The lifelong philosophy of a resistance heroine.
Lucie’s disguise is convincing. Different hair, a little makeup, a characterful rayon dress, and a veiled pillow box hat. She sits in front of the feared Gestapo head in Lyon, Klaus Barbie, a la the butcher, and her act seems to be working.
If she feels repulsed at sitting so close to a man who represents everything she has fought against her entire life, she holds it in.
Weeks after the arrest of her husband and eight comrades at a clandestine resistance meeting, Lucie has finally found a way to set him free, tenuous though it is.
Like his fellow soldiers on the day of arrest, her husband, Raymond Samuel, carried a fake identity card. If his captors had discovered his real name and Jewish heritage, he would have been sent straight to a concentration camp.
Today, Wednesday, June 23, 1943, in the Rhone Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes capital, Lyon, Lucie is also incognito.
Her fake ID reads Miss de Barbentane, and she is seeking news of her husband’s arrested alias, Claude Ermelin. In her undercover story, she is the fiancé of Ermelin.
Lucie recounts the event in her retrospective autobiography, Outwitting The Gestapo.
She gives his name. Barbie smirks and takes a set of photographs from his drawer, throwing them down in front of her. The pictures are of her and Raymond and their child at the seaside.
Doesn’t he recognize her from the photo? No, her charade continues.
“Your fiancé is deceiving you,’ he says. ‘…he won’t be set free. He is a terrorist, and he must pay.” — Aubrac, p81.
She focuses on the positives, he is still alive in Montluc Prison, and his real identity must be safe. She doesn’t know about Raymond’s daily beatings for information or comrade Jean Moulin’s death by torture.
Many years later, Barbie is charged with crimes against humanity, but he remains a terrifying symbol of Nazi omnipotence as he shoos Lucie out of his office.
The prisoner’s release is not possible. But Lucie, 31 years old and 2.5 months pregnant with her second child, has never accepted the impossible There must be a way to set Raymond free; for Lucie, there was always a way.
Her life until now had been a series of refusals to accept conditions put on her by external forces.
A Life of Refusal
Siân Rees chronicles her life in Lucie Aubrac: The French Resistance Heroine Who Defied the Gestapo.
“Liberty, she said frequently, was directly linked to the same cherished principle of refusal, and refusal was linked to disobedience” – Rees, p17.
She was born into a working-class family of winegrowers in Burgundy. Her father was often unemployable, having PTSD from fighting in the first world war and her mother, Louise, was perpetually exhausted, working multiple jobs to keep the family afloat.
Social mobility in 1920s France had its limitations, and her mother, Louise, was determined that her daughters would have the best possible opportunities to live a life beyond poverty.
Private education was beyond their means, but Louise was resolved that her daughters would become teachers, one of the few options for working-class girls to move up in the world.
When Lucie was 17, the family gave up the freedom they had earned in Burgundy and moved to a Parisian suburb so she could study at a reputable college and increase her career opportunities.
It took Lucie three years to pass the entrance exam while her family toiled and saved to support her.
Then, Lucie changed her mind, deciding that her mother’s plans were not ambitious enough for her. She refused to take up the post at the college. Instead, she decided on a destiny unimaginable for a poor, working-class girl — an exclusive Sorbonne education.
Her refusal was not some glib assertion of entitlement and the ambitious paths that she chose she worked tirelessly for.
Gaining entrance to the Sorbonne took six years. She worked many jobs to scrape her rent and tuition feed, often went without food, and heating and had to teach herself Latin from scratch.
In 1938 she graduated from the Sorbonne with a qualification to teach at the Lycee, a position she could not have held if she had followed through with her mother’s ambition to become a primary school teacher.
Lucie met her future husband in Strasbourg, and his monied upbringing was a world apart from the life of peasantry and poverty that Lucie had known.
If class restrictions were in force in education, then the same stood in marriage matters. She didn’t appear to give any thought to objections that might arise regarding her marriage to Raymond.
After a few minor setbacks; declaration of war, Strasbourg on lockdown, and a country in chaos, the two married in 1939.
Refusal To Surrender To Occupied Life
In 1940 Lucie carried out her first rescue mission, acting alone and without guidance. Her husband was an officer in the French army, and his company was captured and imprisoned in Sarrebourg, not far from the German border.
Lucie undertook the unimaginable, traveling in the direction of the enemy when the rest of the country was fleeing the other way.
Demanding an audience with her husband at the camp, she slipped him a vial of an infectious disease. The Germans were terrified of maladies, and, as expected, Raymond was removed from the prison to the hospital.
At the hospital, Lucie slipped Raymond a set of workman’s overalls to disguise himself in and jump over the fence when the armed guards weren’t looking.
The young couple was free though they needed to move with caution. Paris, where the Nazis had settled, was too dangerous for Raymond.
Instead, they headed for the Free Zone of Lyon, where, for a short time, Raymond could continue to work.
Lucie was a lifelong enemy of racism and fascism and a student of covert tactics from veteran partisans such as Joseph Epstein that would serve her well in the resistance.
Early resistance activities included harboring wanted communists and fighters, printing and distributing papers that fought against the Nazi propaganda war, and cautiously growing their movement.
By 1941 the Aubrac’s inner circle had expanded to include a new baby and the dashing aristocrat. Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie. If Lucie’s upbringing was different from Raymond’s — it was a universe away from d’Astier’s (Rees, 75).
But Lucie was charming and indefatigable and highly educated; she could work her magic on most people. Her friendship with d’Astier was immediate and enduring.
