Oddon, Yvonne (1902–1982)

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Oddon, Yvonne (1902–1982)

French librarian who was a key member of the Musée de l'Homme network, the first important resistance organization to actively oppose the German occupation of France. Born in France in 1902; died in 1982.

When tourists to Paris visit the Eiffel Tower, many spend time at the Place du Trocadéro in order to get a panoramic view. Some will decide to enter the Musée de l'Homme located in the Palais de Chaillot, a museum known throughout the scholarly world. In this imposing building, inaugurated in 1937, exhibits explore all facets of humanity through the sciences of biological anthropology, paleoanthropology and prehistory, and ethnology. Now a division of France's Museum of Natural History, the Musée de l'Homme was intended as an experiment in popular education. Under its curator Paul Rivet, it also found itself enmeshed in the political strife of the troubled 1930s, given the fact that Rivet's scholarly beliefs in a common humanity, despite differences in cultural and external appearances, clashed with the racist ideologies of the day, particularly those embodied in France's increasingly arrogant neighbor, Nazi Germany.

The staff assembled by Rivet shared his commitment, including the museum's librarian, Yvonne Oddon. Diminutive in stature, Oddon came from a French Protestant family in a predominantly Catholic nation, making her particularly sensitive to the plight of those suffering from injustice or persecution. Oddon had embarked on a career in librarianship in the early 1920s, at a time when the field was just starting to open to women. After graduating from the American School in Paris in 1924, she studied under Margaret Mann at the Paris Library School, then followed Mann to the United States, when Mann was appointed a faculty member of the newly created University of Michigan Library School. During her two years on the Michigan library staff (1926–28), Oddon gained valuable experience in modern library methods, particularly in the areas of cataloguing and classification. In 1931, a few years after her return to France, she and Charles Henri Bach coauthored Petit guide du bibliothécaire, a useful guide which espoused Anglo-American cataloguing rules and advocated a simplified Dewey Decimal classification for small public libraries.

In 1934, a study visit to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., provided Oddon with additional information on American library theories and practices. Convinced that what she had learned in the States would be of value to French libraries, Oddon returned to Paris determined to implement significant reforms. Her opportunity came soon enough, when in 1937 she was appointed director of the library in the newly created Musée de l'Homme. Oddon had worked at the museum since 1929, when it was known as the Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro (established in 1878), was housed in the old Trocadéro Palace, and had a collection that was largely old, dusty and mildewed. The reborn museum officially reopened in May 1937, at its new home situated in the gleaming white Palais Chaillot. Despite the skepticism of many of her colleagues, who argued that most libraries in France lacked adequate personnel to properly classify the books and maintain order in American-style open stacks, Oddon believed that on balance the system she had seen was superior; so she embarked on the task of classifying the sizable collection according to the Library of Congress method, the first time this approach was used in France.

In September 1939, the calm world of museum librarianship was shattered for Oddon and her colleagues. For the second time in a generation, France found itself at war with Germany. This time, unlike in 1914, many of the French populace harbored defeatist sentiments. In the final years of an increasingly fragile peace, many feared the domestic Left as much or more than Nazi Germany, bringing forth the slogan often heard on the Right, "Better Hitler than Blum." "Blum" referred to Léon Blum, the premier of the Popular Front government, a man who was anathema to many French conservatives and Fascists because he was both a Jew and a Socialist. At the Musée de l'Homme, Oddon and her colleagues paid close attention to the war news even though for more than eight months the French-German conflict was largely confined to border incursions and soon became known as "the Phony War." This ended dramatically on May 10, 1940, when Hitler's legions attacked Belgium, the Netherlands, and France in a brilliantly conceived and executed display of Blitzkrieg tactics. Within days, French forces were in headlong retreat. When German troops entered Paris on June 18, the nation was in a state of profound shock.

In June 1940, only a small minority of French citizens entertained hope when they heard Charles de Gaulle, a little-known general, broadcast over the BBC: "I tell you that nothing is lost for France. One day—victory." The over-whelming majority decided to go on with their lives as if nothing had changed. For them, physical survival was sufficient. The new government, located in the southern French town of Vichy and headed by Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain, a hero of World War I, and Pierre Laval, a political chameleon, was supported by most of the population for the simple reason that France had been so utterly defeated by the Germans that any form of resistance seemed futile. A not inconsiderable number of the French were enthusiastic supporters of Pétain and Laval, whose anti-Marxist, anti-Liberal ideology, summed up in the triad "Patrie, Travail, Famille," gave them hope for the restoration of traditional French cultural and moral values.

From the first phase of the German occupation, the staff of the Musée de l'Homme refused to accept France's defeat, and their attitude of defiance only seemed to grow. Even before France and Germany went to war in 1939, the Musée de l'Homme had engaged in a struggle with the spurious Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy and "superior" vs. "inferior" races of mankind. The museum's leading staff members were active in an organization founded by Rivet, the Vigilance Committee of Anti-Fascist Intellectuals. This group early discerned the dangers of racism, and tried to halt the spread of its doctrines within French academic circles. Even before war began, Oddon and the committee had used the museum's mimeograph machine to produce anti-Nazi manifestoes.

