Women, Courage & Dignity

Posted on June 21st, by Elizabeth Debold in Blog, Culture, Gender, Politics. 12 comments

i01_1936147911I 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 Carter Phipp’s most recent blog post that 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.

photo20jacqueline1Jacqueline 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.

Jacqueline PeryIn 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.”

12 responses to “Women, Courage & Dignity”

  1. Terry Patten says:

    Moving post, Elizabeth, thank you!
    I had read the words of that young Iranian woman, and was deeply moved too. Courageous conscious spiritually-inspired women warriors — you’re helping define a key archetype of this moment in the evolution of consciousness.

  2. Elisa says:

    Iranian women are in the streets !Good sign .

  3. Katrin Karneth says:

    Dear Elizabeth,

    I am deeply moved by your blog. Thank you for writing this! I had the fortune to met Jaqueline Pery about four years ago. Being German I was a little nervous to meet her but all of this went away when I saw this strong, fragile, shining woman. She had more life fource coming through her then most of us. She was straight about her experience but so full of love for mankind and her love for freedom and truth.

    Like you are saying, there are many women, many people out there who fight for freedom and dignity, for humanity’s highest gifts and we all need to stand with them.
    Our souls are connected!

    Thank you,

  4. Dayna says:

    Many of us have very strong political, humanitarian beliefs and internal rules that we follow but, how inspiring to read about a woman who defended hers so fearlessly. Don’t you think that it is pity that people, especially women, are still forced to risk their lives to defend simple human rights and freedoms?

  5. Steve Haase says:

    Thank you for this post, Elizabeth. Comparing Ms. D’Alincourt to the Iranian protesters of today helps put their struggle in a powerful light.

    In both cases, the women unconditionally choose that which is higher, even if it might mean their death. Hearing the story of anyone who does that, man or woman, is the most inspiring thing there is.

    And I appreciate your highlighting the women who do this, as I find it shakes up a lot of conscious and unconscious gender assumptions I hold.

  6. Elise Herndon says:

    Thank you for your beautiful account, helping to give voice to these heroic women. I was deeply moved. I felt inspired to reach deep within myself for that corresponding spark of courage that unites me in sisterhood with these remarkable women.

    You assert that holding to a higher principle no mater what the cost is particularly rare among women. I cannot believe that this is the case. I think it more likely that women’s principled courage has been more anonymous, less recognized, and perhaps even minimized due to gender bias and expectation. Thanks to you, Elizabeth, and to other writers of integrity, there stories are now being told. We are all uplifted it.

  7. tracy says:

    What a great tribute to two great women!

  8. Françoise LAUTARD says:

    I don’t know what else could be added. You embrace it all. Thank you, deeply, for all women including the Iranian protest right now !

  9. Jon Bertelsen says:

    Thank you for writing about Jaqueline Pery. I met her in Copenhagen four years ago, where she gave a warm, strong, and inspiring talk. I remember one from the audience asked her “do you still hate the Germans?” – and she replied: “it was not a fight against Germans or anyone else – it was a fight against evil”. It was like everything came to a full stop in the hall. I never forget that moment, seeing this frail elderly woman expressing such a strength of character and moral conviction.

  10. Phil says:

    What jumps out for me is: There is true freedom in total commitment.

    Once you have made a resolute choice, there is no more debate or internal conversation, the way forwards is crystal clear.

    With so many things in our lives we have this never ending internal dialogue, and we have to keep convincing ourselves that this or that is the right thing to do, it takes effort to keep it up. What is so beautiful with Jacqeline and the Iranian women is that the internal stuggle isn’t/wasn’t there, the choice was obvious and clear as day and because of that, they are both free.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Yep, that’s the whole point. Interesting that it was a clear choice for them, while so many would find it very fuzzy. Freedom in our postmodern world usually means not committing, but as you say, there is true freedom in total commitment.

  11. Frank Luke says:

    A book recently published “When Everything Changed” talks about how WW2 effected great changes in the lives of American women. For one, women were recruited into the war industries, working in place of the men who were drafted. When the war ended, there was a period of economic wealth and families thrived on only one income, his. Then the economy took a turn south and families found it necessary to have two incomes, his and hers. As recently as the 60s, though women did wear pants to work during the war, their wearing pants were frowned upon in public, ask your grandfolks. With women incorporated into the marketplace, childcare has been handed to others outside the home often and changed our family life drastically. Few families today can live on only one income, I believe. Mom’s presence in the home has been diminished but women’s rights have been greatly enhanced in the Western world.


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