Writer, poet, journalist, French literary laureate, aristocrat, and pioneering aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) is best known for his enchanting and much beloved adult fable, The Little Prince, which has been translated into some 300 languages, including Hebrew (see exhibit).
A tale of loneliness, friendship, love, and loss, it is an allegory for Saint-Exupéry’s own life as, viewing the world as a place of wonder through the pure and innocent eyes of a child, he seeks to understand love and attain peace and inner harmony in a world where it has, sadly, become increasingly difficult to do so.
As the adult narrator tells the story, his plane crashes in the Sahara desert and he is suddenly greeted by a young boy whom he calls “the Little Prince.” During eight days stranded far from civilization, he repairs his plane while the Little Prince tells the story of his life on his home planet “Asteroid B-612” – a tiny asteroid no larger than a building – and of his great love for a single rose that had suddenly begun growing on the asteroid’s surface and his efforts to protect it against the growth of dreaded baobabs, which some critics see as a metaphor for Nazism.
Feeling that his beloved rose was taking him for granted, the Little Prince left his planet to explore the rest of the universe, and he describes to the narrator various characters he encountered on his voyages who teach him important lessons. The fundamental message of the book, and its most oft-cited quote, is: “One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye” – which is actually a very Jewish idea.
A commercial pilot before World War II, Saint-Exupéry had achieved fame in France as a leading pioneer of international postal flight, flying airmail routes through Europe, Africa, and South America and registering patents on his flying inventions, some of which are still in use today.
During an attempt on December 30, 1935, to break the speed record in a Paris-to-Saigon air race, he and his mechanic-navigator crashed in the Libyan desert close to the Nile Delta in what turned out to be only the first of many air crashes. Although they both miraculously survived, they had no idea where they were, they had only about a day’s worth of liquids, and they faced extreme desert heat and rapid dehydration.
On the verge of a terrible death, they were finally found by a Bedouin on a camel who saved their lives. The Little Prince’s home, “Asteroid B-612,” was named for Saint-Exupéry’s plane, and his experience played a seminal role, not only in The Little Prince, but also in Saint-Exupéry’s award-winning memoir, Wind, Sand and Stars (1939). As his biographer, Stacy Schiff, notes, Saint-Exupéry and his Little Prince “remain tangled together, twin innocents who fell from the sky.”
Saint-Exupéry was a passionate anti-Nazi who made major contributions to the Allied war effort, both as a writer and as an aviator. He joined the French Air Force at the start of War World II and flew reconnaissance missions until France signed its shameful Armistice of June 22, 1940, with Nazi Germany and formed the collaborationist Vichy government shortly thereafter.
In his highly controversial “An Open Letter to Frenchmen Everywhere” – courageously written at a time when there were sharp divisions between the French Gaullists and the Vichy regime – Saint-Exupéry rallied support for nationalist France. He earned the Nazis’ enmity when the piece was published in the November 1942 New York Times Magazine and thereafter became widely disseminated. The Nazis were also none too pleased with his fervent denunciation of anti-Semitism in War Pilot (1942).
Following its Nazi master, the Vichy government attacked him in the most vile and racist terms as a defender of Jews – which he unabashedly was – and banned all his books. One sad result of that ban was that The Little Prince would only appear posthumously in his native France after the war.
He came to New York City on December 31, 1940, where he became a leading expatriate voice of the French resistance and a leading activist urging the United States to join the fight against the Nazis. It was then that, urged by his editor to write a children’s book to compete with P.L. Travers’ recent release of Mary Poppins, he wrote The Little Prince, which was published in 1943 in the U.S. in both English and French.
The text reflects the perspective of a lonely and despairing refugee distraught about events transpiring in his beloved French homeland and his desire to return to childhood innocence and simplicity.
Restless to rejoin his compatriots fighting for the liberation of France, and although he was in poor health and eight years past the maximum age for military pilots – and notwithstanding significant immobility arising out of his previous crashes and injuries, including an inability to turn his head to the left to check for enemy aircraft – he tirelessly and single-mindedly lobbied for permission to fly missions in support of the Allied war effort.
After finally receiving approval from General Dwight Eisenhower himself, Saint-Exupéry left the United States in April 1943 to join the Free French Air Force and fight with the Allies in North Africa. After crashing yet another plane and serving an eight-month grounding, he was assigned a reconnaissance mission on July 31, 1944 to collect intelligence on German troop movements in and around the Rhone Valley preceding the Allied invasion of southern France, during which he disappeared without a trace.
The French government spent decades searching for the aviator’s lost Lockheed aircraft and, although a piece of the aircraft was recovered in October 2003 off the coast of Marseille, significant dispute continues as to whether it was shot down by the Germans or met some other fate.
When I first read The Little Prince, which I instantly cherished, I noted the author’s lovely dedication to his friend, Léon Werth but, even after countless readings through the decades, I never thought about who Werth might be and what he might have done to merit Saint-Exupéry’s enchanting dedication:
To Léon Werth
I ask children to forgive me for dedicating this book to a grown-up. I have a serious excuse: this grown-up is the best friend I have in the world. I have another excuse: this grown-up can understand everything, even books for children. I have a third excuse: he lives in France where he is hungry and cold. He needs to be comforted. If all these excuses are not enough, then I want to dedicate this book to the child whom this grown-up once was. All grown-ups were children first. (But few of them remember it.) So I correct my dedication: To Léon Werth, when he was a little boy.
As a young man, Werth (1878-1955) left a promising career in philosophy to lead the unconventional life of an anti-clericalist and anti-bourgeois anarchist writer. A noted French writer and art critic, he became Saint-Exupéry’s “soulmate” upon their first meeting in 1931 and is broadly considered to be Saint-Exupéry’s mentor.
