Aubrac, Lucie (1912—)
Aubrac, Lucie (1912—)
French Resistance leader during World War II who helped found the powerful Libération Sud and was responsible for numerous escapes. Name variations: Lucie Bernard, Lucie Samuel. Born Lucie Bernard in the Mâcon area of Burgundy, France, on June 29, 1912; daughter of winegrowers; attended the Sorbonne, 1931–38; married Raymond Samuel, on December 14, 1939; children: Jean-Pierre (b. May 3, 1941), Catherine (b. February 19, 1944), Elisabeth (b. 1946).
La Résistance (Naissance et Organisation, Paris, 1945); "Présence des femmes dans toutes les activités de la Résistance," in Femmes dans la Résistance (Monaco: Editions du Rocher, 1977); Ils partiront dans l'ivresse (Paris, 1984; Outwitting the Gestapo, translated by Konrad Bieber, with the assistance of Betsy Wing, University of Nebraska Press, 1993).
During World War II, the French Resistance turned civilians—people who worried about bills, taxes, coughs, and impetigo—into counterfeiters,
forgers, thieves, saboteurs, and killers. An estimated 222,000 belonged to resistance movements, while many townspeople, though uninvolved, were sympathetic. Without the aid of televisions, transistor radios, tape recorders, and untapped telephone lines, the dissemination of information was difficult. The Resistance relied on a network of underground, hand-delivered newspapers. During the war, French women shared the same risks and responsibilities as men. As liaison agents, they used shopping bags, bike baskets, and baby carriages to smuggle everything from messages to guns; they procured forged papers and provisions and became false fiancées accompanying male agents into prisons. They also spent their moonlighting hours assisting in derailments, while working amid double agents. One of the most active members of the Resistance was Lucie Aubrac. From 1940 to 1944, she participated in raids, arranged contacts, delivered patriots from the Gestapo, and organized their escape from France. Aubrac specialized in organizing prison escapes, three of which included her résistant husband. "A long list of men and women," writes Maria Wilhelm , "owe their lives to her."
The daughter of Catholic winemakers, Lucie Aubrac was a pacifist in her youth; her father, an infantryman, had been critically wounded in World War I. Graduating from the Sorbonne with an agrégée d'histoire (one of France's highest academic degrees), she first taught history at Strasbourg lycée for girls. When she met her husband Raymond Samuels in 1938, he was fulfilling his military service as a second lieutenant in the Engineer Corps, building roads and bridges. He had spent the preceding years in America, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, and had been offered a job as an assistant to a professor at MIT. Lucie also had been granted a fellowship in the United States to work on her dissertation. But when Hitler marched into Poland in September 1939, even though Raymond was Jewish, both decided to stay in France. They were married that December.
On May 10, 1940, the Germans attacked through Belgium, outflanking the Maginot Line. Within days, the French forces were in a state of collapse. Paris was declared an open city and surrendered without resistance on June 14, 1940. To shore up the government and public morale, 84-year-old Marshal Pétain was named premier. Convinced that a continuation of the war would result in the physical ruin of France, Pétain essentially requested an armistice. The following day, in direct contradiction, General Charles de Gaulle broadcast from London his first appeal calling for the French to defend their national honor and resist the German forces.
The armistice granted by the Germans left them in occupation of roughly the northern three-fifths of France, including Paris. As the Germans consolidated their hold on northern France, Pétain's government moved to the spa resort of Vichy in the unoccupied zone. Meanwhile, Pierre Laval and a group of political leaders at Vichy restructured the government in an authoritarian manner that enhanced Pétain's powers and aligned France more closely with the victorious Axis powers. A law of October 1940 barred Jews from public office, teaching, and military command. Pétain's humane reputation with respect to soldiers under his command had obvious limits as Vichy's police helped round up résistants and thousands of French Jews for deportation to the German extermination camps. By 1944, his government would be acting as a virtual proxy for the Germans.
