Thursday, May 5, 2016

Samuel Beckett - Résistant

In a corner of Paris not known at all for its literary figures, a plaque here commemorates one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  “Irish Writer, Nobel Laureate for Literature, Samuel Beckett,” it reads.  The plaque stands in the Allée Samuel Beckett, a block-long stretch of the leafy esplanade of the Avenue René Coty, in the 14th Arrondissement, just down from the Place Denfert-Rochereau. Unimposing though this area may look, it was a key place for Beckett when he was part of the Gloria SMH Résistance network during the Nazi Occupation.  Gloria SMH conducted widespread espionage, sabotage, and reconnaissance activities in Paris and Northern France for the British Special Operations Executive, the SOE, in London.  It was life-risking business.  More than 50 members of Gloria SMH would be captured by the Gestapo and sent to German concentration camps.  Many died there, including Beckett’s closest French friend and literary associate Alfred Péron. (Péron is seen in the snapshot, below, in his French Army uniform - taken just before the German invasion in 1940, his wife Mania at his side). 
Beckett needed no coaxing when Péron recruited him for the network on September 1, 1941.  He despised Hitler, Nazism, and racial hatred and was incensed by the forced wearing of the yellow Star of David by Jews.  Thirty-five at the time, Beckett had been living full-time in Paris since 1937, and with Suzanne Deschevaux-Daumesnil, his future wife, since the following year.  She fully supported what he was doing, despite the risks.

Beckett’s work involved translating French documents provided to him by Gloria SMH spies into English and delivering them to a photographer, code name “Jimmy the Greek” or “Tante Léo,” in the vicinity of today’s Allée Samuel Beckett.  The documents would be microfilmed, then smuggled by courier into Vichy France and on to the SOE headquarters in London. The risks for Beckett were many:   He could be arrested by Gestapo agents when documents were delivered to him, documents could be found in searches of his apartment, he could be stopped while crossing the city with the translations, caught as he delivered the documents to the photographer, or -- always a threat -- a member of the network could name names during torture by the Gestapo, or pro-Nazi spies could infiltrate the network.  In the end, a pro-Nazi Catholic priest was the one.  The network was broken.

Allée Samuel Beckett
On August 16, 1942, the Gestapo arrested Alfred Péron.  Fortunately, his wife Mania was able to telegram Beckett and Suzanne and warn them to leave their apartment immediately.  They did as she said, and just in time.  Gestapo agents came to their 15th Arrondissement apartment, ransacked the premises, and stationed guards to wait for them to return. They holed up for a few nights at their friend Mary Reynolds’s apartment at No. 24 rue Hallé, only steps from today’s Allée Samuel Beckett, then moved from hideaway to hideaway in Paris for a month before escaping to the South. They lived clandestinely in the Lubéron for the rest of the war.

As for Beckett’s friend Alfred Péron, he was incarcerated in three prisons in France before being deported to the huge Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, where brutal treatment and malnourishment destroyed his health.  The Swiss Red Cross freed him when the camp was finally liberated, but too late.  He died on May 1, 1945. 

Samuel Beckett

Reference:  Damned to Fame, The Life of Samuel Beckett, by James Knowlson, Bloomsbury, London, 1996.

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