15 January 1945, in order that they be killed by hunger (bread and soup rations halved); thirst, fatigue, the cold (roll calls where they had to stand to attention for 6 or 7 hours in very little clothing - their coats and stockings had been taken away when they arrived) promiscuity, vermin, the total absence of hygiene and medical care. The ill and the infirm women of Jugendlager who survived despite this regime, or who didn’t die quicky enough, were sent to the Revier, (camp infirmary), where the blockova Vera Salvequart, a beautiful and intelligent 25-year-old nurse with a sweet voice, would eliminate every day, with the help of two SS medics, a certain number of patients by giving them a white powder or a lethal injection. Others were chosen for ‘black transports’ from which they never returned, until a gas chamber was built near the camp.
Well, Irène Ottelard, who was very visually impaired and whose lack of treatment left her almost completely blind, and who also had an infected wound on her left leg which Docteur Treite, a doctor with the military grade of captain at the Ravensbruck Camp, also refused to treat, was one of the very few prisoners sent to the infirmary at Uckermark who were spared by the dreadful Vera. She and several others were excused medical checks in exchange for services: Irène was to sing songs which Salvequart liked, others embroidered her white coat, mended her clothes or helped her with her admin tasks ; one such helper was Gisela Krüger, a German prisoner whose leg Dr Treite had amputated and who kept a secret diary in which she made a note of everything which went on at the infirmary.
The only thing was, as Germaine Tillion reminds us in her third book on Ravensbrück, « cette étrange « infirmière » devait avoir un certain nombre de mortes chaque jour, et elle choisissait selon ses humeurs celles de ses malades auxquelles elle ferait avaler de force la fameuse poudre blanche » [this strange ‘nurse’ had to have certain number of deaths per day and she chose depending on her moods which of her patients she would force to swallow the famous white powder’] unless she gave them an injection instead..... Thus the « protégées » of today could be tomorrow’s victims if that was necessary to reach the ‘quota’. We can only imagine how hard it must have been for poor Irène, in this terrifying atmosphere, to have to sing for the very woman who had administered the hateful white powder to Gaby, her bunk-bed mate and who had also killed another of her friends with an injection. But she had to try and survive in order to bear witness to what went on at Uckermark, and in particular at the infirmary which Irène finally left in mid-April to be taken back to the big camp – weighing only 29 kilos - with around 1000 other survivors out of the 6000 women who had been imprisoned at Uckermark.
She testified in December 1946, along with 2 other prisoners who had been spared by the fearsome Salvequart, at the first of 7 Ravensbrück trials, which took place in Hamburg from the 5 December 1946 to the 3 February 1947. In the book which she has just written on Ravensbrück, British historian Sarah Helm, who had access to the trial archives, recounts this episode which cannot fail to move us:
« So personal was Irène Ottelard’s hatred of Dr Treite that on the witness stand Irene – nearly blind – asked for a guiding hand so she could step down and approach the dock in order to look him in the eye. Treite’s refusal to treat her infected leg had meant she was selected for the Youth Camp, “where people laid about and died.”»
Vera Salvequart, who was sentenced to death along with 10 others, including 5 doctors (an eleventh, also a doctor, died of a heart attack during the trial) – was executed on 2 June 1947. Dr Percy Treite, who was also sentenced to death, killed himself on the 8 April.
Alongside these blind resistance workers who were all victims of Nazi brutality, I will mention one more blind resistance worker who was awarded, on 2 August 1999, the « Juste parmi les Nations » medal. I am talking about a Dominican monk, Father Joseph-Marie Perrin (1905-2002), who, as soon as the 1940 Armistice was declared, first in Marseille and then in Montpellier, helped Jews and German refugees opposed to the Nazi regime whom, according to the armistice agreement, France had agreed to deliver to Germany.
Father Perrin devoted a chapter of his autobiography Comme un veilleur attend l’aurore (1998) to these war years. He was imprisoned in August 1943 in Montpellier, after a denunciation, but he was released reasonably quickly because of lack of evidence. He quotes a comment which was reported to him by someone working in Montpellier police headquarters, and which speaks volumes about the danger he was in: «Le Père Perrin, on l’a relâché, mais on aura sa peau ». [Father Perrin: we had to let him go, but we will get him.’]
Thus forewarned, he took the necessary measures and went into hiding in Aix-en-Provence until the Allies landed on the Mediterranean coast in 1944.
With the exception of Jacques Lusseyran about whom I am going to speak to you now, I do not yet know very much about the other blind resistance workers because I have not yet been able to gain access to the U.A.R archives.
