Book Review: “Avenue of Spies” by Alex Kershaw – posted 1/3/2016
I have to admit that Alex Kershaw’s book, Avenue of Spies, grabbed me right from the start and it did not let go. It is a true story that reads like a fictional thriller. You could call it an adventure story, a love story, or a tale of remarkable bravery and heroism. It is all of those.
Set against World War II in Nazi-occupied Paris, Avenue of Spies tells the story of an American surgeon Sumner Jackson, his Swiss-born wife Toquette, and their son Philip. Much of the story comes from Kershaw’s extensive interviews with Philip Jackson.
The Jacksons lived on the same street in Paris as numerous Gestapo henchmen. Right down the street was the Gestapo headquarters inhabited by an assortment of fanatics, sadists and psychopaths. In the summer of 1943, Toquette joins the French Resistance, brings the whole family into the fight against the fascists, and operates right under the nose of the Nazi leaders in Paris. The fact that Sumner Jackson was a doctor provided cover for the various comings and goings of Resistance members into his house. As a doctor, he could explain the visits as patient medical appointments.
Avenue of Spies takes you into that world with an astonishing degree of realism. You could feel the danger. You also could appreciate the bravery. So many of the French collaborated with the Nazis. The Jackson family risked everything and they paid a big price. I am reminded of an Edward Abbey quote I have always liked:
“We live in the kind of world where courage is the most essential of virtues; without courage, the other virtues are useless.”
As I noted, a truly malevolent collection of Nazis moved into Avenue Foch, the fashionable street where the Jacksons resided. Many of the previous residents exited before the Nazi arrival in 1940. The Jacksons certainly had an opportunity to leave but they ultimately decided to stay.
Among the Nazis who moved into the neighborhood, there was Theo Dannecker, head of the Gestapo’s Jewish Affairs Office in Paris. Dannecker was a central figure in the effort to exterminate French Jews. Dannecker worked closely with SS colonel Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution.
And there was Helmut Knochen, known as Dr. Bones. Knochen, a proud member of the SS and Gestapo chief in Paris, worked tirelessly to destroy all opposition to German rule in France. He worked under Heinrich Himmler, the Supreme head of the SS, to eliminate all Resistance networks in France. In his role, Knochen recruited a private army of criminals to capture, torture and murder all perceived opponents. Knochen trawled the prisons to find the toughest career criminals and sociopaths who would do Nazi dirty work.
The story includes an interesting discussion of the disagreement among Nazi leaders about how to accomplish the extermination of French Jews.. Dannecker wanted the SS to round up the Jews. Knochen wanted the French themselves to do it. Knochen got his way. On the night of July 16, 1942, 13,152 Parisian Jews, including 4000 children, were rounded up by the French police.
The Nazis hid their true intentions. They created the fiction that those rounded up were headed to a new Jewish state being created in the East.
As Kershaw says, the Jacksons were living in the heart of a vast web of informers, spies and mass murderers.
While the Jackson family was appalled by the Nazis and the Milice, the French fascist paramilitary, they had no choice but to maintain composure. Their situation required immense sangfroid.
Dr. Jackson rose to the challenge and was quite the operator. I should add that Toquette and Philip were equally brave. Dr. Jackson maintained ties with General Rene de Chambrun, godson of Marshal Petain, the Vichy leader. General de Chambrun was influential and had connections with authorities. Dr. Jackson effectively used this relationship to protect his hospital, the American Hospital in Paris, and to keep the Germans at bay.
Dr. Jackson was able to do this for a good part of the war years and he saved many lives. He secretly helped Americans who were escaping the Germans. He falsified records to list recovered prisoners as deceased. He helped patients disappear. He hid French-Jewish officers and made sure there was no record of their stay in his hospital.
The Jacksons certainly knew the risks they were taking in joining the Resistance. Neighbors on Avenue Foch kept their windows closed so they did not have to hear the screams of the torture victims.
Without saying too much about the ending, I will say that the Jacksons’ luck ran out in May 1944. The last third of the book is devoted to the experiences of the family in the Nazi concentration camps. Toquette lands in Ravensbruck camp for women. Kershaw captures the depravity of the Nazis and the extraordinarily awful conditions endured by the prisoners. The brutality, the hunger, the cold, the complete lack of humanity, pity or kindness demonstrated by the Nazis: it is still hard to read about, even now.
There is a quote toward the end from Jacques Delarue, the author of a book on the Gestapo.
“It was a world where people exterminated for pleasure and where the murderers were treated as heroes. It already seemed far away, like a nightmare one would prefer to forget. And yet the poisoned yeast is still ready to rise. Men have not the right to forget so quickly. They have not the right. Never…”
Philip Jackson lived to testify in war crimes trials in 1946. He testified in a trial of fourteen SS officers who had been in charge of Neuengamme labor camp where he and his father had been held. Jackson pointed out the Nazis he personally saw commit crimes. The defense attorney for the Nazis argued that his clients were “tools” and not responsible. The Nazis in this trial were sentenced to death. Kershaw wrote that the Nazis showed not even a shred of regret or remorse.
Helmut Knochen, the Gestapo chief in Paris, was sentenced to death in 1947. Incredibly, he escaped hanging. This was a person who played a major role in sending almost 80,000 Jews to their deaths. Knochen had argued: “Neither I, nor one of my subordinates could have acted otherwise, without being condemned to death immediately.”
Knochen was sentenced to death a second time during the Cold War. Knochen’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Then, in 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle inexplicably pardoned Knochen. Knochen returned to Germany and lived to be 93 years old before he died peacefully. He said that the extermination of the Jews by Hitler was the greatest crime in history but he claimed that he did not know the Jews of France who were deported East were being murdered.
The escape of so many Nazis from the fate that they so richly deserved never ceases to amaze. It is hard to understand how the fatuous and transparently false arguments made by Knochen and other Nazis were given any credence.
One other story I would mention: Kershaw tells how Hitler wanted Paris completely destroyed at the end of the war. Even though it was clear the Nazi cause was lost, Hitler madly ordered they fight to the last man. He wanted all the great monuments and bridges blown up. Hitler wanted Paris, the most beautiful city in the world, left a vast ruin. As insane as the Nazis were, it turned out that some of their generals did not want to go down in history as the destroyer of Paris.
Kershaw quotes the French Resistance leader, Jean-Pierre Levy:
“We lived in the shadows as soldiers of the night, but our lives were not dark and martial…There were arrests, torture and death for so many of our friends and comrades, and tragedy awaited all of us just around the corner. But we did not live in or with tragedy. We were exhilarated by the challenges and rightness of our cause.”
It was inspiring to read about and feel the atmosphere of that humane heroism.