Cruel Crossing – Escaping Hitler Across The Pyrenees
By Edward Stourton
Doubleday – £20.00
Having not lived in the beautiful Ariege region of south-western France very long – an area upon which a substantial amount of this book is focused – it was inevitable that I would endeavour to investigate it’s history. Especially given the fact that I very much enjoy reading, writing and history; but what’s altogether interesting as well as captivating about Cruel Crossing – Escaping Hitler Across the Pyrenees, is its variant in mood, style and persuasion.
To be sure, its fifteen chapters almost read like a number of books all rolled into one: part memoir, part historical investigation, part political analysis (of France during the Second World War), part diary and indeed, part geographical account of the aforementioned region and the south-west of France as a whole.
Thus making for a most satisfactory read, simply because the book’s author, Edward Stourton, never ponders on any one given issue for too long.
Other than occasionally regaling the reader with his own participation in the mighty strenuous, yearly Chemin de la Liberte trek across the Pyrenees – which I am myself, thinking of partaking in one year – he literally hops from the wrought historicism of yesteryear to that of the peaceful, pensive here and now with great ease. And he seemingly does so, by way of reflecting (just some of) what happened in the south-west of France during the ghastly Vichy years, through what seems a very anchored prism of personification, and dare I say it, humanity.
For instance, in chapter nine’s ‘Francoise and the Americans,’ Stourton quotes from the biography of escapee Nancy Wake, aka the White Mouse, who, having spent time hiding in the Toulouse apartment of said chapter’s prime protagonist, fondly writes : ”She was a wonderful person and I loved her dearly. She was very ugly. It was hard to tell her age as she did nothing to improve her looks… Francoise was a chain smoker. She was never without the bamboo holder and cigarette in her mouth. She used to drink black coffee all day long but managed to keep the holder in the corner of her mouth and drink at the same time. I don’t know whether she undressed at night because she always appeared in the morning looking exactly the same as she did the night before… She also adored her cat, Mifouf. I often heard her telling Mifouf what swine the Germans were. Without a doubt Francoise was one of the most fantastic personalities I have ever met.”
Suffice to say, when writing about the not too distant past, it’s all too easy to dwell on turmoil and tragedy; of which there is an abundance of throughout Cruel Crossing. Yet, what makes the above so poignant albeit entertaining, is the very human side of war. That the authoress remembered the name of the cat, as well as Francoise informing the cat of her pent up feelings toward the German occupiers, enriches the account even further still.
Naturally, there are numerous flip-sides to the above, one of the most powerful being where Stourton writes of Denise Dufournier; one of the Comet Line helpers (St Juan de Luz, France to San Sebastian, Spain), who, following arrest in Paris, was interned at the ghastly Ravensbruck camp in January 1944. Luckily, thankfully, she survived, and wrote/published her book La Maison des Mortes (The House of the Dead) within months of her release in 1945.
In the chapter ‘Belgians, Bravery and Betrayal, the author brazenly states: ”Denise Dufournier’s La Maison des Mortes has none of the Cavalier spirit that characterizes so much Comet Line literature. There are moments when the love of life and devotion to France that sustained her shine through, but in her preface Dufournier states plainly that her purpose is to awaken ‘righteous anger’ in the reader. She lays down the most terrible curse on the German race. ‘Would that a great poet will be born,’ she wrote, ‘who, inspired by some talent for evil, will celebrate, in grandiloquent song, the epic of this soulless people, so that every man born to this race, his children and his children’s children, and so on down the generations, shall hear, without interruption and forever, sung in their hearts from morning until evening and from evening until morning, from the day of their birth to the moment of their death, this great plaint of Despair, heavy with remorse and always beginning again as soon as it is over.”
Having read numerous accounts of the both The Holocaust and Second World War, I have to say, the above quotation is one of the most powerful, most gut-wrenching, most honest, and yet totally considered and understandable, I have ever read.