Only 3 of them were still alive on 25 November 2014, when the commemorative ceremony took place at l’Inja : firstly I will mention M. Roger-François Clapier, to date the last president of the Union des aveugles de la Résistance, who now lives in Marseille. In an interview published in 2006 in Les Chemins de la Mémoire, he described how, at the beginning of the new academic year of 1940, with some fellow students, he had begun to « faire quelque chose » [do something] as the phrase went, before joining a more ‘serious’ Resistance network, the Office Strategic Service, where he took part in various initiatives including making false identity papers, and, thanks to an uncle who worked at the port of Marseille, passing details of all port activity on to the Resistance. Then, after some of his friends had been arrested and shot at Signes, he went into hiding at the home of some Resistance friends near Avignon with whom he took part in attacks on retreating German soldiers and helped secure the lower Durance valley, an action for which he later received a medal. Subsequently, after defending his thesis on economic history at the university of ’Aix-en-Provence in 1954, Roger-François Clapier had a brilliant career as a professor at this same university.
The two other blind resistance fighters who survived this heroic time are M. Denis Pons and M. Aimé Daly; this latter was the only one who was well enough to make the journey to l’INJA and who came, with his wife, to the 25 November ceremony, during which he made a very moving speech.
Jacques Lusseyran may not be the only blind hero of the French Resistance but he is the best known. On the one hand, this is because, despite his youth – he was 16 in 1940 – he very quickly played a key role in one of the most important networks of the occupied Northern Zone: Défense de la France, « dont l’action résume la palette des activités clandestines» [whose actions cover the whole range of clandestine actions] : distributing an underground newspaper, making false identity papers, sabotaging, and, from 1944, running two important maquis – but, by this time, Jacques Lusseyran, who was arrested on the 20 July 1943 and deported the 22 January 1944 with a number of his colleagues from Défense de la France, was no longer on the management committee which had become divided about the relevance of these kinds of actions.
On the other hand, even though Jérôme Garcin welcomed him into his personal Panthéon of forgotten heroes, Jacques Lusseyran was not completely unknown before the publication of Le Voyant, because he described his life, his experiences of blindness and his political commitments in a collection of remarkable works which testify to a real writerly talent and reveal an exceptional personality. But it is true, and here Jérôme Garcin is right to criticise the way his work was forgotten by his own country, that Lusseyran – notably thanks to his brilliant career in America and the publication of his works in English and in German, was better known in the anglo-saxon world than in France, where, happily, this trend is changing, thanks to Garcin’s important work..
Jacques Lusseyran was born in Paris on the 19 September 1924, on the slopes of Montmartre, in the 18th arrondissement, into a middle-class family: his father, Pierre Lusseyran, originally from the Landes, had a degree in Physics and Chemistry and worked as a chemical engineer. His mother, Germaine (née Diard) was born in Juvardell in Anjou, and studied physics and biology after having been a primary school teacher in her local area. Both were strong believers in Rudolf Steiner’s theories of anthroposophie.
At the beginning of his autobiography, Et la lumière fut, which is also his best known work, Jacques Lusseyran pays hommage to his parents :
« Mes parents étaient la protection, la confiance, la chaleur […]. [Ils] me portaient. C’est sans doute pourquoi, pendant toute mon enfance, je n’ai pas touché terre.[…] Mes parents, c’étaient le ciel. […] Je savais […] qu’à travers eux un Autre s’occupait de moi, s’adressait à moi. […] Ce furent les débuts de ma religion. Et cela explique, je crois, pourquoi je n’ai jamais connu le doute métaphysique.
De là mon audace. Je courais sans cesse. Toute mon enfance s’est passée à courir. […] Je courais pour aller à la rencontre de tout ce qui était visible et de tout ce qui ne l’était pas encore. J’allais de confiance en confiance comme dans une course de relais. »
[My parents were my protection, my confidence, my warmth. [...] They carried me. This is no doubt why, throughout my childhood, my feet never touched the ground. My parents were my sky. I knew that through them an Other was looking after me, talking to me. [...] This was the beginnings of my religion. And this explains, I think, why I have never known metaphysical doubt.
This is where my audaciousness came from. I would run to meet everything which was visible and everything which was not yet so. I went from confidence to confidence as if in a relay race.]
Jacques was a joyful child who would gallop around the paths of the Champs de Mars and the pavements of the narrow streets around his home in the 7th arrondissemnt, where his parents moved after his birth. As a child he was extremely attentive to sounds and smells and fascinated by light :
« Aucun phénomène, même les sons que j’écoutais pourtant avec tant de soin, n’avait pour moi le même prix que la lumière »,
[No phenomenon, not even sounds which I nonetheless listened to with such care, had the same importance for me as light.]
This child who was so full of confidence in life suddenly went blind aged 7 and a half.
The terrible accident happened on the morning of 3 May 1932, at the primary school on rue Cler. As all the children were rushing out of the classroom for break, an older child knocked into him from behind. Little Jacques lost his balance and banged into one of the corners of his teacher’s desk. As he was wearing glasses, the violent collision pushed one of his glasses’ arms into his right eye and pulled it out. The retina of the left eye was also damaged. The next morning, after a terrible night of pain, nightmares and fever, Jacques lost both his eyes and became completely and definitively blind.