"The defeat and the Occupation gave birth in France to a new national feeling," wrote Aubrac, "stimulated among all classes of society by the presence of German soldiers on French soil…. The commandeering of foodstuffs and industrial commodities, the billeting of German soldiers, the curfew, and patrolling of French streets by German soldiers" all served to produce a conditioned reflex.
A little like children in the presence of a boorish teacher, the French tended from the outset to make fun of the Germans. Travellers in the Métro would deliberately direct Germans to stations miles out of their way; bus conductors would skip stops where Germans wanted to get off; while shop assistants loved to sell Germans all the duddest and most unsalable articles, after a glowing display of flattery…. The servility of the French press in Paris was so blatant that the critical sense of the French people reacted immediately. The corrupt and notorious pro-German agents and the newly-acquired German stooges filled people with the same degree of disgust. A kind of instinctive national solidarity found expression in innumerable cases where escaped war prisoners needed help.
One such prisoner was her captured French army husband who, by August of 1940, was sitting out his days in the Uhlans barracks at Sarrebourg, where the members of his regiment were confined as prisoners of war. While visiting, Aubrac managed to slip him some fever-inducing pills. Since the Germans were then still observing the tenets of the Geneva Convention, they transferred the feverish Raymond to a hospital run by the Red Cross. That night, he went over the wall. After his escape, the couple relocated to the capital of the resistance, Lyon, in September 1940, in the unoccupied zone of France. There, they helped start a publication and a movement, Libération Sud ("Liberation South").
The sellout of the French press to Vichy became the impetus for the underground counter-press, and each insurgent newspaper spawned its own secret army. Four of the most important resistance groups in France during World War II, writes historian Alexander Werth, were Combat (edited by Albert Camus, with frequent contributions by Jean-Paul Sartre); Libération Sud, Franc-Tireur, and Témoignage Chrétien, all of which would continue to publish after the war. (Another famous woman of the Resistance, Bertie Albrecht , was a member of Combat.)
The aim of Libération Sud was to incite popular revolt and a general strike, and to alert the French to the treacherous machinations of Pétain's Vichy government. The movement's leader was Emmanuel d'Astier de la Vigerie, a former naval officer, "and a remarkable writer," according to Werth. Members wanted to assemble Communists, Socialists, and trade unionists (both Socialist-Communist and Catholic) into a powerful resistance movement; they wanted to mobilize the masses, especially in the industrial centers.
A large portion of the university element of Libération Sud was made up of students from the University of Strasbourg, who had been evacuated to Clermont-Ferrand at the beginning of the war. Like the Aubracs, intellectuals had fled to the Vichy zone in 1940. "Among these groups were easily found people who could reinforce this or that strike movement," wrote Aubrac, "or organize attacks on trains, carrying new French war material nach Berlin."
In the autumn of 1941, Lucie was teaching history and geography in a Lyon girls' school on the place Edgar-Quinet. Raymond was an engineer, working for the Chemin Company; he was directing repair work on landing strips at an airport. They lived in a small house on the avenue Esquirol, with Maria their maid, and their small son Jean-Pierre, whose Resistance name was Boubou.
The Resistance worked under the theory of cloisonnement (containment): know as little as possible. This way, captured agents could divulge very little under torture. Even within the Resistance, they only knew each other by assumed names. To all his Resistance contacts, Raymond Samuels was a man named Balmont or Ermelin, and later Aubrac. For the Germans and the French police, his identity papers carried the name Vallet with an address on Croix-Rousse hill where he kept a small apartment in case of arrest. He did not want the Gestapo coming to their home.
Lucie was known as Catherine to fellow resistance leaders. She used an old identity card with her maiden name and the address of her old student residence in Paris; thus, if caught, she was Lucie Bernard. So that she might get a quick leave of absence or day off from teaching without inciting suspicion, a sympathetic doctor faked her medical records, giving her a history of cured TB and anemia. For the next few years, her anemia was put to good use. She describes one such incident in her memoir, Outwitting the Gestapo. When Libération Sud learned that four résistants, who had been wounded or beaten and tortured, were being held as prisoners in Saint-Etienne Hospital, Lucie Aubrac took the train from Lyon to Saint-Etienne.
