Monday 15 April 2002

Why Samuel Beckett joined the Resistance

From James Knowlson’s Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett

Péron was responsible for recruiting his Irish friend into the Resistance movement. Beckett needed little persuading. He had followed the rise of Nazism in the 1930s with fascination, growing disgust, and, finally, horror. He had dipped with revulsion into Hitler’s Mein Kampf and recognized the racial hatred that lay at the roots of national socialism. During his extended visit to Germany in 1936-37, he had witnessed at first hand the impact of anti-Semitism on individual painters whom he had met in Hamburg, persecuted simply because they were non-”Aryan.”

Now, back in occupied Paris in 1940, Jewish friends were being stigmatized and abused, even assaulted. Beckett was disgusted by the Statut des Juifs introduced in October 1940 to discriminate against Jews and appalled when they were forced to wear the Star of David. When Jewish-owned properties were daubed with anti-Semitic slogans, then attacked and burned down, he was deeply shocked and repelled by the crude visual symbolism and by the verbal messages of anti-Semitic posters. The taking and execution of hostages in 1941, when some of the Jewish people he knew were rounded up and arrested, horrified him. This was months before “la Grande Rafle” (the Big Roundup) of mid-July 1942, when 12,844 Jews were arrested. Whether all this was being done by French anti-Semitic groups out of indigenous Vichy-inspired hatred (as much of the anti-Jewish violence in the very early days of the occupation was) or by the Germans themselves was a specious distinction for Beckett. It was sufficient that it was inhumane. As an Irishman, he was in principle neutral during the war, but “you simply couldn’t stand by with your arms folded,” he commented.

One of the key factors in his decision to join the Resistance cell of which Péron was an important member was the arrest and disappearance to a concentration camp of Joyce’s friend, unpaid secretary, and helper, Paul Léon. Like many of Léon’s friends, Beckett had expressed concern that he and his wife and family should remain in Paris at a time so dangerous for anyone Jewish. Beckett recounted how he met Léon in the street in August 1941 and told him with alarm that he should leave at once. “I have to wait until tomorrow when my son takes his bachot [school examination],” replied Léon. The following day he was arrested and interned near Paris. Throughout the next few months, Beckett expressed his concern for his friend by handing over his rations to Paul Léon’s wife, Lucie, to be sent to the internee. Lucie Léon relates:

In 1941, my husband Paul Léon was arrested and was being starved and tortured by the Germans (we were all in Paris at that time). I was trying to get food packages together and it was an almost impossible task. Sam Beckett used to bring me his bread ration and also his cigarette ration, so I could get them through to the camp. I will never forget this great kindness on his part. At that time he was probably in almost as much trouble as we were, and he certainly needed those rations himself.

Léon was arrested on August 21, 1941, and, according to official documents, Beckett formally joined the Resistance on the first day of September.

From Deidre Bair’s Samuel Beckett

[Beckett] intended to live quietly as a neutral alien, to tend to his writing and to see if he could help any of his friends who were still in Paris. He wanted to stay in France as a visible symbol of sympathy for his French friends while observing the restraints which he felt his Irish citizenship imposed upon him. His Jewish friends had all disappeared, and so he was astonished one day to see Paul Léon walking openly down a street past German foot patrols and officers sitting in cafes. Léon assured the horrified Beckett that he intended to go into hiding the very next day, as soon as his son received his baccalaureate degree, but he gambled one day too long. He was arrested and interned near Paris, and killed as a Jew by the Nazis in 1942.

All around Beckett senseless arrests and killings were commonplace. Even more devastating was the knowledge that numerous friends were either colloborating openly with the Germans or indirectly toadying to them. He found himself unable to remain neutral any longer. Now that the war touched his friends, it was no longer a philosophical exercise—it had become grimly personal. Léon’s incarceration was just one of the events which led to Beckett’s abandonment of neutrality: “I was so outraged by the Nazis, particularly by their treatment of the Jews, that I could not remain inactive,” he said. Long after the war, when an interviewer asked Beckett why he had taken an active political stand, he replied, “I was fighting against the Germans, who were making life hell for my friends, and not for the French nation.” He was being consistent in his apolitical behaviour.


© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour