Bruce Frankel

Author of the new book "What Should I Do with the Rest of My Life? True Stories of Finding Success, Passion, and New Meaning in the Second Half of Life."

Resistance Hero Stephane Hessel, 93, Cries “Indignez Vous!” - Ignites Bestseller in France

January 6, 2011

In the few weeks since 93-year-old Nazi concentration camp survivor and former French ambassador Stephane Hessel issued a political call to arms with his succinct book, Indignez Vous!,  French book buyers have swept up more than 600,000 copies and propelled it to the top of the bestseller’s list.

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Aghast at modern society’s inert acceptance of human rights violations, particularly in France and Israel, and the widening gap between rich and poor, Hessel hopes to convince discouraged young people that they can overcome entrenched and financially powerful interests and change society for the better.

The 32-page book has hit a nerve among the French. Some credit public exasperation at contemporary social inequalities and the politics of President Nicolas Sarkozy; others see a nation hungry for a passionately rebellious French voice. 

Still others attribute the literary phenomenon to Hessel’s charisma and his life story.

Born in Berlin in 1917, Hessel emigrated to France aged seven. His free-spirited journalist mother, Helen Grund-Hessel, and father Franz Hessel — who was Jewish — inspired the Henri-Pierre Roche novel Jules and Jim  which Francois Truffaut turned into a memorably poignant film about a love-triangle of two male friends and a woman who loves them both. They frequented the Paris avant-garde scene of artists like Alexander Calder and Marcel Duchamp. His mother’s essays of fashion drew serious attention.

Hessel became a naturalized French citizen in 1937. During the Nazi occupation of France, Hessel fled to London to join resistance leader Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s outfit in 1941. He snuck back into occupied France on an intelligence mission in 1944 where he was arrested by the Gestapo, subjected to the “bathtub” treatment in which his head was dunked under water, and shipped off to Buchenwald concentration camp. He escaped hanging by swapping his identity with another French prisoner who had died of typhus.

After the war, along with U. S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, he helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later became a diplomat.

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The book, whose title translates as “Be Indignant” or “Get Angry,” has tapped France’s penchant for rebellion at a time when a lack of economic opportunities and frustration at the actions of governments is felt by many people worldwide. While he is aware some of the public’s response may be attributable to his age, he would rather they focus on his message.

“I would like people to be conscious of the fact that things in this society and this age are not going the right way,” Hessel told AP reporter Jamey Keaten on Thursday, while seated in a plush armchair in the living room of his Paris apartment decorated with dark oil paintings and bookshelves.

“They realize this everyday, and they are unhappy, or they are unfortunate, or they find that it should be different — but they don’t do anything very much about it,” he said. “If you, the citizens of our countries, really take it in hand and act, then these things might still change.”

The book opens with his age: “93 years old. It’s a little bit the final phase.” He trumpets the values of the French Resistance and decries the “power of money” in today’s world. Instead of providing a prescription, Hessel invokes the French Resistance against the Nazis for the present day.

Hessel deplores that the civil liberties he helped articulate while drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II, still are not enjoyed by everyone, more than 60 years later.

A champion of illegal immigrants’ rights in France, he noted in a 2008 interview with FRANCE 24 that he was “revolted” by the “way the current government treats illegal immigrants”.

Israeli treatment of Palestinians is a major theme of his essay, in which he notes: “Jews themselves perpetrating war crimes is intolerable. Alas, the past offers few examples of people learning lessons from their own history”.

French Jewish groups have often condemned Hessel for his “fixation” on Israel. “We think the circumstances surrounding the publication of this book are very abnormal,” Marc Knobel, a researcher on anti-Semitism at CRIF, the French Jewry umbrella organization, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. “It’s a sort of a cult around Hessel, an image of pure humanity of a man at the end of life who wants to proclaim something.” Knobel said Hessel has ignored Islamic terrorism and Palestinian attacks on Israelis, saying that some were justified because of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

While Hessel, a proud Socialist Party member, sees justification for violence in Israeli treatment of Palestinians, he asserts that violence is failure, regardless of the frustration that provokes it. He calls for peaceful, non-violent revolt.

Beyond specific issues dear to him, Hessel hopes its broader philosophical argument for agitation against the status is embraced and arouses actions that can change things for the better wherever necessary.

“I wish for all of you, for each one of you, to have your reason for indignation”, he writes. “It is precious”

 

 

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