Late last year, a small book by a ninety-three-year-old man unexpectedly reached the summit of France’s bestseller list. Stéphane Hessel’s Indignez-Vous! (Be Indignant!) sold more than 600,000 copies from October through December, propelling it by several hundred thousand copies over Prix Goncourt winner Michel Houellebecq’s novel, La carte et le territoire. Stéphane Hessel had written other books, and his publishers, Indigène Editions in Montpellier far from Paris, had published other volumes. But neither had ever reached the public in such numbers.
Hessel’s life would make a novel, preferably not by nihilist Houellebecq. His father, Franz Hessel, was a German Jewish writer who emigrated to France with his family in 1924 when Stéphane was seven. Franz’s friend Henri-Pierre Roché used Franz as a model for Jules in his novel Jules et Jim, the tale of a woman who loved two men that Truffaut translated to the screen in 1962. (Hessel’s mother Helen was the template for the novel’s heroine Catherine.) Stéphane grew up in a literary milieu that was shattered when Germany occupied France in June 1940. Having studied at the prestigious école Normale Supérieure, he served in the French Army and became a prisoner of war. Following his escape from a POW camp, it took him six months to reach London to join General Charles de Gaulle and his small band of résistants. De Gaulle dispatched him to France to organize Resistance networks. The Gestapo captured him and subjected him to the baignoire, a form of torture that would later be called waterboarding. He was shipped off to Buchenwald and Dora concentration camps, surviving only by switching identities with an inmate who had already died. While being transferred to Bergen-Belsen, he escaped.
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