Posts Tagged French Resistance

On the walls of Paris

First time I went to Paris, I started noticing the plaques.  I expected them to be the equivalent of our blue plaques, famous bloke (or occasionally woman) was born/lived/died/did something famous here.  Instead they were, as often as not, recording the fact that someone whose name is not otherwise known fell here, during the Liberation of the city from its Nazi occupiers.  Or that someone whose name is not otherwise known lived here until they were deported by the French police and handed over to the Nazi occupiers, because they were Jewish.  I became mildly obsessed.  Without a camera phone at that time (it was that long ago) and having gone out unarmed with notebooks, I searched when we got home for information and found an amazing website which aimed to record all such plaques, with a photograph and a brief note about the person or event commemorated.  Sadly, that has disappeared now.

So when we went back, I set myself the task of photographing every WWII related plaque that we passed on our travels, and finding out what I could about the background.  What follows is an account of what we found – it captures only so very few of the commemorative markers, only those which happened to be on the routes we chose for our walks, those which we spotted, unobscured by scaffolding or parked vans, those which I could get close enough to photograph.

But even so, they tell a rich and fascinating story.

Day 1

10th arrondissement

school plaque passage des recollets

Ecole élémentaire Récollets, 19 passage des Récollets

The plaque is generic, one of many installed in the early 2000s at schools some of whose pupils had been deported during the Occupation.  It makes specific reference to the number of schoolchildren deported from the 10th arrondissement, but nothing about this school in particular.   These plaques represent the sea change that took place following President Jacques Chirac’s public recognition in 1995 of France’s responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps during the German occupation in World War II.   The photograph was taken on the day that Marine le Pen made a press statement denying that responsibility.   More of that anon.

Day 2

6th arrondissement

Starting at the rue de Sevres, in search of the childhood residence of Michel Butor, we found instead the plaque commemorating Marc Bloch, noted French historian.

marc bloch

Bloch joined the Resistance in 1942, was captured in Lyon by Vichy police in 1944 and turned over to the Gestapo. He was tortured and interrogated by Klaus Barbie.   Ten days after D Day, he was taken with around 28 Resistance prisoners to a meadow near Saint Didier de Formans, where they were executed by firing squad.

5th arrondissement

paris plaque bounin

62 blvd St Michel

Pierre Bounin was a member of one of the independent cavalry brigades, known as Spahi (from the Turkish word for horseman), which saw active service in France in 1940 and one of which subsequently joined forces with the Free French.  This mechanised regiment served in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, and was part of the French forces that liberated Paris in August 1944.  This area saw intense fighting to liberate the city, and Bounin is just one of the combattants commemorated.

At 60 blvd St Michel, 24 year old  Jean Montvallier-Boulogne was killed, on the same day as Bounin.  The wall behind his plaque is pitted with bullet holes from the bombardment of the city in 1918, and from the fighting in 1944.

paris plaque montvallier boulogne

On rue St Jacques, another generic school plaque:

school plaque rue st jaques

On to the Pont des Arts:

paris plaque lecompte boinet

Jacques Lecompte-Boinet was a Compagnon de la Liberation Fondateur and headed the movement Ceux de la Resistance. The Pont des Arts was the location for clandestine meetings with comrades who, like him, risked torture and death.   Here Vercors passed on to him publications from the Editions de minuit, intended for General de Gaulle.

Lecompte-Boinet initially joined the Mouvement de Liberation Nationale, which became Combat.  Subsequently he set up Ceux de la Résistance with Pierre Arrighi.  He was involved in the first meeting of the Conseil national de la Résistance (CNR), 27 May 1943, then left for London in October, from where he travelled to Algiers, returning to France in February 1944.   He had a distinguished diplomatic career after the war, and died in November 1974.

paris plaque vercors

Just round the corner is the plaque commemorating Vercors himself – real name Jean Bruller – who wrote Le Silence de la mer, one of the key texts of the literary resistance.  It was written in 1941 and published secretly in 1942, the first publication of the Editions de minuit, which Bruller co-founded. Their publications were distributed via clandestine networks, hand to hand.  Along with Vercors, they published works by Francois Mauriac, Paul Eluard and Louis Aragon, and after the war established a reputation for publishing new writers such as Michel Butor.