By then, Oddon was well known to archivists and librarians as a leading proponent of modern library science. She did not always take herself seriously, possessed a good sense of humor, and inspired both affection and respect among her closest colleagues, as well as the museum's hundred or so employees. Similar strength of character could be found in abundance in Oddon's colleagues at the Musee de l'Homme. Director Rivet, an authority on the American Indian, was a celebrity in French intellectual

circles as well as an elected city official. His right-hand man was Anatole Lewitzky, a leading authority on Siberian shamanism. Russian-born, Lewitzky had accompanied his family to Switzerland after the Bolshevik revolution, but soon moved to Paris where like many White Russians he earned a living driving a taxi while he completed his university studies. Boris Vildé, a specialist in linguistics, was another Russian-born scholar. Vildé had lived in Germany in the early 1930s but had been disturbed by the rise of Nazism and fled to France after spending time in a German prison as a result of his beliefs. Jacqueline Bordelet , though she was only a part-time employee in the museum's typing pool, quickly became another member of the museum's inner circle. Working toward a graduate degree, Bordelet was in awe of Lewitzky, Oddon, Rivet and Vildé. Soon, her life and theirs would become intertwined.

In the first months of the German occupation, Oddon spent much of her time at her desk in the museum's library on the third floor, sending books and clothing to prisoner-of-war camps. Soon she also found herself involved in harboring fugitives from the Germans, directing them to friends who could assist them in crossing the border to the unoccupied zone of the southern French provinces. Too busy to commute to the museum from her apartment in central Paris, Oddon slept on a couch in the basement office of her colleague Lewitzky, who had returned from his military service. Vildé too had now returned from his unit, and both he and Lewitzky soon noticed that Oddon was unusually busy, not only making telephone calls but receiving visits from people they had never before seen. These included Josie Meyer and Penny Royall , who were on the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Before long, Lewitzky and Vildé made it clear to Oddon that they had caught on to her activities and fully shared her sympathies. The trio spent hours devising ways to make contact with the Free French forces in London and collect information of military value for de Gaulle and the British.

As the weeks passed, the Musee de l'Homme network grew, becoming France's first important resistance group. One of its most active members would be the historian Agnes Humbert , who had long been a friend of Oddon's. A member of the staff of the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires—also situated in the Palais Chaillot—Humbert had been sickened by what was taking place at her museum, which included the purging of its library of books by Jewish authors, and the presence in its offices and corridors of pro-Pétain society women who were enthusiastic about France's "rejuvenation" under the regime of the octogenarian marshal. Humbert was able to recruit two additional intellectuals to the circle, Jean Cassou, director of the Museum of Modern Art, and Claude Aveline, a poet and author of children's books who had been a close friend of Anatole France. All members of the growing resistance circle were fully aware of the risks. For several members of the Musee de l'Homme organization, however, the danger was greatly magnified because they were Jews, including Aveline and Léon-Maurice Nordmann, a lawyer.

By September 1940, Vildé was the organization's leader, with Oddon and Lewitzky as his principal aides. In attempts to find a reliable method of contacting London, another museum staff member, René Creston, made three trips to Brittany. There, he recruited friends in the port city of Saint-Nazaire, which had become the site of a strategically vital German submarine base. Creston and his friends drew up maps and plans of the port and the base itself, particularly its vulnerable system of water locks. He then passed these documents on to the Musée de l'Homme group, who by now were in regular contact with British agents and French citizens who traveled to London. This crucially important intelligence data found its way to London, where it was evaluated and would be of great use to the Royal Air Force when the time came to bomb the German base at Saint-Nazaire (the base would be severely damaged in 1942). Unfortunately, several couriers were intercepted, thus alerting the Germans to the existence of an extensive French resistance circle.

Several other women played important roles in the museum network. Rivet's secretary, Marie-Louise Joubier , served as the typist and mimeograph operator for the sub-group led by Creston. She carried out her clandestine assignments in the museum's basement, for German officers and soldiers could be expected to show up unannounced in the Musée de l'Homme at any time, peeking into offices and wandering up and down corridors. There was also the pious Madame Templier , who owned a small shop in Auteuil where she sold religious books and articles. She had been discovered when she imprudently displayed General de Gaulle's portrait in her shop window. Alerted by Penny Royall, Oddon visited Templier's shop and persuaded her to be the network's "mailbox," where messages, papers and plans of various sorts could be left and picked up.

Other women whose activities complemented the network's overall strategy, which included strengthening contacts with newly emerging resistance groups, included the anthropologist Germaine Tillion , as well as Lucie Boutillier du Rétail , and Claire Oberge . Military plans and false identification papers were prepared in the office of Esperance Blain , whose support came from a group of elderly women at the Paris City Hall, expert at pilfering ration cards. In the town of Béthune, war widow and garage owner Sylvette Leleu , assisted by the nurse Sister Marie Laurence (who had been born in Ireland as Katherine MacCarthy ) were able to smuggle soldiers from German POW camps to safety, as well as relay military intelligence to Vildé. Other members of the Béthune unit of the network were café owner Angeles Tardiveau and the waitress known only as "Mimi la Blonde. " These women took great risks in smuggling prisoners out of German internment camps, and if possible facilitating their movement to neutral Spain and Portugal, or even directly to England.

