The moment you become politically active is the moment that you start seeing things with different eyes. It has happened to me. The habits, views and actions of friends and fellow countrymen have often left me puzzled, angry even and I have, at times felt isolated in my brave new world. Political activists are rarely societies majority, at least in the beginning.
So how can I remain politically engaged and active without losing my mind, friends and joy?
I was not expecting the book ‘Les Parisiens’ by Anne Sebba to provide me with a light bulb moment on this but thankfully it did!
I’m fascinated by the detail of things, all things and what could be more nuanced and detailed than the lives of the women of Paris during World War Two! Left to hold the dreams and hopes of the city while their men went to war, left to maintain standards, keep up appearances, laugh, love, create and ultimately resist in a city that many thought was rock-solid in its defences until the Germans arrived. By May 1940, less than a year after the war started and Paris found its self Occupied.
Sebba’s book follows a number of characters, all of which were employing their various coping mechanisms to deal with what must have been a living hell at times- history repeated only much, much worse. Nobody could have failed to notice whole as whole neighbourhoods were round-up, people were beaten up and a new class of have’s (those with the Germans) and have-nots’ (the general public) were created.
Sebba is careful to remind us not to judge, to read each snippet of a life story with an open mind and with fullness of heart. I find it easy to empathise with most, whether it be with the young girls who fall in love with their occupiers or with those that keep on dancing and entertaining even though their audience is now almost entirely German. The show must go on! My empathetic powers become more stretched when it comes to those who helped facilitate the persecution of others, especially the Jews either overtly or through the alliances they forged and information they leaked. That said I still find myself unable to even imagine, not what I’d do in that situation but what I’d be capable of doing – the capacity of anyone under such stress is surely compromised and hindsight is such a wonderful thing. I’m not sure that there were many people in Paris during the early 1940’s that knew that good would prevail and even those that did would have surely been feeling ‘but at what cost?’
It was the women of the resistance that really captured my imagination. Women who risked it all to help their country, sometimes in the quietest of ways such as we find with Rose Valland, a museum curator who spent the war cataloguing the fate of artworks stolen by the Nazis. About Noor Khan, a Russian born Indian Princess with a passion for writing children’s fiction, who became a secret agent but was captured and murdered in a concentration camp during the death throes of the war. Jennie Rousseau, an early resister who was able to collect information about German weapon development before being sent to Ravensbrook concentration camp where she continued to resist, staging a protest in the munitions factory where the women were put to work. There are so many stories and so many ways that these women forged a life and found some light in this six years of darkness.
Although I’ve mentioned three of the brave women who captured my imagination it wasn’t their actions that have led me to answer my own question. Instead it was the space in-between these women that taught me that. For every woman ‘James Bond’ there would have been hundreds who just kept on queuing up for their rations, working as best they could, trying to keep their children safe (or missing their children), caring for relatives and the sick, meeting friends for the 1940’s equivalent of a coffee break, sweeping their floors and keeping the image of fashionable Paris alive. At first my instinct was to say ‘but why are so many women carrying on as if nothing has happened?’ before I realised the impossibility of all that. Everything changed for everybody, it’s just that every body has their own way of coping.
Where did I get the idea from that when pressure is applied everyone becomes super-heros?
Why did I hold the belief that those women who didn’t fight were not resisting?
These are my prejudices and mine alone.
Sure there would have been people who took advantage of the situation, played it to suit them and consciously turned a blind eye to the things they felt they couldn’t deal or help with but who am I to judge that? I wasn’t in their shoes and hope never to be. There is so much detail I’ll never know.
So with that in mind I answer my own question.
How can I remain politically engaged and active without losing my mind, friends and joy?
By just concentrating on what I am doing, can do, want to do, will do and not judging others. Nobody said it was easy…..
Anne Sebba’s book showed me that if the women of Paris can resist in style, their own style then so can I and my style is open-hearted, enthusiastically wild and doggedly independent. What’s more I’ve come to appreciate that my style is no better or worse than anybody else’s.
Each to their own.
Resist in your own way but resist all the same,
Resist being pulled into another’s game
Resist becoming someone that you didn’t choose
Resist changing values in case your side lose
Resist being someone who can’t sleep at night
Resist the temptation to choose wrong over right
Resist turning into another man’s fool
Resist following blindly just ’cause it’s a rule.
Resist in your own way but resist all the same
Resist and be merry
Resist becoming tame.