I walk into the hospital as if perfectly at home, with my canvas bag slung over my arm, and I get to the toilets without being stopped. I slip on the white gown and put the stethoscope around my neck, then with total self-confidence I walk toward one of the general medical wards. A nurse greets me and shows no sign of surprise. Everything is going fine. Ten beds to this ward. I go up to one of them, where an old woman lies dozing. At the foot of the bed I pick up the medical chart, note the temperature curve, the date of admission, the diagnosis, the frequency and the name of the medications. For this first morning, I limit myself to one walk up and down the corridors.
On the second and third day, she commuted from Lyon (one hour by train, then a trolley) to the hospital. The staff grew accustomed to her presence. On the fourth day, she located the section on the second floor where the prisoners were being held. She watched as a doctor entered the prison section of the hospital; she waited until he came out an hour later, followed by two interns and a male nurse.
As they are leaving, the nurse stops to light a cigarette. I walk up to him and say: "Can I have a light?" We both stop walking while I slowly take out a cigarette from my purse and light it just as slowly. By now the three others are way ahead of us.
"Are they in such bad shape?"
"Oh," he answers, "two of them have to be operated on, but we drag the process out as long as we can because afterward, the Gestapo will take them back. It's wretched."
He hurries off to rejoin the group. I turn on my heels as if I have something urgent to attend to. As I pass by two policemen who saw me talking to the nurse, I mumble: "They forgot to take number three's blood pressure again." And without further explanation I enter the room.
Albrecht, Bertie (?–1943)
French partisan. Born of Swiss parents in Marseille; died at Fresnes prison on May 29, 1943.
Before the start of World War II, Bertie Albrecht worked on the personnel staff in several industrial plants in Paris. When Marshal Pétain called for armistice, she was employed in a factory in Vierzon, a perfect village for Resistance work; the town sat on the demarcation line between occupied and Vichy France. In December 1940, she sought out Henri Frenay in Vichy, whose group would eventually be known as Combat. Albrecht typed and distributed their underground newspaper, a roneotyped newsletter called "Petites Ailes."
Moving to Lyon, she took a cover job, that of regional director for unemployed women at the Ministry of Labor. At first she was able to set up new resistance cells with women in the neighborhood, but suspicions were aroused. When the French police knocked at her door, she delayed admitting them until she had destroyed incriminating documents. Reminded that burning papers was against the law, Albrecht replied, "Sirs, you do your job, I do mine, and I prefer mine to yours." Interned at Vals, she demanded a trial, but those at Vichy ignored her. She then attempted a 13-day hunger strike. When prison doctors refused to force-feed her, she was transferred to St. Joseph, and her case came to trial in October 1942. Though she was sentenced to six months and fined 60,000 francs, the Vichy government ordered her transferred to a concentration camp.
To buy time, Albrecht feigned insanity and outmaneuvered a legion of psychiatrists who examined her. She was then taken to an asylum at Bron, and, on December 29, fellow Combat regulars helped her escape. But her face was now well-known, and she was encouraged to leave the country. Refusing, Albrecht plunged into underground work, even replacing Frenay when he was away. When the Gestapo caught up with her again, she was taken to Mâcon prison, then to Fresnes. For years, her death was shrouded in mystery. It was later learned that, fearing what she might say under torture, Bertie Albrecht hung herself in the cell she was occupying at Fresnes prison on May 29, 1943.
Finding the prisoners, she leaned in with her stethoscope, and apprised them each of escape plans, while also noting the patient's name and health status from each chart. These were the names the Gestapo were using, and these were the names the Resistance employed when they drove up a day later in three black Citroëns, the kind used by the Gestapo, with three faked license plates and German windshield stickers. They demanded the prisoners and walked off with them.
By 1942, individual resistance movements inside France were becoming more than an irritant to Nazi Germany. Outside France, however, London-based de Gaulle was having difficulty convincing the Allies to recognize his authority. Though he headed all French forces outside his country, he needed to show that a united France was behind him. His lieutenant Jean Moulin, under the code names Rex and Max, was dispatched to France to create the Conseil National de la Résistance (CNR, National Council of Resistance). It was not an easy task: de Gaulle wanted to be commander in chief of resistance forces inside France, but resistance leaders were suspicious of him, speculating that he might be a puppet of the British.
"The CNR," Aubrac told Werth, "was created towards the end of the Resistance, just in order to give the world the idea that de Gaulle had 'the whole of France behind him.'… For a long time the Resistance didn't know much about him. In Normandy, before he arrived, they used to ask: 'What's he like—big or small, thin or fat?'" Tensions also arose over a prolonged debate as to whether or not the French Communist groups would join. They subsequently did.
Amazingly, for the most part Moulin brought off the unification. A former prefect in Chartes, he had been arrested and tortured by the Germans, fled to London in September 1941, then returned to France in January 1942. (Laure Diebold would be appointed Moulin's secretary on September 1). By March 1943, Moulin had unified the three principal movements in the South under the banner MUR (Mouvements Unis de la Résistance), which included Libération Sud. It was a shadow army with four subgroups: Armée Secrète, Groupes Francs (of which Lucie Aubrac was a member), Maquis, and Parachutages. General Délestraint was made head of the unified Secret Army, about 80,000 strong, with a member of Combat and Raymond Aubrac as his deputies.
The activities, the risk, and the size of the units escalated. Until February 16, 1943, the Resistance had been comprised mostly of political idealists. Many of the French had remained non-partisan. Then, the Germans, facing a shortage of manpower for their factories, instituted STO (Service du Travail Obligatoire). All French men born between January 1920 and December 31, 1922, were conscripted, hauled out of French factories, rounded up in the street, transported, and forced to work in German industry. This spurred the Resistance and many more joined its ranks. Many of the French workers, as well as Jews, aided by the Resistance movements, began to "get lost" in the countryside. They were also aided by MUR with its "forged papers service." For over two years, MUR was involved "in some of the most fantastic activities connected with the Resistance," writes Werth. "All this work was a good deal more complicated and more dangerous than the mere production of clandestine newspapers." The MUR not only forged documents, ration cards, and identity cards, but they unnerved the Germans, and the entire system, by spreading rumors that genuine labor and identity cards were forgeries.
From March to May of 1943, Raymond Aubrac was once again in jail. He and other leaders had been arrested on March 15, but the French police didn't know who they had; as far as they were concerned, he was a man named François Vallet involved in black-market activities. While the MUR considered escape plans, Lucie—suspecting the French prosecutor who would not sign for bail was a coward—went to his house and threatened him with the vengeance of the entire underground community. Then she walked home terrified. Raymond was released on May 14, 1943, and jumped bail. The other leaders also escaped.
On June 21, 1943, in a Lyon suburb, Moulin and seven other resistance leaders, including Raymond, gathered at a partisan doctor's clinic at Caluire for a clandestine meeting. A month earlier, Moulin had offered Raymond command of the Secret Army in the Northern Zone (occupied France, from the Pyrenees to the Belgian border). Seconds after Moulin's arrival, sirens wailed, and they were arrested by the Gestapo headed by Klaus Barbie. Délestraint had been arrested earlier.
The Resistance had no idea where Moulin and the others were taken, nor whether the Gestapo knew the importance of their prisoners. Lucie suspected they were being held at the Gestapo's Montluc prison. Aware of the danger, she wrapped clean clothes in a sheet of newspaper containing a crossword puzzle, went to Montluc, handed them to a guard in the prison guard house, and requested they be given to Claude Ermelin, a name Raymond was then using. She concluded that if the guard accepted the package, Raymond was being held there, and that was the name by which they knew him. The guard took the package and was gone for some time. When he returned, he handed her some dirty socks rewrapped in the newspaper. In squares of the crossword puzzle, faintly written, were seven letters: MAXWELL. It was then she knew: Raymond Aubrac was in Montluc and Jean Moulin, under the codename Max, was still alive.
