“And There Was Light” by Jacques Lusseyran
If it hadn’t been for a recent e-blast from our local independent bookstore Union Avenue Books. I would probably have never discovered and read this beautiful gem of a book about the inner (and outer) life of 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 Lusseyran’s 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 keeping up the morale of the French people became the most important daily newspaper in Paris France-Soir after the war.
Jacques was blinded by an accident at school when he was 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. Remarkably within his blindness, he saw light and shadow and colors attached to people and sounds.
And remarkably, he could almost infallibly tell 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.
Bar none, Lusseyran is one of the finest 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 had to start using different colored highlighters to differentiate the passages. He captures the fragility and beauty of life so gloriously.
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.
And he writes eloquently about his friendships with the young men who were his best friends in words that are in our age reserved only for talking about 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.
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.
He was imprisoned for 15 months in Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp for non-Jews where he was one of only 30 Frenchmen to live of the 2000 consigned there during the final few 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 . . .
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.
And oh, the joy of hearing how the U.S. Third Army’s approached Buchenwald under the command of General George Patton who did not wait to free the 20,000 people still holding desperately to life in the camp. Patton threw caution to the wind and immediately attacked the SS troops barring his Army’s progress and was able to free the camp’s fragile inhabitants whose joy knew no bounds. 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.
We have eyes and many of us still do not see, but the shining beacon of Jacques Lusseyran’s intellect, spirit, and love has shone down through the many years between our lives and has enriched my own. Thankfully we have not lived the 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 same principles that bring the peace and joy of a life worth living.
//Anna — 3/31/2014
I just ordered this book along with And There Was Light and A Garden of Eden in Hell. I really enjoyed meeting and talking with you last night. Karen
Ahh, Karen!!! And There Was Light was one of the best books I’ve ever read!!!!! Jacques Lusseyran was an amazing man!!! I enjoyed talking with you as well. We obviously share a great deal of the same interests! I look forward to seeing you again soon, and thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on my blog!!! It is close to my heart, obviously since I am a writer and I very much value your thoughts in my writing!