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33 Days by Léon Werth
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33 Days (1992)

by Léon Werth

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[33 Days] by Léon Werth
This is an autobiographical account of Léon Werths flight from Paris following Nazi Germany’s invasion in 1940. The French Government left Paris on June 10 and the Germans occupied the city on June 14. During that four day period there was an exodus of Parisians (as many as 8 million) heading south with rumours of the French army holding the Germans at bay on the River Loire. Werth like many Parisians of Jewish descent was caught in two minds. Should he stay in Paris or should he flee; he says:

“My certainty and security are rooted in a deep part of me that neither strategic calculation nor reason can reach. Paris is Paris and it is impossible that the Germans can get in. Nevertheless , during the night , A. gave me a friendly, brotherly order to put sixty kilometres between the Germans and us, I decided to obey………..”

He loads up his car and with his wife takes to the road south. They soon get into heavy traffic which quickly turns into a traffic jam and Werth refers to it as a caravan that stops and starts for no apparent reason, where progress is painfully slow. On that first day they cover 16 kilometres in 15 hours.

Léon Werth was a well known critic and writer at the time of the occupation and his manuscript of the 33 days spent fleeing the Germans was smuggled out of France and taken to America by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, but was never published and later vanished. In 1992 Werth’s french language text was rediscovered and published. This English translation by Austin Dennis Johnson published in 2015 includes for the first time the introduction by Saint-Exupery.

With hindsight it is possible to speculate why the book was not published during the war years. Possibly because there was no propaganda value. Werth’s account appears to be extremely honest, the Germans did not behave particularly badly, there were plenty of French citizens happy to collaborate and The French soldiers appear as a disorganised group intent on leaving the horrors of war behind them. The reader has to bear in mind that this is one eye witnesses account of what happened to him. Of course there were well documented instances of the Nazis behaving ferociously towards the French and no doubt there were instances of French heroism, but Werth did not see any of this.

Werths writing style is both laconic and matter of fact. He has no axe to grind and although there are instances when he is close to tears when exchanging information with local people about the French defeat, for most of the time he is in a state of confusion with his main concern being in finding enough to eat and where he is going to sleep that night. The caravan moves incredibly slowly, motor vehicles break down, gasoline becomes a priority cars are abandoned, people leave the main route to search for food. Many of the farms have been abandoned some have been looted but Werth's concern is the search for food and perhaps a place to sleep. There are some unforgettable moments, for instance the appearance of a few French soldiers heading in the opposite direction to the caravan; the Parisians take these to be stragglers or deserters, but when this turns into a flood of soldiers it dawns on the caravaners that this is a disorganised army in retreat. There are instances of small French units putting up some resistance and this brings the war home to the Parisians as dead bodies are soon in evidence. It is not many days into the exodus when the Germans are increasingly giving the appearance of being in control and when Werth finally makes it to the Loire river there is no way across and he has to search for somewhere to stay. He finds a small hamlet under German control and shares accommodation with billeted German soldiers. He is generally treated well and to all appearances civilisation has been restored but of course it is Germany now in control.

The caravan travels so slowly that it would have been quicker to walk, people of course get frustrated and afraid and some individuals take it upon themselves to organise others. Werth observes all these human foibles noting them down in his narrative. Much of his time on the road is spent waiting for something to happen or the vehicle in front to move. Money changes hands as people in the caravan seek help from local farmers, horses are used to pull cars, usually with disastrous results. It really is a journal of life on the road, albeit a very special road. Werth's narrative is of such first hand experience that he places the reader alongside him as he searches for a way out of the quagmire.

I read this book on my kindle and as the narrative is by its nature fairly episodic it is the perfect book to dip in and out of. Like a road movie you do not really have to remember much of what has gone before: everyday is really a new chapter in Werth's observational account of the great Paris Exodus. A four star read. ( )
4 vote baswood | Sep 3, 2016 |
A memoir of chaos. Fits in well with reading [Suite Francaise] and visiting the World War I memorial in Kansas City last weekend. ( )
  kcshankd | Aug 23, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Léon Werthprimary authorall editionscalculated
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine dePrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scheffel, TobiasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Stamm, PeterAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"A rare eyewitness account by an important author of fleeing the Nazis' march on Paris in 1940, featuring a never-before-published introduction by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. In June of 1940, Leon Werth and his wife fled Paris before the advancing Nazis Army. 33 Days is his eyewitness account of that experience, one of the largest civilian dispacements in history. Encouraged to write 33 Days by his dear friend, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, Werth finished the manuscript while in hiding in the Jura mountains. Saint-Exupery smuggled the manuscript out of Nazi-occupied France, wrote an introduction to the work and arranged for its publication in the United States by Brentanos. But the publication never came to pass, and Werth's manuscript would disappear for more than fifty years until the first French edition, in 1992. It has since become required reading in French schools. This, the first-ever English language translation of 33 Days, includes Saint-Exupery's original introduction for the book, long thought to be lost. It is presented it here for the first time in any language. After more than seventy years, 33 Days appears--complete and as it was fully intended"--… (more)

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