|Nancy Wake, posing in 1994 with a poster from World War II for the French resistance, died Aug. 8. (Dsk/AFP/Getty Images)|
Lost in the debris of our culture, a woman of valor
How is it a woman can live for 98 years, be a war hero decorated by five countries (England, France, the United States, Australia and New Zealand), write a book about her experiences (“The White Mouse’’), have books written about her ( “Nancy Wake: A Biography of Our Greatest War Heroine,’’ Peter Fitzsimons; “Nancy Wake: SOE’s Greatest Heroine,’’ Russell Braddon), inspire a movie (’’Charlotte Gray,’’ starring Cate Blanchett), yet die unrecognized by a nation full of people who know the most trivial things about the most trivial people? (Think “Jersey Shore’s’’ Snooki.)
Nancy Wake, a patriot for a country that wasn’t even hers, died last week in London. Australian by birth, she came to England when an aunt died and left her enough money to leave home and pursue her dreams. She studied journalism in England, freelanced to make money, and found herself in France and Germany in 1933.
She had no dog in the fight when she first visited Germany. The world wasn’t at war yet. But on assignment in Vienna, she witnessed what Hitler and the Nazis were doing to the Jews. Later, she saw a woman seven months pregnant bayoneted in the stomach by a German soldier.
“I couldn’t imagine that human beings could behave like that,’’ she said in the documentary “Nancy Wake: Codename ‘The White Mouse,’ ’’ filmed when she was 75.
Back in France, she fell in love with the country, the people, and their great love of life. And with a Frenchman, Henri Fiocca. But she kept her eyes on Germany, aware of Hitler’s growing reach.
When the Germans occupied France in 1940, she could have stayed out of it. In her autobiography, she reflected: “What could an inexperienced girl like myself do or hope to achieve when so many brilliant, well-informed men had failed to make an impact on the outside world?’’
Pretty, young, and now married to a rich and powerful French citizen, Wake stayed below the German radar long enough to help hundreds of Allied soldiers escape from Nazi-occupied France by climbing the Pyrenees into Spain.
It took 50 hours to cross the mountains. “We would walk for two hours and then change socks . . . The police dogs couldn’t climb over the hard rocks.’’
But the Germans eventually caught on, and one day Wake had to make the same climb. “It was a snap decision,’’ she said. There was no time to say goodbye.
Back in England, she tried to let her husband know she was safe. But the Germans had arrested him. Determined to return to France, she joined the Special Operations Executive, whose mission was to aid resistance movements, primarily in France.
In April 1944, having completed training, she was dropped by parachute into the Auvergne region of France, where she organized a resistance network to mount attacks on German forces in the area.
The Gestapo called her “the White Mouse’’ because every time they thought she was cornered, she escaped.
At age 75, looking back on her life, Wake said that the most useful thing she ever did was ride a bike more than 300 miles past German checkpoints to alert London that her resistance group’s radio had been destroyed in a raid. “It was a matter of life and death . . . I cycled night and day’’ to arrange for a new one to be sent on the next parachute drop.
She didn’t learn that her husband was dead until Paris was liberated in August 1944. Fiocca had refused to tell the Gestapo where she was. They tortured him for five months. And then they killed him.
Why don’t we know about this woman? Why do we have a glut of magazines and websites about people who are popular instead of people who do good? Why are valor and courage forgotten?
You can watch a number of documentaries about Wake at www.youtube.com, by searching for her name and “White Mouse.’’
Or you can read about her in “Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue,’’ a new book by Kathryn J. Atwood.
Beverly Beckham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.