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A Jewish Writer Kept a Secret Diary During the Nazi Occupation of France

From June 1940 to January 1944, with Nazi forces occupying France, the Jewish novelist Léon Werth — an unclassifiable writer who had published books of art criticism, political essays, journalism and travel writing, in addition to 11 novels — stayed in his wife’s country home outside a small village called Saint-Amour, in the zone under the direct control of Pétain and his collaborationist government in Vichy. Werth normally lived in Paris. If he had stayed there, he might well have been oneof the 50,000 Jews deportedfrom the city and exterminated. (One of Vichy’s first decrees excluded Jews from all professions, but it was the Germans who ordered their deportation.) No one in Saint-Amour denounced Werth, although they must have known he was Jewish.

Alone in his house, with the habit of writing, no other work, and the obvious impossibility of publishing, he made entries in his diary almost every day, noting what people said, what he saw, and what he heard on the radio and read in the press, often with comments like this: “Monsieur de Gaulle (that’s what the paper calls him) and General Catroux have been stripped of their French nationality.” So has France. (December 12, 1940.)...

Characteristically, one day earlier Werth had noted the troubling sight of women with shaved heads accused of “horizontal collaboration” and even, just before “tears of deliverance” come into his eyes, his pity for German prisoners “with their hands clasped over the nape of their necks in the posture of the damned. One of them, barely in his teens, has let his head fall on his neighbor’s chest. He’s sleeping.” He is full of joy at the victory, he’s glad these soldiers are now prisoners, “But the humiliation of those men makes me suffer. It is necessary, it is even justice itself. I approve of it, it satisfies me, it soothes me and I cannot rejoice at it.” Werth’s self-portrait has all the complexity historians have applauded in his portraits of others.

It is this complexity that underscores why diaries are so important to the study of history. Whereas studies of the past and even memoirs often present a smoothed-out picture, influenced by the passage of time and added reflections, diaries capture the complexity of real life. For example, Werth writes that a neighboring peasant, Laurent, believes that the people behind a Vichy decree about raising livestock must think the farmers are “dumber than the animals” but also believes that Marshal Pétain, the autocratic Head of the French State who was ultimately responsible for all such decrees, was doing the best he could for France. Dislike and contempt for the Vichy government and respect for its leader was a typical attitude at the time, and the diary captures that contradiction.

Many entries record what was happening in the war. Paradoxically, an added pleasure in reading some of these entries today is to follow the progress of the war step by step, not as a historian but a contemporary. Unlike Werth as he wrote his diary, we know the story has a happy ending. ...

Read entire article at Time Magazine