In the middle of occupation she also took on a role at a school for young ladies in Lyon. She would use the cover of having a sick child to help friends escape from jail. Visiting disguised as a friend or lover, she would slip infectious diseases, as she did with Raymond.
Repercussions were harsh for those working in opposition or resistance; Fifty to a hundred French prisoners were executed for every German killed. But the Aubracs, like their close comrades, refused to be deterred and carried on with their missions.
Their open house policy was a lifesaver for many on the run.
“For their friends who were living lives of danger and risk — under false names, moving from place to place, unable to trust all but a tiny number of people — the Samuels’ villa, the home of a family where there was food on the table, a baby in a cradle, armchairs, heating, books, conversation, was a little warmth, a breath of everyday life amid all the dangers and anonymity” — Rees, p 83.
In her role as a teacher, Lucie took any opportunity to challenge the national curriculum set by the Petain government, a curriculum she believed was illegitimate and full of deceitful propaganda.
She took a risk with her teaching and often expected parents’ complaints about filling their children’s heads with resistance thoughts — but none came.
The Final Escape
Lucie returns to Barbie, she must see her husband, but this time he waves her away and delivers the news — Claude Ermelin has been sentenced to death. She won’t be seeing him again, ever.
She visits her sister, allowing herself a short panic.
“Night comes — with sobs, with despair, and with rebellion. I do not accept my powerlessness.”— Aubrac, p89.
Searching for a solution, she discovers an ancient French law about marriage for those condemned or near to death. Marriage in extremis devised to legitimize a child conceived out of wedlock.
She pleads her case in front of a sympathetic German officer. Uniformed, austere, she instinctively plays to his conditioning. She doesn’t want the man pardoned, only a marriage in extremis; for the sake of her child and the sake of order and society.
The old officer is moved and agrees to arrange a meeting between Lucie and her fiancé. She has tangible hope at last.
She finds her husband in a distressed state, dirty and disorientated, and wide-eyed. What was his first thought? That his real identity has been discovered? That his wife and child were in danger?
In a calm voice, she instructs him; his cover is blown; he’s not Claude Ermelin but Francois Vallet. She is three months pregnant and wishes them to be married before his execution.
He understands. The first mission to sabotage the van fails, but they have one more chance on the wedding date. Lucie is too close to success now to fail.
On the morning of Thursday, October 21, 1943, two German soldiers come out of the gate of the school of health where the alias marriage took place.
A prisoner carrier van moves out of the gates. A black Citroën pulls out and starts to follow the van. As it pulls up next to the van’s driver’s cab, a revolver with a silencer pokes out of the Citroën, and two soundless shots fire.
Lucie, seated behind the driver’s seat, watches as it grinds to a stop. The crew jump out and fire rounds of shots at the German guards who swarm from the truck. In an exchange of gunfire, the prisoners escape the van. Raymond is spirited away, and the remaining prisoners dash it.
A telegram sent to London following the escape recorded the following:
“In the middle of Lyon Gestapo van attacked by the patriots stop three boche dead stop. Aubrac repeat Aubrac liberated with 16 unknown others has the whole city in an uproar.” — (Rees, 155)
What followed was four months living a secret life on the run for Lucie, Raymond and their baby. Life was not dissimilar to those of the visitors they’d offered refuge to in their little house in Lyon.
The Rees account of Lucie Aubrac’s life is full of more loyalty, hospitality, energy, passion, action, and foibles than I’ve had time to explore here.
Years after the daring escapes during the 2nd World War, Lucie’s battles and refusals continued. Klaus Barbie re-emerged in the 1980s and stood trial in France for crimes against humanity, starting a re-examination of the events of the wartime resistance.
Attacks emerged on the accuracy and legitimacy of the stories of Lucie and Raymond. Some came hurtfully from old associates, others from those who were not even alive during the time.
With customary refusal, Lucie rose to the challenge boldly and defiantly, the same manner in which she challenged things in her youth.
Not being hauled up and shamed on a national panel discussion, not losing her sight, not being in her 90s, never did Lucie Aubrac stop spreading the messages of refusal, disobedience, and liberty.
As Rees wraps up the book, she talks about the last of the school talks that the ‘white wolf’ gave to children about the importance of keeping resistance in the present tense.
“Resistance is not just something locked away in the period 1939–45. Resistance is a way of life, an intellectual and emotional reaction to anything which threatens human liberty”— (Lucie Aubrac)
Refuse Boundaries & Limitations
If a woman in a 1920s class-ridden world can take herself to heights that nobody else dared to imagine, from poverty to a premier university, what is our excuse? She moved beyond positive thinking, beyond limiting beliefs, and onto an ambition she set for herself.
Choose ambition. Pick your vision and then step up to grab it — don’t let other people decide who you are and what your limitations are.
Lucie refused to be swayed by deteriorating circumstances in her country; she refused to give up on her friends, husband, or the idea of a free country.
She refused to accept the government’s legitimacy– in her teaching work, in harboring her comrades and continuing to fight the fascist government, no matter how hopeless things seemed.
Choose hope. It’s easy to get depressed about things at home and globally, but other people are fighting for change. Seek them out; share your hope, don’t waste time with people who dwell in hopelessness.
Lucie refused to leave her husband’s fate in the hands of Klaus Barbie, an act of great courage and faith in her ability to transcend external circumstances. She knew that she must act, and she searched for a solution — an instinct for action.
Choose action over powerlessness. Can we take on Lucie’s instinct for action over inaction?
“Action is the best tranquilizer”- (Lucie Aubrac)
Thanks for reading. I’m slowly making my way around Europe with my blogging. If you’re interested in reading more. Here’s the first edition on Scotland and the Enlightenment philosophers.