Aubrac, Hero Of Resistance
DOUGLAS MARTIN | BBC-NYT NEWS SERVICE
RAYMOND Aubrac, who took that nom de guerre as a storied leader of the resistance effort in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, died on Tuesday in a military hospital in Paris. He was 97 His daughter Catherine announced the death. Aubrac and his wife, Lucie, became exalted symbols of heroism in their country’s fight against the Germans, who defeated France in 1940.
Their story of valour and love was told in movies and books, some written by them, and they were showered with national honours. Lucie Aubrac died in 2007 at 94.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Wednesday that the Aubracs and their colleagues had “operated behind the scenes and saved the honour of France, at a moment when it seemed lost.” The couple were at the centre of one of the most dramatic episodes in wartime France. Aubrac had been captured in June 1943 with Jean Moulin, a revered Resistance leader, and six other operatives.
Tortured by Klaus Barbie, the notorious Gestapo officer known as the Butcher of Lyon, Aubrac was sentenced to death.
Lucie Aubrac, who was pregnant, appealed to Barbie for mercy, saying she wanted to marry Aubrac to make their child legitimate – even though, unbeknown to Barbie, they were already married.
After he rebuffed her, she bribed another Nazi officer to allow the couple to have a marriage ceremony. As they met to sign a marriage certificate, she whispered to her husband that colleagues were planning his rescue.
That happened as a truck was transporting Aubrac and a dozen other prisoners from one jail to another. Suddenly four cars appeared, their occupants brandishing machine guns. Five German guards were killed, and the prisoners escaped. After hearing the coded signal “Ils partiront dans l’ivresse” – “They will leave joyfully” – on BBC radio, the Aubracs were evacuated by a Royal Air Force plane to London in February 1944. In London they worked in General Charles de Gaulle’s government in exile.
Aubrac was born Raymond Samuel on July 31, 1914, to shopkeepers in Vesoul, France. He studied engineering and law in France and received a scholarship to continue his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard for a year.
He met Lucie Bernard while participating in left-wing politics in Paris. They married on December. 14, 1939, in Dijon, after he warned her that it might be dangerous for her to marry a Jew.
“That just made me even more keen,” she said. She joined the Resistance in October 1940, and he joined a month later. The couple settled in Lyon and founded Liberation Sud, an underground network of Resistance fighters operating in southern France. Their principal activity was publishing the underground newspaper Liberation.
Aubrac was arrested twice before falling into Barbie’s hands. His parents died in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
After France was liberated in 1944, Aubrac was appointed commissioner to govern Marseille. But the rough justice he administered to Nazi collaborators during this period, called the “Epuration,” or purification, led to his dismissal in five months.
It did not end his involvement in public affairs, however. He was soon appointed to oversee the destruction of millions of land mines around France.
In 1958, the government of Morocco asked him to help in its economic development efforts, which he did for five years. He continued to work with less developed countries and took a position at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome.
When Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader, went to Paris in 1946 to negotiate independence, he stayed in Aubrac’s home, explaining he would have missed having a garden if he had stayed in a hotel. In 1967, as was later widely reported, the United States secretly enlisted Aubrac to travel to Hanoi to negotiate an agreement to end the Vietnam War. He failed, but an agreement similar to the one he helped fashion led to peace talks.
In 1975, Kurt Waldheim, secretarygeneral of the United Nations, used Aubrac as a channel to communicate with the North Vietnamese and Vietcong authorities during the war’s last throes.
Over the years, historians and others have suggested that there was circumstantial evidence that Aubrac had collaborated with the Nazis in occupied France. He successfully sued one author for libel in 1998, and asked that a jury of historians judge the evidence. The newspaper Liberation, which he had helped found, assembled such a panel, and it concluded that he had not collaborated with the Nazis.
Among the several movies based at least partly on the Aubracs was “Lucie Aubrac,” a 1997 French release directed by Claude Berri and starring Carole Bouquet in the title role.
De Gaulle was the godfather of Aubrac’s daughter Catherine Vallade, while Ho Chi Minh was godfather of his other daughter, Elisabeth Helfer Aubrac. (Ho, an atheist, was said to prefer the term sponsor.) They survive him, along with his son, Jean-Pierre, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.