The thirty-three days in Léon Werth’s title refers to the length of time Werth and his wife spent as part of the mass exodus of Jews from Nazi-occupied Paris, caught in traffic in the French countryside, bored, lonely, terrified, and annoyed. Written during and directly after the events described and originally intended to be published in New York before the war ended, this well-produced volume from Melville House is the memoir’s first publication in English translation. Its introduction, by Werth’s close friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, has never before been printed in any language.
Even more captivating than the recovery of the book, however, is the text itself. Werth’s genius is in his ability to convey the unlikely banality of war. In lyrical yet brutally descriptive passages, his experience comes across as no stranger than any contemporary bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, and yet feels touched by a fundamental human misery. This short memoir is dense with images that seem designed to stay in one’s mind forever, as they must have stayed in Werth’s. Surveying the endless line of cars and wagons, he writes, “Two immobile horses gaze out at the road, meditating rather, taking in the endless line of traffic that no longer surprises but still hypnotizes them. One of the two, upright on its four hooves, its harness tied to a tree, is dead.”
Werth sets the commonplace beside the horrific — or, perhaps, simply reveals how, for him, the horrific is set beside the commonplace. When a German soldier walks up to his car door, he writes, “I have the urge to kill this man, or to talk to him about the weather or his health.” This recovered text serves as an important, perhaps essential, reminder to those of us who would romanticize or simplify this or any war.
The loss of the small customs out of which the social fabric is woven is one of the casualties of war, too. The bravery in Werth’s text is not in a recounting of battles or victors or life and death, but of minor annoyances, of passive-aggressive interactions between French peasants and German soldiers. “I know I’m not recounting a big event. But there are no small events. A person and his nation are wholly within the smallest act,” Werth writes of a nearly explosive incident in which a housewife catches a German soldier stealing a single egg from her barn.
Although this book has been billed as the story of Werth and his wife fleeing in pursuit of their son, the issue of their son and his fate is introduced and resolved in one anticlimactic paragraph in the middle of the book. The real suspense here is in the tension between the absolutely trivial and the absolutely terrible — a tension powerful enough to sustain the entirety of this important memoir.
Lucy Biederman is an assistant professor of creative writing at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. Her first book, The Walmart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.