“The Cost of Courage” by Charles Kaiser (Other Press, 264 pages, $26.95)
French Resistance during World War II: Was there one?
That’s often the croyance populaire about French citizenry during the country’s occupation by the Nazis. But popular belief doesn’t always translate as accurate history. The fact is, accounts of the French Resistance are recounted in numerous books.
Add Charles Kaiser’s “The Cost of Courage” to the list of noteworthy accounts. He tells the story of a French family, the Boulloches, who played an important role in the Resistance even as several family members paid the ultimate price with their lives.
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To uncover the story, Kaiser, a former New York Times and Wall Street Journal reporter, spent two and a half years living in France researching the book. His entree to the Boulloche family began in 1962 when he was 11 years old and sat at a table with Christiane, one of two sisters and a brother involved in the Resistance. She had taken in U.S. Army Lt. Henry Kaiser, Charles Kaiser’s uncle, after the liberation of Paris. That connection would eventually allow Christiane to open up about one of the most painful periods of her life, revealing the courage and resiliency of her family and others during the Nazi occupation from 1940 to 1945.
Kaiser intersperses the book with accounts of Allied plans for the invasion of Europe, attempts to assassinate Hitler, and the high-level struggles between the Free French leadership under Charles De Gaulle and Allied commanders. But the fulcrum of the story is the Boulloche family.
Secret hideouts, near misses with Gestapo raids, and the capture, torture and ultimate deaths of Christiane’s parents and other Resistance fighters provide a riveting account of France in the grasp of the Nazi occupiers. Of the Boulloche family who were involved in the Resistance, only Christiane, her sister Jacqueline and their brother Andre survived. A trip to the United States in 1946 was one of the few times Christiane felt compelled to speak about her experience “to educate Americans about what the Resistance had done in France.”
But she never sought personal recognition, even after she received the Croix de Guerre for her heroism. “I considered all of my clandestine activity to be a matter of course, and now a decoration! After so many dramas and so many deaths, it seemed like a ridiculous gesture.”
After the war, and the more domestic life of marrying and having children, the Boulloches kept one ritual marking that period. On Oct. 25, the date their mother died at the Ravensbruck concentration camp, the Boulloches, their children and grandchildren would assemble at a cemetery where a sarcophagus listed the names of family members who died in the war. A few words were spoken (“Remember that they died for liberty and the liberation of France”) as each grandchild placed a rose on the box.
As one of Christiane’s children described their family: “Just as there is original sin, the Boulloches had the opposite: original virtue. They had chosen the right side. They had done everything the way you were supposed to. This feeling of belonging to some kind of martyr’s elite is quite heavy.”
While arguments persist about the role of the French people during the war – Resistance fighters, collaborators or passive observers – Christiane rejects those single distinctions. “It’s complicated, because it can be the same people who organized convoys of looted goods – people who worked for the SNCF [the French national railroad] – and who also hid an Allied pilot at home. It can be the very same person. So that’s why I am personally not very satisfied with the existing theses on the behavior of the population.”
Former British Prime Minister Anthony Eden once said: “If one hasn’t been through – as our people mercifully did not go through – the horror of an occupation by a foreign power, you have no right to pronounce upon what a country does which has been through all that.” Kaiser concurs: “That is one of the most important and least understood lessons of World War II.”
His book helps shed a bit more light on that contentious issue during a dreadfully dark time.
Tom Schaefer is a former columnist and religion editor for The Eagle. He lives in Wichita.