By Amy E. Schwartz
The Cost of Courage
By Charles Kaiser
Other Press, 230 pp., $26.95
Here is my favorite piece of trivia from the vast body of social science research on the Holocaust. When you ask people who saved Jews why they did it—put their lives and families on the line for people they didn’t know—the vast majority don’t understand the question. They say things like, "What do you mean, ‘Why’? Was I supposed to let them die?"
Researchers noticed this in stark terms in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, which is famous for having quietly banded together between 1940 and 1944 to save some 3,000 Jews in Vichy France. Led by the charismatic Protestant pastor André Trocmé, 5,000 villagers took in children, forged papers, and organized secret transports to Switzerland.
When questioned, few had much to say about their motives, except that they considered the Jews their “neighbors.” One explained, "Things had to be done and we happened to be there to do them.”
This aspect of human nature extends beyond the Holocaust. Charles Krauthammer noted it in a New Republic column about Lenny Skutnik, the bystander who jumped into the Potomac in January, 1982 to save a drowning passenger from an Air Florida plane that crashed into the river shortly after takeoff. Skutnik was much honored for his impulsive action. But in the initial burst of attention, Krauthammer wrote, Skutnik seemed perplexed, even slightly annoyed. Interviewers kept asking why he did it, what was going through his mind. Skutnik kept saying things like, "Well, she was drowning."
It seems like an uplifting insight, the thought of these exemplary human beings turning instinctively toward the good. But while they’re inspiring, these wordless, unreflecting heroes also force an uncomfortable thought: Could it be that, if people did think consciously about rising to this level of self-sacrifice, they wouldn’t do it? Pierre Sauvage, a Holocaust survivor who made a film about Le Chambon, remarked that ”People who agonize don’t act, people who act don’t agonize.”
This darkness lurking around the edges of heroism is the underlying and faintly troubling theme of Charles Kaiser’s The Cost of Courage, the story of a French family and the steep price its members paid for their work in the Resistance. In praising this family, and the French Resistance generally, Kaiser wants us to appreciate the difficulties faced by anyone engaging in resistance during Vichy and how much they suffered. To borrow Sauvage’s term, he agonizes. And he is preoccupied by the heavy question heroes don’t ask: Is such heroism worth the cost, not just to those who unthinkingly do heroic deeds, but to their families and to others on whom the consequences may fall?
* * *
With exquisite sympathy, Kaiser traces the history of the Boulloche family of Paris, three of whom—siblings André, Jacqueline, and Christiane—joined the Resistance in 1940. They were active throughout the war and the Vichy occupation, doing everything from smuggling weapons to engaging in sabotage. A fourth sibling, eldest brother Robert, was approached first to join; he declined, but urged the recruiter to talk to his little brother.
As the other three became deeply involved, Robert kept working in the Finance Ministry and looked after his parents, Jacques and Helene. Jacques, too, stayed at his government job, supervising highways, though his family noticed he was always depressed when he returned from Vichy. “He never tells his children whether he has signed an oath of loyalty to the Vichy government,” Kaiser writes, “but he is almost certainly required to do so.”
André was eventually arrested. He spent time in three concentration camps, but survived the war, ultimately returning to Paris and building a successful post-war political career. But in August 1944, just twenty days before the Liberation, police descended on the family’s Paris apartment to arrest Christiane. She had taken the precaution of sleeping in a secret location, and Jacqueline was hiding in the countryside. So the Nazis arrested Robert and the elder Boulloches instead, putting them on the last train to Auschwitz. None of them survived the camps.
Kaiser, though an American, is privy to the emotional life of this proud, taciturn family because his uncle Henry Kaiser, a U.S. army lieutenant posted to Paris, boarded in their 16th Arrondissement apartment for a year after the Liberation. As André returned from the camps and the sisters put their lives back together, the young American lieutenant heard every detail of their war experiences—the code names and subterfuges, the daring escapes, the capture and torture of confederates. Later, he passed the tales on to his nephew. “The most dramatic movie about the war was one I learned by heart but had seen only in my head,” writes Charles. “All of its images came from my Uncle Henry. . . The film starred Christiane, Jacqueline and their brother Andre, and its plot was exhilarating.”