For the first few weeks, he felt like everything was « épuisé, éteint », [exhausted, extinguished]; he became terrified and felt as if « un instant le monde perdu. » [‘for a moment the world was lost’]
And then suddenly he had a revelation : « Cessant de mendier aux passants le soleil », [stopping begging passers-by for sunshine], the child looked inwards and found sunshine there instead. « il éclatait là dans ma tête, dans ma poitrine, paisible, fidèle. [...] Je le reconnus, soudain amusé, je le cherchais au-dehors quand il m’attendait chez moi. » [It was shining there in my head, in my chest, peaceful, faithful. I recognised it and was suddenly amused: I had been looking for it outside when it was waiting for me inside myself]. Along with this interior light, Jacques developed a coloured vision of people and things which helped him rediscover joy. But, in order to live a normal life and continue with his schooling, Jacques, with the tireless help of his mother – who refused to send him to a school for the blind - , had to learn how to read Braille and how to deploy his other senses, and especially how to overcome the obstacles put in his way by the sighted world’s incomprehension of him.
This was in fact, according to him, and I should also note in passing, according to me, where the ‘shadows of the blind’ were really found: « Qu’on le veuille ou non, la cécité n’est pas bien reçue dans le monde des voyants ; elle est si mal connue et, on le dirait parfois, si redoutée ! Aussi commence-t-elle toujours par l’isolement. » [Whether we like it or not, blindness is not well received in the sighted world : it is terribly misunderstood, even feared. Therefore blindness always starts with isolation.] In addition to his interior vision, it was the love of his parents, the friendship of his peers, his passion for music and literature and his holidays in Juvardeil – in his mother’s family home, which lit up Jacques Lusseyran’s youth.
Besides his childhood friends, real friendship came into his life when he met Jean Besniée, in 1935, at the lycée Montaigne. The two boys shared everything and were inseparable from primary school to university. They were only separated by deportation and the subsequent death of Jean.
With the rise of fascism in Germany and the beginning of the war, much more terrifying shadows than blindness took hold of Europe. Jacques Lusseyran, who loved German language and culture, followed the rise of the Nazis with horror by listening to German radio and then during a short trip to Stuttgart with his father in 1938.
In June 1940, when they were in their penultimate year of high school in Toulouse, where Pierre Lusseyran had been mobilised as an officer-engineer at the gunpowder factory in Empalot, and where his wife and children, as well as Jean Besniée and his mother had soon joined them, - Jacques and Jean heard de Gaulle’s call to arms. They decided, without yet knowing how or when, to become soldiers fighting for a Free France. On the 1st October as they were returning to Paris, the idea of Resistance began to take shape as they began studying philosophy at Louis-le-Grand with a new teacher, Pierre Favreau, who did not hide his anti-Nazi sentiments. Eight months later, blind adolescent Jacques, established a resistance movement for students at Louis-le-Grand and Henri IV. They created a central committee and he was chosen as leader of the movement, and put in complete charge of recruitment because, according to his friends, his blindness gave him « le sens des êtres » [the sense of others]. One of the members of the group, a certain Jacques Oudin, became his deputy..
The movement quickly grew in size and christened itself with the superb title « Volontaires de la liberté ». Amongst its members we should mention Jean Besniée, Jacques Oudin, Jean Sennelier and Pierre Bizos, who all died during their deportation. The movement’s founding mission was to change public opinion by distributing leaflets and news reports. In March 1942, these reports became a small newspaper, with the incisive title Le Tigre, in memory of Clemenceau. In October 1942, Jacques began his university studies (en khâgne), at the same time as the movement’s activities continued to grow – which demonstrates his extraordinary intellectual capabilities and his powerful work ethic. In January 1943, Jacques Lusseyran and Jacques Oudin met Philippe Viannay, the founder of Défense de la France, which was publishing a fortnightly clandestine newspaper, with a print run of 10,000, whose aim was above all « le réveil des consciences» (‘awakening consciences]’, and which had the largest circulation of any clandestine publication. They agreed to provide Défense de la France with some soldiers to help in the distribution of the newspaper. Two members of the management committee of the Volontaires de la Liberté, Pierre Cochery et Jean-Louis Bruch, refused to accept their decision and this led to the defection of a part of the membership which became affiliated with other groups, such as Libération-Nord, Franc-Tireur, and especially with the Bourgogne network. The other members followed Jacques Lusseyran and Jacques Oudin, who became members of the management committee of Défense de la France. Lusseyran was given national responsability for distribution, helped by Oudin, who became his Argus, ready to « annoncer tous les dangers que les yeux perçoivent seuls. » [Ready to announce all those dangers only visible to the eyes.]