Werth played a key role in Saint-Exupéry’s life and work, including particularly The Little Prince. Like Saint-Exupéry, Werth was a loyal Frenchman, a renowned novelist and journalist, and a candid and honorable man unafraid to publicly challenge authoritarianism and the status quo, notwithstanding the consequences. Unlike Saint-Exupéry, however, he was a Jew who was forced to flee (with his non-Jewish wife) for his life when the Nazis suddenly sent their mighty Wehrmacht into Paris in June 1940.
After going into hiding at a village near the Swiss border, Werth wrote 33 Jours (33 Days), a searing memoir of his feelings during 33 days of terror before finally finding refuge. The miraculous receipt of this manuscript prompted Saint-Exupéry to immediately fly to New York to use his connections to find a publisher for 33 Jours.
Inspired by the manuscript and frightened about the Nazi conquest of France, he penned a powerful introduction to the book in which he wrote: “The one who haunts my memory tonight is fifty years old. He is ill. And he is Jewish. How will he survive the German terror?”
Saint-Exupéry’s best efforts to find a publisher for 33 Jours failed (it was finally published 50 years later, a fascinating story by itself). Even so, he found a way to bring his Jewish friend’s tale of the fragility of the human condition to the world through a philosophical allegory and a stirring parable of faith in the form of a children’s story, which became The Little Prince. When he rejoined the war effort to fly missions for the Allies over the burning skies of Europe, it was thoughts of the horrors of Auschwitz and Werth’s fate that obsessed him.
Born the son of a clothing merchant into an assimilated Jewish family, Werth had little to no Jewish education and he was largely indifferent to his Judaism for most of his life. Like most French Jews, who were thoroughly assimilated – which, of course, made no difference to Hitler, who sought to exterminate them in the same ovens as the most charedi Jews – he saw himself as a Frenchman, first and foremost, dedicated to the French secular and liberal culture that he believed would surely protect his civil rights.
That changed, however, when he was forced to go into hiding, anti-Semitism became his life’s reality, and his very life depended on the silence of his non-Jewish local neighbors. In Deposition 1940-1944, a detailed account of his life in hiding, his first journal entry about Jews (an October 3, 1940 response to the Vichy government’s issuance of its anti-Jewish law that same day) seems more concerned about his French identity than anything else:
Vichy is preparing a statute regulating Jews. A Polish Jew at least felt Jewish. People in the Nalewki neighborhood of Warsaw did not conceive of themselves as Polish. But French Jews no longer felt Jewish. Those who felt most Jewish in their hearts were only Jewish through the memory of a few family traditions.
Only a few days later, however, he wrote that there are two kinds of Jews: materialistic assimilated Jews and observant Jews. As to the former, he wrote with contempt: “They have lost – and they are proud of it – all contact with Judaism, not to say with anything resembling religion. They didn’t feel Jewish, they felt rich.”
In contrast, he wrote with admiration of the pious Jews of a past generation (possibly evoking memories of his own grandparents): “In Alsace in the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a certain Jewish purity, as there was a Protestant purity. These austere religions offered only demanding things to lean on. Those who practiced them were a suspect group, in the opposition. That led to pride more than to facility.”
Yet, Werth still clung to his identity as a Frenchman; in his October 21 entry, he wrote: “I care about a civilization, about France. I have no other way of dressing (likely a metaphorical reference to how he holds himself out, rather than an actual reference to clothes). I can’t go out completely naked.”
However, in a December 9, 1940 journal entry, he finally identifies himself as a Jew, though he maintains concerns about the narrowing of his worldview that might represent. “I’m a Jew, but am I going to reduce the world to the comforts Jews will have in the Europe of tomorrow?” Then, on July 9, 1941, he manifests actual pride in identifying himself as a Jew:
I am going to Lyons to declare that according to the terms of the law of June 2, 1941, I am Jewish. I feel humiliated. It is the first time that society has humiliated me. I feel humiliated, not because I am Jewish, but because I am presumed to be of inferior quality because I am Jewish. It is absurd; it may be the fault of my pride, but that’s the way it is.
[I am being forced] to claim that I am from a Jewish nation to which I felt no connection…. But if a foreigner means to humiliate me through this nation, I am hurt, and I don’t know if it is this nation or myself I must defend. But simple dignity obliges me to identify myself with it…. It would be just too cowardly to deliberate whether or not I feel Jewish! If you insult the name of Jew in me, then I am Jewish, totally Jewish, Jewish to the tips of my toes, Jewish to my very guts. After that, we will see.
As others go to declare their cattle and the weight of their pigs, I went to the prefecture to declare I was Jewish…. I made my declaration at the prefecture. I threw out the word “Jew,” as if I were about to sing the Marseillaise.
He thereafter recorded everything that he could learn about the deportations and murders of the Jews and, in a March 27, 1944 entry, he manifests deep sympathy for his fellow Jews: “Now and then I wish – oh, I’m well aware it’s a very faint wish – that I were deported to the depths of Poland, to be with the people who are suffering, with those suffering the most.”
Another Saint-Exupéry Jewish connection was his great admiration for civil engineer and Jewish aviator Captain Jean Israël (1913-1995), whom he first met in 1939 and describes in Pilote de Guerre (Flight To Arras) as amongst the squadron’s bravest defenders during the Battle of France. Consistent with his extreme hostility to anti-Semitism, Saint-Exupéry, when discussing Israël’s heroics, always made a point to refer sarcastically to his hero friend’s “very big and very Jewish nose.”
Shot down on a mission on May 22, 1940, Israël was held in a POW camp in Silesia for over five years before being freed by the Allies, and he later became a colonel in the French air force.