|German soldiers on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, 1940|
Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson is my favorite nonfiction book of the year so far. Subtitled Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood that Helped Turn the Tide of War, Olson’s book is the inspiring story of the European leaders who fled to London to organize resistance after their countries were overrun by the Germans. The early focus of the exiles’ efforts were the BBC European Service’s radio broadcasts to occupied Europe. Their goals were to lift the morale of the occupied populations and organize resistance groups within the various countries. The Germans banned radios, but people all over Europe hid them away and secretly listened to the BBC broadcasts in their own languages. My Belgian mother told me about huddling over the forbidden radio to listen to the BBC. I was surprised and proud to learn from Olson that the first successful pan-European resistance campaign, and future Churchill victory sign, was dreamed up by a Belgian emigre.
The book sent me in search of more stories of World War II resistance. Here’s a selection:
Avenue of Spies by Alex Kershaw
American doctor Sumner Jackson lived with his wife and young son on the exclusive Avenue Foch in Paris during the occupation. Just up the street were the houses of the man in charge of rounding up French Jews and the headquarters of the Gestapo. Dr. Jackson used the cover of his hospital to smuggle downed allied pilots to safety, but ultimately he and his family had to make a daring escape of their own.
The Hotel on Place Vendome by Tilar J. Mazzeo
The famed Hotel Ritz was the only luxury hotel Hitler allowed to remain open in Paris. There high-ranking German officers rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous. The hotel also became a center for resistance, infiltrated by spies intent on prying information from the Germans. Mazzeo tells dramatic stories of life and death, resistance and betrayal, in the unlikely surroundings of a luxury hotel.
Rogue Heroes by Ben Macintyre
This is the story of the British SAS (Special Air Service), the brainchild of a young aristocrat who is credited with inventing a new type of warfare, inspiration for the now ubiquitous use of special forces in conflicts around the world. First in North Africa and then in Europe, the SAS parachuted behind enemy lines and joined up with resistance fighters to sabotage Nazi planes, weapons, and supplies.
A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead
In January 1943, the Germans rounded up 230 women of the French Resistance and sent them by train to Auschwitz. This is the never-before-told story of their experiences, a harrowing account of courage and, for 49 of them, survival against the odds. Moorehead, a human-rights journalist, writes of unimaginable suffering and its effects on the spirits of those who survived.
By co-incidence my favorite fiction book of the year so far has a similar theme. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, which was also included on President Obama’s summer reading list, is set in London in the postwar years. But it circles back again and again to wartime London with its strange blackout nights, evocatively described by Ondaatje as warlight. The parents of 14 year old Nathaniel and his sister disappear after the war, leaving them in the care of an odd collection of minders. The answer to the mystery of why lies in the gradually revealed details of their mother’s wartime activities. Beautifully written and haunting in atmosphere, this is wartime London as we’ve never seen it before.