By the fall of 1940, the Musée de l'Homme organization decided to publish a resistance newspaper, and, as a trial run, prepared a mimeographed pamphlet. Several thousand copies, carrying the title "Vichy Makes War!" and castigating the Pétain government, were discreetly dropped in mailboxes, placed near post office counters or on Métro trains, and slipped into goods displayed in department stores. The organization also made a large number of stickers bearing the legend "Vive de Gaulle," and stuck them all over Paris, in telephone booths, subway passageways, and even public urinals. On more than one occasion, members of the group followed a German staff car or truck, waited until it stopped at a traffic light, then affixed a resistance sticker to the vehicle.

Although a number of anti-German publications had already appeared in the summer and fall of 1940, with such titles as Pantagruel, Maintenir, L'Homme Libre, L'Université Libre, and Libération, the name chosen by the Musée de l'Homme network for its journal, Résistance, would take a special place in the history of the French underground movement. A crudely mimeographed news sheet printed on both sides of two pages, Résistance was grandly subtitled the "Official Bulletin of the National Committee for Public Safety." Printed by five young men in the town of Aubervilliers, it was produced in the rooms of the local Aeronautics Club. Its first official issue, released on December 15, 1940, called on the French people to:

Resist! … To resist is to keep your heart and your head. But it is above all to act, to do something which yields positive results through useful and reasoned action…. Practice an inflexible discipline, a constant prudence, an absolute discretion. Beware of lightweights, those who talk too much, and traitors…. We have only one ambition, one passion, one wish: to accomplish the rebirth of a France that is pure and free.

By the time the third issue of the illegal newspaper appeared on January 31, 1941, the resistance circle's fate had been sealed. The arrest earlier that month of Léon-Maurice Nordmann, who had been distributing copies of Résistance despite the fact that as a Jew he was at far greater risk, marked the impending collapse of the Vildé organization. When he had attempted to find safety by escaping to England, Nordmann was betrayed by Albert Gaveau, a traitor who had infiltrated the highest reaches of the circle.

Relentlessly pursued by both French authorities and the German occupying forces, the Musée de l'Homme network began to unravel. Charged with having provided shelter for Nordmann, Elisabeth de la Panouse , Countess Bourdonnaye, was arrested. Only weeks after Nordmann's arrest, on February 10, 1941, Lewitzky and Oddon were also arrested by an SS officer and Gestapo agents. Vildé remained free for a short time, but he chose to surrender in the hope that he could convince the Germans that the responsibility for the Musée de l'Homme organization's activities was his and his alone.

The trial of Oddon, Vildé, Lewitzky and 16 other defendants began in Fresnes on January 8, 1942. The German presiding judge, Captain Ernst Roskothen, was not a Nazi and clearly sympathized with the defendants. But his powers were greatly circumscribed by the presence on the court of a Nazi, Captain Gottlob, who made clear that harsh verdicts were expected by Berlin. This would indeed be the case. Seven men, including Vildé, Lewitzky, and Nordmann, were condemned to death. Three of the women, Oddon, Leleu, and a student Alice Simmonet , were found guilty of espionage and also sentenced to be executed. The three other women on trial received varying sentences. Jacqueline Bordelet was acquitted and released. Sentenced to six months in prison, Countess Bourdonnaye was also released because of the time she had already spent in prison. Found guilty of anti-German crimes, Agnes Humbert was sentenced to five years' imprisonment, to be served in Germany. In her statement to the court after sentence was pronounced, Oddon simply noted that she was certain that she had acted as her father, who had died of wounds in battle during the First World War, would have wished. She had only done her duty to her country, and as far as she was concerned her conscience was clear.

On February 23, 1942, the seven condemned men were executed by firing squad. All refused blindfolds, and four of them went to their deaths singing the "Marseillaise" in unison. Even Gottlob appeared affected, noting, "They all died as heroes, even Nordmann." Fearing a public relations disaster if they were executed, a "compassionate" Nazi regime decided on appeal to commute the death sentences of Oddon, Leleu and Simmonet. The women were deported to Germany, where they spent the next three years in concentration camps. All survived their ordeals. Oddon returned home to Paris in 1945, where she resumed her career as chief librarian at the Musée de l'Homme. She remained self-effacing about her role in the Resistance and never published her memoirs. When the International Council of Museums (ICOM) was created in Paris in November 1946, it was given responsibility for UNESCO's Documentation Centre, designated the UNESCO/ICOM Documentation Centre. Oddon was appointed its first director. Under her leadership, this body went on to become a major resource center for museums, providing research services to museum professionals and researchers in all fields, as well as providing information to UNESCO headquarters in Paris and to member states of that U.S. subsidiary organization. Oddon also continued to head the library of the Musée de l'Homme, keeping up with the latest advances in library science. She retired from her library career in 1964, and died in 1982, one of the most celebrated heroines of the French Resistance.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia