If the name Léon Werth is familiar to you, but you aren’t sure why, open to the first pages of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince. You’ll find it in the dedication. “To Léon Werth,” it reads. “[H]e is the best friend I have in the world.”
The French knew Werth as an acerbic critic of the commodification of art, a novelist and friend of Surrealists (like Octave Mirbeau), and an anti-Stalin leftist who wrote 33 Days, a painful, unnerving account of his escape from the Wehrmacht as it advanced on Paris in 1940, an event that led to the mass migration (known as “l’Éxode” or “The Exodus”) of eight million people. Werth’s devastating story captures the frustration and terror he experienced in the slow-moving caravans and the fearful uncertainty of not knowing whether his son was still alive. It is, in short, and indispensable chronicle of a major world-historical event that Americans know too little about. And it is observed by a man whose mind is attuned to selective transmission of history by its victors.
That’s why Werth gave the manuscript to Saint-Exupéry: in hopes that publishing it in English would encourage the United States to enter the war. The book contains passages that would have alarmed American citizens, like this one, which establishes how the German terror extended even to animals:
There are rabbits dead in their cages. The hens and cows have not run away. But they do not move, the hens aren’t pecking around and the cows aren’t grazing… Both are strangely immobile… Not lying down, standing; in fact more than immobile, frozen, frozen solid, stuck to the ground as if to a pedestal; chickens and cows after the end of the world.
Unfortunately, 33 Days remained unpublished, even in France, until 1992. (It is now apparently taught in schools.) And, for reasons we do not know, it never made it to English-language readers, at least not until now.
Today the book was released in English, as a paperback, by Melville House, in a version that includes an introduction by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that has never been published — not even in France. This introduction (titled “Letter to a Friend”) is among the most moving essays on friendship that I have ever read. Apparently spurred, too, by the Americans’ failure to publish the manuscript of 33 Days — a manuscript he did manage to deliver — Saint-Exupéry extended the essay into a book called Letter to a Hostage. The “hostage,” of course, was Werth. “He lives in France,” the dedication to The Little Prince continues, “where he is hungry and cold.”
As the editor’s introduction explains, Saint-Exupéry would not survive the war. A pilot who learned to fly as a child, he disappeared during a reconnaissance mission over the Mediterranean in 1944 — I’m not sure if he ever saw Werth again. For his part, Werth did survive, although the weight of his literary and documentary contributions could not have been known to English readers until now.
It’s difficult to convey the intensity of the friendship between the two men — the book seems bound by it. According to Stacy Schiff’s biography of Saint-Exupéry, this friendship was founded on a simple lesson imparted by Werth: “If I differ from you, far from undermining you, I enhance you.” It’s evident from the introduction the lengths Saint-Exupéry would go to, to repay Werth and save his loved ones:
France is the network of connections that rules me, a collection of axes that are the foundation of my affections. That’s why I need those to whom I’m attached to outlast me. To be oriented, I need them to exist. Otherwise, how would I know where or what to return to? That’s why, Léon Werth…
As much as he could, he did.