(Reviewed by Glenda Anderson)
Macho Man extraordinaire, Ernest Hemingway—who never met a war he didn’t salivate over—often carried a gun right at the front alongside with fighters, or got his vantage point from inside a local bar with his typewriter. An experienced observer, he knew that WWI had not solved the world’s problems or man’s lust for power. His honest and humane observation:
“Never think that war, no matter how necessary nor how justified, is not a crime. Ask the infantry, and ask the dead.”
He neglected to write: Ask the women and children.
During wartime women have always gotten the short end of the stick. In this inspiring well-researched book, Sisters in the Resistance, we discover that females were often left without husbands or fathers, left to cope with families, homes, farms and businesses, and yet managed to do some terrifically brave and risky things to ‘put it to’ the arrogant SS who swept in and took over their country.
These first-hand accounts are fascinating tales of women from all classes who rose above some very scary situations to do whatever they could to help. That included aiding the Allies as spies, couriers, saboteurs, quiet observers and running ‘hit raids.’
Author Margaret Weitz shines a bright light on the tremendous social upheavals brought upon women in a male dominated society. Rarely trusted with a leadership role, the women lived in constant fear of exposure and a constant need to ‘prove themselves’, even to their fellow Resistant group, all the while grappling with having lost their freedom, their men folk and means of living. They lived at the edge of hunger and fear; the quickness of torture and death.
“Sisters in the Resistance,” though seventy years after the fact, even yet captures our attention and admiration. Though denied the right to vote until well after the war ended, yet, these strong women, many without their societal protections, what with many men dead, off to war, caged in POW camps, or carted off to Germany to slave for the German war machine in factories and on farms, even had to endure Nazis billeted in their homes, and all too often, in their beds. Many children were born, half French half German. Who can forget, once having seen them, the pictures of local men and women shearing the hair from women’s heads who were assumed to have had sexual relationships with the occupiers? From Weitz’ excellent research, one comes away knowing that many French women who actually did sleep with the enemy, were blackmailed. Children and parents were spared their lives, scarce food and wine appeared on their tables. One, whose gorgeous head of hair did not even lose strand, was Coco Channel who lived out most of the war in a downtown ritzy Paris hotel with a German General.
Women, always caught in the middle of men’s wars, had had enough of burned-out farms, of Frenchmen and boys gassed and maimed. They’d had their fill of those war-loving, arrogant, elegantly uniformed SS Germans come to occupy their country. They resisted! They hid downed Allied pilots in their barns or attics while the men of the Resistance made ready to whisk them over the border to Spain or into makeshift airfields for small English airplanes to land and swept back to London so they could fly missions another day. If discovered, all connected with saving Allies would be immediately shot or hanged.
In Weitz’s interviews with the surviving women of the Resistance, more than a few said that their time and friendships in the Resistance had been the high point of their lives. Imagine: In spite of being caught and tortured by the Gestapo, others murdered in concentration camps . . . for the ones who survived, there were no parades. And no medals.
A best seller this year, The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah, is testament to the on-going interest in the lives of French women during the occupation. Oddly, Hannah fails to give credit for stories and inspiration from previously published books on the subject, such as Sisters in the Resistance. “Nightingale” never could have been written without the several books already published telling true, heroic events of which she incorporates in her fast-reading, soap-opera-like book designed for quick sales.
For the unvarnished, humble memoirs and Weitz’s deep social commentary, I highly recommend Sisters in the Resistance.