The Nightingale

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

I finished The Nightingale just before the National Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust (April 12, 2018). It’s one of several books I’ve read this year about the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. That specific WWII topic is one I had not read much about until this year. I was drawn to this particular book because it is about the role of women in the WWII French Resistance.

I guess I got drawn to this topic this year because I tacked on a visit to Paris after my class trip which focuses on international courts that were developed in the post-WWII quest for peace through the Rule of Law. Every year for the past five years, I have taken a class of students to Germany and other locations in Europe. My class focuses on the breakdown of the Rule of Law in Germany before and during WWII, and the development of international courts in the aftermath. We study and visit the Nuremberg Trials Court, as well as the European Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and the International Court of Justice. Sometimes I add additional international tribunals to the curriculum. We also visit historically significant sites, such as the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial near Munich and the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The point of the course is that it is incumbent upon all of us as lawyers, judges, and others who care about justice to seek ways to create lasting peace through the Rule of Law. #LawNotWar

Following last year’s class, I spent a week in France. This was not my first trip to France, but it was my first trip to France in the same trip as my class trip. Consequently, the topic of France-during-WWII was on my mind this time. I began with the book Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, the second was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and The Nightingale was the third. I still have four or five more books on my to-read list on this topic, but they are so intense that I break them up with other books in between–a point I’ll come back to in a moment.

The Nightingale was wonderful, my favorite of the three (though the other two are also outstanding books). The story, though fiction, is based on the real life women heroes of the French Resistance, and a Belgian woman who created an escape path through the Pyrenees into Spain for downed Allied pilots; from Spain, the pilots could get to England to fly more missions. The story centers on two sisters, each living their own hell and truth during the Nazi occupation of France. One sister–the younger sister–helps Allied pilots escape by making multiple treacherous treks through the Pyrenees Mountains; the other sister does what she has to to protect her own daughter along with numerous Jewish children, the children of her Jewish friends and neighbors who are taken to concentration camps to be murdered.

With that as the backdrop, what kept occurring to me as I read the book was how on Earth could these people survive year after year, winter after winter, day after day, as things got worse and worse and worse for their lives. How did they keep going when all hope must have been lost? One of the sisters winds up in Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women near Berlin. How could one survive even a short time in one of these camps with constant torture and without even the basics of human dignity? I’ve wondered about this every time I’ve visited a concentration camp, and reading this book made the question loom large.

That brings me back to my point about how I read other books in between these books about WWII because they are simply too intense to be able to read them back-to-back.  I need to escape the heavy emotional burden of the horrific day-to-day existence described in the books. But, the people who lived this could not escape! They could not “read another book” in between the days, weeks, months, and years that stretched between May 1940 when the Germans marched into France, and May 1945 when they left in defeat. There was nothing but time, horrifying cruelty after horrifying cruelty, and hope … how did they keep the hope?

Just as I completed this book, during the week set aside to remember the horrors of the Holocaust, I saw a speech by Benjamin Ferencz, the only living Nuremberg prosecutor. He has seen first hand the horrors of the Holocaust, as he worked as a Nuremberg Trials prosecutor, amassing the horrific evidence of Nazi atrocities and presenting it to the international tribunal at Nuremberg, when he was only in his late-twenties. He said something that I want to remember and share: Never Give Up. He meant it in regard to never give up trying to achieve peace through the Rule of Law, but this is also the secret to living through horrible times–by never giving up. Persistence! The women in the book never gave up, and consequently they were able to do things that ordinarily would be thought impossible. They persisted.

Anyway, the book is excellent, and I highly recommend it. It reminds us of the sacrifices, struggles, and heroism of so many women during WWII. After the war, these women did not get much, if any, recognition and their stories have not been widely told. But, there they were, the heart, soul, arms, and legs of the resistance, risking their lives and their futures to save their children, their friends, their country, and to restore peace to their communities.

#LawNotWar #NeverGiveUp #Persist

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