Still unsure of how much the Germans knew, she went to Gestapo headquarters. There, she asked to speak to the head of German police services, and was ushered in front of Klaus Barbie. Aubrac was amazed that this young, plain-looking man, shorter than she, who had all Lyon shaking, was the Butcher of Lyon. She told Barbie that she hadn't seen her fiancé since yesterday, that he'd recently had a bad bout with tuberculosis and was going for a check up (the Germans hated infectious diseases), and that the French police told her the Germans had arrested him, along with others, at the doctor's in Caluire. She begged Barbie for his quick release: "his health," she said, "is so frail." When he asked for the man's name, she replied Claude Ermelin. Smiling, Barbie threw a file on the table. "His name is not Ermelin but Vallet," said Barbie, who went on to describe Raymond's arrest as a Gaullist and his identity as a terrorist. Barbie said he would not be released; instead, he would be executed. But, by the time Lucie departed, she had convinced Barbie, with the help of sincere tears, that she had met Vallet on the Cote d'Azur and had fallen in love. Now, Lucie told him, she was pregnant (which was true), and they had planned to marry soon.
Next, Aubrac sent her son Boubou away to a children's home in the mountains. Then, she sat down with other members of the Resistance. To prepare for the rescue, D'Astier gave her 350,000 francs to pay Resistance workers who had little on which to live. They could attack the prison van on its daily trip between Montluc and the health-science school where the prisoners were interrogated in the basement. The question was: how to get Raymond into that van?
Aubrac engineered an appointment with a German colonel who might help. She reiterated her story, telling him she only wanted to see her fiancé once before he died. A well-placed case of cognac cinched the deal: Raymond would be brought out of the prison to the German colonel's office where he was to be briefly reunited with Lucie; the Resistance could then hijack the German pickup truck on its return trip. In case the escape should fail, Aubrac sought out a doctor who inoculated ten wrapped sourball candies with a form of typhus virus; they would stand a better chance of springing him from a hospital than a prison.
On the day of her meeting with Raymond, Lucie managed to give him the hard candies, but the timing of the Resistance was off, and they failed to stop the prison truck. And, though she checked, no prisoner entered a hospital with typhoid. (The doctor later realized that the candies were useless due to the presence of an antiseptic agent used to keep the sugars from breaking down.)
In the failed attempt, they had seen something that would necessitate a new plan: the German guards in the back of the truck had their submachine guns trained on the cargo. If the guards heard gunfire, they would kill the prisoners. The driver and the front-seat guard had to be killed silently. The Resistance group needed a silencer (which they knew of only from gangster movies). Aubrac was soon on a train on her way to the border, where Swiss customs officials gave her two boxes, each containing a silencer.
Once again, Aubrac had to maneuver the Germans into transporting Raymond between Montluc and the health and science building. Planning to invoke the French law of marriage in extremis from the Napoleonic code, she made another appointment; this time with a German Gestapo lieutenant. He was sympathetic to the frightened, unmarried pregnant woman who cried for her family and her good name. He told her that the man they were executing was not who she thought he was, that he was a terrorist, a man named Vallet. As if to underscore the seriousness, he told her an envoy of General de Gaulle was also involved in the matter and died more than a month ago. Lucie begged to meet Vallet face-to-face to convince him to accept the marriage and sign a contract. She told the lieutenant that hers was a family with land holdings, and she didn't want her inheritance going to his family. Reluctantly, the German lieutenant agreed. She left with an important piece of information: Jean Moulin was dead.
Meanwhile, their group leader had been captured and, while breaking away, had been wounded. Since he was seriously ill, the group wanted to postpone the escape. Aubrac, who knew they had few chances left, took command, and convinced them to proceed. At this point, she was six months pregnant.
