The French Jewish writer Léon Werth may be best known as the person to whom Antoine de Saint-Exupéry dedicated The Little Prince, describing Werth as his best friend. More importantly, Werth was the author of two chronicles of his experiences during World War II, which he spent in France hiding from the Nazis: 33 Days, which was lost and unpublished until the 1990s, and Deposition 1940-1944, which appeared in 1946. A complete translation of the first book, and an abridged translation of the second, have recently been published in English. In the latter, Catherine Bock-Weiss writes, Werth leaves a record of how the war changed his sense of himself as a Jew:
Werth had been largely indifferent to his Jewish heritage for most of his life, but his existential situation [during the war] was permeated with the fact of his Jewishness: he was in virtual solitary confinement in a remote village, forbidden to publish, . . . cut off from his friends and his intellectual milieu, a hostage to anti-Semitism. Though southeastern France, [where he had found shelter], did not have a heavy German troop presence, Werth’s safety depended on whether or not his neighbors denounced him. . . .
Werth’s first journal entry about Jews is a response to the issuing of the [Vichy anti-Jewish law] on October 3, 1940, the day of its promulgation. . . . Here, we see Werth holding Jews at arm’s length. Five days later, he describes two kinds of Jews he seems to know, the . . . materialistic assimilated Jew and the pious observant Jew. He has only contempt for the former. . . .
These distanced observations [about these two categories of Jews] seem to have been a kind of preparation for acknowledging himself as a Jew. But even as France disavowed him, he clung to his French identity. . . . It is not until the entry of December 9, 1940, that we find Werth clearly identifying as a Jew, though he worried about a narrowing of his worldview. . . .
“I feel humiliated,” [wrote Werth in 1941]. “It’s the first time society has humiliated me. I feel humiliated not because I’m Jewish, but because I am presumed to be of inferior quality because I’m Jewish. It’s absurd; it may be the fault of my pride, but that’s the way it is.”
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