The dramatic historical events of World War II are extremely difficult to contain. The plentitude of films, documentaries, photos, and books on the subject often obstructs the desired transformation from pure academic knowledge to empathy with the victims of the atrocities experienced by so many. Yet sometimes a very simple sight or sound can capture the events of the past better than anything. Whenever I think of the Nazis, a childhood memory immediately surfaces: I hear the monotonous sound of Nazi soldiers marching in Le Chant des Partisans, sung by Yves Montand.
Le Chant des Partisans was the song of the French Résistance during the Nazi occupation of France, a symbol of the underground forces fighting the German army. Anna Marly, a young dancer and singer who fled from Russia with her mother at a very young age, composed it. A talented and colorful young woman, she was a ballet dancer in Monte Carlo, studied with Prokofiev, and worked in Parisian cabarets. In 1940, after the fall of France, she escaped with her husband from Paris and ended up in London. Her inspiration for the tune of Le Chant des Partisans was an old Russian song she had heard. Anna wrote the lyrics together with Joseph Kessel and Maurice Druon, but later complained that the only suggestion of hers that was accepted was the use of ‘crows’ as a metaphor for Nazi planes. The lyrics and melody were completed in 1943. She sang it beautifully.
It was first aired on Radio-Londres, the BBC daily broadcast in French to occupied France. Immediately, it became extremely popular. Anna was also a very good whistler, and André Gillois, a radio broadcaster at the BBC, used her whistled version as Radio Londre’s theme tune. French Resistance members appeared on this show, encouraging their fellow countrymen to actively resist the Nazi occupation. These broadcasts were also used to convey coded messages to Résistance groups in France. The Nazis prohibited listening to it and attempted to jam the transmission. Yet many Frenchmen waited every day for Anna’s clear whistling of Le Chant des Resistance.
The song became a hymn in anti-Nazi France. Singing it was an act of rebellion. Since their national anthem, The Marseillaise, was banned by the Nazis, Frenchmen used Le Chant des Partisans as a substitute. In fact, it became customary to sing it every time a Résistance fighter was killed. Many years after the war, whenever Anna performed it in France, people would come to her with tragic and heroic tales, remembering what it had represented for them. Once, a former fighter revealed a horrible story: he and four others had been captured by the Germans and ordered to dig their own graves. As they dug, “to give us spirit we were whispering your song”. They were shot, and he was the only one to survive.
Even after the war the song did not lose its significance. It was even proposed as a new national anthem for France. Anna had written other songs about the partisans. One of them, written with the Résistance leader Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie, was called “La Complainte du Partisan”. It was translated into English and performed by many artists, among them Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez.
I came across this recording of this song as a child, in Jerusalem. My parents, like most people whose lives had been shattered by World War II, refrained as much as possible from describing the arocities of the war. It was my cousin, the late Claude Gandelman, who brought us the record. Claude was born in France and was a child during the war. He was hidden in the centre of France, where his father, a physician, was active in the Résistance. He later immigrated to Israel and was a professor of French Literature in Haifa University. He gave us a box full of old records, and thus I was introduced to the best performers of French music.
But this song was different. I listened to it over and over again, though I didn’t speak any French. The sound of the Nazi soldiers marching was chilling; the Nazi screams were horrifying. But then I realized that some whistles could be heard alongside the clicks of the soldiers’ boots. When I asked Claude, he explained that preceding a Résistance action, its members would communicate with each other via very low, almost inaudible whistles. I listened to the song many times but since he told me this, I began to hear a different tune – more bearable, less threatening.
The partisans’ song – English Translation
Mate, do you hear the dark flight of the crows over our plains?
Mate, do you hear the muffled clamour of enchained countries?
Hey, partisans, workers and peasants this is the signal
tonight the enemy will know the price of blood and tears…
Join the sabotage, get off the hills, comrades!
Take the rifles, the machine gun, the grenades out of the straws.
Hey, killers, with a bullet or by knife, kill swiftly!
Hey, saboteur, take care of your charge: dynamite…
It’s us smashing the prison bars for our brothers,
The hatred on our backs and the hunger that drives us, the misery.
There are countries where people are dreaming deep in their beds,
here, we, you see, we’re marching on and we’re getting killed, we’re getting whacked…
Yes, we’re getting whacked…
Here everyone knows what he wants, what he does when it takes place,
Mate, if you go down, a mate out of the shadows takes your place.
Tomorrow black blood will be drying under the sun on the roads,
sing, colleagues, freedom is listening to us in the night…
Come on, sing…