The only common belief shared by members of Défense de la France was « la survivance des valeurs chrétiennes », [the survival of Christian values] but with no reference to a particular kind of Christianity. Lusseyran called himself a Christian « de toute [sa] foi», [with all his heart] but wasn’t a member of any particular church. 3 months after the members of the Volontaires de la Liberté joined, the circulation of Défense de la France had doubled and the newspaper was being distributed all over France. For the 14 July issue, they organised a huge distribution operation in the Parisian metro. For this special issue, Jacques, using the pseudonyme « Vindex », wrote an article called « 14 juillet, fête de la liberté », [14 July : a celebration of freedom] where he called on the French moral conscience. The operation was a brilliant success, thanks to flawless organisation and the astonishing courage and stoicism of the 27 distribution teams who worked from early morning to late afternoon.
In the meantime, Jacques suffered a huge set-back with devastating consequences for his professional future. On the 1 July 1942 Pierre Laval’s government published a decree, signed by Abel Bonnard (Education Minister), Pierre Cathala (Finance Minister) and Raymond Grasset (Health Secretary) and followed on 2 July by a statement, regarding « Conditions physiologiques requises des candidats à un emploi dans l’enseignement secondaire » [Physiological Conditions Required of Candidates Seeking Employment in Secondary Education] which banned various categories of sick and infirm people – including blind people – from the recruitment process for jobs in secondary education. On the advice of his teachers, Jacques requested and obtained a waiver from the Minister for Higher Education and on 30 May 1943, he began preparing for the entrance exams. The following day, he received a letter from Abel Bonnard informing him that the minister had not ratified the waiver and ordering him to stop taking the exams. Here was the young hero of the Resistance, for whom blindness had always been « pleine de sens » [full of sense] categorised as incapable.
Nonetheless, he continued with his spiritual reflections and one evening he had a mystical experience which was dominated by feelings of peace and happiness, as well as the certainty that death was only a beginning. In fact, the theme of death would recur often in his conversations. Was that really so surprising for young men who were risking their life on a daily basis? « Nous avions peur en ce temps-là. N’allez pas vous imaginer autre chose ! Nous étions passionnés, mais nous n’étions pas fous ». [We were scared in those days, don’t imagine that we weren’t: we were passionate about the cause but we weren’t mad!] On 20 July 1943, at around 5am, this fear became very real: 6 armed German officers came to arrest him at his home. They took him to rue des Saussaies, Gestapo HQ. During his interrogation, Jacques learnt that 14 of his friends, including his alter ego Jean, had also been arrested. On reading his file, « un dossier de délation sans une faille» [a watertight denunciation] he was able to guess who had betrayed him : Elio (Emile Marongin), a medical student recruited to the cause in May via a recommendation and responsible for distribution in the Nord. Neither his voice nor his handshake had appealed to Jacques who, for the first time, had had some doubts about recruiting him, but the recommendation came from on high and was important. After being imprisoned at Fresnes for 6 months, Jacques was transported, on 16 January 1944, to the Compiègne-Royallieu Camp with several other supporters of Défense de la France. On 22 January, he was taken on transport I 172, from Compiègne to Buchenwald, where he became number 41978.
Against all expectations, Jacques managed to survive in this place of dereliction and death. What saved him, first and foremost, was his knowledge of German, as well as the presence of his friends from Défense de la France. But, at the end of February, they were called up « commando », and Jacques, who was left alone at Buchenwald, in the « Petit Camp », thought that this would be the end. He was scared of the other prisoners who stole his bread and his soup. But his blindness does enable him to avoid the hard labour commandos which killed so many of his friends. Two or three years earlier, being deemed incapable of physical work would have been a death sentence but since then the Nazis had invented a less radical but just as awful system; they grouped all the ill, infirm and disabled people together in one block. As well as the ill and the disabled, this group included everyone over 70 or under 16 as well as beggers, homosexuals and the insane: in fact a demographic not unlike the indescribable mixture of humanity which would once have been found in public hospices in every major European city and who became the butt of the extremely hierarchical social structure which was found in a concentration camp. The block was overcrowded and people died there so regularly that any kind of official count was impossible. At the end of March, Jacques became very ill. Two of his friends, Louis, a one-legged French man, and Pavel, a one-armed Russian, took him to the Revier. At the infirmary they weren’t treating people: they were leaving them to either die or wait for an impossible cure. Jacques was close to death when his illness took him « dans un autre monde » [into another world]: just like after the accident which made him blind, he accepted that LIFE could save his life and on 8 May, whereas everyone thought it was too late, he came out of the hospital « décharné, hagard, mais guéri. » [emaciated; haggard but cured].
