French resistance heroine whose later years were clouded by allegations that her husband was a Nazi informer
Friday 16 March 2007 23.56 GMT Last modified on Sunday 15 April 2012 21.05 BST
Lucie Aubrac, who has died aged 94, was one of the legendary figures of the French resistance, so famous that in 1997 her story was made into a colourfully romantic film in which she was played by the actor Carole Bouquet. The movie recounted how Lucie tricked the Gestapo and organised a daring raid to free her husband, Raymond, from imprisonment at the hands of the Germans.
A few weeks later, however, the journalist Gérard Chauvy published a book documenting inconsistencies in Lucie's account of her life, insinuating that Raymond, far from being a resistance hero, might have been a German informer. From being resistance legends, the couple found themselves mired in one of those controversies that has punctuated the memory of France's dark years of wartime occupation.
Born into a modest family of Burgundy winegrowers, Lucie Bernard, a brilliant student, obtained in 1938 the agrégation in history - the most prestigious higher degree in France. On the eve of the second world war, she began teaching history at a school in Strasbourg. This was a period of great political conflict in France, and during the 1930s she had become an active supporter of the Communist party, which, like others of her generation, she saw as the most effective bulwark against fascism. In December 1939, she married Raymond Samuel, a young engineer who was also a committed communist.
After the defeat of France in 1940, Lucie resumed teaching at a school in the unoccupied zone in Lyon. That autumn, she met in a cafe Emmanuel d'Astier de la Vigerie, one of those hoping to organise resistance to the German occupation. It was out of such chance encounters that the first resistance groups were formed. Lucie and Raymond became founding leaders of d'Astier's organisation, Libération-Sud, which was to become one of the most important resistance movements in France. There were many women involved in resistance, but relatively few in such prominent positions. This alone would have marked Lucie out as an exceptional individual.
For the first two years of the war, she and Raymond continued their professional occupations - she as a teacher, he as an engineer - while also living double lives as resistance organisers under various pseudonyms. (After the war, they officially adopted as their new name Raymond's resistance alias, "Aubrac"). In May 1941 Lucie gave birth to her first child, Jean-Pierre. So she was living a triple existence as teacher, mother and resister; as she wrote in her memoirs, being the mother of a baby was an excellent cover to divert suspicion from the Germans, and at one meeting between her husband and General de Gaulle's envoy, Jean Moulin, in a Lyon public garden, her presence with her baby boy proved particularly useful.
At the end of 1942, the Germans occupied the whole of France and Lyon became the headquarters of the notorious Gestapo chief, Klaus Barbie. In March 1943 Raymond was arrested. It seems, however, that the Germans and Vichy authorities thought they had only caught a small-time black marketeer, and he was released in May, after Lucie intervened with the local Vichy public prosecutor. Then, on June 21 1943, Raymond was arrested again, along with Moulin himself, at a top level meeting of resisters in a doctor's surgery in the Lyon district of Caluire.
It did not take the Germans long to work out the identities of Moulin and most of the others they had captured. Moulin was horribly tortured and transferred to Paris, where he died. Meanwhile, Raymond was held in the Montluc prison, in Lyon, and beaten up. Lucie mounted an extraordinary scheme to release him. Pregnant again, she presented herself to the Gestapo, claiming to be the recently engaged fiancée of someone she believed to be called "Ermelin", one of Raymond's aliases, who, she claimed, had been innocently caught up in the raid while visiting the doctor. When told that her "fiancé" was a resister who was to be executed, she begged to be allowed to save her honour and legitimise her expected child by marrying him under a French legal clause which allowed an engaged couple to wed if one of them is about to die. The Gestapo lieutenant swallowed her story, and on the day Raymond was being transferred back from Gestapo headquarters to prison after the "marriage", armed resisters attacked the lorry and freed him and 15 other prisoners.
Lucie and Raymond went into hiding until a plane could take them to London, where they arrived in February 1944. Their second child, Catherine, was born a few days later. On March 20 1944, De Gaulle's provisional government announced that once France was liberated, women would - for the first time - be given the vote. In anticipation of this, and before elections could occur, the general had appointed a consultative assembly, which Lucie joined as a resistance representative. She thus became the first woman ever to sit in a French parliamentary assembly.
In 1945, once the war was over, she published a short history of the resistance - the first to appear - and then returned to teaching. In retirement, she saw it as her duty to ensure that the memory of the resistance lived on in the memories of younger generations of French men and women, and she would regularly visit schools to provide her own testimony as survivor and historian.
This is how Lucie's life might have ended had she and Raymond not been catapulted into controversy in 1983 after Barbie's extradition from Bolivia to stand trial in France. Before his trial, Barbie let it be known that he would reveal new facts about the resistance, including the claim that after his first arrest Raymond had turned informer and betrayed Moulin. The allegations never came to anything, but were troubling enough for Lucie to write her own memory of the affair (translated into English as Outwitting the Gestapo).
After Barbie's death in 1990, however, a document - the so-called Testament of Barbie - began circulating in newspaper offices and repeating the allegations about Aubrac. It was also at this point that Chauvy produced his book. Although distancing itself from Barbie's more extreme accusations, Chauvy's work was based on genuine archival material, and its overall effect was to cast a cloud of suspicion over the veracity of Lucie's account.
Twenty leading resistance survivors published a protest letter, but the Aubracs were deeply upset by the book, and asked to be given a chance to explain themselves before a panel of leading French historians. The newspaper Libération organised a discussion between the historians and the Aubracs.
