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Constance Alexander: Siege of Aleppo recalls dark days of French Resistance at Saint-Malo

“At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. ‘Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town,’ they say. ‘Depart immediately to open country.’”

It is August 1944, two months after the landing of Allied troops at Normandy, and the citizens of Saint-Malo, France, have been put on notice. Imagine a blitz of leaflets jettisoned from a plane, littering lawns and sidewalks, open fields and struggling farms. “Leave or die” is the message. And there is no time to tarry.

So begins the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. The war is almost over and half of France has already been liberated. To the east, the Soviets have re-taken Minsk. In Warsaw, the Polish Home Army is in the midst of a revolt.

Although some contend the tide has turned, U.S. forces and German military units are poised for battle at Saint-Malo, the final German stronghold on the Breton coast. After four years of Nazi occupation, this little promontory is facing another siege.

Founded in the first century, Saint-Malo is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway of sand. The Romans secured this site back then and the need for fortification endured. The city has defended its ramparts many times throughout its history, so the events of August, 1944, as depicted in “All the Light We Cannot See,” are nothing new.

Despite warnings to leave, hundreds of local citizens stay in Saint-Malo. The poor, the sick, the helpless and hopeless stay behind. One of them, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, is blind and on her own. Her father has disappeared, perhaps arrested, and her uncle is nowhere to be found. She is just sixteen.

Every day she stops at the local bakery for bread. Inside the loaf is a slip of paper with coded numbers to be transmitted on her uncle’s illegal radio, an offense punishable by death, yet nothing deters her from the work she is doing on behalf of the French Resistance.

Parallel to the French girl’s story is the tale of a young German soldier, a radio expert, with a genius for identifying the sources of radio transmissions by the Resistance. Through a series of coincidences, the two characters meet during the siege of Saint-Malo. They spend a day together, but this is no teenage romance. The novel forces the reader to consider fundamental questions about good and evil, war and resistance to war, what we choose to see and what we choose to ignore.

There are two epigraphs at the beginning of “All the Light We Cannot See.” The first one describes the destruction of Saint-Malo during the siege in 1944, during which most of the city was destroyed by fire. “Of the 865 buildings within the walls,” it says, “only 182 remained standing and all were damaged to some degree.”

The other quote is from Nazi general Joseph Goebbels: “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.”

Right now, the Syrian city of Aleppo is under siege. It started this summer, with government troops from its Russian-backed regime battling against rebels. And radio transmission is still a strategic weapon.

Much like “All the Light We Cannot See,” the Syrian Air Force dropped thousands of leaflets over east Aleppo last week. Although there is disagreement about the exact translation of the message, the upshot is the same as in the novel: “This is your last chance. Save yourselves. If you don’t evacuate you shall be vanquished.”

After a four-year siege and now two weeks of intense bombardment, families that stayed behind are now trying to flee the chaos. Caught in the crossfire, they are in no-man’s-land. As one civilian explained in an NPR story, “There is nobody who is your friend in this situation. The rebels are not your friend — they’re using you as a shield. And the regime is not your friend because they’ve been pounding you. They’ve seen you as a pawn, or as collateral nuisance.”

At the end of “All the Light We Cannot See,” readers discover that Marie-Laure survived, as did her uncle. No longer in Saint-Malo, she is back in Paris. She has a grandson. It is 2014 and although she has lived to see the century turn, she has not forgotten.

“Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.”

Today, December 7, marks seventy-five years since the attack on Pearl Harbor. To commemorate the event, Murray’s American Legion Post #73 is honoring those who fought and died, as well as their families and loved ones.

Post #73 is located at 310 Bee Creek Drive, off North 4th Street. The doors will open at 11:15, and at precisely 11:48 there will be a brief ceremony, including the firing of a rifle salute and the playing of Taps. The public is welcome.


Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit her website.

Read all posts by Constance Alexander on KyForward

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