After this, he spent the next 11 months in the camp looking after others. Many people called him ‘The Blind Frenchman’ and as such hundreds of people confided in him. He would also listen to and decipher the announcements coming from the block’s loud speakers which would broadcast German radio programmes, before going round block after block explaining them to the prisoners, thus fighting his own war against mis-information. Through this whole time, the image of Jean never left him. Indeed it was as if Jean had been watching over him during his illness. For Jean was dead. Jacques learnt this the day before he fell ill. Jean died of exhaustion almost at Buchenwald’s gates – after three weeks spent at Neue Bremm, a Gestapo torture camp, and 23 days of train travel from station to station and from siding to siding.
The last days of the camp arrived. On 11 April 1945, when the third American Army liberated Buchenwald, they found 20,000 starving men there. 24,000 others had been taken east the previous day by SS Guards who shot them during the journey. On 18 April, Jacques suddenly heard a voice calling his name : it was Philippe Viannay, the leader of Défense de la France, who had come to get his men back, at least those who were still at Buchenwald, and still alive : there were only 3 of them. On 15 avril, Jacques wrote to his parents. A copy of this letter – written in pencil by a hastily found scribe – was given to me by Pascal Lusseyran,Jacques’s brother. It contained a supremely moving sentence : « J’ai appris ici à aimer la vie et vous aimer plus que jamais ». [Here I learnt to love life and to love you even more than ever.]
Back in France he was reunited with his friends from Défense de la France, at least those who had survived and on 20 September 1945, aged 21, he married, Jacqueline Pardon, an old friend from the management committee, and 3 years his senior. They had 3 children: Jean-Marc, (November 1946) ; Claire, (July 1948) and Catherine (November 1950) but they ended up getting divorced in July 1954.
The euphoria of having returned to France was soon overwhelmed by disappointment, as was indeed the case for many deported resistance workers who were astonished by the indifference of their peers who did not want to hear them talk about what they had experienced and were incapable of appreciating the extent of their suffering. They also felt let down by the way their country had betrayed the ideals for which they had made so many sacrifices. Let us listen to what Arthur Poitevin, wrote on this subject in the last chapter of his Journal, entitled « Après la tourmente » :
« Hélas, où sont les réformes qui devaient découler de la terrible expérience, où est la fraternité qu’aurait dû forger le malheur, où est l’honnêteté qui devrait maintenant présider à toutes les transactions ? Les administrations fonctionnent avec une lenteur doublée d’une incurable stupidité. Les commerçants les mieux montés sont justement ceux qui ont le plus trafiqué avec l’occupant. Le marché noir empoisonne toujours la vie publique. Quant à la justice… […] Grande fut notre joie au retour. Grand aussi demeure notre dégoût. »
[Where are the reforms which should have come out of this terrible experience? Where is the brotherhood which should have been forged through suffering? Where is the honesty which should now take precedence in all transactions? Public services are working with a slowness which is coupled with incurable stupidity. The best placed businesses are those who did the most business with the occupying forces. The black market is still poisoning public life. As for justice [...] we were overjoyed to be back; now we are disgusted.]
Jacques Lusseyran experienced all the feelings explored by Poitevin.
A crisis triggered by the former clandestine newspaper, which had become an mainstream newspaper - France-Soir – edited by Pierre Lazareff, erupted at the heart of the former resistance movement. Jacques resigned from the association and from its board of directors in 1947 but he kept his shares in France-Soir, until a plot by Pierre Lazareff and Aristide Blank, director of France-Soir, designed to save the paper from bankrupcy, ended up giving Hachette control of the paper by getting rid of all the former resistance fighters who were obliged to give up their shares to Blank for much less than their true value.
