Women, Courage, & Dignity

I was just sitting down to write a memorial for Jacqueline Péry D'Alincourt (1919-2009), whose courage during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II was beyond measure, when I read the most recent EnlightenNext magazine blog post by my colleague Carter Phipps. It contained a quote from a young Iranian woman on the eve of the June 20 protests against the election of Ahmadinejad:

I will participate in the demonstrations tomorrow. Maybe they will turn violent. Maybe I will be one of the people who is going to get killed. I'm listening to all my favorite music. I even want to dance to a few songs.... I wrote these random sentences for the next generation so they know we were not just emotional and under peer pressure. So they know that we did everything we could to create a better future for them. So they know that our ancestors surrendered to Arabs and Mongols but did not surrender to despotism. This note is dedicated to tomorrow's children...

Perhaps you, too, have read it. It goes without saying why this quote is making its way around the web. Probably because I had Jacqueline Péry on my mind, it led me to think about women and courage--the courage to hold to a higher principle and purpose, no matter the cost. While this is rare to find anytime and anywhere, I think it's particularly rare among women.

Not that women haven't shown courage--extraordinary courage--throughout history. Women have fought for their lives against unbearable odds, lived in deplorable situations, endured humiliation and torment. Rape has been a tactic of war since the beginning of war. Female ferocity and endurance are legendary when it comes to protecting children, family, or community--ensuring the survival of home and tradition. (Which is why books like Styron's Sophie's Choice are so devastating--a woman shouldn't ever have to choose which of her children to lose.) Most of these courageous women remain nameless. Not having won their heroism on battlefields or in public, they are not even footnotes to history.

Hearing this young Iranian woman's words made me realize the rarity and power of women standing for a principle that will create a new future, not just ensure the survival of what has been. This nameless woman wants her country to change, and she is willing to die for it. Certainly, there is a tremendous momentum and solidarity rolling in and through the throngs in the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities. But this young woman is saying that her response is not emotional nor is she being pressured to participate in the protests. She has decided consciously and autonomously to stand for an Iran without despotism, for a life of self-determination and choice.

Jacqueline Péry made a similar choice to stand for higher principles in the face of death. Repeatedly--throughout the Nazi occupation of France. Born into a noble family from a small town in France, she was frail and often sickly as a teen. Married and widowed by the age of 20, she went to Paris to work like many young women during the war, arriving a year into the occupation when the Nazis began to systematically degrade and deport the French Jews. The first time that Jacqueline saw a young Jewish child branded with the yellow star, she was so disgusted that she decided that she had to fight. The summer of 1942, she attended a lecture by a theologian who said, "You have to choose Christ or Hitler." From that moment on, she chose Christ. Finding a way to contact the fledgling French Resistance movement that was working from within occupied France against the Germans, Jacqueline became an important member of the resistance--finding safe houses for fallen airmen, encrypting information, leaving messages in "mailboxes," and working right under the noses of the Germans. Eventually, she came to work for Daniel Cordier, the right-hand man of the leader of the French Resistance, and became one of the few who knew of all the resister groups in France.

In September 1943, Jacqueline was found out and arrested by the Gestapo. I remember seeing the documentary film made about her life, and the life of three other Gentile women who fought the Nazis, Sisters in Resistance. I'll never forget how, when they came, surrounding her to escort her out of the building, she risked her life by screaming and denouncing the Nazis, so that everyone would know who she was and what was happening. She didn't do this to save herself--in fact, it could have gotten her killed--she was warning her compatriots to stay clear of the trap that she had fallen into.

I don't know how to write about the rest of her story during the war--the film covers it in her own words-- because it's difficult to convey how fragile she was physically and yet how indestructible was her conviction. Jacqueline was birdlike--graceful, thin, elegant, frail. But her captors gave up after torturing her for five days because they realized that they would never break her. First thrown in solitary confinement, after six months she was sent to Ravensbruck, the Nazi work camp for women where she slaved alongside Jewish women until she nearly died of exhaustion. In April 1945, the Swedish Red Cross liberated the camp, and Jacqueline was freed.

In her seventies, long after the horror of the war had passed, Jacqueline learned about the spreading prevalence of Holocaust denial. She wrote the story of her experience and decided to go on tour with the documentary about her life to publicly bear witness -- to choose Christ again. I met her then. I spoke with her for hours, finding myself deeply confronted by the simplicity with which she spoke. I asked about the choices that she made, how unusual it was, but she didn't see it that way. Once she choose Christ over Hitler, that was the end of it. There was no choosing after that, only following that choice to the end, whatever might have come. Since the moment she had made an absolute decision, she had always been free.

Jacqueline died this past April and was fittingly given a full military tribute. A pillow on her casket bore her honors: Commander of the French Legion of Honor, the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, the Cross of War, and the Medal of the Resistance. She was almost ninety. Her dignity lives in my memory, and undoubtedly in the memory of all who met her. It is very rare--something that only comes from having made an absolute choice for the good, true, and beautiful.

That same dignity echoes in the words of the young Iranian woman--and I hope that she has found the same freedom. Tonight she posted again. She is alive. And yet, her "sister"--a young woman called Neda, which means "voice"--was shot to death in the protests. "Sister have a short sleep," she wrote, "your last dream be sweet."

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