Last issue's "Lost Classic," an excerpt from Jacques Lusseyran's And There Was Light, covered Lusseyran's initial experience of blindness. As a young adult, Lusseyran became active in the French Resistance during World War II. In the excerpt here, he describes how, having been betrayed by a man he thought of as his comrade in the Resistance, he was imprisoned first in a Parisian jail in German-occupied France and then in Buchenwald. Of the 2,000 men who had been shipped to Buchenwald with Lusseyran, only 30 survived to be liberated by the U S Third Army in April 1945. Lusseyran was one of those 30. He was 20 years old at the time. This excerpt begins when he is in the French jail.
-- Anne Finger.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Last issue's "Lost Classic," an excerpt from Jacques Lusseyran's And There Was Light, covered Lusseyran's initial experience of blindness. As a young adult, Lusseyran became active in the French Resistance during World War II.
In the excerpt here, he describes how, having been betrayed by a man he thought of as his comrade in the Resistance, he was imprisoned first in a Parisian jail in German-occupied France and then in Buchenwald. Of the 2,000 men who had been shipped to Buchenwald with Lusseyran, only 30 survived to be liberated by the U S Third Army in April 1945. Lusseyran was one of those 30. He was 20 years old at the time. This excerpt begins when he is in the French jail.
-- Anne Finger.
The Invalids' Block
by Jacques Lusseyran
From And There Was Light: Autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, Blind Hero of the French Resistance, by Jacques Lusseyran.
One evening after the guard had been changed, a jailer, a stocky old man, and one we had spotted for his timidity and gentleness, no doubt a peasant from the Territorials, came into our cell. He shut the door behind him, a thing that bad never happened before. Then he handed me a scrap of paper which Jean [one of Lusseyran's comrades from the resistance] had signed. One of my cellmates read it to me: "I am in the third section. They have done me no harm. I have high hopes for you. I love you more than myself. Jean." I dictated a word of reply which the jailer took. It was over. I had had my news. And it was the last.
"I have high hopes for you." Did Jean . . . mean they were going to set me free? The three characters in my cell thought it was a sure thing. Again the road inspector said: "What in hell can they do with a blind man?".
It was no good my saying to myself that all three of them were talking like that to please me, or because they were ignorant, or because, like everybody else, they couldn't keep from talking even when they had nothing to say -- it was incredible how talkative we had grown as time passed -- still the idea of my liberation obsessed me and the idea of my blindness along with it. Blindness again, but this time in a strange dress, since perhaps my blindness was going to protect me. At the Gestapo they had had such a hard time believing in my guilt. A cripple must be harmless in spite of all appearances. Or else he must be another man's tool. They had looked for the other man, but they hadn't found him . . .
[A]n SS lieutenant opened the door to our cell. He consulted a list. He was in a hurry. He called my name. I had ten minutes to get ready. Either it was freedom or its opposite. But suddenly, while I was picking up my small package of clothes, the outcome became unimportant. I was already dreaming, but I couldn't tell you what I was dreaming about, perhaps about the return of the SS man in three minutes, even in one. I was breathing in my destiny greedily.
We went downstairs. I asked the lieutenant, "Where are you taking me?" In passable French he explained that I was lucky, because they were taking me to Germany, and Germany was a great big generous country. The mechanism of hope in our hearts must have a thousand springs, almost all of them unknown to us, because when I heard this news about Germany, the most dramatic they could have given me except for the announcement of my own death, I felt a kind of passionate pleasure. It was bitter and sudden, cutting as a wound, but pleasure for all that. That's the only way I can describe it.
The danger which had been hanging over me for three years, since the day when I joined the Resistance, suddenly stopped being a danger to become the minute ahead of me, my tomorrow. At least this time I knew where I was to go. They had assigned me my place. The transformation was instantaneous. The hope of being free, which an hour earlier had raised my temperature, had become the courage not to be free, not yet and, if need be, never. . . .