7th arrondissement

Further along the banks of the Seine, the role of the former Gare d’Orsay (now the Musée d’Orsay), as a reception point for those who had escaped or been liberated from concentration camps and forced labour camps is commemorated.

gare dorsay

The other major reception point was the Hotel Lutetia, which had been the HQ of the Abwehr during the Occupation, and here the photographs of those who had been deported were displayed, as family members waited in hope of finding those they had lost, and returning deportees waited in hope of finding that someone was looking for them.  The survivors of the death camps took longer to come home, often requiring months of medical treatment before they were fit to travel.  Their reception was traumatic, for them and for those waiting for them. 

Day 3

13th arrondissement

Another railway station, this time the Gare d’Austerlitz.

gare dausterlitz plaque

This was not a place of welcome but a place of despatch.  From here, cattle trucks took men, women and children rounded up in Paris to the internment camps of Pithiviers and Beane-la-Rolande, from where most of them were subsequently transported to Auschwitz.

Francois Mauriac, in his clandestine Editions de minuit publication under the pseudonym Forez, Le Cahier noir (1943), wrote of what his wife saw here:

At what other moment in history have the gates of the prison camps closed on so many innocents, at what other epoque have children been dragged away from their mothers and crammed into cattle trucks, as witnessed one sombre morning at the Gare d’Austerlitz?

We were here not only for this bit of history, but for the links to W G Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, the topic of a separate blog.

ave des gobelins vel dhiv

On the avenue des Gobelins, the deportations from the 13th arrondissement following the Vel d’Hiv round-ups are specifically commemorated.  This is quite clear – the round-ups were carried out by ‘la police de l’état francais’.  When the Armistice was signed, and Marshall Pétain took on the role of head of state, the vast majority of the French, however much they mourned the defeat, accepted that this was now France.  Private citizens and public institutions treated it as such, with at least initially only a small number refusing to accept the authority of the Vichy regime and throwing in their lot with de Gaulle and/or the nascent Resistance.  When it came to anti-semitic legislation, Vichy was ahead of its new masters, and as far as the round-ups of Jews are concerned, whilst the Nazis are responsible for the ultimate destination, Auschwitz, those arrested on 16 July 1942 saw only French police until they were on the way to extermination.  French police drew up the lists, French police organised the buses and blocked the ends of the streets where their targets lived.  French police hammered on the doors in the early hours, and forced the residents to pack swiftly and abandon their homes and most of what they owned.  French police transported single adults straight to the internment camps, and families to the stadium, the Velodrome d’hiver.  French police guarded them there until they in turn were transferred to the internment camps, and guarded them there too, separating men from women and parents from children until the trucks took them away.

So, inevitably, to Marine le Pen.  Her entirely cynical denial of French responsibility is shameful.  Le Monde‘s editorial is a perfectly balanced and crystal clear response:

In affirming on Sunday 9 April … that ‘France was not responsible for the Vel d’Hiv’, Marine le Pen has crossed a line: that of the national consensus on the reading of some of the most painful episodes in the history of France, the deportation of French Jews under the German occupation. …

In declaring, at the 1995 commemoration of the event, that ‘France, on that day, did something irreparable’, Jacques Chirac, then President of the Republic, marked a definitive new reading of the deportation of the Jews.  The moment had come to recognise clearly the responsiblity of the collaborationist French state … First ministers Lionel Jospin and Jean Pierre Raffarin confirmed his judgement.  President Sarkozy judged that there was ‘nothing to retract and nothing to add to this fine statement’.  Later, President Francois Hollande, in turn, denounced ‘a crime commited in France for France’.

In rejecting this consensus, Marine le Pen claims to be following in the footsteps of General de Gaulle.  On Sunday, to justify her statement, she referred to a ruling from August 1944, published in Algiers by de Gaulle’s provisional government and intended to remove all legality from the Vichy regime.  But we are no longer in 1944, nor even in 1981, and Marine le Pen is not Charles de Gaulle, whose heritage was embodied far better by Chirac than by her.  We are in 2017.  Nearly 3/4 of a century has passed since the Liberation, at least three generations, tens of thousands of pages of history have been written, debated, analysed and taught.  The ‘national story’ which [le Pen] wants to promote is anachronistic and sickening.  It is based not on a refusal to repent, but on a refusal to recognise an indispensable truth about the nation’s history.  Incidentally, Mme le Pen jeopardises (but that’s her problem) years of trying to de-demonise her party, which led her to exclude her own father, unfortunately famous as the man who called the gas chambers a ‘detail’.

