Mystery continues to surround Agnès Humbert's diary. The subject matter is clear enough: It describes the struggle of a French Resistance heroine against Nazi oppression. But many questions remain unanswered. Why one of the founders of a Resistance movement felt it judicious to commit to paper detailed daily accounts of her activity is baffling. Where did she store her journal to prevent its secrets falling into the hands of the Gestapo when she was arrested? The exact circumstances of the diary's writing will probably never be discovered, but we do know that all the entries after April 1941 were written from memory after the war. Did writing after the event make it less valuable as a historical document? The myriad historians who have regularly cited it since its original French publication as "Notre Guerre" in 1946 would suggest otherwise.
Now, for the first time, the text is available in English expertly translated by Barbara Mellor as "Résistance: A Woman's Journal of Struggle and Defiance in Occupied France" (Bloomsbury, 384 pages, $27). In fact, the English title is slightly misleading. Whilst the author's spirit of resistance is present throughout, almost two-thirds of the book is set in Nazi Germany. The text can be divided into four sections: The first is an account of her role as a founding member of one of the earliest organizations to resist the Nazis following France's defeat of June 1940. Part two paints a harrowing picture of a year in French prisons following her arrest. The third section sees Humbert laboring as a slave worker in camps and factories around Germany. Finally, following their arrival in that country, the Allies recruited her to help hunt down former Nazis.
Humbert started out as an artist, a disciple of the symbolist painter Maurice Denis, before training as an art historian. Her job in a Paris museum brought her into contact with other members of what would become the Groupe du musée de l'Homme, a resistance organization established within the first three months of Nazi occupation. It is in covering this angle that the diary is particularly remarkable, charting as it does the beginnings of resistance from the perspective of those involved. Humbert was aware that the early work of the movement was of limited practical use and that her pro-Allied propaganda would most likely preach only to the already converted or "like-minded souls." But when she saw the Nazis censoring books and mistreating French POWs, she realized that she must do something. This something ranged from scribbling "long live de Gaulle" on banknotes (in reference to the Free French leader) to helping publish and distribute a clandestine newspaper, Résistance. By December 1940, she was exploring more military avenues of activity — gathering intelligence about German airfields. What stands out most is the camaraderie between Resisters and their shared ability to see hope where others would find only despair.
But a Resistance put together by amateurs was inevitably riddled with amateur errors. They were slow to adopt pseudonyms, slow to develop elementary security procedures. Predictably, the Germans began to infiltrate their organization. Friends disappeared. The structure collapsed as arrest followed arrest. In April 1941, Humbert herself was caught, leaving behind a dependent, elderly mother in poor health.
The next 11 months were spent awaiting trial in the German wings of various Parisian prisons. Lying in her prison cell, Humbert imagined her life ending. Unsurprisingly, prison was a depressing place: The walls were stained with blood where previous prisoners had been beaten, and boredom was a perpetual problem.
What pulled Humbert through was, again, the comradeship of fellow Resisters who, imprisoned along with her, found ways of communicating despite their isolation in locked prison cells. All but one of the prisoners in Humbert's wing were women, a reminder of the important, and often underestimated, role women played in the Resistance. The exception was "Jean-Pierre," who turned out to be none other than Honoré d'Estienne d'Orves, one of the earliest Resistance martyrs. As with her descriptions of subsequently famous members of her own movement, her portrayal of d'Estienne d'Orves bestows on him a more down-to-earth image than the postwar mythologized version. Rather than the somewhat cold figure of popular memory, we see his charismatic side here, encouraging his fellow inmates to sing the "Marseillaise" and to trust him with their confidences. Humbert did not share the fate of d'Estienne d'Orves, sentenced to death and subsequently executed. (Generally, women did not face the death penalty in the early days of occupation.) Her punishment was to be deported to Germany for five years' hard labor.
Humbert's representations of both Germany and the Germans are noteworthy. Not all Germans are simplistically tarred with the same brush, since not all succumbed to the contamination of Nazism. That Humbert praised the fairness of the judge who sentenced her should not be attributed to her usually sarcastic sense of humor. Indeed, in 1945 she was one of 26 former Resisters who campaigned to have Judge Roskothen released from the prison cell where the liberated French had interned him. She even sent him a signed copy of "Notre Guerre."
But more often than not, Nazism brought out the very worst in people — particularly in prison staff. Some guards found entertainment in the prisoners' suffering. Petty punishments were commonplace. Thirsty prisoners were deprived of water and being able to wash regularly was no longer an automatic right. Neither was going to the toilet. The daily diet consisted of little more than bread and watery soup. By June 1943, Humbert had lost 35 pounds of body weight. Inmates were always at the mercy of the elements with accommodation offering little protection from the extremes of excessive heat and cold. In any event, slave work in a Nazi factory was no sinecure. For Humbert, the worst experience was making rayon (artificial silk) at the Phrix factory in Krefeld. The work was dangerous as the acid used in rayon production burnt holes in the skin and caused temporary blindness. No protective clothing was available and medical care was rudimentary and dispensed only when jailers felt disposed to offer it. The best way to soothe acid burns was to urinate on one's wounds. There was no special status for political prisoners, who were mixed in with common criminals, murderers, and prostitutes, and they were forced to share drinking vessels with the syphilitic.
Despite temporarily succumbing to depression, Humbert managed to survive her ordeal through a combination of a natural optimism, the solidarity of some of her fellow inmates, and a determination to sabotage the work she was given. "Résistance" is the story of a remarkable woman, of courage, and of an ability to deal with the harshest conditions. It is both paradoxical and inexplicable that this respected and important manuscript was out of print for nearly 60 years.
Mr. Kitson is director of research at the University of London Institute in Paris (ULIP) and author of "The Hunt for Nazi Spies: Fighting Espionage in Vichy France."