In his last years Harry Rée admitted that he had “never found it possible to convey to people what the experience meant”, though he was considering an attempt at a fuller, “chrono-illogical” record of his life and times just a month before his death in 1991. Presented “as a tribute to that unwritten autobiography”, A Schoolmaster’s War has vivid and poignant moments, but leaves much obscured and unsaid.
An Elephant in Rome
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A Schoolmaster’s War brings together writings, talks and interviews from a period of more than forty years, as well as a few short stories composed by Rée for younger readers. These have been assembled by his son Jonathan, lightly edited and given a coherent shape. Although there is charm here in Rée’s evocation of provincial France, his son is surely right to say that ‘his writings touch on experiences he could hardly bear to revisit. His nonchalant charm bore witness to an enormous inarticulate grief.’ This is not surprising: some of those who assisted him and became his friends were killed or died in German concentration camps.
A Schoolmaster’s War is an unusual collage of a book – hence the editorial presence demanded of Jonathan Rée. There is a first-person memoir supplied by Harry Rée himself, written shortly after he had left the Jura, and then a compilation of a series of postwar talks Rée gave (with some reluctance) about his experiences. As a bonus, there are children’s stories in which he had recounted thinly disguised versions of his exploits and then a whole series of letters written to him from his French contacts after the Liberation.
The book’s real power lies later, in its (typically anonymous) stories and reflections, and in the letters Ree received after his return. For instance, in the story of the mayor of Vandancourt, who came out of hiding when the Germans threatened to raze his village, and was paraded through the hamlet in chains, tied up and shot. Or the notes from friends still waiting to hear from relatives taken away to Ravensbrück or Buchenwald. At times, as one flicks to the biography section nervously to check on who survived and who didn’t, the book moves one to tears.