[Having been taken by train and bus to the town of Compeigne, two thousand French prisoners were loaded into cattle cars for the trip to Buchenwald.].
On the second day some of the men suddenly remembered that I was blind. They were lost in the tangle of bodies in the middle of the night and called out to me to help them. Then I began groping my way through the mass of flesh, moving as delicately as I knew how after twelve years of practice. I put one foot down in the space between two heads, the other between two thighs, and managed to reach the corner the cries were coming from without hurting anybody. An old doctor from Bourges who was shaking with fever, the one I had led to the latrine, mumbled: "I could swear you were made for emergencies like this." . . .
Then the doors slid open. We had arrived. Some of us called out, "Trinken! Bitte, trinken!" The answer was a hail of blows raining down on flesh and blood in the car, blows of clubs and rifle butts. The men standing too near the door fell out.
We had to form a line and walk. Fast. All around us there were dogs biting the ones who hung back. It was almost impossible to move because of our swollen legs.
I passed through this gateway going in the opposite direction fifteen months later, on April 18, 1945. But here I come to a halt. I can't say how, but it is no longer I who am conducting my life. It is God, and I haven't always understood how he went about it.
I think it would be more honest to warn you that I am not going to take you through Buchenwald, not all the way. No one has ever been able to do it . . .
A few hours after we arrived at the camp, we were shunted through the offices. A Nazi concentration camp is highly organized, full of red tape, aimed at persecution and death, but extremely complex, hierarchical and artful to the nth degree. The ultimate artfulness consisted in leaving the SS, who were the real masters, out of the everyday routines. There were seventeen thousand of them to supervise our camp but we prisoners hardly ever saw them. When they came in, it was in groups, heavily armed, for mass hangings or shootings. . . .
They had dressed us in rags. My shirt had only one button, my jacket had holes in ten places. I had open wooden clogs on my feet, and no socks. The cold literally winnowed out my comrades. Nearly two hundred of the two thousand died of it before the end of February, particularly the boys between twenty and twenty five who looked strong. Eating so little, being so cold and so frightened killed them off . . .
I must be frank. The hardest thing was not the cold, not even that. It was the men themselves, our comrades and other prisoners, all the ones sharing our miseries. Suffering had turned some into beasts. But they at least were not malicious. They could be calmed with a sign or a word, in the toughest cases with a blow. Worse than the beasts were the possessed. For years the SS had so calculated the terror that either it killed or it bewitched. Hundreds of men at Buchenwald were bewitched. The harm done them was so great that it had entered into them body and soul. And now it possessed them. They were no longer victims. They were doing injury in their turn, and doing it methodically.
The man in charge of our quarantine barracks was a German, an anti-Nazi who had been there for six years. Rumor had it that once be had been a hero. Now, every day, he killed two or three of us with his own hands, barehanded or with a knife. He struck out in the crowd at random. It was a satisfaction he could no longer live without. One morning when it was snowing hard, we discovered that he had disappeared. When the snow was swept off the steps of the barracks, they found his body with a large knife wound in the back. . . .
I came very close to dying.
In March I had lost all my friends. They had all gone away. A small child was reborn in me, looking everywhere for his mother and not finding her. I was very much afraid of the others and even of myself since I didn't know how to defend myself. One day out of two, people were stealing my bread and my soup. I got so weak that when I touched cold water my fingers burned as if they were on fire. All month long a blizzard which had no beginning and no end had been buffeting the Buchenwald hill.
Being blind, I still avoided one of the greatest miseries, the labor commandos. Every morning at six o'clock all the men who were fit left the camp to the blare of the orchestra, an efficient orchestra and functional, the liturgy of forced labor in caricature. The whole day these men moved rocks and sand in the quarries, dug into the frozen ground to put down pipes, carried rails for the tracks, always in range of submachine guns and SS Kapos who were blind with rage. The prisoners came in at five o'clock at night, but never all of them. The yards were littered with the day's dead. . . .
