NOTE: This excerpt makes mention of Roland – Annette’s lover, also active in the Resistance; the two of them are the “two recalcitrants.” They’ve both been designated clandestins permanents in their activity for the Communists. Planques refers to the hiding places where Annette deposits and retrieves messages and packages. The German’s bicycle makes Annette think of her father because he was a keen cyclist. Petite Marthe is her mother, Mémère her grandmother.
This extract from Annette: An Epic Heroine by Anne Weber, first published in German in 2020 by Matthes and Seitz, is translated by Neil Blackadder. The complete book will be published in English in September 2022 by The Indigo Press, translated by Tess Lewis.
When a person resists, that resistance is turned
against something specific, in this case
German tyranny and its hateful ideology.
Sometimes such a person will be inclined to wonder
if this regulation or that precept is correct
or even just. Let us take a step back: if the two
recalcitrants still have a little flesh on their bones,
it’s because every week Annette receives
a package sent to her from home,
and not of course right to one of her planques,
but alternately to one of two addresses where
friends of her parents live. The parcels give off
the aroma of Mémère’s homemade delicacies.
On a January day in 44, Annette collects one of these
care packages from the B.s in a brick building on the
edge of the city. Madame B.’s first name is Elisabeth,
she’s a concierge whose husband works for
Messageries Hachette, and he found out that
in the 13th arrondissement, in a neighborhood called
Butte aux Cailles, there’ll soon be a rafle, a raid.
Elisabeth knows a woman there named Victoria, also
a concierge, who’s hiding some people in the attic
who only just escaped the previous raid. Word is
that this time every last building will be searched.
No one stands a chance. They’ve got to get away.
But where can they go? ... Annette? Annette, you know
people, you have to notify the Resistance leaders!
– She smiles. Nods. Before she leaves,
she promises she’ll do what she can.
What she can! What can she do? What can
her bosses do? This Elisabeth woman seems to
think the Resistance is some kind of organization
for saving the lives of persecuted Jews.
Lost in anxious thoughts, Annette walks down
Rue du Moulin de la Pointe, then Avenue
d’Italie, imagining, everywhere in France,
and all over the continent, basements
sheds lofts where gaunt-faced people
are crouched down, waiting for her. No
isolated actions, that’s what she swore to the party.
No initiatives. She’s a cog and all she’s supposed
to do is turn. Every day she risks her neck
in actions that have been devised by others.
She’s in agreement with this subordination, she wants
it that way and accepts it. Spontaneous plus individual
equals danger. She’d really like to help,
but can’t do a thing, because if she got arrested
committing an impulsive act, and tortured, she would
put the organization at risk. Hold on ... She lifts
her head ... Isn’t Butte aux Cailles around here
somewhere? What’s the name of that street
on the left ...? Rue du Moulinet! The street where
the Jewish family is hiding under one of those roofs.
Annette stops to think. Her heart beating fast,
she weighs up her chances, considers hiding places
and rejects them. Thinks about Roland. Then she walks
resolutely up to the building and knocks on the door
of the concierge whose name sounds so self-assured:
Victoria. As she climbs the stairs with Annette,
she explains who’s hiding up there:
There’s Mr Lisopravski, an upright gentleman,
a widower with two nearly grown-up children,
who until recently ran a bakery in Rue du
Moulinet, as well as the young wife of an employee
who got deported. They’ve all been in hiding
since the shop was smashed to pieces months ago.
Then the door opens. The father strikes Annette
as old for a father and the children as big for children,
indeed, they’re bigger than Annette even if slightly
younger, he’s perhaps fifteen, sixteen, and she seventeen.
The young woman is pale and holds a baby in her arms,
a baby that hadn’t been mentioned until now and who
also needs to be rescued. That makes five! And
she, Annette, who herself still has the face of a child, she’s
supposed to take responsibility for all these people.
You’d better come with me, you’re in danger here, she tells
the man. The father looks at her skeptically: can he really
be expected to entrust himself and his family to this
slip of a thing? Annette stands in the doorway and tries
to appear confident, but the man looks back at her
warily and doesn’t answer. Instead he asks
the concierge whether she knows the girl. Victoria,
who’s known Annette five minutes longer than he has, says:
Yes. In agitated, fearful tones, father and children
exchange words in Yiddish, and all Annette can
understand is that they’re trying to decide whether
to go with her, and if so how many of them.
The young mother seems to have no will of her own,
frantically she looks back and forth between this man
she trusts and this interloper, Annette, who in the brief,
decisive minutes that seem to go on forever is also
the object of the lanky boy’s penetrating gaze.
No doubt he’s wondering who this unknown girl is
who shows up out of nowhere and for no reason,
or for no reason except that she’s human
and they’re also human, wants to save them all.
The father doesn’t trust her, she thinks she can sense
as much even without words, and if she looks
at herself through his eyes, she can’t hold that
against him. He must be wondering how this girl
could ever bring this many people to safety. Even
if she wanted to. And she does. Father and children
talk over one another. He hugs his daughter to his
chest. Again and again he says Simele, Simele, he
can’t make up his mind and he must. In the end
he sends his children off with her. He stays behind,
and so do the young woman and her baby. Does he
perhaps think his kids have a better chance of making
it without him? Without the young woman and her child?
And would he have been able to leave her
on her own when she has nobody else?
Is she maybe more to him than just the wife –
by now almost certainly the widow – of an employee?
