From the first word heard on this audio, I was a prisoner. I think the story held me more rapt than the reader; it moved along quickly, and totally consumed me. I never turned it off, until the end. It is about unlikely heroes, who rose above their own expectations, and it is about traitors, by design, as well as those who became quasi-traitors, those tortured into confessions to avoid more pain. It is about the German effort to seek out and find the hidden Jews in order to steal their wealth.
It is about the Holocaust, in that it takes place during the year 1942, in Paris, France. Without dwelling on the concentration camps, it painted an accurate picture of the brutality that was commonplace during the German occupation, and it was sometimes really hard to take it all in. Belfoure truly creates the fear and tension of the moment, and the reader will feel it, as well, experiencing and understanding the reactions of each of the characters, the “good, the bad and the evil”, when faced with terrifying prospects.
The extraordinary strength and courage of some and the mind-boggling weakness and sadism of others, join together on the page to expose the heroism and self-sacrifice of one group, as it lays bare the incomparable cruelty of the other. It is a book about people placed in an untenable situation by circumstances beyond their control, and the madness that infects those who are mainly concerned with their own self-preservation. It is about the difficult choices of the citizens; how could they resist and survive, did they have to acquiesce in order not to be tortured and killed, were they brave or cowards, could they have behaved otherwise? It is about the decisions made by those in the resistance to save some, while sacrificing others for the greater good of their cause, juxtaposed against the choices of those in the Gestapo who didn’t care about saving anyone but themselves, who murdered indiscriminately, for Hitler. It is about how these warring factions coexisted under the most extreme conditions in Paris, during the German Occupation.
A question arises throughout the book that is insoluble even today. How do educated, sophisticated, family men, and even otherwise moral men, commit such sins against humanity. How is such behavior justified in the mind of a person with any common sense? Was the depravity of the German behavior simply the madness of some, or were the far reaching effects more a symbol of a world gone mad, an entire world with a diseased mind? I asked myself again and again, could this happen once more? Could someone’s unhappiness and greed, envy and hate, become so strong again that the reasonable answer to their pain becomes the extinction of an entire group of people, becomes the panacea for all their troubles?
Fear is a motivating factor that changes us all. How would we have behaved? We all probably hope that we would have been strong and would have behaved better than the collaborators, better than those who turned their backs on, and a blind eye to, the suffering of others, even as their neighbors and friends disappeared. Schadenfreude was the word of those times; many relished in the pain of the “others”.
Lucien, an architect, was raised to be anti-Semitic by a hateful parent. His life was steadily going downhill under the German occupation, but then he met the very wealthy Monsieur Manet, who offered him a job. He is hired to build hiding places, in various places, in order to save the Jews. At the same time, he is also hired to build factories that produce weapons for the German war effort. Manet believes this is the only way to maintain ownership of his factories and help the Jews to escape. Lucien does not see himself as a collaborator. Is he a collaborator, is Manet?
Pierre is a twelve year old child who is the lone survivor of the round up of his parents, siblings and the people who sheltered him; he grows up quickly and becomes a man in a surprising way. Is he a murderer or a hero?
Adele is a wily, hateful kind of person who easily fraternizes with the enemy for her own benefit. Does she have any redeeming qualities? Her associate, Bette, surprises herself with her maternal instinct, and she changes, as events force her to make uncomfortable decisions.
Herzog, befriends Lucien. He had wanted to become an architect like Lucien, but his father prevented it. He discovers another side of himself, as he witnesses barbarism for the sake of barbarism alone, barbarism simply because these acts of atrocity could be committed by those who actually enjoyed inflicting the pain, and there was no one to stop them, barbarism that destroyed simply for the sake of the destruction itself. Yet, even this lone “quasi-good German” soldier justifies his own cruel behavior by declaring himself a loyal German to the Fatherland.
All of the characters are so real that as they experience life, the reader will experience it along with them. The author has done a wonderful job of capturing the essence of the time period, the naïveté of some of the people, Jews and gentiles alike, the senselessness of the savage behavior, as people used each other and betrayed each other, the fear that everyone had for their own personal safety, the constant state of panic that reigned under Hitler’s rule as he and his minions preyed on the weaknesses of the people, and he also illuminated the courage that people found within themselves against all odds. The book is about compassionate, self-sacrificing, righteous people, and their converse, the vulgar, immoral, self-serving, sinful people who supported The Third Reich.