Humbert was born in Dieppe, France, the daughter of French army officer Charles Humbert and English author Mabel Wells Annie Rooke. She spent her childhood in Paris, where she studied painting and design. In 1916 she married the Egyptian artist Georges Hanna Sabbagh(1877-1951), by whom she had two sons: Jean Sabbagh, a sub-mariner and advisor to General de Gaulle, and television director and producer Pierre Sabbagh. From 1929, she studied the history of art at theSorbonne and at the Louvre school, and took a course in philosophy. Agnès and Georges divorced in 1934. Her first book was on the painter Louis David, published in 1936. She then worked as an Art historian at the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populairesin Paris, and broadcast on art on Radio Paris at the start of 1936. She was 46 when her story begins.
Apparently, this work was first published in France in 1946 as Notre Guerre. Translation into English, and sale in the USA has taken 62 years: and I can understand why. Humbert’s book has so many qualifications; they almost exceed the work itself. There is an introduction; a 33 page ‘translators notes’; and a 36 page ‘afterword’ which is essentially a book report. If one reads that first, there is little point in reading the book. There are 16 pages of ‘appendix’ together with a comprehensive ‘index’, ‘bibliography’ and notes on the author and translator. Phew!
If a diary needs all that explanation, shouldn’t we be suspicious of the credibility of it? Well, it’s not exactly a diary. The first 54 pages are contemporaneous notes, but the rest is from memory – or might that be imagination? The book was written in 1946 a time when Europe in general and France in particular, had been devastated by the Germans. One would have expected more venom from Humbert that is apparent here. This is my problem with the work. It doesn’t ring true.
Madam Humbert describes the most frightful deprivations that she was a victim of, but it seems to have little effect on her.At the same time that she is being starved, frozen and beaten, she describes in erotic terms her fellow female prisoners. At the drop of a hat she strips naked and dances around the room to demonstrate her thinness (or something), to fellow prisoners. She mentions inmates copulating under machines and getting in trouble for it. Not inmates copulating with guards for various benefits, but inmates coupling with inmates. In between being starved, frozen, beaten and having acid poured on them as they go blind – they pop under a machine in full view of everyone including guards, for a quick tumble.
It is clear that Humbert is a rabid communist, and I suspect homosexual. It may be that people of that persuasion have a different libido to the rest of us. It will come as no surprise to married men that there are occasions when a headache can be an obstacle to sexual satisfaction, never mind being starved, frozen etc.
I was also astonished by the resilience of her and her fellow prisoners. She describes in the detail a manufacturing procedure that requires the use of corrosive acid. No protective clothing is supplied and the acid regularly assaults their bodies causing gruesome wounds. It also causes blindness. No medical treatment worth the name is offered, so they ‘self-medicate’ by picking at the wounds and urinating on them. This does not seem to incapacitate them. Indeed a couple of the inmates attempted suicide by drinking a ‘tumbler’ of acid. This same acid burns through to the bone. This kills them of course – no, it doesn’t! The guards gave them a quick swig of antidote, and they were right as nine pence. One woman had a serious heart condition but none of the above killed her.
I live in Naples SW Florida, known as God’s waiting room. Every medical treatment known to man is available here to the many heart patients, but they drop like flies. How could someone who starts sick survive such treatment?
The agony continues with no respite until the end of the war (five years), and the Americans arrive at Humbert’s prison. At this point, I would have expected her to be carried off on a stretcher to an American Military hospital for treatment for her blindness, black frostbitten feet, emaciation, burns and general mistreatment, and a long period of recovery and rehabilitation. Err – No, she immediately becomes in charge of the town administration, local prison camps and the provision of shelter, food and first aid to refugees.Moreover, in her spare time she is the official Nazi hunter for the Americans. What a woman. If she had headed up the French Army instead of a department in the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires the Germans would never have reached France.
I love diaries, and I read this at one sitting. I found it a compelling read and, if it contained only a grain of truth it would still be a remarkable story.
This is not a book for everyone, but if ‘women’s struggle against the odds’ is your thing, you will enjoy this work.