Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of the Jewish Journal and the author of, most recently “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat and a Murder in Paris.”
By Charles Kaiser
278 pp. $26.95
For a whole generation of French men and women, one besetting question has been: What did you do during the war? Some of them claimed an exaggerated or wholly imaginary role for themselves in the struggle against the Nazi occupiers during World War II, and yet “the ones who had been so magnificent in the Resistance never discussed their bravery with their own children,” as we learn from Charles Kaiser in “The Cost of Courage.”
Kaiser, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and the author of a benchmark history of gay life in America (“The Gay Metropolis”), first encountered that strange silence when he met the French family that had sheltered his uncle, a GI named Henry Kaiser, in Paris during the last year of the war. From Uncle Henry, he heard stories of their heroism: “The most dramatic movie about the war,” the nephew writes, “was the one I learned by heart but had seen only in my head.” Yet when he finally met the surviving members of the Boulloche family, they were utterly silent about their war experiences: “It would take me five decades, including two and a half years living in France, to unravel the reasons for the heroes’ silence,” he explains.
Suddenly, we find ourselves back in Paris under German occupation, a place of hardship and humiliation. “Starvation rations for the French have transformed apartment terraces into rabbit farms,” Kaiser writes in one of many passages that we might expect to find in a superior thriller, “as the urban dawn is oddly heralded by roosters.” A young man is arrested by the Gestapo and promised his freedom if he reveals the whereabouts of a much-wanted leader of the Resistance called André Boulloche, who has been parachuted into France with 500,000 francs to fund the fight against the Germans and a cyanide pill to use in case of his capture. With a German pistol at his back, the young man is forced to approach the hiding place and use the coded knock that will prompt Boulloche to open the door.
So begins the story that the Boulloche family was so reluctant to tell. Three of the Boulloche siblings — André, Christiane and Jacqueline — were quick to join the Resistance at the outbreak of the war, but their parents and eldest brother never did, although the Germans did not make such distinctions: “Those big posters in the Métro are constant reminders that every relative of a Résistant is now subject to arrest.” Here is the ticking time bomb that can be detected throughout Kaiser’s gripping tale and accounts for its explosive and heartbreaking denouement and the long shadow that it casts.
To his credit, Kaiser reveals the moral ambiguity of resistance when one’s enemy is as ruthless as Nazi Germany. The resister, of course, chooses to take the risk of arrest, imprisonment, torture, injury and death. But what is his or her obligation toward those who will be victimized as hostages, targets of reprisal or innocent bystanders? Wholly innocent men and women, as we learn in “The Cost of Courage,” were sometimes punished by the Germans only because of their association with someone they knew or to whom they were related. As Kaiser signals in the title he has chosen for his book, sometimes the price of courage is paid by someone other than the hero.
Kaiser makes the most of the inherent drama in the story he tells, but his touchstone is his relentless search for truth amid the fog of war. To find out exactly what happened to André Boulloche while in Gestapo custody, for example, the author was compelled to seek the declassification of British war records. As one example of his truth-telling, he reports that the survivors referred euphemistically to the “loving attention” that they received from the Gestapo, but Kaiser calls it by its rightful name: torture. Among the various forms of torture favored by the Nazis, by the way, was waterboarding, a point that Kaiser makes more than once.
Although he offers an intimate and often troubling account of one family’s ordeal, Kaiser always reminds us that “there are a remarkable number of secret heroes.” Perhaps the most impressive evidence of the breadth of the Resistance is his description of the 1,700 French prisoners who were crammed into 17 cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz, “one of only three trains of non-Jews to be sent there from France during the entire war.” Kaiser’s scrutiny of the meticulous records maintained by the German authorities allows him to identify with chilling particularity the men and women who ended up on those trains; some 64 different resistance groups were represented among the victims, who included 39 railroad workers, 20 priests and two poets. “Most of them are younger than thirty-five,” he writes. “The youngest prisoner is fifteen, the oldest, seventy.” Among them was André Boulloche, but we soon discover that he was not the only — nor the most likely — member of his family to end up in a Nazi concentration camp.
What we discover, to our sorrow if not our surprise, is that occupied France was a treacherous place where betrayal might come from unsuspected sources and might be wholly unintended. When André Boulloche disappeared into the maw of the Gestapo, for example, his sisters arranged for the evacuation of the safe houses and hiding places that their brother might reveal under torture. But they could do nothing about the fact that the location of the family home was a matter of public record. The family’s only hope was that the Gestapo had not discovered André’s real name. Once they did, his parents and his brother, too, would be at risk. Indeed, when Gestapo officers finally arrived at the Boulloche home to arrest André’s sister Christiane, she had gone underground, but they readily found her mother, father and her other brother, Robert, none of whom were members of the Resistance.
“The Cost of Courage” reaches a crescendo in the telling of the final days of the German occupation, which brought grave consequences to the entire Boulloche family. To preserve the suspense Kaiser has succeeded in creating, I cannot disclose the ultimate fates of the various members of the family except to say that a novelist, no matter how gifted, could not have contrived a deeper or darker irony than the one that suffuses Kaiser’s brilliant book.