On October 21, 1943, at Gestapo headquarters, Lucie Aubrac met her husband once again; he signed the marriage contract and managed a quick wink. Emerging from the Gestapo building, she walked to town hall to file the contract, had a cup of hot chocolate in the Marquise de Sévigné tearoom, went to her husband's hideout to grab a pistol and change clothes, then climbed into the back seat of a Citroën behind the driver and the sharpshooter, who had a sub-machine gun on his lap, capped by a silencer. When the gate of the health-and-science building opened and the German pickup truck came out, the Citroën pulled alongside the German driver. The submachine gun was soundless and the German truck, its driver dead, slowed to a curb. Guns raised, the guards jumped out to see if the vehicle was malfunctioning. Three cars filled with partisans moved in, killing the German guards, and Raymond, with the other prisoners, was freed.
While Barbie's girlfriend looked on, Raymond Aubrac had been badly beaten during four months of interrogations under Klaus Barbie. Jean Moulin had also been savagely tortured and killed because he would not talk. "His head all bloody," wrote Moulin's sister, "his insides burst open, he reached the limit of human suffering, without once betraying a single secret, he who knew them all."
On November 3, while Raymond convalesced in hiding, the Aubracs learned that Lucie's identity had been uncovered and the Gestapo had come to their home, looking for her. The news was worse the following day. The Gestapo had discovered where she had placed her son. Men of the Resistance hurried to his school in the mountains. While his parents waited in terror for news, the Resistance beat the Gestapo. The Aubracs now knew they must take their son and leave the country.
"Everyone knows what would happen to me if I were caught," she wrote. "Many people fear the repercussions of my possible arrest. I know far too many things, dating from the fall of 1940 when Libération was established. I know too many people at every level. Many who are well known, some of them sought by the Germans; many heads of sections in the various services; many of the liaison people in the provinces. In other words, I have become very dangerous."
But getting resistance wives out of the country along with resistance leader husbands was difficult; space was at a premium. The underground convinced the British of Lucie's importance by making her a representative of the United Resistance Movement with a seat at the conservative assembly of the French Committee of National Liberation in Algiers in 1944. Thus, Aubrac became the first French woman parliamentarian. That year, de Gaulle finally awarded French women the right to vote and run for office. The law was first exercised in 1946.
On Tuesday, February 8, 1944, using the light of the moon, a plane left a French meadow for London, carrying the Aubracs. Four days later, on February 12, she had her first daughter in a London hospital. News of the escape and birth was radioed into France over the BBC: "Boubou has a little sister, Catherine, born on the twelfth." Their daughter Elisabeth was born in 1946.
After the war, d'Astier became a member of de Gaulle's Cabinet during the Liberation, then a member of Parliament; he finally returned to journalism before he died. Raymond, whose parents were killed at Auschwitz, returned to France with the landing forces in Provence in August 1944. He was appointed commissaire régional de la République by de Gaulle and resumed his work as engineer with the Ministry of Reconstruction, responsible for mine clearance.
Lucie helped establish the new Public Administration in Normandy and was a member of the Consultative Assembly in Paris, as well as the Second World War Historical Committee. She resumed teaching in Paris, in Rabat (Morocco), and Rome, then retired in 1966 but remained active in movements concerning racism and in remembrance of the Resistance. In her memoirs, first published in France in 1984, as Ils partiront dans l'ivresse (Outwitting the Gestapo), she chronicles nine months, while she was pregnant with her second child, of her nearly 60 months of life during the French Resistance.
In 1983, Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, went on trial in Lyon. Since French law does not permit sentencing for repressing the Resistance, he was held for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Barbie's defense was to attack the Resistance, tarnish the heroes, sow doubt. He insinuated that Moulin committed suicide, while revisionists denied the existence of death camps. In effect, Barbie put the Resistance on trial. In 1987, he was sentenced to life in prison. Earlier that year, the Aubracs won a liable suit against Barbie's lawyer for slander.
Aubrac, Lucie. La Résistance (Naissance et Organisation). Paris, 1945.
——. Outwitting the Gestapo. Trans by Konrad Bieber, with the assistance of Betsy Wing. University of Nebraska Press, 1993 (first published in France in 1984 as Ils partiront dans l'ivresse.)
Werth, Alexander. France: 1940–1955. NY: Henry Holt, 1956.