Léon Werth and his wife fled Paris before the advancing Nazis Army. 33 Days is his eyewitness account of that experience, one of the largest civilian dispacements in history


Léon Werth, 33 Days: A Memoir, Trans. by Austin D. Johnston. Melville House, 2015.


A rare eyewitness account by an important author of fleeing the Nazis’ march on Paris in 1940, featuring a never-before-published introduction by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

In June of 1940, Leon Werth and his wife fled Paris before the advancing Nazis Army. 33 Days is his eyewitness account of that experience, one of the largest civilian dispacements in history.
Encouraged to write 33 Days by his dear friend, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, Werth finished the manuscript while in hiding in the Jura mountains.
Saint-Exupéry smuggled the manuscript out of Nazi-occupied France, wrote an introduction to the work and arranged for its publication in the United States by Brentanos. But the publication never came to pass, and Werth’s manuscript would disappear for more than fifty years until the first French edition, in 1992. It has since become required reading in French schools.
This, the first-ever English language translation of 33 Days, includes Saint-Exupéry’s original introduction for the book, long thought to be lost. It is presented it here for the first time in any language. After more than seventy years, 33 Days appears—complete and as it was fully intended.


Every year, as Holocaust Memorial Day approaches, my husband and I begin looking for a film, a book, or an article with which to commemorate the day. Each year this tradition becomes more challenging and more exciting, as we move away from Hollywood epics and into the realm of small-scale, private stories. As I grow older and my mind expands, I become more interested in the minutia of this enormous tragedy: what people talked about, what mundane things preoccupied their minds, what made them laugh.
In his memoir 33 Days, Léon Werth chronicles the time he and his wife spent on the road fleeing Paris during the Fall of France in 1940. They move between farmhouses and through blockaded roads. They worry for their teenage son, who has left earlier with friends. They pilfer whatever remains in empty homes and abandoned vehicles, and sleep on hay bales. They are at war, but not in the Holocaust. They are Jews who do not yet know what their identity will come to mean.

For the moment, they are trying to figure things out. There is no apparent fear in Werth’s words. Instead, he attempts to report without judgment, though the task is a hard one. He takes breaks from his reportage style to make comments about peasants, patriots, and a pair of corduroy pants he wishes he had.
This is a book about big things: exile as a form of imprisonment, the proper limits of patriotism, uncertainty regarding the future, and the question of responsibility for war. Attempting to diagnose his new status as part of an occupied people and his relationship with his conqueror, he likens the transience of his anxiety to “a disease one fears and deep down dismisses as impossible. Each of these Germans is the symptom of a disease whose description we had read about but are suddenly discovering on our skin.” In another moment, he admits, “We ache from Germans.”
He is especially fascinated with the German soldiers who run around half-naked, oblivious children, taking anything they please but also demonstrating a disconcerting generosity with their food and cigarettes. He examines their shifts between friendliness and aggressiveness, the eagerness with which they ask, “Are we so terrible after all?” and the attempt made by the French to see them as human in spite of it all, viewing them as pawns, innocents, or pranksters, as the case may be. In the midst of this, Werth is trapped in a forced friendship with a brutish German corporal. At the sight of a farmer’s deformed arm, the corporal, “offering a comparison, smiling wide, also rolled up his sleeves, and crossing his arms made his athletic biceps bulge. I thought: That’s Germany. And for a long time I could not resist this too-simplistic idea.”
But Werth doesn’t let himself get away with such ideas for long. Instead, he insists on specificity. He can’t help but look more closely at the situation they are all in, civilians and soldiers together, away from the frontline. The colossal corporal ends up gifting Werth with the gasoline he needs to get back home, while a French woman refuses to have him at her dinner table because of his wife’s perceived lack of manners. And so Werth feels compelled to recount even seemingly inconsequential incidents, such as a misunderstanding between a German officer and a French peasant regarding a stolen calf, which ends in laughter rather than gunshots; or an older countrywoman admonishing a German soldier who pilfers an egg.
Austin Denis Johnston does a beautiful job translating this small perspective gone massive. He plays around with different dialects and accents, with conversations in two different languages, and with the intimacy of words. My only real criticism is in regards to the frequent switches from past to present tense, which become a bit jarring at times. Even if this is the case in the original, I would vote for picking one and sticking with it.
Werth apologizes more than once for the smallness of things. In his mind there is always the image of his friend and mentor, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote the introduction for this book and originally attempted to get in published in the 1940s. Saint-Ex sporadically appears in Werth’s narration, resurfacing as a beacon of hope, art, and grandeur. In Saint-Ex, his apologies have a specific reader in mind. He says:
Forgive me, Saint-Ex; forgive me, Tonio. You wouldn’t recount such mediocrities. You delete or burn them. You make crystal. But I don’t know how to fly. At the moment, I’m touching down in lowly places. I no longer expect much from myself or the world. I’m old when you’re not around. Where are you? I don’t even know if you’re alive. I dream sometimes that your airplane had been hit, that it crashed in a catastrophe of scrap metal and fire. I drag myself along in my old metier. I recount the lowly; I tell, in the immensity of this war, the stories of insects.
As far as I’m concerned, this is nothing to apologize for. To me, this is what’s been missing. The stories of people outside of their comfort zone, people learning what war is. Perspective goes both ways, as Werth notes in this wonderful passage: “the Germans… had looted savagely… In another corner of the room, the flowered wallpaper had been torn. It’s a little thing, but there’s an ownership that’s solely from the heart. This peasant woman was as distressed and hurt by this torn wallpaper as by the hole in the roof of her stable from a mortar.” - Yardenne Greenspan

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