In addition the fact that the 1942 decree was still in place prevented him from being able to take either entrance exams for the École normale supérieure or the agrégation. His spiritual weapons, which had allowed the young blind man to brilliantly overcome his disability and resist Nazi terror, were no match for the stagnancy of a stupid system. As the years he had spent studying literature (1941-3) counted for the equivalent of the first 2 years of university study, he studied Philosophy at the Sorbonne between 1945 and 1947 after which he went back to the Education Minister and again asked to be allowed to take the teaching exams (l’agrégation). On 15 September 1947, he wrote to his friend Lapierre to tell him that he had « enfin obtenu de Naegelen l’autorisation de préparer l’agrégation », [finally obtained from Naegelen permission to take the exams] which would give him « le droit de prétendre au titre d’agrégé » [the right to call himself an agrégé] – which could be useful for his future career - « mais nullement celui d’enseigner dans le secondaire » [but not the right to teach in a secondary school]. He therefore decided to work towards « l’agrégation la moins inaccessible pour [lui] : celle d’Allemand ». [the least inaccessible agrégation for him : German]. We do not know if he ever ended up taking the exams. Whatever the case, unlike Arthur Poitevin, who was a music teacher before the war and who took up his post again in 1945 « avec un succès inespéré » [with unexpected success], Jacques Lusseyran, who was unable to work as a teacher, absolutely had to find a job. Pierre Favreau, a former teacher of his at Louis-le-Grand (and a Mason), found him a place as a philosophy teacher at the Lay Mission in Salonica, Greece which was in the middle of a civil war. He spent a difficult year there with Jacqueline (1947-1948): « Suspecté de communisme par les autorités de droite, pour qui résistance est synonyme de communisme », [Suspected of Communism by the right-wing authorities for whom resistance is synonymous with communism] they keep a close eye on him and any contact between him and the Greeks outside his lessons is forbidden. Back in France for the holidays he learns in mid November that he has been banned from returning to his job in Greece. He obtained a bursary from Recherche scientifique to write a thesis on « Le syncrétisme religieux chez Gérard de Nerval » - which he would never finish because of leaving for the States in September 1958 - and found work at the Alliance française, giving papers and acting as Secretary of the teaching committee. He also gave some lectures at the Ecole normale supérieure de Fontenay-aux-Roses and the Ecole normale supérieure de Saint-Cloud, where he lectured every week to Egyptian French teachers who were on a professional training course in France. At last he found a job teaching contemporary French literature in the French Civilisation programme at the Sorbonne. This was a real triumph! [C’est un véritable triomphe]. Amongst the 400 or so foreign students who enthusiastically attended his lecturers, some Americans from Hollins College, Virginia – a college for young ladies from wealthy families – arranged for him to start his full-time teaching career at Hollins. He settled in the States, with his second wife, Jacqueline Hospitel, and their three-month-old son Olivier in September 1958, a year before the final abolition of the 1942 decree. Àt Hollins, he taught French literature between 1958 and 1961. Then he moved to the Western Reserve University in Cleveland (Ohio), where, in 1966, he received the Karl Vittke Prize for the best teaching at the university. Betwen 2006 and 2009 I was in touch with some of his former students from Hollins and Western Reserve. They all described his personal and intellectual influence, his astonish ability to describe landscapes, but also the extreme tension which was always part of him and which others who knew him, whom I met in 1991, had also mentioned. Regarding his qualities as a teacher, one of his former students, whom I interviewed in 2006 said, word for word:
« Jamais de ma vie je n’ai rencontré un éducateur, un professeur, un humain, aussi fort. Il était bien au-dessus du niveau demandé. C’était le seul professeur vraiment grand de Western Reserve, c’était le Dieu»
[Never in my life have I met a teacher, a professor, a human as strong as him: he went far beyond what was expected of him. He was the only truly great professor at Western Reserve; he was a God.]
I had already heard about the exception quality of his teaching in May 1991 from Jean-Marie Domenach (1922-1997), a former resistance fighter, journalist, writer, intellectual and politically committed Catholic who, after having participated in the refounding of the journal Esprit when France was liberated, was its director between 1957 and 1977. Jean-Marie Domenach, who had met Lusseyran for the first time on his return from deportation, and had seen him again several times, came across him at a Summer session, at Middleburry (Vermont), where he was giving « des cours éblouissants » [dazzling classes]: « Je le sais – m’a-t-il dit - parce que je passais après lui. Je l’écoutais. Il montait à la tribune, guidé par sa femme, et il commençait. [ …] Il faisait les plus beaux cours que j’ai entendus sur la littérature. Je me rappelle entre autres un cours sur Proust [...]. C’était extraordinaire, avec une voix qui portait loin, avec une vigueur, une éloquence, sans emphase d’ailleurs ; c’était vraiment parmi les plus beaux cours que j’ai entendus dans ma vie. »
[I know – he told me – because I would go on after him. I used to listen to him. He would go up on stage, guided by his wife, and he would start [...]. He gave the most beautiful literature lectures I have ever heard. I can remember amongst others a class on Proust. [...] It was extraordinary, he had a voice which carried, an energy, an eloquence, without undue emphasis – it really was one of the best lectures I have ever heard in all my life.]
Like Lusseyran’s former students, Domenach also mentioned the mystery of how Lusseyran managed to describe the hills around Middleburry:
« Je me rappelle un truc invraisemblable ; nous étions là, dans le Vermont et… il me décrivait le paysage. Est-ce qu’il se foutait de moi ? […] Parce qu’il disait, il racontait… Il disait : « Tu vois ces collines… » Enfin, il était totalement non aveugle quand il parlait. Jamais il ne faisait allusion à son infirmité et il décrivait le paysage. Avec une pertinence et en même temps, un lyrisme, sans emphase, ce qui m’a… Je ne comprenais pas. Il voyait les collines, il voyait le Vermont, il le décrivait mieux qu’un voyant n’aurait pu le faire. »
[I remember something astonishing; there we were, in Vermont and he was describing the landscape to me. Was he messing with me? Because he said ‘You see those hills…’ In fact he was totally non-blind when he spoke. He never referred to his disability and he would describe landscapes with a pertinence, a lyricism, but without exaggeration. I couldn’t understand it. He could see the hills; he could see Vermont; he could describe it better than a sighted person could.]
