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As the grip of the German Occupation tightened on Paris in the summer of 1940, Agnes Humbert, a respected art historian, took a leap of blind faith and reckless courage. With a handful of her distinguished colleagues at the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, she helped to form one of the first organised groups of the French Resistance. The unlikely but highly effective Musee de l'Homme network was also to earn a tragic place in history. In 1941 many of its members, including its charismatic leader Boris Vilde and Agnes herself, were betrayed to the Gestapo and imprisoned. Seven of the men were condemned to death and executed by firing squad. The women were deported to Germany as slave workers. These are the events described with electrifying immediacy by Agnes Humbert in her secret journal, first published in France in 1946 and never before translated into English.With self-deprecating humour and acerbic intelligence, she offers a uniquely personal and candid perspective on this dark and dramatic period, while the striking images that draw her artist's eye add a graphic, cinematic intensity to her diary entries. Refusing even in the grimmest days to surrender her compassion, humanity or talent for spotting the absurd, she writes with a deft touch and sardonic wit that belie the palpable depth of her conviction and outrage. Written with all the immediacy of events just lived, "Resistance" (first published as Notre guerre in Paris in 1946) stands today as a testament to one woman's indomitable spirit, and as an eloquent tribute to the sacrifice and courage of her comrades who did not survive.
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Agnes Humbert was born in 1896 in Dieppe, and married the artist Georges Sabbagh in 1916. They had two sons. Agnes continued her studies in art history, but they were divorced in 1934. In 1936 she published an influential book Louis David: peintre et conventionnel, which made her reputation as an art historian. The following year she was recruited to the staff of the newly created Musee National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, a sister institution to the Musee de l'Homme. After the war she refused on principle to return to the post from which she had been sacked, but continued to write books on art until her death in 1963. Barbara Mellor is a translator specialising in the fine and decorative arts, art history, architectural history, fashion and design. Her most recent projects include The House of Dior and The Society Portrait (both Thames & Hudson), and a series of exhibition catalogues for individual contemporary artists. She now divides her time between the Scottish Borders and the Aveyron.From The Washington Post:
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Tobias Grey A middle-aged divorcée with two grown-up children and a respectable job as an art historian, Agnès Humbert hardly fit the profile of a typical French resistance hero. Or did she? In 1940 most French men of fighting age had been taken prisoner by the Germans in what became known as the "debacle." The first members of French resistance cells in Paris, where Humbert worked at the prestigious Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires, were a mixture of women, older men and teenagers whose imaginations had been fired by a radio speech given by the little-known Gen. Charles de Gaulle. "How bizarre it all is!" noted Humbert in her journal on Oct. 20, 1940. "Here we are, most of us the wrong side of forty, careering along like students all fired up with passion and fervour, in the wake of a leader of whom we know absolutely nothing, of whom none of us has ever seen a photograph." With thrilling immediacy, Humbert's book guides us through the first stumbling steps of what became known as the Musée de l'Homme group, a disparate cell of writers, linguists, historians and social gadflies led by a charismatic Polish ethnographer, Boris Vildé. The cell's greatest achievement, before it was broken up by the Nazis in April 1941, was to publish and deliver five editions of a four-page broadsheet newspaper called, naturally, "Résistance." The paper's main aim was to counter Nazi propaganda, notably by providing evidence that food shortages in France were being caused not by the British blockade but by wholesale looting by the Germans. More than 60 years after it was first published, Humbert's book, one of the first memoirs of the war to enter the public domain, has finally been translated into English. It was worth the wait: Barbara Mellor not only captures Humbert's reckless spirit but also her very Parisian sense of humor, at turns mordant and sarcastic. Compared to such famed wartime diaries as Norman Lewis's Naples '44 or The Diary of Anne Frank, which are easily categorized as having been written in the heat of the moment, or even The Journal of Hélène Berr, reviewed in these pages last week, Résistance is a curious hybrid. The first two chapters, covering the French defeat and the first months of the Occupation, are the transcription of Humbert's personal journal from June 1940 up to her arrest by the Gestapo in April 1941. The rest of the book, indeed the major part of it, she wrote retrospectively. After a year of brutal imprisonment and interrogation in French jails, she became one of the earliest French deportees to Germany, where she endured three years of forced labor, mostly in a rayon factory where chemicals bit into her hands and face. When she was at last liberated by the U.S. Third Army, she immediately set about completing her war-time journal. The memories flooded back: "On 13 April  my diary ends; yet my memories are so clear that I am able to commit them to paper as they happened and in strict sequence. I remember everything as clearly as though it was written in notebooks, one event after another. Slowly turning the pages, I find that virtually every one is illustrated with some barbaric image or other." Humbert, who trained to be a painter, writes with remarkable pictorial skill, frequently drawing inspiration from favorite tableaux such as Ingrés "Turkish Bath" or the film "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." All of her retrospective diary entries are written in the present tense, a remarkably daring stylistic innovation. But it works because Humbert throws herself into the task of recollection just as recklessly and utterly as she did into the resistance. What we will never know is whether Humbert, who died at 69 in 1963, tampered with her original diary entries before publication. (If the Gestapo had discovered these opening chapters as they appear now, it would have been able to arrest every member of the Musée de l'Homme Groupe. As it was, some managed to escape detention when the cell was broken up.) Were they written in code? Where did she hide them? Why are there so few references to her private life? Did she always intend to publish them? What seems to have decided Humbert to do so was her experience in German prison camps : "I say to myself: 'In fifty years' time my family will know how I was treated by the Germans. I have a grandson, Yves. He will tell his children how I was forced to work beyond the limits of human endurance.' "
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