Marine le Pen affirmed that ‘France is mentally abused’ by those who teach this critical view.  No, Mme le Pen, what abuses France is a version of history which leads it back to the denial of the post-war period.  In 1995, Jacques Chirac called for ‘vigilance’.  The FN candidate shows that he was right.

At 137 blvd de l’Hopital, previous inhabitants are commemorated; ten of whom (ranging in age from 9 months to 58) were deported and murdered because they were Jews, and another who was shot as a resistant in 1944:

137 blvd de lhopital

3rd arrondissement.  We’re now in Le Marais.

lycee victor hugo

Two more school plaques, commemorating over 500 children from the 3rd, many of whom attended the Lycée Victor Hugo or the Ecole de filles de la rue de Sévigné (now the Atelier des Beaux-arts).

ecole des beaux arts

On the rue Perrée, two plaques commemorate members of the union of merchants of the Carreau du Temple who died for France.

Day 4

7th arrondissement

After visiting the Musée de l’Ordre de la Liberation, housed within the Musée de l’Armée, which tells the story of occupation, deportation, resistance and finally liberation, we paid our respects at avenue Elysée Reclus, near the Eiffel Tower, home of Hélène Berr.  I’ve written often about Hélène, whose journal, not published until 2008, is one of the most powerful documents of the Occupation.


helene berr

In my 2012 Holocaust Memorial Day blog, I wrote this:

She was 20 when Paris was occupied, from a thoroughly assimilated French Jewish family, a student at the Sorbonne.   She was 21 when she started the journal in which, at first, the war and the Nazi persecution are almost background noise.  She was almost 23 when she was arrested, a few months before Paris was liberated, and then deported to Auschwitz on one of the convoys from Drancy.   It was her 23rd birthday when she was moved from Auschwitz to Bergen Belsen.   She was 24 when she died, in Bergen Belsen, 5 days before the camp was liberated.    Her journal, kept by surviving members of her family after the war, was finally published in 2008 and when I read it I loved her, and I grieved for the fate I already knew would be hers.   Another voice that wasn’t quite silenced, after all.

Near the Champ de Mars, on avenue de la Bourdonnais, the place where  the ‘national insurrection’ of 19-25 August 1944 was planned.


Jean Alexandre Melchior de Vogüé (Vaillant),  Alfred Antoine Malleret (Joinville), Raymond Massiet (Dufresne).  All three survived the war.

Day 5

4th arrondissement

We began at the Mémorial de la Shoah.  I had braced myself for this, knowing the terrible history that would be illustrated there.  Nonetheless, seeing the Wall of Names, I felt the air being sucked from my lungs, realising that I was seeing in that moment only a fragment, only some of the names from only one of the years.

wall of names 1

Further in, another sharp intake of breath, another moment where the experience of seeing what I knew I was going to see, the photographs of some of the children deported to extermination camps, overwhelmed me.

The Memorial is a powerful experience.  It cannot but move you.  And in order that one does not give in to despair about humanity, one leaves the Memorial for the Allée des Justes, and another list of names, this time of those who have been recognised for their actions during those dark years, actions which jeopardised their own lives in order to help Jewish friends, colleagues, neighbours and total strangers.

At 23 rue des Ecouffes, in the heart of the Jewish quarter, a family memorial.


This family could be a symbol of the French Resistance.  Jewish and Communist, they paid a heavy price.

Rosalie Engros was arrested in August 1942, and deported a month later, to Auschwitz.  She was 51.  Isaac Engros was murdered at Auschwitz in February 1944, aged 54. They had three sons. Marcel, arrested on 6 May 1942 and shot at Mont Valerien, aged 25. Lucien, arrested and tortured in May 1942, shot 22 August 1942, aged 22, along with a dozen other resistants. Andre, part of the FTP-MOI group of young Jewish resistants, arrested July 1943, tortured and shot 1 October 1943 at Mont-Valerien, aged 16.

3rd arrondissement:

lycee turgot

Another school plaque, this time for the Lycée Turgot, on the rue de Turbigo.

On to the rue Meslay, where Yves Toudic is commemorated.  He was shot by the Brigade Speciale, a French police unit specialising in tracking down “internal enemies” (i.e. resistants), dissidents, escaped prisoners, Jews and those evading the STO. They worked in direct collaboration with the German civil, secret and military police.

paris plaque toudic

Toudic was 43 when he was killed.  Son of a labourer, he was a militant communist and resistant.  From September 1940 he was in charge of the Comités populaires du Batiment for the Paris region, and continued in that role until he was shot by the Brigade Speciale, at the time of the 14 July demonstration in the place de la République, which he helped to organise.

