Ian P. Beacock in The Point:
In May 1940, Hitler’s armies swept lightning-fast into France and the Low Countries. Fearing the worst as the Nazis advanced, more than eight million panicked civilians left their homes and fled south. It was soon one of the largest mass migrations in recorded history. Today, the French simply call it l’exode: the exodus. Two million Belgians were on the road by June, roughly one-third of the entire country. Six million of the refugees were French. Somewhere between one quarter and one third of them were children. Entire cities emptied overnight. Reims, a bustling regional center in Champagne, lost 98 percent of its quarter-million inhabitants. The town of Evreux shriveled from twenty thousand souls to fewer than two hundred. By June 13, even Paris had been deserted; only the old, the sick and the poor remained behind. Southbound roads coagulated and clogged with overheating cars, teenage boys on bicycles, pushcarts piled high with suitcases and mattresses and tired children. The last trains to leave the capital were choked with people.
One of the refugees, a 62-year-old French novelist named Léon Werth, produced an astonishing eyewitness account of his passage into exile. “We’re not living in ordinary times,” Werth wrote that summer. “We are shipwrecked.” That the memoir was ever published is something of a miracle. Thirty-three days after they left Paris, Werth and his wife Suzanne arrived in Saint-Amour, a village in the foothills of the Jura mountains. The text was completed by autumn, but publishing it in the so-called “free zone” of Vichy France was out of the question: Werth was Jewish. In October, however, Werth was visited by his best friend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, a gifted writer and pilot who smuggled the manuscript out of France via Algiers and Lisbon. Werth never saw the book in print. Lost mysteriously for fifty years, the memoir first appeared in France in 1992. The first English edition of 33 Days appeared last year, a slim volume translated with great dexterity and feeling by Austin Denis Johnston.