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An ordinary woman who did the extraordinary

"I have adjusted myself to this new strange state of living, diving in a kind of suspension, just waiting and hoping, while time itself seems to have neither a yesterday nor a tomorrow. Time is standing still." - From AN AMERICAN HEROINE IN THE FRENCH RESISTANCE

Published July 23, 2006

As you read An American Heroine in the French Resistance: The Diary and Memoir of Virginia d'Albert-Lake, an enthralling tale which brims with brave airmen and plucky heroines and cruel guards, your mind spills over with images. But where do they come from? Movies like The Longest Day and even such TV series as Hogan's Heroes are part of the media blizzard we've all been groping our way through for the last 50 years, and sometimes it's hard to tell whether we're reading about something that really happened or if the tale of hope and suffering and triumph playing out before us is a Hollywood confection.

Certainly Virginia d'Albert-Lake's wartime diary, which ends just before her capture by the Germans, and her memoir, which takes up the story where the diary leaves off, is eminently cinematic, precisely because it contains so much of the action and imagery and even dialogue with which audiences are already familiar. But her enthralling tale is also riddled with the unanticipated, with surprises and ironies so weird they had to come, not from a screenwriter's imagination, but from that most prolific of authors, life itself.

Virginia Roush was born in Ohio in 1910, though her family moved to St. Petersburg shortly after World War I. She graduated from Rollins College and became a schoolteacher, and it was while attending an education conference in England in 1936 that she made a side trip to France, where she met, fell in love with and married Philippe d'Albert-Lake. When World War II broke out, she could have returned to the States, as Philippe, who had been conscripted, urged, but she stayed in France and followed him from one post to another.

Hers was a fun war at first: Most wives stayed home, but as Virginia was childless and Philippe's parents were able to maintain their home, she was free to go wherever he was stationed. Usually she was the sole woman (and a young and pretty one, too) in a barracks full of men who appreciated her, so the early pages of the diary are full of wonderful group meals, sing-alongs and spirited discussions of how this silly war will be over quickly when the leaders come to their senses. She also wrote letters home, some of which appeared in the St. Petersburg Times under such titles as "Life in France is Being Germanized, Former St. Petersburg Girl Writes."

In these early pages, Virginia's style borders on the naive: "Well," she writes, "it looks as if the war may have started!" as though it were a football game about to begin. But her resolve begins to grow before she even knows she'll need it: "If we are fighting aggression why don't we fight it?" she says a few entries later.

When France falls to the Germans in 1940, her tone darkens, though not immediately. The catastrophic and the mundane continue to blend giddily; one entry records that King Leopold III of Belgium capitulated to the Germans and then details a merry restaurant outing, complete with champagne, to celebrate Philippe's 31st birthday.

The diary ends in April 1944, and the memoir, which Virginia wrote immediately after the war, takes up the story from there. The turning point in her anxious if largely happy life takes place on the day when the baker fetches her and Philippe and they meet Willy, Bob and Harry, three all-American boys whose plane has just been shot down. That night, they decide to join the Resistance and guide the Allied airmen to safety. The next morning, their three new friends are bundled into the back of the baker's truck, and when he drops the canvas, Virginia thinks it's "the curtain falling on the prologue of a new play."

Some of the most bizarre pages are devoted to the "sightseeing" trips the various Allied airmen take in Paris. As vigorous young men, they find it hard to stay cooped up; also, who wouldn't want to go sightseeing in Paris? Typically, Resistance members would take the men out one at a time, often arm in arm and chatting animatedly; during one such foray, Virginia recalls running into an old friend of Philippe who surely thought she was carrying on with another man. Virtually none of the airmen spoke French, and sometimes they had to feign madness or pretend to be deaf and dumb to throw off suspicion.

On June 12, 1944, while escorting an Allied airman, Virginia is taken into custody during a routine check; to her horror, the German who goes through her purse finds in it a list of names with local Resistance contacts on it, though he inexplicably returns the list to her along with the rest of the purse's contents. When he takes her to Gestapo headquarters, she manages to tear the paper into tiny bits and eat them one by one; the officer finds one bit and says incredulously, "You ate it!" but is too frightened of his masters to confess his incompetence. At times, the Gestapo were victims of their own savage reputation; had her captor revealed that Virginia had a list, surely she would have been tortured until she revealed the names of the others, who themselves would have revealed even more names.

As it is, she is imprisoned on the eve of the war's turning point. Paris is about to be liberated, and as the buses take her and her fellow prisoners to the rail yard, she looks out on men and women who are about to taste the freedom that she will not know for months. Her destination is Ravensbruck, the notorious concentration camp in northern Germany which, between 1939 and 1945, processed around 130,000 women prisoners, only 40,000 of whom survived. Her life there is unspeakable: shaven, covered with lice, dressed in thin garments against a terrible winter, she and the other inmates live on watery soup and moldy bread as they fill swamps and build rail beds, work that would bring the fittest of workers to their knees.

After the camp is liberated, Virginia sees herself in a full-length mirror for the first time in months and is horrified; she weighs 76 pounds and is afraid that she has become so ugly that Philippe won't love her any more. Fat chance: Their reunion is predictably joyful, and before the year is out, she is pregnant. Hers is a long and happy life; she dies at age 87, and Philippe follows her a few years later.

It's hard to imagine this book having such visceral appeal were it not for the trove of images that is the legacy of the war years. In a sense, though, these scenes have always been in our minds; Carl Jung as well as such scholars of myth and archetype as Northrop Frye remind us that, as a race, we are hard-wired to crave the story of the birth of the hero and the defeat of the powers of darkness, winter and death.

The limitation of a purely collective approach to human behavior is that it leaves little room for individual action, whereas there would be no Virginia d'Albert-Lake story without Virginia d'Albert-Lake, an ordinary woman who found herself capable of the extraordinary. Often, the simplest gesture meant the difference between life and death: Considering that it is told during wartime, this story contains an unusual number of pet dogs, and on more than one occasion, either Virginia or another character is described as caressing or praising a gruff German officer's dog and thus defusing a situation that might have ended badly.

Years after the war, a journalist asks Virginia how she survived her months in Ravensbruck, and she replies, "It was simple, really. You could never give in. The women who cried at night were usually dead in the morning."

So this is the moral of Virginia d'Albert-Lake's enthralling tale: be resolute, do your best for others and remember - always pet the dog.

Poet David Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University; his forthcoming book is Ultra-Talk: Johnny Cash, The Mafia, Shakespeare, Drum Music, St. Teresa Of Avila, And 17 Other Colossal Topics Of Conversation.


The Diary and Memoir of Virginia d'Albert-Lake

Edited, with an introduction, by Judy Barrett Litoff

Fordham University Press, $29.95, 270 pp

A heroine tale

Read more about the life and courage of Virginia d'Albert-Lake in Monday's FLORIDIAN.


[Last modified July 22, 2006, 11:39:34]

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