In the 1940s, the small community of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire near Orléans had some thirteen hundred inhabitants. It was the site of a celebrated abbey church whose fortunes had changed with the history of France.
The year 1789 had not been a happy one for the ten monks living there then. All left after the French Revolution, and the abbey stayed empty until 1865, when monks from a neighboring town came to revive it. In 1901 antireligious laws in France chased all but one caretaker monk away, and it wasn’t until 1944 that the abbey once again became a religious community of Benedictines. By then, France had been under German occupation for almost four years and those who lived in Saint-Benoît were under the eye of the police and the Gestapo.
The poet and painter Max Jacob first came to Saint-Benoît in 1921, and stayed there off and on until 1937, when he settled down permanently, living the life of a monk (early daily Mass, stations of the Cross, evening prayer in the basilica) and working as a church guide. It was a very different life from his days in Paris, where his writings and gouache paintings led to friendships with Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Guillaume Apollinaire, among others. In his journals, Julian Green remembers how Max Jacob used to haunt the Café Sélect by night, and then the next morning hurry down the boulevard to Notre-Dame-des-Champs to confess his sins, with the priests hiding behind the church columns but knowing that one of them would eventually have to listen to the same sins they all knew by heart. Green calls Max Jacob the perfect sinner because he was truly sorry for his sins, which didn’t prevent him from starting all over again the next day.
Max Jacob chose Saint-Benoît to escape his disorderly and worldly life—he was homosexual, he took drugs, he liked to play the clown—and, as his biographer Béatrice Mousli notes, to be nearer to God and away from the temptations that he could never resist in Paris. In the town he became well known as “a picturesque old man” who was probably “a little touched,” a town doctor wrote. Max Jacob didn’t seem to mind. In a letter to a childhood friend, he wrote, “I lead a hermit’s life here: my days are very full, work, religious services, a little reading and sometimes (rarely) painting.” He would probably have continued living in this way were it not for the fact that, though a convert to Catholicism in 1915, he was a Jew in the eyes of the Germans, who made him wear a yellow star.
As early as 1940, a Gestapo officer confronted him about his Jewishness, then again in 1941, and finally, on February 24, 1944, a black Citroën braked sharply in front of the place where he was living. The poet, who had refused to try to escape, was sitting at his work table. Wearing a dark overcoat and a large black beret, suitcase in hand, he soon departed with a “stiff but correct German officer,” and after three days in Orléans, was taken by train to the internment camp at Drancy just outside Paris. To one friend he wrote that the police on the train were charming. His last letter, to Jean Cocteau, was a plea for help, and though Cocteau wrote a moving appeal that reached an official at the German embassy, the reprieve, when it came, was too late. Max Jacob died of pneumonia at Drancy on March 5, 1944, two days before he was scheduled to be sent to Auschwitz. He was sixty-eight. His last request to the Jewish doctor caring for him was to be buried as a Catholic, though he wanted it to be done so as not to offend the Jewish prisoners around him. His wish was granted.
Of all those who went to their deaths during the Second World War, Max Jacob might seem just one among millions. But his death should make us reflect on an almost unavoidable calamity: the individual versus the world. How many people like Max Jacob, who liked to water his plants and pick raspberries and strawberries at Saint-Benoît, have found their hopes for a redemptive and contemplative life ground into the earth by an uncaring world? How many men and women have suffered and died in just these past few years because they happened to be where they were, because no one would let them live their lives, say their prayers, or putter in their gardens in peace? And who is there to change this situation? In one of the poems from his book Le Laboratoire Central (1921), Max Jacob wrote:
And so it is that clothed in innocence and love
I moved forward each day mapping out my work
Praying to God and believing in the beauty of things
Though these lines come from a poem about the establishment of a community in Brazil, they could be used to sum up his life and the lives of a great many other perfect sinners in an imperfect world.