Choosing decency, Peter McPhee

The Last of the Human Freedoms: The French Civilians Who Chose to Help Kiwis during the Second World War
Keren M Chiaroni
HarperCollins, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869508739


In September 1942 Raymond Glensor’s Wellington bomber was shot down near the small town of Saint-Omer in northern France, within sight of England. Glensor, from Island Bay in Wellington, was shuffled expertly along an established escape line into Spain by a local, Norbert Fillerin. Fillerin’s activities were uncovered and he was sent to Buchenwald in 1943; the work was continued by his wife Marguerite before her own arrest in 1944, and then by their children. In all they assisted 32 evaders.

In May 1944 another New Zealander, John Sanderson, had to bail out of his Lancaster in the countryside near Troyes, east of Paris. His was a very different experience to Glensor’s. The Christchurch accounting student was taken in by peasant farmers, Émile and Yvette Patris, then betrayed by a local doctor, and spent the rest of the war in a German prison camp. Émile suffocated to death in a prison train on the way to Dachau.

Horrific too was the experience of the Englishman Derick Grantham, whose Typhoon caught fire during the liberation of Normandy in August 1944. A local farmer, Louis Bredrey, and the boy Bernard Grée saw him parachute to earth, hid and protected him. Three days later, Grantham was killed by “friendly fire” as he tried to reach Allied lines against the Bredreys’ advice. His brother Elmer migrated to New Zealand, where his relatives nourished personal ties with the family who had sheltered him.

These friendships between New Zealand families and the French people who sheltered the airmen are one of the themes of Keren Chiaroni’s book. There are captivating passages describing how the French and New Zealand families went about locating and corresponding with each other after the war. She herself has links with Yvette Patris and her family. These passages are enriched by lengthy documents about each case, translated by Chiaroni, with the modesty and phlegmatism characteristic of such memoirs (we even have a fascinating glimpse of farm routines in letters from Émile Patris to his wife from his French prison before his nightmarish trip to Dachau). Glensor’s account of his clandestine escape to Spain is riveting.

There are interesting contextual chapters on other New Zealand deaths in France and on the French Resistance which are not essential to the book. What should not have been left out, however, was a map showing where these heroics and tragedies occurred: there will be many New Zealand readers keen to broaden their historical tourism beyond the Western Front when next in France, but who will be frustrated by the absence of a map to guide them.

The major theme of Chiaroni’s book is why apparently ordinary people are capable of extraordinary courage and decency. Why did the Patris, Fillerin and Bredrey couples, and very many others like them, risk imprisonment, torture and death to aid people they had never met? Most others in their small communities kept their heads down and waited out the war; there were even some who for very particular reasons threw in their lot with Vichy and collaboration.

Famous resisters like Madeleine Riffaud, with whom Chiaroni spoke for the book, had personal reasons for her loathing of Nazism (her home village of Oradour-sur-Glane had been obliterated in one of the great atrocities of the war). In later life Riffaud articulated a  motive of the deepest human desire for freedom against tyranny in all its forms. None of the French heroes of this book put it that way. One of the Fillerin daughters later said simply, “It was war.” Émile Patris, who combined his work as a rural postman with deliveries for the Resistance, and his wife Yvette would have agreed.

For Chiaroni, there was more to it. She ponders her question by way of a brief consideration of the views of three Jewish intellectuals who experienced personally the horrors of WW II: Viktor Frankl, Emmanuel Lévinas and Benjamin Fondane. Fondane, who was killed at Auschwitz, is recalled today in an extract from one of his poems on a plaque on a Paris square:

… remember that I was innocent …
I also had a face that was marked by anger
By pity and by joy,
The face of a man, a face like yours.

This recognition of common humanity may have been what led one French Resistance fighter about to blow up a bridge to alert a young German soldier standing on it to run for his life (Bernard Kraux did so, later married a French woman and befriended Bernard Grée). Even in the ethical chaos of war, Chiaroni argues, there are some people who insist on the right to choose decency. In their eloquent brief forewords, the ambassadors of France and New Zealand agree.

Chiaroni’s explanation is attractive, but minimises what other historians would also highlight in order to explain the choice to resist the German occupation and to offer refuge and aid to the airmen: the recent memory – and often direct personal loss – of WW I, outraged patriotism, the choices made by friends and family, and political principle. But, as she stresses, there was something even more fundamental about these remarkable individuals which we struggle to define simply as courage and a refusal to be bowed by fear.

Ultimately, her answer to her question about the courage to make ethical choice in degrading circumstances is that some people have an exceptional inner resourcefulness that makes it possible for them to keep affirming essential decency, even if the stakes are deadly. They refuse to choose inaction or cowardice. In the words of Viktor Frankl, from whom she takes her book’s title, “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 way.”


Peter McPhee is a professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne.

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