10th arrondissement:


jean sulpice

Rue René Boulanger.  Another young resistant shot down during the battles to liberate the city.  I can find nothing about Jean Sulpice, partly because he has a contemporary namesake, a chef.  He was 25 when he died.

On the facade of the Bourse du travail, 3 rue du Château-d’Eau, a plaque commemorates the recapturing of the building by ‘the workers of Paris’.

bourse du travail


I missed so many.  And there is so much more I want to know about those whose names appear here, for posterity.  There’s not only the history of the occupation engraved on the walls of Paris, but the history of how it was understood and interpreted and communicated.  From the stone plaques marking the spots where resisters fell, installed soon after the liberation, to the much more recent black marble plaques acknowledging how Jewish children disappeared from Paris schools, as they and their families were rounded up and deported.

Paris has of course a rich history outside of those four dark and terrible years.  We saw some of it, beautiful buildings and great art.  But it seems ever more pertinent to explore what happened in one of the most sophisticated, cosmopolitan and cultured cities of Europe when an occupying power tapped into and found a rich spring of anti-semitism and more generalised xenophobia, and found willing, even enthusiastic partners in their great project to wipe out the Jewish race.  Most of those who participated did not know (at least, not for sure) what would be the fate of those they helped to deport.  It seems, though, that they didn’t actually care – once the Jews were no longer France’s problem, they had no interest in what would happen to them.  We dwell on this not to bad-mouth the French – this happened not only in France but across Europe, and it can happen anywhere, if the right conditions prevail.

We must remember, we must understand, and we must be vigilant.












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Free Men: The Resistance on Film

There’s a perception that we’ve been flooded with cinematic treatments of the Nazi Occupation of France in the decades since it ended.  There have been a fair few, it’s true, but what’s interesting is the way in which those treatments have changed over the years.

At the Liberation, the notion of France as a nation of resisters was a vital part of de Gaulle’s strategy to unify a country perilously close to civil war.  Of course, there was a purge – women who’d collaborated horizontally were publicly shamed, and there were trials, and some executions.   But a surprisingly large number of those who were complicit in the implementation of Nazi race laws and in the deportations ended up in positions of responsibility in post-war France.

All of this has been talked about a great deal, it’s true, and one might think that it’s all been said, that everyone knows now who was complicit, and how and why, as well as who did resist.  But fictional and cinematic treatments of the era have gone through different phases, each adding a layer of complexity and richness to our understanding.

The most recent films to contribute to this process have been two about the Vel d’Hiv round up (The Round up, and Sarah’s Key), and two focusing on particular clusters of resistance activity.  I’ll come back to the Vel d’Hiv in a future blog.


What’s particularly striking about the two recent films about the French Resistance is that in these cases, the resistance was not, strictly speaking, French.   Robert Guediguian’s Army of Crime starts with a roll call of names, each one followed by the words ‘mort pour la France’.  The names are Armenian, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Russian, some are difficult to pronounce, and the speaker stumbles for a moment, and goes on.  We see them on their way to imprisonment, ‘trial’ and execution and then we go back to see how they became martyrs for a country to which they did not belong.

But the Army of Crime – so called after the Nazi poster which aimed to alienate the populace from the resisters by emphasising their criminal acts and their foreign origins – was made up of people who had very little to lose.  From the start of the Occupation, as Jews, and/or Communists, many of them refugees from parts of Europe which had fallen earlier to the Nazis, or from other persecutions, they knew they were targets.  Some of them joined the armed struggle due to some personal confrontation, others after their families were swept up in the round ups and deported.  They fought and died for an idea of France, the France that they had seen as a refuge, even whilst that idea was being betrayed, as they were.

For the resisters in the new film, Free Men, it really wasn’t their war.  As Moslems they risked being rounded up only if they were mistaken for Jews and could not prove otherwise, or if they were involved in communist workers groups.  But the Paris Mosque was a place of refuge both for Moslems who were involved in the resistance, and for Jews.  The scale of this activity is not known – estimates vary wildly – but it seems clear that the head of the mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, instigated and supported the production of false papers for Jews, and the use of the building itself as a hiding place, whilst maintaining outwardly amicable relations with the authorities.