But what had been intended by the Aubracs as a way of clearing their name turned into an acrimonious exchange in which they found themselves almost on trial. None of the historians accepted the idea that Raymond had been an informer, but they noted inconsistencies and contradictions in the various versions Lucie had given over the years. There were oddities in the case which have never been entirely elucidated: what were the exact circumstances of Raymond's first release from prison?; why was he the only resister arrested at Caluire not to have been moved to Paris (thus making it possible for Lucie to save him)?
The arrest of Moulin, in which the Aubracs were caught up, was the greatest drama of the resistance. And the Aubrac affair of the 1990s reminded people that, apart from the cases of betrayal that provide rich fodder for conspiracy theorists, the resistance was also plagued by internal conflicts of ideology and personalities. The fact that the Aubracs remained communist sympathisers long after the end of the war may have had something to do with the attacks on them.
In exasperation, at one point, Lucie protested that her memoirs - written 40 years after the events, when she was in her 70s - could not be expected to be accurate in every detail: she said she had been writing her story, not history. To which the historians present could only reply that their job was to write history, even if it meant unpicking the stories people wished to tell.
The tragedy of the situation was that Lucie, herself a historian and historical actor, was at the end of her life caught between the conflicting imperatives of historical truth and legendary memory. None of which detracts from the fact that, whatever happened in Lyon in the summer of 1943, she was a woman of great courage, character and energy, one of the last survivors of a generation that, between 1940 and 1945, helped to save the honour of France. Raymond and her three children survive her.
· Lucie Aubrac, teacher and resistance leader, born June 29 1912; died March 14 2007
|Lucie Aubrac: The French Resistance Heroine Who Outwitted the Gestapo by Siân Rees|
In May 1943, a young Frenchwoman called Lucie Aubrac engineered the escape of her husband, Raymond, from the clutches of Klaus Barbie, the feared Gestapo chief later known as the "Butcher of Lyon." When Raymond was arrested again that June, Lucie mounted a second astonishing rescue, ambushing the prison van that was transporting him. As a founding member and leader of the important French Resistance group Liberation-Sud, Lucie served as a courier, arms carrier, and saboteur who engineered these and other escape plans on behalf of her husband and other Resistance fighters.
Spirited out of France with Raymond by the RAF, Lucie arrived in London a heroine. For the postwar generation the couple embodied the spirit of "the real France": the one that resisted, and eventually expelled the Nazis. However, in 1983, Kalus Barbie made the bombshell claim that the Aubracs had become informers in 1943, betraying their comrades. The French press and the couple themselves furiously denounced this as slander, but as worrying inconsistencies were spotted in Lucie's story, doubts emerged that have never quite gone away.
Who was Lucie Aubrac? What did she really do in 1943? And was she truly the spirit of la vraie France, or a woman who could not resist casting herself as a heroine? Siân Rees’s penetrating, even-handed account draws from letters, newspaper articles, and other archival materials, as well as several interviews, to decipher the truth behind Lucie and her husband's wartime endeavors and near fall from grace. It offers a thrilling portrait of a brave, resourceful woman who went to extraordinary lengths for love and country.
Lucie Aubrac: The French Resistance Heroine Who Outwitted the Gestapo / Hardcover – June 1, 2016
by Siân Rees
Review By E. Bukowskyon / June 15, 2016
Lucie and Raymond Aubrac, who died in 2007 and 2012 respectively, are revered in France, more than seventy years after they risked their lives to thwart their Nazi occupiers. This valiant couple, who fled their homeland in 1944, arrived in London when Lucie was eight months pregnant with their second child. In 1943, the Gestapo captured Raymond Samuel (who had adopted the alias Aubrac). Obersturmführer Klaus Barbie, the infamous "Butcher of Lyon," might have executed Raymond had Lucie not hatched an audacious plan to free her husband.
Siân Rees, in "Lucie Aubrac," focuses on the political and social climate in France under Field Marshal Philippe Pétain's Vichy government. In opposition to Pétain's puppet regime, competing groups sprang up, all determined to resist the German juggernaut. Two of their most energetic and outspoken leaders were Lucie and Raymond, who hid in plain sight while helping organize the various factions into an effective force. Lucie was politically engaged, took risks when she believed they were warranted, and firmly embraced the values of social justice, tolerance, and pacifism. She was instrumental in creating and distributing an underground newspaper and played a key role in rescuing detainees from "internment camps, military prisons, and police cells." Lucie and Raymond's home was "both a political headquarters and a safe house for people on the run."
Rees puts Lucie's life, before, during, and after the Second World War, in historical context. Especially galling are the outrages perpetrated by the Vichy government, whose functionaries actively participated in the deportation of thousands of Jews to concentration camps. The author also discusses other important resistance figures, such as Emmanuel d'Astier and Jean Moulin, some of whom paid the ultimate price for their selflessness. Lucie Aubrac (she and Raymond adopted the name "Aubrac" legally in 1950) was not a saint. Some of her acquaintances considered her to be impetuous and overly excitable. In addition, she embellished the truth when it suited her, perhaps in an attempt to make her tales more interesting and entertaining. "Lucie Aubrac" drags at times, especially in the lengthy section dealing with the Aubracs' postwar activities. Overall, however, this is an intriguing and informative portrait of a compassionate and independent woman. Although she could have emigrated to America, Lucie chose to remain in France during its "Dark Years." Freedom fighter such as Lucie and Raymond "upheld French honor at a bleak time in their country's history."