Is he too old, too tired, to follow this girl
across the occupied city, groping his way in fear
and terror, in order to hide away in some dubious
new bolt-hole? Long after the door has closed
behind the three of them he’s still standing there
and would like to weep weep weep,
and we stand here, far away from him in time,
and we can’t find a single sentence nor verse
nor line that wants to do anything other than
stand there with him and weep.
Three people are left behind in the attic,
three others are about to go underground,
that’s to say into the Métro. On the stairs into Tolbiac
station, Annette notices the yellow star shining
like an illuminated target on the girl’s coat.
It must be torn off right away. At first
neither of the two teenagers – Simone is her name,
he’s called Daniel – dares, then they do it,
just like that the odious thing is amputated,
and the three of them get on the train,
in a carriage in the middle, not the one at the back
designated for two of them by the Nazis.
It’s eight o’clock in the evening. The Métro
is running. Everything appears to be fine,
but not in Annette’s head, where doubts
and apprehensions build up into clumps
of intense anxiety. Who’s to say the message
she received about the impending raid was correct?
That the two children weren’t safe in their
hiding place, safer at least than in this Métro car?
What if her hasty determination to help
led to their being arrested – and killed?
Then a siren wails through the foul air,
the train comes to a halt, and an announcement
over the loudspeakers orders all passengers
to leave the Métro and be off the streets
in thirty minutes at the most. They’ve brought the
curfew forward, without any warning.
The train stopped at Havre-Caumartin station,
which is around half an hour from the city’s edge
on foot, but then they’ll need just as long
to make it to Asnières. Let’s think
– no, there’s no time to think, and besides
they’ve got no choice, they need to get going and
take their chances, running the risk of being noticed
by the Germans. “The Germans” isn’t exactly what
goes through her mind, she can distinguish
perfectly well between the wretched soldier
who didn’t ask to take part in this and the SS man.
The forefathers of Roland, the man to whom
she has committed heart and soul, were also
German – is that no longer the case, just because
some ephemeral Germany says so? Right now
she’d like just to be walking and not thinking,
but that’s easier said than done, curfew approaches
and it’s a long way to Asnières. Annette, herself still
half a child, leads the two children through the night.
They arrive at the old city gates, the portes de Paris,
and don’t know if these gates will open for them
on to some kind of future, or to death. The January wind
blows icily in these neighborhoods far from the center,
where the buildings stand further apart, but all three
walk quickly, as quickly as they can, so at least
the cold doesn’t bother them. They scurry across
empty squares and down dark deserted streets,
three silent ghosts whose thoughts
are all focused on the same aim. Yet they aren’t
all equally trained: Annette doesn’t tire easily,
because as a clandestine she’s been
crossing the city on foot for months,
from north to south, from east to west,
whereas the children aren’t like children
are out of practice in running and jumping,
because in hiding there’s no room for those things,
any more than there is for laughing
or for roughhousing. Even as she hastens along,
Annette takes sideways glances at them and
searches for words that would sound
unperturbed and reassuring, but
she herself is so afraid and timid that all words
elude her. Was it really her duty to abduct
these two youngsters, to tear them away from
their father? They hurry through the thick
black night, without making much headway,
or so it seems to them. And suddenly a figure
emerges from the motionless darkness, a person
coming towards them on two wheels, so they
can clearly see, if not who it is, at least what it is,
namely a German, gliding through this suburb
on his bicycle as if that’s the most natural thing
imaginable – and who either doesn’t see them
or else prefers to immediately forget them.
Inwardly she thanks the man and she also
thanks the bicycle and thinks of her
father and then of Petite Marthe, and she knows
without asking them that she can entrust
the two children to her parents, and this refreshes
her courage. But first she needs to make it to Brittany
with the two kids! They’ve reached the big curl
in the Seine where the river languidly winds its way
out of the capital, and on the bridge Annette
ponders whether she should be sensible and go
ahead on her own, to make sure the coast is clear,
and to discuss with Roland the best way to proceed.
Maybe the house is being watched. Right nearby
there’s a police station, which, like every police station
in the country, is teeming with informers and
with people specially assigned to something amounting
to abetting murder and called “Jewish affairs.” For now
she could take the kids to the dog cemetery where
she and Roland use an old gravestone for a dog called
Fidèle as a safe hiding place. But she makes a decision:
No. She’s not going to leave the two of them alone. There’s
the house. There are the steps. Cold fog rises from
the river, but they don’t let it in. Roland is there and
agrees to the plan without asking many questions.
And somewhere on the other side of the old gates,
almost already in the afterlife, there’s a man who
for a little time longer, for hours, weeks? thinks of
Simone and Daniel as his beloved children.
Anne Weber, born 1964 in Germany, has lived in France since 1983, and is an award-winning writer and translator. She translates literature from both French to German and German to French. Since 1998, she has published a dozen books of her own writing, in German and in French. Her translation into French of Annette as Annette, une épopée was published by Seuil in 2020. The original German version Annette, ein Heldinnenepos won the 2020 Deutscher Buchpreis, the German Book Prize.
Neil Blackadder translates drama and prose from German and French. His translations of plays by Lukas Bärfuss, Ewald Palmetshofer, Rebekka Kricheldorf, and Mishka Lavigne have been produced in London, New York, Chicago, and elsewhere, and many others have been published, and presented in staged readings. His translations of poetry and prose have appeared in journals including Two Lines, Chelsea, and Tongue. He is the Translations Editor for Another Chicago Magazine. In Spring 2023, Neil will be the Translator in Residence at Princeton University.