25 July 2012

Late Night Reading: Jacques Lusseyran - the 'Blind Frenchman' - Poetry In Buchenwald

"It is always the soul that dies first, even if it's departure goes unnoticed. And it always carries the body along with it...Man is nourished by the invisible, man is nourished by that which is beyond the personal. He dies from preferring the opposite."

Jacques Lusseyran, Poetry at Buchenwald

"We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Victor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning

Jacques Lusseyran was a high school student in Paris at the time the German army occupied France in 1940. Although he had been totally blind since age eight as the result of an accident, Lusseyran, who was then sixteen, decided to organize his friends and other students into an underground group to resist the occupation.
“News was needed, surely, but courage even more so, and clarity. We were resolved to hide nothing. For here was the monster to be fought: defeatism, and with it that other monster, apathy. Everything possible must be done to keep the French from growing accustomed to Nazism, or from seeing it just as an enemy, like enemies of other times, an enemy of the nation, an adversary who was victorious just for the moment. From our past we knew that Nazism (Fascism) threatened the whole of humanity, that it was an absolute evil, and we were going to publish its evilness abroad..."
Within a year the group numbered some 600 members who produced and distributed an illegal underground newspaper despite the risk of imprisonment, torture or death if they were caught. Lusseyran describes the mood of both surrender and joy he experienced in the resistance movement:
“I had not a single friend who had anything left to lose. They had given up literally everything except life. . . On my word of honor, the air was different where my friends were. There you could smell joy. Even when they were sad and talking about their own death, the smell of their talk was good and gave you a lift.”
Lusseyran was eventually betrayed by a pro-Nazi student who infiltrated the resistance group, resulting in the arrest of Lusseyran and other leaders of the group.

Following interrogation, Lusseyran was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

In the camp, disease and malnutrition were rampant, and Lusseyran himself became sick and was very near death. But at that point he became aware that a will to live “had taken possession of me and filled me to overflowing ... Slowly I came back from the dead.”

He recalled that “on May 8, I left the hospital on my two feet. I was nothing but skin and bones, but I had recovered. The fact was I was so happy that now Buchenwald seemed to me a place which if not welcome was at least possible. I was free now to help the others; not always, not much, but in my own way I could help. 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.”

Lusseyran was asked by his fellow inmates to visit the various blocks of prisoners each day to share whatever factual information was available about the progress of the war and to dispel rumors.

The guards allowed prisoners to hear German news reports; Lusseyran was fluent in German and “read between the lines” of those reports to infer what was actually happening. He also received information from time to time via a clandestine radio which the prisoners had hidden.

Lusseyran writes: “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, his reassuring words, that on days when there was no news, they had him visit just the same.”

In April 1945, he was liberated by the Allies, surviving German massacres of the concentration camps in which some of his friends were killed. Many of his friends had died during the course of the war. After the war, Lusseyran taught French literature in the United States and wrote books, including And There Was Light and Against the Pollution of the I.

He died together with his third wife Marie in a car accident in France on July 27, 1971.

“We had to live in the present; each moment had to be absorbed for all that was in it. 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.

The amazing thing is that no anguish held out against this treatment for very long. Take away from suffering its double drumbeat of resonance, memory and fear. Suffering may persist, but already it is relieved by half.”

“Life had taken possession of me. I had never lived so fully before. Life had become a substance within me. It broke into my cage, pushed by a force a thousand times stronger than I. It was certainly not made of flesh and blood, not even of ideas. It came toward me like a shimmering wave, like the caress of light. I could see it beyond my eyes and my forehead and above my head. It touched me and filled me to overflowing. I let myself float upon it… I drew my strength from the spring. I kept on drinking and drinking still more. I was not going to leave that celestial stream… Here was the life which sustained the life in me..."

“The Lord took pity on the poor mortal who was so helpless before him… But there was one thing left which I could do: not refuse God’s help, the breath he was blowing upon me. That was the one battle I had to fight, hard and wonderful all at one: not to let my body be taken by the fear. For fear kills, and joy maintains life..."

“I was nothing but skin and bones, but I had recovered. The fact was I was so happy, that now Buchenwald seemed to me a place which if not welcome, was at least possible. If they didn’t give me any bread to eat, I would feed on hope..."

"I was carried by a hand. I was covered by a wing. One doesn’t call such living emotions by their names. I hardly needed to look out for myself…I was free now to help the others; not always, not much, but in my own way I could help. 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..."

"From that time on they stopped stealing my bread or my soup. It never happened again. Often my comrades would wake me up in the night and take me to comfort someone…I became “the blind Frenchman.” For many, I was just, “the man who didn’t die.” Hundreds of people confided in me. The men were determined to talk to me. They spoke to me in French, in Russian, in German, in Polish. I did the best I could to understand them all. That is how I lived, how I survived. The rest I cannot describe...”

"That is what you had to do to live in the camp: be engaged, not live for yourself alone. The self-centered life has no place in the world of the deported. You must go beyond it, lay hold on something outside yourself.

Never mind how: by prayer if you know how to pray; through another man's warmth which communicates with yours, or through yours which you pass on to him; or simply by no longer being greedy. Those happy old men were like the hoboes. They asked nothing more for themselves, and that put everything within their reach.

Be engaged, no matter how, but be engaged. It was certainly hard, and most men didn't achieve it.

Of myself I can't say why I was never entirely bereft of joy. But it was a fact and my solid support. Joy I found even in strange byways, in the midst of fear itself. And fear departed from me, as infection leaves an abscess and bursts.

By the end of a year in Buchenwald I was convinced that life was not at all as I had been taught to believe it, neither life nor society."