By coincidence, I recently finished reading Shadow War: The Resistance Fighters' Literary Club, a historical novel by Debra Finerman, just as I started watching The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s alternate-reality series based on the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel of the same name.
The fictional characters in Shadow War are based on actual British, French and American citizens who took incredible risks to undermine the Nazis in occupied France. The Man in the High Castle, in both the award-winning book and the Amazon adaptation, imagines a post-World War II dystopia in which the Axis powers were victorious. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan control the United States and brave resistance fighters rise up against the brutality imposed by the Japanese and German regimes.
It was impossible for me to read Shadow War and watch The Man in the High Castle without thinking about the choices made by real resistance fighters during WWII and in other times and places where brave individuals resist tyranny.
Exploring the subject of resistance, two recent highly acclaimed novels have the French Resistance at their core. Here’s some background on them, as well as biographies of several extraordinary individuals who resisted anti-Semitism from behind enemy lines.
Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Its heroine is Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who flees Nazi-occupied Paris with her father, a locksmith from the Museum of Natural History hiding a valuable gem from the museum’s collection. Marie-Laure’s path collides with a German boy tasked by the Nazis with locating illegal radio transmissions from the resistance. In an interview with Scribner Magazine, Doerr said, “In the war stories I read growing up, French resistance heroes were dashing, sinewy types who constructed machine guns from paper clips … My attempt in this novel is to suggest more complicated portraits.”
Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale tells the story of two French sisters during WWII. Each plays a part in the French underground, and each faces moments of great challenge. Hannah has said her inspiration for one of the sisters, Isabelle, was the real life story of a woman who led downed Allied soldiers on foot over the Pyrenees.
In A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France, biographer and human rights journalist Caroline Moorehead follows the stories of 230 women, ages 17 to 67, who distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, printed subversive newspapers, hid resisters, secreted Jews to safety, transported weapons and conveyed clandestine messages. The book, which the New York Times described as “heartbreaking and inspiring,” follows the women through their arrest as political prisoners of the Reich and their internment together at Birkenau.
In Muriel’s War (now out of print), Sheila Isenberg tells the extraordinary story of Muriel Gardiner, a meatpacking heiress from Chicago who left the United States to study at Oxford and then at the University of Vienna’s medical school (not common activities for a young woman in those days). When Germany annexed Austria, she helped Jews and anti-fascists escape and smuggled forged documents across borders, risking her life. Eventually, she returned to the U.S., but continued to use her wealth and connections to aid the resistance.
Moving to a different time and place -- and a very different form of resistance -- Janice Ross’ biography of Leonid Yakobson uncovers risky work done by a Jewish choreographic genius in the Soviet Union during the darkest days of Stalin. A contemporary of George Balanchine, Yakobson created revolutionary dances for the Kirov and Bolshoi ballets. Although working in a time of official anti-Semitism, he addressed Jewish themes -- openly when possible, covertly when necessary -- using dance as political and artistic resistance.
Janice Ross will be appearing at Spertus Institute on Jan. 17, sharing original research and rare archival dance footage when she presents Yakobson’s story. Learn more at spertus.edu/dance.