Thursday, August 04, 2016

Summer Reading: Avenue of Spies

In keeping with my summer reading theme (World War II non-fiction), I accepted a review copy of Alex Kershaw's book, subtitled "A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family's Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris."

The subtitle alone reminded me that almost none of the World War II history I have read has been centered on France. I have read about the Russian Jewish resistance, the efforts of Germans to overthrow the Third Reich from the inside, the Norwegian resistance and the squads of double agents who sent Nazi secrets to England on a regular basis, in addition to books about ordinary people caught in or delivered from the Nazi scourge (The Zookeeper's Wife and The Nazi Officer's Wife are among the more recent titles in this vein that I have read). Of course, that's without mentioning (again!) all the books that look at specifically Catholic efforts at rescue and subterfuge. In all those books, the only glimpses of wartime France came through the English double agents. I have read nothing about the French themselves.

Even this book is not so much about the French, as it is about one family: an American surgeon, his Swiss-born wife and their only child. Approached by members of the French resistance, the couple agreed to turn their house on Paris' elegant Avenue Foch (the "Avenue" of the title whose mansions had almost all been requisitioned for the Germans' operations ) into a communications hub.

Actually, the family's quiet rebellion against the newly-arrived occupiers had already begun in the American Hospital in Paris. Before the US entered the war, the American Hospital was neutral territory, and friends in diplomatic circles kept the Germans from taking it over. Dr. Sumner Jackson worked long hours in surgery, trying to save the life and limbs of Allied POWs from a nearby camp. To the extent possible, he not only healed their wounds, but got them out of France entirely. (In some cases, the soldier's "death certificate" was delivered to the camp in lieu of his strangely vibrant corpse, which was already far from Paris...)

War was not new to Dr Jackson. He had been a volunteer in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I (defying US neutrality even then), a strange destiny for a man who had been raised in poverty in the back woods of Maine, and who had worked his way through medical school on his own. His wife "Toquette" could not bear living in the States, and so they had moved to France where her family had property and connections and Dr. Jackson's private practice catered to the "stars" of high society (many of whom gracefully transitioned into Nazi collaborators when the City of Lights fell so quietly that summer of 1940).

Perhaps one reason I have read so little about the French resistance is because it was so effectively dismantled by the Gestapo. Whereas all the double agents in the employ of England and Germany seem to have been working for the Allies, among the French it was not so. The Gestapo was able to monitor a great deal of resistance communications, even using French radio codes to summon unsuspecting agents from England to France, where they were arrested, tortured for yet more information and executed. (One of the most remarkable of the French agents who was betrayed into German hands was an unbreakable woman whose last, defiant word was "Liberté.")

It was the German's penetration of resistance communication (and the inexplicable failure of the Jackson's group to assign them an alias) that led to the entire Jackson family's capture. Toquette ended up in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, from which she was eventually transported to freedom in Sweden; her husband and son were interned together in Neuengamme. After Hitler's death, the men of Neuengamme were loaded onto prison ships, bait for incoming British bombers. Philip Jackson, age 17, was one of the few to survive and became the source of much of the information in the book (with 41 pages of end notes that are not to be missed and an index 14 pages long).

I would not say that Avenue of Spies was a page-turner in the same way as, say Church of Spies (do I sense a trend in those titles?), but it definitely kept my interest and gave me a beginner's sense of what happened in and with France as the Nazis swept through.

The author goes nowhere near this final matter, but I cannot help but suspect that part of France's embarrassingly tepid response to Nazi activity is in part the result of the French Revolution and the remaking of France ("the eldest daughter of the Church") into a rigorously secular nation and society.
The Reign of Terror had efficiently dismantled the religious houses and institutions that in other nations served as safe houses for the rescue of Jews and conduits of clandestine communication.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a free review copy of the book mentioned above with the expectation that I would mention it on my blog. I am committed to giving as honest a review as possible as part of my community's mission of putting media at the service of the truth. In addition, some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

1 comment:

Denise said...

We will miss you. I will pray for you, and you pray for me. Love the books you are reading.