Author: Alice Resch Synnestvedt
Publisher: Intentional Productions
Click Here To Purchase Over The Highest Mountains: A Memoir Of Unexpected Heroism In France During World War II
During World War Two, Alice Resch Synnestvedt, working in southern France with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, helped rescue dozens of Jewish children from certain death in Nazi concentration camps.
Born in America in 1908 of Norwegian parents, Alice spent her childhood in Norway, studied nursing in Paris, and then witnessed the rise of European Fascism which, of course, culminated in the Second World War.
Most of Alice’s rescue work centered on an internment camp in Toulouse, France, called Camp de Gurs, where she and the Quakers she was working with did what they could to relieve the severe suffering, malnutrition, and disease of the Jews who were forced to live there temporarily before most of them were transported to even harsher camps.
At one point, Alice convinced the Vichy authorities in charge of Camp de Gurs to allow her to take 48 children from the camp and bring them to an orphanage called Maison de Pupilles in Aspet, France. The authorities agreed and Alice personally escorted these 48 children to their new home, returning regularly to visit them when she could spare the time from her other rescue involvements.
After the war, Alice wrote a memoir of her wartime rescue work for her deaf mother, saying later that she “wrote one long paragraph non-stop, almost a thousand pages! The events were fresh in my memory, and everything, from the best to the most painful of events, ended up on the page.”
The manuscript was eventually edited and in 2000, Hal Meyers, one of the children she had rescued from Camp de Gurs, had it translated into English.
The book contains an amazing amount of detail which nearly transports the reader directly into the historical settings described. For instance, Alice describes the Nazi invasion of northern Europe in light of her own radio-listening activities thus: “Despite everything, the general feeling in Paris on May 10 was fairly optimistic. The Germans were advancing quickly but France had one of the world’s best armies, and the Maginot line. At the end of the day I turned on the radio, spinning the knob round and round. Things were happening in Holland. All that could be heard on the French stations was music. From London, a concert was being broadcast – Mozart ABC variations – but suddenly “Attention, attention, special announcement! Rotterdam has fallen! The Dutch have ceased fighting!” After some details, and there was endless military music again. Holland had capitulated after only a very few days. I shuddered, and was suddenly less sure about France.”
Although the memoir mentions the war’s political backdrop from time to time, it focuses mainly on Alice’s humanitarian activities and the conflict takes immensely human terms when viewed through this lens. For instance, when discussing the Spaniards who had been imprisoned in France after the Spanish civil war and who had been subsequently conscripted to fight for France during the short-lived German invasion, she writes: “The Spaniards were now unemployed and unable to support their families . . . The Quakers organized food distribution for those who had ration cards . . . We augmented the rationed goods with the same food rations we made available to schools and orphanages, rice, oil, sugar, macaroni, and fresh vegetables. Approximately 800 Spanish families collected their food from us three times a week for the duration of the war.”
Alice’s enormous heart for people caused doors to open when often there were no doors at all. One day a desperate mother entered Alice’s office, begging her to find hiding places for her two children, one of them a teenaged boy. Alice’s heart sank: it was very late in the day and she knew of no more available hiding places. But she forced herself to try. When she drove the boy to an orphanage (which refused him because of his size) and then to a monastery where the Father Secretary also refused him shelter, Alice writes that “I was so worried and tired and scared that the tears started to roll down my face. The monk was dismayed. ‘Oh no, Mademoiselle, you mustn’t cry, I shall see what I can do.’” He went down to ask the Abbot and returned with a positive answer. The boy would stay.
Because Alice wrote Over the Highest Mountains very quickly, very soon after the war and only for her mother, the memoir does not educate the reader regarding the larger backdrop of events surrounding the rescue operations in the south of France. Hence, the reader who does not have a basic understanding of the book’s context might feel lost on more than one occasion. And although Alice’s attention to detail is for the most part extremely engaging, it occasionally inhibits the narrative flow: every detail claims equal attention from Alice’s pen, whether it is a description of the countryside during a rare vacation cycle trip or the neat appearance of an elderly Jewish woman who wore a “lovely dress with a clean white collar” as she was marched to a train station and to certain death.
But these details paint a very vivid portrait of a time, and placed within the larger context of WWII history, Over the Highest Mountains is a very valuable addition to the understanding of the humanitarian activities which occurred in Nazi-occupied France and is an eternal testament to the potential of man’s humanity in the face of great evil.