In fact, this astonishing man and great professor was such a seductive presence that the year he received the Carl Vittke Prize, and with promotion to « full professor » awaiting him at the beginning of the next academic year, he had to literally run away from Cleveland with one of his most talented students, Toni Machlup, (née Berger) a young women « d’une beauté incroyable, réellement une des plus belles femmes que j’ai jamais vues » [of astonishing beauty, truly one of the most beautiful young women I have ever seen] – according to Domenach – who was married to a physics professor at the university and who had twin baby boys. Toni had a scandalous relationship with her French literature professor and the situation had become so difficult that they decided to leave in July 1966, leaving their partners and children behind them. They found refuge first of all on a Greek island, Samos where they led a very unstable life for a year before settling with some friends of Jacques’ in Aix-en-Provence, where he had a part-time lecturing post between November 1967 and June 1969. After having both got divorced from their respective partners, they got married on December 5 1969. Toni Berger, who had willingly changed her first name when she left America, became Marie Lusseyran. In August of the same year Jacques Lusseyran was awarded a named chair of French Literature at the university of Hawaii where he was responsible for 500 undergraduates and 50 postgrads.
In tandem with his academic career, Jacques Lusseyran was a prolific writer. In 1953, he published with éditions de la Table ronde an initial version of his autobiographical work Et la lumière fut. Newspapers and radio programmes made a great deal of this publication and in 1954, l’Académie française awarded him the Louis Barthou prize. The same publishing house also published an autobiographical novel, in 1954, Silence des hommes, the sequel to his first book and in 1959 he wrote a philosophical essay, Le monde commence aujourd'hui, which is a kind of declaration of love to the New World where he reflects on his experiences in Buchenwald in order to definitely free himself from them. In this work he also describes his attachment to his job as an academic and his experience of blindness. At Hollins, from April 1960 to May 1961, he rewrote his first two works to make a third which has a longer timespan. This work, again called Et la lumière fut, was dedicated to his American hosts to whom he wrote this message :
« La joie ne vient pas du dehors. Elle est en nous quoi qu’il nous arrive. La lumière ne vient pas du dehors. Elle est en nous, même sans les yeux. »
[Joy does not come from the exterior. It is within us, whatever happens. Light does not come from the exterior. It is within us, even without our eyes.]
The work was translated and published in English in 1963 and then into 5 other languages between 1966 and 1982. But it was only in 1987 – 16 years after Lusseyran’s death – that this new work was at last published in French. by Trois Arches, with nonetheless some editorial changes. Finally, in 2005, les éditions du Félin published the original version of the text written by Jacques Lusseyran with a preface by Jacqueline Pardon.
It has been available in paperback since 2008.
After his depature from Cleveland and during his time on Samos in 1966-1967, he wrote an essay on contemporary America, published by Gallimard in 1968 in their Collection blanche and entitled Douce, trop douce Amérique. « Exercice de gratitude, exprimée par un rescapé des camps de la mort à un peuple qui lui a appris « à ne plus avoir peur » et par un Français dont la France n’a pas voulu, mais dont il n’a cessé, en l’enseignant, de glorifier le génie. »
[An exercise in gratitude written by a death camp survivor for a people who taught him to nevermore be afraid; written by a Frenchman whose country did not want him but whose genius he never stopped celebrating through his teaching.]
Sadly, this work, where he gives us his vision of America and of campus life, a vision full of kindness and truth, came out at a bad time, just before May 68, and has therefore not reached a very wide audience.
During his stay in Aix-en-Provence, from November 1967 to June 1969, Lusseyran wrote an autobiographical novel, Le Puits ouvert, for which he could not find a publisher. Publishers would have been interested, explained a friend of Jacques and Marie whom I met in 2006, and to whom Jacques sent each chapter as he wrote it, if he had agreed to make some cuts.
Jérôme Garcin, who was able to read the thick 600 page manuscript, criticised the publishers’ blindness for, as he wrote : « malgré ses longueurs inutiles, ses digressions énigmatiques, son trop-plein d’émotions et d’adjectifs […],Le Puits ouvert est un beau et terrible livre sur le bonheur et la douleur d’aimer, sur la difficulté, pour un esprit loyal, de se découvrir infidèle, et aussi sur le combat que mène un corps blessé par l’Histoire pour s’accomplir au présent. »
[Despite certain over-long passages, some enigmatic digressions and an abundance of emotions and adjectives, [...] Le puits ouvert is a beautiful and haunting book about the pleasures and the pains of love, about how hard it is for a loyal character to discover his own infidelities, and about the struggle which a body wounded by History leads to excel in the present.]