I was spared the labor commandos because I couldn't see. But for the unfit like me, they had another system, the Invalids' Block. Since they were no longer sure of winning the war, mercy had become official with the Nazis. A year earlier being unfit for physical work in the service of the Greater German Reich would have condemned you to death in three days.
The Invalids' Block was a barracks like the others. The only difference was that they had crowded in 1,500 men instead of 300 -- 300 was the average for the other blocks -- and they had cut the food ration in half. At the Invalids' you had the one-legged, the one-armed, the trepanned, the deaf, the deaf-mute, the blind, the legless -- even they were there, I knew three of them -- the aphasic, the ataxic, the epileptic, the gangrenous, the scrofulous, the tubercular, the cancerous, the syphilitic, the old men over seventy, the boys under sixteen, the kleptomaniacs, the tramps, the perverts, and last of all the flock of madmen. They were the only ones who didn't seem unhappy.
No one at the Invalids' was whole, since that was the condition of entrance. As a result people were dying there at a pace which made it impossible to make any count of the block. It was a greater surprise to fall over the living than the dead. And it was from the living that danger came.
The stench was so terrible that only the smell of the crematory, which sent up smoke around the clock, managed to cover it up on days when the wind drove the smoke our way. For days and nights on end, I didn't walk around, I crawled. I made an opening for myself in the mass of flesh. My hands traveled from the stump of a leg to a dead body, from a body to a wound. I could no longer hear anything for the groaning all around me.
Toward the end of the month all of a sudden it became too much for me and I grew sick, very sick. I think it was pleurisy. They said several doctors, prisoners like me and friends of mine, came to listen to my chest. It seems they gave me up. What else could they do? There was no medicine at all at Buchenwald, not even aspirin.
Very soon dysentery was added to pleurisy, then an infection in both ears which made me completely deaf for two weeks, then erysipelas, turning my face into a swollen pulp, with complications which threatened to bring on blood poisoning. More than fifty fellow prisoners told me all this later. I don't remember any of it myself. I had taken advantage of the first days of sickness to leave Buchenwald. . . .
Sickness had rescued me from fear, it had even rescued me from death. Let me say to you simply that without it I never would have survived. From the first moments of sickness I had gone off into another world, quite consciously. I was not delirious. Louis was right, I still had the look of tranquility, more so than ever. That was the miracle.
I watched the stages of my own illness quite clearly. I saw the organs of my body blocked up or losing control one after the other, first my lungs, then my intestines, then my ears, all my muscles, and last of all my heart, which was functioning badly and filled me with a vast, unusual sound. I knew exactly what it was, this thing I was watching: my body in the act of leaving this world, not wanting to leave it right away, not even wanting to leave it at all. I could tell by the pain my body was causing me, twisting and turning in every direction like snakes that have been cut in pieces.
Have I said that death was already there? If I have I was wrong. Sickness and pain, yes, but not death. Quite the opposite, life, and that was the unbelievable thing, that 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.
There were names which I mumbled from the depths of my astonishment. No doubt my lips did not speak them, but they had their own song: "Providence, the Guardian Angel, Jesus Christ, God." I didn't try to turn it over in my mind. It was not just the time for metaphysics. I drew my strength from the spring. I kept on drinking and drinking still more. I was not going to leave that celestial stream. For that matter it was not strange to me, having come to me right after my old accident when I found I was blind. Here was the same thing all over again, the Life which sustained the life in me. . . .
On May 8, 1 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. If they didn't give me any bread to eat, I would feed on hope.
It was the truth. I still had eleven months ahead of me in the camp. But today I have not a single evil memory of those three hundred and thirty days of extreme wretchedness. 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, and such concern would have seemed to me ridiculous. I knew it was dangerous and it was forbidden. 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, sometimes a long way off in another block.
Almost everyone forgot I was a student. 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.