My husband Kurt and I were finishing up a Scrabble game a few years ago, and he had one letter left: a “y” which can be quite difficult to find a place for late in the game. He was about to throw in the towel and subtract the points from his overall total when I noticed there was a solution he did not see: the “y” could be added to the word “fox” that he made earlier in the game.
My friend Mary would say Kurt and I are so competitive when we play games because we are both firstborns, but I know plenty of oldest children who are not as competitive as we are. In any event, even though the game was close, I had to tell him he still had a play he could make.
“You could put the ‘y’ on ‘fox’,” I said. I knew it was possible that he might beat me with that move, but it is a great word, and I thought he should make it–and of course he did.
I am constantly looking for symmetry and serendipity when random things show a pattern and come together to make something new and revealing. Many times my life has been enriched by hearing the lyrics of a song, watching the right movie or television show, or reading a book that points me in a new direction or reinforces my view of living a passion-filled life.
And There Was Light, by Jacques Lusseyran, has been just such a life-changing book for me. It was originally published in the U.S. in 1963 when I was a small child. I discovered the book when I worked at my former high-octance job that required me to work long hours, and I often found I did not have time to read anything beyond newspapers. Yet, I ordered a British publication of the book, never read it, and promptly forgot I had it.
If I had not seen an e-blast from our local independent bookstore Union Avenue Books about Lussreyran’s autobiography, I would probably never have rediscovered and read this beautiful gem of a book. In his memoir, Lusseyran tells about his inner (and outer) life as a blind 17-year-old–yes, a blind adolescent–who started and led a Resistance group in World War II, Nazi-occupied France.
Most of the members of his group, Defense de la France (DF), were not yet 21 years of age. And yet, the underground paper they published for disseminating accurate news and boosting the morale of the French people became the most important daily newspaper in Paris and was published after the war as France-Soir.
Jacques was blinded by an accident at school when he was 7 or 8 years old, but only briefly found it to be an impediment. He taught himself Braille in six weeks so he could return to school. As a child, he grew alarmed by the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany and decided to teach himself German so he could listen to the Third Reich’s radio broadcasts. He was obviously a driven, focused prodigy who did not see his blindness as an impediment to living a full life.
Remarkably within his blindness, he saw light and shadow and colors attached to people and sounds. Perhaps due to the loss of his sight, his other senses became more acute and he had a gift for telling when someone was lying by their voice, presence, and his strong intuitive sense. This gift came in very handy at weeding out possible traitors when he interviewed would-be members of the Resistance– although he was eventually betrayed by a member of his group and was imprisoned by the Germans in Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
Lusseyran is one of the best writers I have ever read. My words fail to capture the music of his writing. I highlighted so many paragraphs in my copy of his memoir that I began using different colored highlighters to differentiate the passages. He captures the fragility and beauty of life perfectly as in the following passage:
Memories and emotions are fragile things. You should never bear down on them, or draw on them by main force. You should barely touch them with the tips of your fingers, the tips of your dreams. The best way to bring love back to life, and happiness with it, was to catch hold of a reminder of love, catch it lightly as it passed by.Jacques Lusseyran, “And There Was Light: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Blind Hero of the French Resistance in World War II”, 1963.
And he writes eloquently about his friendships with the young men who were his best friends in words that, in our age, are reserved only for describing lovers.
I walked in the middle and was happy, without knowing exactly why–happy to be with men who, like me, were not willing to shut their eyes to life.Ibid
He was a religious man, a Catholic, who nevertheless wrote with the open nature of a humanist:
God is neither a German nor a Russian nor a Frenchman. God is life, and everything that does violence to life is against God.Ibid
He was imprisoned for 15 months in Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp for non-Jews where he was one of only 30 Frenchmen to survive of the 2000 people imprisoned at his sub-camp during the final years of the war.
How did he survive? By giving to others and living life boldly. He proclaims, “Fear is the real name of despair. Fear kills and joy maintains life.”
I could try to show other people how to go about holding on to life. I could turn toward them the flow of light and joy which had grown so abundant in me. . . . That is what you had to do to live in the camp: be engaged, not live for yourself alone. . . . Joy I found in strange byways, in the midst of fear . . .Ibid
And he writes:
When a ray of sunshine comes, open out, absorb it to the depths of your being. Never think that an hour earlier you were cold and that an hour later you will be cold again. Just enjoy.Ibid
And oh, the joy and relief his fellow prisoners must have felt, in April 1945, when the U.S. Third Army liberated Buchenwald and its sub-camps under the command of General George Patton. Lusseyran mused, however, that:
Joy does not come from outside, for whatever happens to us it is within. The second truth is that light does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.Ibid
We have eyes and too many of us still do not see, as we are reminded by the heartbreaking death of a young, unarmed Black man pulled over in his car for an alleged traffic offense by five Black Memphis police officers in an unmarked car. The 29-year-old man, Tyre Nichols, father of a 4-year-old child, died three days later of the wounds he endured. I have not watched the video of this senseless beating, released last Friday by the Memphis police, but I have read accounts of it, and it breaks my heart. Those officers that were chosen to serve, protect, and help make their community safe could not find a spark of recognition that they should treat a fellow citizen, a fellow Black man, as a human being. It reminds me of how the Germans viewed not just the Jews, but anyone they did not value. For humanity is truly about values and what and who we choose to hold dear–and what and who we do not.
Lusseyran wrote that the true heroes of Buchenwald were not the most religious, wealthy, learned, accomplished, or powerful people. He found it was the most humble and surprising people who showed the most humanity.
The religious searched everywhere for their faith. They did not find it again, or else they found it so reduced in force that they couldn’t make use of it. . . . The people who had been generally respected ran after their lost respect, but there wasn’t anything left of it. And the intellectuals, the cultivated men, the great brains, had great sorrows. They didn’t know what to do with their learning for it didn’t protect them against misfortune. . . . They could understand anything more readily than the fact that their intelligence was out of season.Ibid
But the shining beacon of Jacques Lusseyran’s insight, spirit, courage, and love has shone down through the many years between our lives and has enriched my own. If you are looking for strength and courage in this sometimes bewildering time, I recommend you read, And There Was Light.
Thankfully we have not lived the horrific systematic deprivations visited upon the people who got in the way of the Nazi war machine during the worst of the madness of World War II, but we can learn from the principles of a man who did: that bringing joy to others, and sharing joy with others, can make even a difficult life worth living. By lifting others, we find ourselves.
You can’t imagine how despair smells, or for that matter confidence. They are worlds apart in odor. . . . The remarkable thing was that listening to the fears of others had ended by freeing me almost completely from anxiety. I had become cheerful, and was cheerful almost all the time, without willing it, without even thinking about it. That helped me, naturally, but it also helped the others. They had made such a habit of watching the coming of the little blind Frenchman with his happy face.Ibid
Living to lighten the load of others, serving others, was Lusseyran’s way forward in the worst of circumstances. He kept his sanity, remained humble, found joy in the simplest things, and shared his inner light with his fellow prisoners. He lived through the madness of a concentration camp, and although he died in a car accident in France with his third wife in 1971, he told his story, shared his wisdom, and made a difference in countless lives.
After hearing Lusseyran’s inspiring story, you are probably not concerned about the outcome of our Saturday afternoon Scrabble game. However, in the spirit of Jacques Lusseyran’s noting that giving is the real receiving, I will report that Kurt put a “y” on his “fox”, made the word “foxy”, and I won the game. I could make the argument that he did too.
~ Anna – 1/29/2023