Jacques Lusseyran’s final text, Conversation amoureuse, which he had been working on since 1970, and which he might have rewritten if he had time, was published posthumously by éditions des Trois Arches, in 1990. It was reprinted by éditions Triades in 2005. It is a reflection on love using his relationships with the three women who shared his life as his model. He addresses these passionate remarks to Marie shortly before dying with her in a car accident on 27 July 1971, when they were on holiday in the Anjou region.
They are both buried in Juvardeil, Jacques’s mother’s village, near Angers.
Jacqueline Pardon, Jacques’s first wife, died in Paris on 16 January 2009, aged 87. Jacqueline Hospitel, his second wife, had died 10 years previously.
As a conclusion to this long presentation, whose preparation has obliged me to stare evil in the face, I would like to quote what Antoine Compagnon wrote in the Preface to his anthology of texts about the First World War : La Grande Guerre des écrivains. D’Apollinaire à Zweig :
« Toute écriture de la guerre […] passe par une descente aux enfers, impose une épreuve expiatoire, et l’on ne revient pas indemne d’une telle expédition. […] J’en suis sorti abruti, déprimé, bouleversé, transformé. Et j’imagine que cette réaction sera en quelque manière celle du lecteur de ce recueil. La lecture n’en sera pas facile ; elle présentera elle aussi une épreuve.»
[All war writing […] involves a descent into hell, a penitent journey, and people do not easily recover from such an expedition. [...] I came out of it stupefied, depressed, moved, transformed. And I imagine that this reaction will be in a way thereaction of the reader of this collection. Reading it will not be easy: it will be testing.]
So what can we say about those people who actually experienced war, whether they knew the horror of the First World War trenches or the terror of the Nazi regime? Jacques Lusseyran suggests one astonishing response, which came from the house of the dead:
« J’ai appris ici à aimer la vie et vous aimer plus que jamais.»
[Here I learned to love live and to love you even more than ever.]
Lusseyran, the ‘Seer’, of whom Jean-Marie Domenach wrote in a tribute which came out in 1971 in Esprit, that he « était emporté par une espèce d’amour qui descendait en torrent sur les êtres et les choses. » [was carried along by a kind of love which flowed in torrents onto beings and things.’]
For me, at the very end of this paper, I would like to share with you what my research into the Nazi terror has made me think today: mass cruelty still exists (see the database created at Sciences Pô by blind French historian Sémelin). Since my work on Suzanne and Taha Hussein I regularly receive information about things happening in the near and middle east and I am horrified by what Christians living in the east and in parts of Africa are going through, amidst the almost total indifference of the rest of the world, including, until very recently, French Catholics.
In addition, after having read once again what Nazi doctors and their colleagues got up to in the camps, I find myself questioning the implicit reasons behind French legislation regarding euthanasia. I also wonder about work-place harassement designed to increase production. It seems to me that the poisonous seeds sown by the Nazis continue to bear fruit. I am not saying that they invented everything, but they put into practice, blatantly, methodically and on a huge scale, techniques of dehumanisation which supporters of the neo-liberal economy now cynically exploit in the name of increased profits, dressing them up in humanist colours if necessary : why not destroy, in the name of so-called dignity, the old and the disabled who are reaching the end of their life and who cost society a lot: in pensions, in benefits, in health-related expenses, without producing anything. In short the preparation of this paper has led me to consider in more detail than ever before, the ethical questions which occupy today’s society. I believe that these are questions which every researcher working in the field of Disability Studies must address sooner or later. Once again, History, whose place is – coincidentally – being reduced day by day in the school curriculum, seems indispensable if we are to understand the present. On this point, I quote the great French historian Marc Bloch, who was killed by the Nazis on l6 June 1944 at Saint Didier de Formans : «L’ignorance du passé ne se borne pas à nuire à la compréhension du présent ; elle compromet dans le présent l’action même. »
[The ignorance of the past does not only limit our understanding of the present, it also prevents us from acting on that present.]
I would like to thank you for your attention and I would also like to thank Jérôme Garcin, because without Le Voyant, I would perhaps never have picked up my work on Jacques Lusseyran ; also thanks to Bruno Liesen, who let me use the text we published together on Jacques Lusseyran in VOIR barré, in November 2009 ; to Bruno Ronfard, who, thanks, to a recent exchange of e-mails, helped me to clarify my thoughts on the ethical questions addressed in my conclusion, to Jacques Sémelin, researcher at CERI and professor at the Institut des Sciences politiques, who, in a recent speech at a ceremony celebrating his exemplary work on civil Resistance and mass violence, and, more recently, on acts of solidarity which save the lives of those in extreme situations, emphasised the relationship between ethics, the sciences (specifically the social sciences) and the key questions which inhabit our society.