Tuesday, August 31, 2010


And There Was Light is the strange and beautiful autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran: "Blind Hero of the French Resistance." Born in Paris in 1924,  Lusseyran lost his sight at the age of 8 in a schoolroom incident.  Even as a child, he seems to have had the ability to point those around him toward higher things; even as a child, he was groping toward the transcendent. Trying to navigate his way around a world he could no longer see, he came to learn that inanimate things are alive, and of the sympathetic current that runs between the branches of a tree in springtime,  and that if you press the little stone you’ve secreted in your pocket, it will press back. He staved off despair by assuring himself that the blindness was temporary, that the very next day his sight would be restored.

He would never see again, of course, but he did go on to become a brilliant student and a sensitive reader of men’s souls. In 1940, the Germans invaded France. Jacques, 17, continued studying for the entrance exams to the L’École Normale Supérieure, the crème de la crème of French higher education. From the back bedroom of his parents’ apartment, he also managed to mobilize 52 of his friends and to spearhead an underground youth resistance movement that came to be known as Les Volontaires de la Liberté.  At its height, the organization boasted 600 members (both men and women), published a newsletter, and produced forged documents with which to help smuggle French POWs across the border.  

Jacques, with his almost uncanny ability to read character, was put in charge of recruitment. Only one man he hesitated before admitting: Elio, the man who would betray the movement to the Gestapo. Jacque's dearest childhood friend, Jean, died under torture, as did many other of his former comrades. Lusseyran himself was interrogated, imprisoned for six months, and sent to the concentration camp at Buchenwald.

Lusseyran shows all the horror of Buchenwald, but he also points to something beyond or above or, what is perhaps even more mysterious, within the horror. He speaks of the fact that there were the poor of the camps, and there were the rich: the rich were the ones who were interested not so much in themselves, but in others. Of his 15 months there, he observed: “That is what you had to do to live in the camp: be engaged, not live for yourself alone. The self-centered life has no place in the world of the deported. You must go beyond it, lay hold on something outside yourself. Never mind how: by prayer if you know how to pray; through another man’s warmth which communicates with yours, or through yours which you pass on to him; or simply by no longer being greedy…Be engaged, no matter how, but be engaged. It was certainly hard, and most men don’t achieve it.”

Lusseyran arrived at Buchenwald, already weakened and sick, with 2000 other men. Spared the rigors of forced labor because of his blindness, he spent his time there trying to organize, and shore up the spirits of, his fellow inmates. When the U.S. Army liberated the camp in April, 1945, he was one of only 30 survivors of the original shipment.

That any man survived the camps is remarkable. That a blind man did is of a different order altogether. Lusseyran seemed not quite of this world and perhaps therein lay the key to his survival, for the world he did inhabit seems to have been free of all self-pity, all cant, all hate. He married, came to the United States in the 1950’s, and taught literature at Western Reserve University and the University of Hawaii. On a trip back to his beloved France in 1971, he was killed along with his wife Marie in a car crash. 

His words live on. For out of the shameful, stinking ashes of the Holocaust came this:

“When you said to me: ‘Tell me the story of your life,’ I was not eager to begin. But when you added, ‘What I care most about is learning your reasons for loving life,’ then I became eager, for that was a real subject.”


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  2. Very inspiring, despite the horrific conditions that he was subjected to, and his disability. His observations on the rich and poor in Buchenwald align with those of Edith Stein.

    I will remember this man, and thank you for sharing him with us.

  3. Simone Weil writes of metaxu, the separations that are also links. Can't help wondering if Lusseyran's disability was one such link.

  4. Yes, she has that great quote: "Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link"...I didn't know the name for those was metaxu...good food for thought, thanks for this...

  5. beautiful piece, Heather. I am so glad to know of his work, his love of life, his selflessness.

  6. Thank you for sharing this post Heather. I just bought his book through Amazon. :)


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