And There Was Light: Autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, Blind Hero of the French Resistance, by Jacques Lusseyran *****

  and there was light Lusseyran was sighted at birth, but a childhood accident caused him to lose his vision. Neither Lusseyran nor his parents–comfortable members of the petit bourgeoisie–let his blindness define him in the way that most people living in the more developed nations of the early 20th century would have done. Instead, they promoted his mental and physical development and sacrificed some of their own comfort to be sure their son continued to receive an education, although the law didn’t guarantee him one. In return, he gave not only his parents but the world a hero, one who became a leader of the French Resistance.

I have heard it suggested that those who lose one sense make up for it with the others, and so those whose eyes no longer see, or see nothing except shadow and light, hear, smell, touch and taste more acutely. Lusseyran claims that even as a child, he navigated his home town largely by smell; the baker was this way, and the creamery that way. And so the foundation was laid.

Though his education was challenged by instructors who were reluctant to have a blind student present, and who sometimes threw up nearly impossible requirements, such as reluctance to permit him the use of the braille typewriter his parents bought for him, yet others inspired him and moved him forward. Teachers, many of us at least, aspire to be someone like Jacques’s history teacher. He describes this man’s fire, and the bond that his passion for his subject and his vocation created:

“He wanted us to be exactly as we really were, funny if we couldn’t help it, furious if we were angry…his learning made us gasp. He made numbers and facts pour down on us like hail…the syllabus for history stopped at 1918…but for him this was no obstacle, for he would go ahead without any syllabus. He went past all the barriers…”

The teacher would continue to teach at the end of the school day, excusing anyone who wanted to leave (and here I think of the yellow school buses that constrict the schedules of US public school students so often now). He says that everyone stayed. “Naturally.”

The dynamic time in which he lived no doubt was responsible for much of their enthusiasm; history was clearly being created with each breath they took. Their history teacher told them–relying upon texts he had read in the original Russian–of the Bolshevik Revolution and of the Stalinism that had taken hold thereafter, of the purges. He spoke of the United States, Roosevelt, of initiative and imagination triumphant.

And so Lusseyran was not yet past adolescence when he felt he had a duty to change the world, to participate in driving out the Nazi occupiers. He tells us that it was understood for some time among himself and the friends he trusted to keep their dangerous knowledge confidential, that he would be the leader of their youth Resistance movement. Others would listen and observe to see what other individuals might join them, but of course, there were spies and each person they trusted could instead lead them to their own deaths. It was very dangerous.

And in such a circumstance, blindness became an unusual asset. New potential recruits would be led to their interview, but instead of an office or home, they were led through a labyrinth of boxes and crates in a completely unlit warehouse. Their interviewer waited at the end of this maze, and he interviewed them in the dark. He could detect falseness of character or fear of exposure from those who would betray the Resistance by listening to the nuances of their voices, and those individuals who weren’t deemed worthy were left to find their own way back out. Of course, the location sometimes had to change, but the setup was the same.

Lusseyran’s heroism is a testament to initiative and idealism. The reader will have to learn the rest of his story the way I did; the narrative is as skilled and engaging as the political work that preceded it. It is one of the most unusual and inspirational autobiographies I have encountered.

Highly recommended.

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