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The days of resistance


By Lucie Aubrac, translated by Konrad Bieber with the assistance of Betsy Wing

University of Nebraska Press, $25.

Reviewed by David Walton

They lived better lives then, one thinks, reading Lucie Aubrac's account of the perils and sacrifices of working with the French Resistance in Lyon in 1943 _ and of her sense of purpose and commitment, and unalloyed satisfaction in each of life's simplest pleasures. Our own times seem meager and pointlessly complex by comparison.

A lycee history teacher of high academic standing, with a Jewish husband and small son, Aubrac drew few lines between her roles as underground fighter and as teacher, wife, mother. Today, it is often said that the legend of the French Resistance was a post-war creation, manufactured to compensate for the dismal French record of collaboration with the German occupation in World War II. The interest of Aubrac's memoir (first published in France in 1984 as Ils Partiront Dans L'Ivresse) is that she shows how resistance, like collaboration, had many degrees, and was part of the fabric of everyday life in France during the war years.

Although she didn't keep a diary at the time, Aubrac uses the journal form to describe the nine months between May, 1943, when she assisted in the rescue of her husband Raymond from German arrest, and February, 1944, when the two of them escaped by plane with their son to England, within hours of Aubrac giving birth to their second child.

During these months, Raymond was again arrested, this time with Jean Moulin, a key figure in the Resistance who was murdered by Klaus Barbie in 1944. Once again, Lucie (Aubrac was her undercover name, taken from a detective novel) helped plan and carry out a clever and daring rescue _ the source of the 1990 French film Boulevard des Hirondelles.

Exciting as Aubrac's narrative is, what's most engrossing is her depiction of the domestic face of resistance fighting. "We still had a legal address,"she writes of her and Raymond's first years in the Resistance, "with a mailbox, a real home with books, a small stock of coal and provisions, beds ready for our buddies _ we were a couple with a child. Those guys liked seeing that such a thing still existed _ a home."

After Raymond's arrest, Lucie has no way of knowing if he has been killed except to go every week to the Lyon morgue to view the bodies. Never afraid to take risks, she presents herself _ twice _ at Klaus Barbie's office posing as Raymond's pregnant sweetheart. The Butcher of Lyon shows her impatiently to the door both times, not suspecting her role. Lucie finds a more sympathetic Gestapo colonel who agrees to let her meet with Raymond under an obscure French law that allows a pregnant woman to marry a condemned prisoner "in extremis" _ and then agrees to a second meeting, so Lucie can draw up a marriage contract to protect her property from the condemned man's family.

"Ah, the French, they think of everything," exclaims the dumbfounded colonel.

Aubrac conveys the day-to-day peril and uncertainty, the genuine risks and triumphs of an underground war: the way it is a theater of saving and losing face, for conquerors and conquered alike. Her memoirs compare with two other fine accounts of individual struggle during World War II: Art Spiegelman's Maus and Marie Vassiltchikov's Berlin Diaries, 1940-1945. While it may not have quite the literary standing of these two, Outwitting the Gestapo is remarkably effective in its plainness and lack of artifice, and, like them, it is a memorable record of human courage and sacrifice.

David Walton is a writer living in Pittsburgh.