Years later, living in France, a guest himself at the Boulloches’ table and an intimate of the second- and third-generation Boulloches, the younger Kaiser noticed that his “French cousins” never discussed these thrilling stories—that the tales he heard from his uncle were cloaked in a family taboo. The younger Boulloches, he reflects, “were never really nourished by their parents’ bravery,” experiencing it instead as “an amorphous black cloud . . .hovering somewhere above their parents’ past.” Eventually, over decades, he figured out why: the sisters and André felt a crushing guilt over the deaths of their parents and Robert. They were consumed by regret, if not exactly for their Resistance work—which they considered their duty—then for failing somehow to take precautions that might have fended off the inevitable. André agonized in his diary in 1946:
Why did my life have to be spared, when I was offering it so willingly, even cheerfully? And why did those three who wanted to live, and who loved life so passionately—why were their lives taken from them in the vilest, most brutal way imaginable?
Having first learned their story in far brighter tints, the young Kaiser was forced to notice these darker shades. “I grew up inspired by the story of my remarkable French cousins,” he writes. “Christiane was like a beacon. Her life proved that you could do the right thing, the most difficult thing, if you were determined to do it.” And yet, he came to realize, “The ones who had been so magnificent in the Resistance never discussed their bravery with their own children.” They “turned the page,” avoided friends they made during that period and “actually avoided anything that might remind them of those piercing years.”
This seems to oversimplify slightly: The family, it’s evident, was profoundly shaped by its war memories. Jacqueline married a fellow resistance fighter; Christine married a man whose father had known her father in Buchenwald. Starting in 1958, the family held an annual memorial ceremony that “struck the children like a grim exclamation point.” Each October 25—“the date the Germans had inscribed in their meticulous records for the death of Helene at Ravensbruck”—they gathered at Père-Lachaise cemetery, where the names of their parents and brother had been etched on an empty granite sarcophagus. André, presiding, always spoke the same two sentences: “We are reunited in memory of your grandparents and your uncle, who were killed by the Nazis. Remember that they died for the liberty and the liberation of France.”
Kaiser writes that he always wanted to tell the family’s story, but waited respectfully until Christiane, late in life, broke her own silence to write a short memoir: “Suddenly, she felt just as compelled to tell the story as she had felt required to remain silent.” Christiane found the process painful, but considered it her duty to her grandchildren. “It was obvious,” she told Kaiser. He notes that these were “the same words she had used to describe her decision to join the Resistance.”
Christiane, it seems, saw her moral choices with clarity, despite the weight of the emotions that led to her years of silence. Did André, who agonized so deeply after the fact, come to a similar clarity? We don’t know; André died tragically in a plane accident at age 62, after a political career that focused significantly on Franco-German reconciliation. His children told Kaiser of a difficult, intermittently irascible father, perhaps still pursued by demons. Jacqueline, too, passed away without talking about her choices or telling her children in much detail about her contribution to the war.
* * *
Kaiser’s account is sensitive and sophisticated in the way it lets us experience this range of family responses, the spoken and unspoken interplay of guilt and stoicism, honor and regret, and the way these fierce emotions shape the family self-image and modulate it over the years. He’s on less certain ground in his efforts to stretch the Boulloches’ experiences and emotions beyond an illustration into what seems at times to be a sweeping apologia for the behavior of the citizens of occupied France. “Most Americans are smugly dismissive of the way the French behaved during the Nazi Occupation,” he writes in a toughly worded afterword. “’Was there one?’ That was the question I was asked most often—even by intelligent people—whenever I mentioned that I was writing about the French Resistance.”
Americans, he argues, have no moral standing to criticize French collaboration or to believe they would have done any better: “American servicemen and women made gigantic sacrifices. . . But American civilians, living thousands of miles from the battlefields, never faced anything remotely resembling the choices that confronted everyone who lived in Nazi-occupied Europe.” He echoes former British prime minister Anthony Eden, who observed in The Sorrow and the Pity, the magisterial film about collaboration under Vichy, that if your nation hasn’t been through “the horror of an occupation by a foreign power, you have no right to pronounce upon what a country does which has been through all that.”
No right? It’s an odd stance, coming after so prolonged a weighing of the meaning of a moral action. None of us can really say how we would respond when faced with a life-or-death decision, Kaiser says, and it’s hard to argue: We all hope we would turn out to be Lenny Skutnik, but that distinction, like Calvinist grace, is probably given to very few. And it’s good to empathize, whether with the suffering that can follow heroism or with the fear of that suffering that prevents lesser souls from doing what they could. But it’s quite a different matter to suggest that empathy should blur the moral distinction between these two responses, and Kaiser probably doesn’t quite mean to.
At any rate, his central story and his poignant characters convey the opposite lesson. And if they took the heroic action and agonized over the consequences later—rather than agonizing beforehand and deciding in the end not to do anything—then maybe they took an honorable course in choosing to deal with it in dignified silence.
Amy E. Schwartz, a former Washington Post editorial board member and op-ed columnist, is the opinion editor of Moment magazine.