The real woman’s name is Andrée de Jongh. I have been saying it over and over to make up for all the times I never said it, never knew it. I wouldn’t know it now if Kristin Hannah hadn’t written “The Nightingale,” a work of historical fiction based on this woman’s life about a world at war and what war does to people.
Hannah’s fictional character is Isabelle Rossignol (Rossignol means nightingale in French), and like Andrée de Jongh, she was a hero and a patriot, though just an ordinary girl before a war that brought out the worst in many people, but brought out the best in her.
Born in Brussels in 1916, she was nicknamed Little Cyclone early on by her father, who must have recognized his own strength in his young daughter. Just 24 in 1940 when the Germans invaded, de Jongh was a commercial artist who put her life on hold, packed up and volunteered with the Red Cross, then joined the Resistance, risking everything to save Allied pilots and crew members shot down by the Germans and trapped behind enemy lines.
De Jongh found these men, and she hid them and fed them. And with her family’s and other resisters’ help, she got them clothes and identity papers. Then she led them on a 1,000-mile escape route through occupied Belgium and France, over the Pyrenees in the black of night, into neutral Spain.
The route was called the Comet line, and this wisp of a girl — she weighed barely 100 pounds and looked like a teenager —
“The value of what she was doing went beyond the individuals she was saving,” Peter Eisner, author of “The Freedom Line,” told a Washington Post reporter in 2007. “She gave hope to air crews in England before they took off that there was this angel of mercy working in occupied territory that had a complete system working to find them. It was a great psychological boost.”
Some 800 Allied troops and airmen survived the war because of Andrée de Jongh. Known as Dédée by those she rescued, she crossed the Pyrenees dozens of times, personally leading 118 people over the mountains and into Spain. But the price she and all the other unknown heroes paid was enormous.
In January 1943, de Jongh was caught and tortured, then sent to a concentration camp. Her father was caught and tortured, then shot to death. Her sister and her mother were imprisoned. The Germans executed 23 men and women who were part of the Comet line; 133 others were sent to concentration camps, where many died quickly. But more died slowly. The cost of freedom was high.
Despite all the arrests and killings, the Comet line continued to be an escape route, right up until the Allies invaded Normandy.
In “The Nightingale,” Kristin Hannah’s moving book based on her life, de Jongh wears a different name, has different friends, a different family. But she occupies the world in which de Jongh lived and the truth of the story is in the details of this world. Peace is shattered and ordinary life disappears in a blink. There is no food. No heat. No electricity. No safety. Only hunger and fear and cold and slaughter. And every day a little worse than the day before.
“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this:” begins this remarkable book. “In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”
Who we are as a nation, what we are, every freedom we have and celebrate this weekend, all of our bounty, have been paid for by people like Andrée de Jongh — brave, good, caring, mostly forgotten people.
The true story of Andrée de Jongh, “Little Cyclone” by Airey Neave, was published in 1954. Because of “The Nightingale,” it has been republished.
Beverly Beckham’s column appears every two weeks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.