It’s a story that’s even less known than that of Missak Manouchian’s Army of Crime. After all, the Nazis publicised the latter rather effectively with the poster – which far from having the effect they intended, became a focus for solidarity and protest.  The clandestine publication Lettres Francaises reported in March 1944 how the ten images on the blood-red background attracted a silent crowd:

‘At length, and solemnly they saluted dead friends.  In their eyes there was no morbid curiosity, just admiration, sympathy, as if they were our own.  And in fact they were our own, because they were fighting alongside thousands of us for our country, because it is also the home of liberty.  On one of the posters, over night, someone had written in capital letters a single word: Martyrs.  That is the homage of Paris to those who’ve fought for freedom’

Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard wrote poems about L’Affiche Rouge, and there were earlier films, though one screenplay was rejected on the grounds that these foreigners gave the wrong image of the Resistance.

Free Men isn’t the only film to tell the story of the Moslem resistance – Mohamed Fekrane’s Ensemble came out this year too, though it hasn’t reached the UK yet.

Army of Crime had a very powerful resonance in the context of the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee rhetoric that is spewed out by sections of the press here and across Europe, as does the story of Moslems risking their lives to save Jewish lives.  These young men from North Africa are the brothers of the Allied soldiers in Days of Glory, which told of their part in the liberation of France, and their betrayal after the war by the French government.

If Free Men had less emotional heft than Army of Crime, it’s not down to the story.  It’s to do with the leading character.  Manouchian and his group were from the start politically engaged, passionately committed to the struggle, with a sense of the wider European context – the Armenian genocide, the Spanish civil war.   They’re articulate and charismatic. Younes at the start is a black marketeer, willing to spy (rather ineptly) on the activities at the Mosque in exchange for an official blind eye being turned to his business dealings.   He’s nudged unwillingly into the resistance by his cousin, who’s already actively involved, and by his realisation of the danger faced by his friend Salim, a Jew passing as a Moslem.  Little by little, he’s drawn in until he is risking his life for the cause.  The problem is that as a focal point for the narrative he is somehow a bit blank, passive, lacking in real depth.

He reminded me, in fact, of Lucien  – Lacombe, Lucien.   Louis Malle’s ‘hero’ is an accidental collaborator – a combination of pure chance and his own naivety and vanity put him in a position where he can bring down local members of the Resistance which had rejected his bid for membership.  He’s an ambivalent and ambiguous character, and his portrayal has been controversial, because Malle refused to resolve the ambiguities.   When Lucien shoots a German soldier and escapes with his Jewish girlfriend, did he do so to save her from deportation, or because the German had taken something he regarded as his?   If Younes had not been so powerfully drawn to Salim, would he have allowed himself to be drawn into the Resistance?

Lacombe Lucien is a powerful film because of this opacity, which prevents us from taking refuge in simplistic polarities.  Malle’s film, which appeared in 1974, not long after Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, opened up the possibility of more complex narratives of the Occupation.  In Free Men the really interesting characters – Salim, Leila and the Imam himself – are sketched in as we focus on Younes, who we barely know better at the end of the film than we did at the beginning.

Nonetheless, it’s a gripping film, a story that needs to be told.  We’ve moved since the Liberation from the Gaullist myth of the inextinguishable flame, through the exposure of collaboration and complicity, towards a celebration of the real rich diversity of that struggle against barbarism.



G. Austin, Contemporary French Cinema: An Introduction (Manchester U.P., 1996)

H. Frey, Louis Malle (Manchester U.P., 2004)

R. J. Golsan, Vichy’s Afterlife (Nebraska U.P., 2000)

N. Greene, Landscapes of Loss (Princeton U.P., 1999)

L. D. Hewitt, Remembering the Occupation in French Film (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

A. Insdorf, Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (Cambridge U.P., 1989)

P. Jankowski, ‘In Defense of Fiction: Resistance, Collaboration and Lacombe, Lucien’, Jnl of Modern History, 63, 3 (1991), 457-82

P. Kael, ‘Lacombe Lucien’,

S. Lindeperg, Les écrans de l’ombre (CNRS, 1997)

C. Nettelbeck, ‘Getting the Story Right: Narratives of World War II in Post-1968 France’ , Jnal of European Studies, 15 (1985), 77-116

C. Nettelbeck (ed), War and Identity: The French and the Second World War (Routledge, 1987)

A. Rayski, L’Affiche Rouge (Mairie de Paris, 2004)

H. Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France since 1944 (Harvard U.P., 1991),13535938.php

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