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And There Was Light by Jacques Lusseyran; translated by Elizabeth R. Cameron (Parabola Books, 656 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10012: $10.95; paperback; 320 pp.)

July 19, 1987|Jonathan Kirsch

"And There Was Light" is the little-known but thoroughly luminous autobiography of Jacques Lusseyran, a blind man who discovered the gift of inner sight after losing his vision in a childhood accident--and then put his gift to use in the struggle against Nazism. Lusseyran allows us to glimpse both heaven and hell on Earth through the eyes of a man who has lived through both. His description of what it is like to "see" as a blind man is fascinating and inspiring; his account of Buchenwald, where he was condemned to the living hell of the "Invalids' Barracks," is one of the most anguishing fragments of Holocaust testimony that I have ever encountered.

Lusseyran was born in Paris in 1924. A tragic schoolroom accident rendered him completely blind at age 8. But the intuitive young child almost immediately discovered anew a different sense of sight, an inner light that illuminated the world around him and bestowed on him the ability to see without the use of his eyes: "They told me that to be blind meant not to see. Yet how was I to believe them when I saw?" he writes. "I was aware of a radiance emanating from a place I knew nothing about. . . . I found light and joy at the same moment, and I can say without hesitation that from that time on light and joy have never been separated in my experience."

Lusseyran, a faithful Christian with an impressive grounding in the French rationalist tradition, does not bother to distinguish between the powers of perception that can be explained by a heightened sense of touch, smell or hearing, and those that are a gift from God. "Sighted people always talk about the night of blindness, and that seems to them quite natural. But there is no such night, for at every waking hour and even in my dreams I lived in a stream of light," Lusseyran explain1932402722and how should I not have it in the presence of the marvel which kept renewing itself? Inside me every sound, every scent, and every shape was forever changing into light, and light itself changing into color to make a kaleidoscope of my blindness."

Of course, Lusseyran was a remarkably gifted man with the soul of a poet and a profound capacity for love, faith and courage. As a child, his parents were caring and courageous enough to keep him out of the institutions for the blind; he was blessed with the love of parents, of intimate friends, and of caring teachers. He acquired a mastery of literature, history, and music; and he acquired, too, an easy familiarity with the streets of Paris and the byways of rural France, running through meadows and hiking along narrow mountain paths with one hand on the shoulder of a trusted and beloved friend.

The handicap of his blindness was expressed in odd and unexpected ways. Lusseyran studied the cello but did not become a musician, he explains, because a single note prompted a distracting concert of "pictures, curves, lines, shapes, landscapes, and most of all colors. Whenever I made the A string sound by itself with the bow, such a burst of light appeared before my eyes and lasted so long that often I had to stop playing."

Because of his blindness, Lusseyran was a victim of Nazism--a high-ranking collaborator in the Vichy government, toadying to the Fascist cult of physical perfection, decreed that a blind child, no matter how gifted and accomplished, was unfit to study in the schools of France. ("The decree even prescribed the maximum length of nose for future civil servants!")

But, remarkably, the 16-year-old Lusseyran was able to organize a resistance movement of about 600 young men and women, all under age 25, who managed to establish and distribute an underground newspaper within the heart of occupied France. Each member of the movement was presented to Lusseyran, whose powers included an ability to perceive "moral music," as Lusseyran puts it. "Our appetites, our humors, our secret vices, even our best-guarded thoughts are translated into the sounds of our voices." And, in fact, one young man whom Lusseyran suspected of treachery turned out to be the Judas who delivered the youthful leadership of the resistance band into the hands of the Gestapo and then the confines of Buchenwald.

Lusseyran's account of Buchenwald is the testimony of a Christian martyr who survived the outer circle of hell that the Nazis set aside for non-Jews. The gas chambers of Auschwitz, as Lusseyran explains, were reserved for Jewish men, women and children; when a trainload of Frenchmen was routed by mistake to Auschwitz, they were promptly returned to Buchenwald, where the instruments of death were random beatings and shootings and hangings, starvation and disease, hard labor and the elements.

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