“When you are 14 you have the spirit of a little Joan of Arc.”
The Maid of Orleans was just a teenager herself when she rallied French resistance during the Hundred Years War and it is no surprise that five hundred years later the young people of France invoked her spirit when their country was invaded again.
Those words were spoken by an elderly woman reflecting on her time as a teenage member of the Resistance and it’s an idea I use in my novel, Hide and Seek. When Amelie Dreyfus, my imagined teenage resister, returns to France she lands near Tours. On the way to the station her guide, another teenager, points out the house where Joan of Arc’s armour was made. “We need to be strong like her,” remarks Hugo, the guide.
Most histories of the Second World War, and indeed of the Resistance, have little time for children. If they do it is usually as numbers, fatal numbers. So many hundred killed in a bombing raid on Coventry, so many thousand starved in the famine that swept the Netherlands in the last months of the war, a million murdered in the Holocaust.
But in both western and, in particular, eastern Europe, children as young as 10 played an active part in resisting Nazi occupation.
What was resistance? It varied hugely from small, individual acts of defiance to being part of armies of partisans hidden in the great forests of Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia. In Norway, children coughed loudly in cinemas during the pro-German newsreels. Across the water in Denmark girls used toy buggies to smuggle banned library books to safety before they could be burnt. One teenage girl in Paris ended an angry exchange with a German soldier by sticking her tongue out. She was jailed for a month and emerged determined to join the Resistance.
Volodia Ampilogov was 10 when he became a scout for the partisans. Captured by the Germans he was badly beaten and, unable to walk, had water thrown over him. This was mid Russian winter – the water would freeze in minutes and he wouldn’t last much longer. Partisans found him just in time and he survived to tell his story to Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize winning author. In the mid-1980s Alexievich collected memories of Soviet children’s wartime experiences and gathered them into her book, Last Witness. It is an important and unique record of a previously untold history.
In the east there was a necessity to resistance. “I had no choice. It was a matter of killing or being killed,” was how one elderly Jewish man remembered killing two Germans at close quarters to escape from a ghetto. He was 16.
For others it was revenge; the Polish girl who held her sister’s hand as she peeked through a wooden fence to see her uncle being shot. Others took up the fight because they felt, even at their age, it was the right thing to do. Like 16-year-old Stephanie, a Pole whose parents had vanished; she hid 13 Jewish children in her house.
Diane from Belgium was 14. She helped her parents, becoming a courier and escorting Allied airmen down the escape routes. “You didn’t realise the implications,” she said.
That’s echoed in the story of Stephen Grady, the son of a French mother and British father. The teenage Grady lived in northern France and joined the Resistance in 1941. He wrote a superb memoir of his time at war, Gardens of Stone, which spans the age we turn from child to adult.
“The world doesn’t feel so frightening when you’re young,” he wrote about beginning his resistance. Grady was awarded the Croix de Guerre at the war’s end and suggested “the less you know the braver you can be.”
There is truth in that, but it cannot override the raw courage and bravery of Grady and all the others like him.
In the west, in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, resistance was a voluntary act. A child could keep going to school, going home to be cared for by parents, going out to play with their friends. Most did just that and most of us would have done just that. Or they could put their lives at risk of a death begun by torture and ended with a few desperate days or months in a concentration camp.
For the Resistance, the eastern-front partisans and the British spy agencies the use of children was on occasions a benefit, and they were not afraid of taking it. The British even gave one of their younger-looking agents the cover story of a 14-year-old schoolgirl because a schoolgirl attracted less attention.
In researching for Amelie’s character in Hide and Seek, a familiar if not universal theme emerged among children of the resistance. As they ferried secret messages, carried explosives in hollowed out beetroots in their bicycle baskets, tailed suspected collaborators, escorted nervous-looking airmen down escape lines, every step tense with danger, these children didn’t see themselves as children. Childhood had been put on hold, and for many there would be no going back.
When war came to Minsk, Zoya Vasilyeva was 12, a talented ballet dancer, good enough to have been sent to Moscow to perform. All she wanted to do was dance, then in the horrors that followed the German invasion of 1941 she found herself alone. “Mister, I’m brave take me with you,” she pleaded to a partisan.
After the war she worked in a factory; dancing was from a different life, one there was no going back to. Years later her husband bought her a ticket to the ballet. “I sat,” she said, “and cried through the whole performance.”
Vasya Saulchenko, another who spoke to Svetlana Alexievich, was frank in recalling his time as a partisan. He was 10 when he went off to fight, a harsh existence of struggling to survive through the worst of winter in between brutal, no-quarter actions against the invader. “No, I wasn’t a child,” he said. “I don’t remember myself as a child.”
One of the most extraordinary images of children and resistance is that of Simone Segouin. She is famously pictured among a group of male Resistance fighters clutching a captured German sub-machine gun. Taken during the liberation of Paris in 1944, she is dressed as any teenage girl of the age might be, except for a military cap and, of course, the machine gun. Simone joined the Resistance aged 17, first working as a courier then taking part in raids to blow up trainlines and ambushes. After the liberation of Chartres she was interviewed by the war correspondent of Life magazine. ‘The Girl Partisan of Chartres,’ declares the headline. She matter-of-factly describes helping take 25 German soldiers prisoner.
From Stephen in northern France to Simone in Paris to Diane in Belgium to Zoya in Minsk and on through the fighters, the messengers, the cinema jeerers, the book rescuers and those who helped smuggle Jewish children into Switzerland, children resisted. Their numbers may have been small – as were the numbers of the adult population who fought back (fewer than one in 10 was the estimate in France) – but they were there.
“Who can say after that,” stated Valera Nichiporenko, another who swapped the school desk for resistance, “that children weren’t in the war.”
Last Witness by Svetlana Alexievich
Gardens of Stone by Stephen Grady
Resist by Tom Palmer