Monday, April 18, 2016

Avenue of Spies, by Alex Kershaw

I never get tired of reading about people sticking it to the Nazis.  Who's with me?  One of the greatest manifestations of human evil in modern history--who doesn't love to see these guys lose?  In his book set in Paris during the Nazi occupation, Alex Kershaw shows the dark side of Naziism (with, admittedly, some brighter spots among the Germans).  He tells the story of Sumner Jackson, an American doctor whose heroism during the war, assisting the Allies, rescuing Jews, and aiding the Resistance should be remembered.

In Avenue of Spies: A True Story of Terror, Espionage, and One American Family's Heroic Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Paris, we meet Dr. Jackson.  After heroically serving in the Great War (WW1), he and his Swiss wife settle in Paris, where he is director of the American hospital.  They live on Avenue Foch, home to many elites from France, Europe, and around the world.  As the Nazi occupation moves in, the Germans descend on Avenue Foch, taking over the mansions of the wealthy, most of whom have fled.  So the Jacksons end up as neighbors to the Germans, included the headquarters of the SS.

Kershaw paints a bleak picture of the French tendency to lay down and let the Gerrmans take over.  They occupied France without having to fire a shot.  Thankfully, many Germans were francophiles, enamored with Paris.  As a result, the famous sites and structures of the city were spared.  Inevitably, however, the Jacksons were not spared.  Allowing their apartment to be used by the resistance as a safe house to exchange information and harbor fugitives, the occupiers finally saw through their cover.  They were sent to concentration camps, experiencing the worst horrors of the war first hand.  Dr. Jackson's wife, Toquette, saw in a guard named Kratz "the embodiment of Nazism, utterly involved, sociopathic, sadistic, taking perverse pleasure in women's terror," as he gloried in telling the women and the following day "everyone will go on the transport to Germany. . . all to die . . . all to die."

One thing that probably shouldn't have surprised me but did is the amount of time it took for the Allies to liberate Paris.  I guess in my mind, after D-day the war was pretty much over.  But it was a couple of months after D-day that Paris was liberated, and several months beyond that that the German's surrendered.  In the meantime, people like the Jacksons suffered in camps, and the Germans became even more sadistic, want to eliminate evidence of the war crimes committed in these camps.

Not only did Jackson serve heroically in Paris, treating people in the American hospital even as the Germans invaded, he assisted Jews, downed Allied pilots, and other enemies of the Germans by helping them to escape.  In the concentration camp, he continued to treat patients, at risk of his own health.  He did not survive when his prisoner transport ship was shot.  Thankfully his son lived to tell the tale, and thankfully Kershaw has brought the tale to life in such a compelling way.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about the Second World War

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