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Imagine the terror of a ten-year-old boy suddenly facing the nozzle of a submachine gun held by an SS soldier, after having been slammed against the courtyard wall with its butt. It was Jo Joffo, waiting for his older brother on the Rue de Russie in Nazi-occupied Nice, France. It was summer, 1942. For over a month nasty inspectors interrogated him and his brother at the Excelsior Hotel until they were finally released. This experience ripped Jo Joffo from his childhood with its games of marbles and jacks, with ringing doorbells and other pranks.

This boy would later become a French author whose 1974 memoir A Bag of Marbles narrates this gripping flight to freedom, a hair-breath away from the enemy. So deep was the memoir’s appeal that it was translated into eighteen languages.

Such stories of survival still speak. From a safe distance, we observe and learn from others who have suffered heart-wrenching losses and survived murderous occupations of their countries. Yet, our times are not that different. Subtle forms of “occupation” still abound: social media, fake news, and addictive substances that manipulate attitudes, thoughts, and choices and keep spirits in bondage to Evil. Indeed, Jesus cautions us whenever we step outside our homes: “Be like sheep among wolves, cunning as serpents and yet as harmless as doves.” (Mt. 10:16)

The Plaza Frontenac Theater in St. Louis, Missouri, is currently showing the second film adaption of this memoir A Bag of Marbles; Christian Duguy directed it with English sub-titles.

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Raw evil fascinates and repels. It obliterates every vestige of life, on some level.

This may account for the continuing fascination of historical novels set in World War II, in which readers glimpse this darkness, but from a distance. The author Anthony Doerr presents just such a broken world in All the Light We Cannot See (2014), A National Book Award Finalist.

Pitted against this insanity are two teenagers of exceptional spirit: the blind French Marie-Laure and the German orphan Werner. Significant childhood losses do not deter them from forging ahead into harrowing experiences, even with war breaking over their heads.

Compounding this mayhem is the sinister Sergeant Major VonRumpel, gemologist for the Reich; he is desperate to locate the Sea of Flames, a mythical diamond believed to be in the possession of Marie-Laure’s father, the principal locksmith at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Through a series of plausible synchronicities, the author brings these characters together into the walled port city of city Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast before the Allied bombing in August 1944. Some survive.

The book’s title, All the Light We Cannot See, suggests a protecting Light guiding those teens through monstrous evil. This Light is also available to us as we wake up to similar darkness within and around us.

 

 

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