They Shall Not Have Me: The Capture, Forced Labor, and Escape of a French Prisoner in World War IIby Jean Helion
The French painter Jean Hélion’s unique and deeply moving account of his experiences in Nazi prisoner-of-war camps prefigures the even darker stories that would emerge from the concentration camps. This serious adventure tale begins with Hélion’s infantry platoon fleeing from the German army and warplanes as they advanced through France in… See more details below
The French painter Jean Hélion’s unique and deeply moving account of his experiences in Nazi prisoner-of-war camps prefigures the even darker stories that would emerge from the concentration camps. This serious adventure tale begins with Hélion’s infantry platoon fleeing from the German army and warplanes as they advanced through France in the early days of the war. The soldiers chant as they march and run, “They shall not have me!” but are quickly captured and sent to hard labor.
Writing in English in 1943, after his risky escape to freedom in the United States, Hélion vividly depicts the sights, sounds, and smells of the camps, and shrewdly sizes up both captors and captured. In the deep humanity, humor, and unsentimental intelligence of his observations, we can recognize the artist whose long career included friendships with the likes of Mondrian, Giacometti, and Balthus, and an important role in shaping modern art movements. Hélion’s picture of almost two years without his art is a self-portrait of the artist as a man.
The German high command had a different agenda. Hitler, who would break his pact with Stalin and invade the Soviet Union within a year of signing the Vichy agreement, planned to replace the German manpower needed for the Russian front with the labor of the surrendered French army. Trains crammed with prisoners would soon make the four-day journey to hastily constructed barracks at dozens of sites near the former Polish border. Such was the fate of close to a million and a half French prisoners of war, most of whom would not see their home again for five years; 25,000 would never return.
In New York, in 1943, a detailed eyewitness account of the conditions in German POW camps was published by a French escapee, Jean Hélion (1904-87). Hélion was by then an internationally known painter who had been living in New York at the outbreak of World War II. He returned to France for military service, only to be part of the debacle that followed the German invasion. At the request of E.P. Dutton publishers, he set down his experience in "They Shall Not Have Me," a meticulously observed description of the lives of French POWs as virtual slaves of the Third Reich, with vivid delineations of both captors and captives.
Written in English and never published in France, the book became a best seller, and its author found himself in demand for lectures and interviews, trying, as he said, to tell Americans what it was like to be hungry, devoured by lice, worked to the bone, and harassed and sometimes beaten by armed guards. Long a cult classic sought out by artist-admirers of Hélion, "They Shall Not Have Me" has now been reissued in Arcade's Artists and Art series, with an illuminating introduction by the artist Deborah Rosenthal. In an afterword, Hélion's widow, Jacqueline, has filled in information about those who helped in her husband's escape, members of a Resistance network whose identities he could not reveal at the time.
Hélion arrived in France in 1940 in time to experience the military's disarray as French troops, believing they were to make a stand along the Loire, marched on clogged roads under strafing by German planes. Instead came the humiliating news of the armistice.
Hélion was among the surrendered French soldiers shipped to a prison camp in Pomerania, near the Baltic Sea, from which he was sent to a local estate as a laborer. There the prisoners slept on lice-infested straw, subsisted on thin soup and hard bread, and spent the day digging and gathering potatoes; the temperatures were freezing, and adequate footwear and clothing were lacking. Conditions grew worse when Hélion was transferred to a freighter anchored near the mouth of the Oder River, where he was one of 750 prisoners housed in the fetid hold of the ship. Half-starving, they were sent on daily work details that included digging tunnels, repairing bombed railroads and performing other heavy labor prohibited under the Geneva Convention.
After a few months, Hélion had mastered the German language well enough to be appointed an interpreter for his group, which meant working with despotic Kommandoführers but also having a chance to advocate for comrades in need of medical care or a package from the Red Cross. Along with his account of rancid meat and worn-out bodies, a picture emerges of the captors, who engendered unease in their prisoners by alternating small favors with harsh punishment and the cutting of rations.
Survival, the prisoners learned, depended on a network of mutual support. They developed stratagems for breaking the monotony and lifting low spirits—organizing courses of study, improvising theatrical performances and engaging in minor acts of defiance. And always there was speculation about making an escape.
For months, Hélion accumulated information on possible routes through Germany and bartered for clothing that would make him appear anonymous; to be recognized as an escaped POW meant being shot on sight. One evening, while his fellow prisoners distracted the guards by staging a fistfight, he slipped out of the gate as it admitted a returning work crew. From eastern Germany on foot and by train he reached the Belgian border, soon crossing into occupied France and then into the Free Zone. From there, he made his way to Lisbon, where he boarded a freighter to Cuba and the United States.
Before the war, Hélion had been a dedicated partisan of nonobjective art. The austerity of his abstract ideal carries over to his writing, which is lean and free of histrionics yet laden with sharp-eyed perceptions. During his POW experience, Ms. Rosenthal suggests, he may well have been mentally storing material for paintings to come. Once back in his studio, abstraction gave way to the human figure and ordinary objects: boldly painted newspaper readers on park benches, ungainly nudes and shop windows filled with loaves of bread. His prison-survival experience of a brotherhood of the common man underlies the culminating works of Hélion's career, a series of large triptychs dealing with the life of the street and marketplace, painted in France in the 1960s and 1970s. In these monumental works his earlier aim, to seek "a magnificent concordance between modernism and classicism," is fully realized as he pays tribute to the humanity with whom he shared those nightmare years.
Ms. Sawin is the author of "Surrealism in Exile and the Beginning of the New York School."
A version of this article appeared July 13, 2012, on page A9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: When the Artist Went to War.”
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Meet the Author
Jean Hélion was a noted French modernist painter and author. He was a member of the Free French Forces during World War II. His work later influenced Roy Lichtenstein, Nell Blaine, and Leland Bell. He died in 1987.
Deborah M. Rosenthal, consulting editor for the Artists & Art series, is a New York painter and writer. She is a professor of art in the School of Fine and Performing Arts at Rider University.
Jacqueline Hélion, the widow of the painter, lives in Paris.
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I've read most of the POW books from world wars I and II and this is one of the best. Written by a man who became a well-known artist he shows unusual insight into human nature and motivations. After his capture he is forced to work on a potato farm in Poland and then in a port city in Germany. One evening he makes his escape from the ship where he lives with hundreds of other prisoners. Helion's prose is superb and he is an outstanding story teller. I see that some anonymous desicated philistine before me has given this book 1 star. If you like POW stories this is one of the best!